It’s already four years since Team Kompas landed in Amsterdam. Time’s flown, but we still remember how bamboozling the city can be while it’s new. And seeing as we’re a helpful bunch, we’ve put our heads together and thought about ways to help you wrap your brain around the place.
We won’t weigh you down with a lot of detail, just a few basics about Amsterdam’s layout and some pointers about how you can get the most out of the city and find an inspiring Amsterdam all of your own…
Get old school
You are going to get lost. So you might as well embrace that fact right away. But the good news is that getting lost is half the fun and you’ll never really go too far wrong.
Despite centuries of city planning, Amsterdam isn’t an easy place in which to get your bearings thanks to its consistently level skyline and lack of towering reference points. Our advice is to arm yourself with a ‘real’ printed map when you first arrive and take a good look at it before you set off exploring. Then, check it once in a while when you stop for coffee, lunch or dinner. If anything just to chuckle at how far you are from where you thought.
Yes, Team Kompas lives by its map apps too, but a smartphone screen won’t help you understand the city the same way. Trust us, it’ll help.
Tighten your belt
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Amsterdam is the semicircular Grachtengordel, or ‘canal belt’, which carves its path through the city, starting in the west and flowing east where it meets the River Amstel.
The canal belt contains some of the most famous attractions and shopping areas such as the Anne Frank House Museum, Leidseplein, and the canal belt itself (which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List). It’s actually a very organised affair, but the way the belt curves around the city can make for a disorientating trip. Meanwhile, the many similar-looking canals which dissect it add extra complexity for way-finding.
The canal belt cradles the historic centre of Amsterdam; a higgledy-piggledy medieval ‘core’ of streets, canals and squares in which you’ll find other well-known locations such as Centraal Station, the Red Light District, Nieuwemarkt and Dam Square. On the outside of the canal belt to the west, you’ll discover the area called Jordaan; the final piece of the central Amsterdam jigsaw puzzle. The historic centre, canal belt and Jordaan areas are collectively known as Centrum.
We don’t want to detract from the wonder of Amsterdam’s well-trodden streets, but there is a lot to reward those who choose to see a few support acts amongst the headliners. This is a city that rewards the curious with beauty, peace and a unique atmosphere if you look to join the city’s dots using backstreets and less well-trodden thoroughfares… or if you go in search of different dots altogether.
Locals describe Amsterdam as a global city on a human scale, meaning it has all the culture and beauty you’d expect from an Alpha city but in a compact, digestible size. So while the historic centre has a well-deserved gravitational pull, the best shopping, eating and cultural spots are generally spread across various different areas such as Jordaan and de Pijp, each having their own unique content and character.
To get around, the willing and able-bodied can find that much of the city is reachable – with ample coffee stops – by foot, but there is also a reliable tram network (and to an extent also an underground Metro network, currently under expansion) that will take you around the city easily with a travel card which can be bought from various outlets through the city.
We’ve mentioned the River Amstel in another section but let’s not forget the other river, the Ij. It’s a major waterway separating Amsterdam Noord from the rest of the city. Noord (literally meaning ‘north’) offers a decidedly different aesthetic to the rest of the city having once been home to Amsterdam’s shipping industry but which is now the focus of some major cultural and architectural regeneration.
Several new venues are already open or opening in the coming years but thankfully the area keeps its impressive industrial heritage in the form of huge warehouses and factories. Meanwhile access to Noord’s urban charm is pretty simple thanks to regular free ferry services connecting both banks of the Ij at various points.
Relish alone time
Finally, if you’re staying here with some hospitable Amsterdamers, make the most of any time you might get while they pop off to run some errands or go to work. There’s no better way to explore a new place than without experience. You’ll see things with different eyes and discover your own version of the city. Essentially, that’s what we at Kompas have done and it’s why we love it.
It might seem paradoxical to suggest ‘finding your own Amsterdam’ on a blog set up with tips, tricks and recommendations about where to go and what to do, but we assure you it isn’t. To prove it, we’ll sign-off by reiterating our most important message which is kept at the heart of our site…
Choose the dots wisely, join them your own way.