So, you want to live in Amsterdam, huh? Or know someone who does? Maybe I, an American expat living in Amsterdam, can help. Now that my husband and I have lived in here for over a year (and sadly leaving it soon), I think we are ready to give advice to those that are considering it. Long story short: It is an absolutely fantastic city and I highly recommend it. There. Drop whatever you are doing and move! If you need more convincing, some specifics below.
Overall Feel: Amsterdam has a very unique vibe, which is something that clicked with us right away. It really isn’t like anywhere else. There is a charm to it that I can’t explain. It is laid-back and unpretentious. It is not judgmental; there is a very evident “to each his own” attitude. It’s also beautiful and romantic without trying too hard. Actually, it doesn’t try at all. It just is.
Neighborhoods: Each ‘hood in Amsterdam is different. Really you can’t go wrong, the city is so small that you can easily get from one end to the other in 30 minutes by tram or bike. I do have my preferences, however. I like living in what I think are “cool” neighborhoods. And I’d like to remind everyone that this is strictly my opinion; others may see it differently. Here is a very tiny summary:
- Old Center: I’d say this area is the busiest as it’s home to the Dam Square, Royal Palace, Centraal Station and Red Light District. I tend to avoid it since it is usually very crowded and full of tourists. There are quiet areas & pretty canals though once you move away from the Damrak/Rokin streets. There are a lot of shopping (fast fashion staples like Zara, H&M, Mango, and department stores like Maison de Bonneterie, Bijenkorf) and restaurant choices (we like Cafe de Jaren) in this area.
- Canal Belt: This area is the most romantic. Amsterdam’s famous canals must be seen to be believed. They are magical, especially at night. Living here is very pricey, I believe. When we were house hunting, we were shown a shoe box that didn’t even have canal views for the same price as our loft. The 9 Straatjes on the west side (Denham, Bendorff and Scotch & Soda, do it) and Utrechtsestraat (Labels, Jan, Bellarose) on the south side are my favorite boutique shopping areas.
- Jordaan: This area is very residential and beautiful. The narrow streets with leaning townhouses have so much charm. If we hadn’t lived in the Pijp, we would have wanted to live here. It is a very trendy area with great boutique shopping as well and lots of cool little restaurants. My favorite restaurant in Amsterdam, Balthazar’s Keuken, is located here.
- De Pijp: …Is where it’s at! Okay, so I’m partial to the Pijp because that’s where we live, but I absolutely love it. The Albert Cuyp Market gets it’s fair share of tourists, but the neighborhood is very eclectic and “bohemian.” One could even call it the hipsterville of Amsterdam. There are great boutiques (Cottoncake and Streetclothes are my picks), lots of cool restaurants (De Duvel and Bazar are our faves) and a nice park. While at the south end of the city, it’s well connected to Centraal Station by tram.
- Museum Quarter: This area is very posh and packed with culture. It’s home to the designer shopping street P.C. Hooftstraat and the beautiful Vondelpark (our very own Central Park). Watch out for tourist groups on bikes pedaling through the park or Museumplein, which is behind the Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk and Van Gogh Museum, all located here as well.
- Oost/Jewish Quarter: I don’t know much about this area at all. This is where the Waterlooplein flea market and zoo are located. It is otherwise very residential. None of my restaurant or shopping excursions took me this way. There is a lot of new architecture because, sadly, much of it was torn down after WWII. It doesn’t have the same charm as the rest of the city.
People: Almost uncomfortably friendly. As a guarded and even suspicious American, it can be surprising that people are genuinely this nice (of course, not for me since I’m from the Midwest; we invented nice). People say “hallo” to each other in the street and as soon as you
give yourself away as an American speak, they want to know everything about your experience living here. What you like about their city and also what you don’t. They want to know what you do and sometimes even how much rent you pay. Don’t be shy! I have found the Dutch to be very forward, yet well-intentioned, so you might as well be too.
Language: Dutch itself is not exactly a poetic language or particularly easy to learn. I did a 10-week course (Thanks Allard!), starting like 6 months after we moved here. I wish I had done it right away and mastered more. There’s something about addressing people in their own language that is, I don’t know, respectful? It just shows some effort. I mean, you are living in their country. And if that was your choice, you should try to assimilate. Then again, everyone speaks English. Even many of the old folks and young kids. So sometimes it’s hard to keep practicing your Dutch because it’s easier for you (and them, honestly) to just talk in English.
Style: Casual, casual, casual. Even nice restaurants, the theater and the concert hall have relaxed dress codes. Of course some work environments may require suits, but the overall aesthetic is decidedly more laid back. For eclectic street styles, check out Dam Style.
Culture: There is more to Amsterdam than pot and prostitutes (you can see my brief rant about that here). That does exist. Get over it. The rest of the city is simply charming. There are tons of museums, swanky restaurants, hip clubs, cozy pubs, and boutique shopping galore. Think you’re going to find a Gap or Sephora here? Forget it. A lot of big chains don’t have outlets here. (Don’t worry, H&M and Zara do.)
Safety: I rarely feel unsafe in the city. Really, the only time when I do is when I can tell a junkie is staggering in my direction. In all likelihood, it is a tourist that overindulged and really not a threat.
Getting Around: A breeze. Pick yourself up a GVB chipkaart right away and you’ll see how conveniently the city is connected by tram, bus and underground subway. Of those, I prefer the tram. But most of the time, I walk or ride my bike. This is the biking capital of the world, so to truly feel like an Amsterdammer, you gotta hop on two wheels (there are pros and cons to the bike culture).
Weather: This is probably a turn off for most people, but hear me out. Yes, it rains. A lot. And most days are an overcast shade of grey. But you gain a whole new appreciation for nice weather. So really, you win.
Household Basics: Things like establishing residency, personal banking, health insurance, etc. all took way longer than we expected (see my brief rant about customer service) and there were many hiccups that were out of our control. Things that would be unheard of in the U.S. like switching signatures on your bank cards or losing your passport photo and forgetting to tell you). You have to have some patience, there is no need for speed here, despite your sense of urgency. Chill. It will get done. (Just remember to follow up, sometimes they forget to process your immigration…)
Housing: After seeing friends’ apartments, we realize we definitely lucked out. Apartments are typically small and have weird lay outs. I’m realizing that is just common in Europe, because we are seeing much of the same in Stockholm (moving there next week). Since we are short-term, we’re still renting and one huge difference from the States is that we pay every single bill separately. Rent, energy, water, trash removal, property taxes (yep, we paid that for the year!) and cable are all separate. Be sure to clarify what is included in your rent, if anything.
Any questions, please write in the comments!