Amsterdam might be my favorite city in Europe and not just because I stumbled across this naked troll flower pot. (Isn’t it amazing?)  Don’t let the Red Light District’s reputation put you off; this cultural capital shouldn’t be missed, even if you don’t partake in the city’s infamous recreational activities.

Amsterdam is so much more than its permissive stance on intoxicants. Quirky, diverse, fashion-forward, and oh, so many things to eat!  On my recent trip, I actually had to seek out the Red Light District for a nostalgic stroll. I’d traversed the city on foot multiple times over three days, yet I hadn’t come across even one sketchy street corner. 

Walking is the best way to explore Amsterdam. Heaving with historic buildings, cozy cafes, museum heavyweights, leafy parks, and more charming canal scenes than you could ever photograph, to explore Amsterdam is to slow down and get acquainted with the Dutch exceptional quality of life.

I’m currently trying to convince the husband that we need to retire on a barge tucked in a quiet canal in Amsterdam somewhere. But until I make that happen…let’s discuss what to do when you find yourself sober in Amsterdam (since you won’t be indulging in the typical offerings of a brown “coffee” shop or biercafé).

I present to you 12 alcohol-free cultural indulgences that won’t cost you your soul. Hooray!

(There are, of course, many free things to do, but since you are traveling sober in Amsterdam, you deserve a little luxury, no? I think you do.)

1) Fun Accommodation  

Be warned, accommodation in Amsterdam is pricey and the rooms are European-sized (really f-ing small). There are dozens of budget-friendly hostels in the city center, but you don’t want to make that mistake.  To ensure a pleasant stay away from the party scene, the Volkshotel (People’s Hotel) in the Weesperzijde neighborhood is an excellent choice. 

The first floor of the Volkshotel is a hip open-concept cafe/hotel reception/co-working space, giving the space a creative energy.  A rooftop terrace and restaurant serves food and is a spectacular perch to watch the sunset.  Wellness activities such as yoga classes and a sauna room are also available.  Rooms start at around 109 Euros per night. (photo courtesy of Volkshotel.com).

P.S. The Volkshotel breakfast buffet (like everywhere in the Netherlands) is spectacular. 

2) BREAKFAST  Dutch-style

Dutch breakfast buffets are an underrated experience. I discovered (to my astonishment) that a standard Dutch offering was chocolate sprinkles for my toast.  Say what? Instant chocolate croissant?  Weird slices of meat on the side? I’m so in.  Anyways, the Volkshotel has a solid breakfast spread.  However, to mix it up, a few minutes walk from the Volkshotel, the Breakfast Club is serving interesting options like a Breakfast Burger and Chicken Waffles served with sriracha and honey.  Menu items are featured and named after capital cities like Mexico City, London, and New York.   There are several locations for The Breakfast Club in Amsterdam; I went to the Wibautstraat 56 location. 

3) Modern home & fashion

I think Dutch modern design is underrated.  Scandinavia might have cornered calming minimalism and France may be understated glamor, but if you like quirky and a little weird, then Amsterdam has you covered.  For home goods and vintage clothes,  try the De 9 Straatjes (9 Streets) area of Amsterdam, where cafes and unusual shops line cobbled alleyways and four main canals.  Concrete Matter, the Man’s Gift Company located at Gasthuismolensteeg 12, is rich with both vintage and new treasures. I particularly love their section devoted to Mantiques, which include must-haves such as an authentic wooden Spitfire propeller and a  1930’s solid steel French butcher’s knife.  For unique women’s apparel, check out Shan’s Shawls and Stuff at Raadhuisstraat 39hs. I  limped in desperate for walking shoes and strutted out rocking embroidered high top sneakers.

Nearby in the Haarlemmerburrt neighborhood, I stumbled into the glorious Store Without a Home and found the polar bear wall rug I never knew I desperately needed.

4) Handmade & Local at the Market

Don’t worry, when strolling through Amsterdam, it won’t take long to encounter a charming street market scene. Craft markets, flower markets, food markets, second-hand goods and antiques: They are everywhere! To my delight, when I stopped to admire a quirky kitchen accessory or a child’s dress printed in an Amsterdam canal design, I was often approached by the vendor who had also created the original design!  I scored unique gifts for all my nieces and nephews in one swoop.  For fabrics, clothes, fresh food, and plants in a bustling outdoor atmosphere check out the Albert Cuyp Market on Albert Cuyp Straat.  And it doesn’t get any more Dutch than a floating flower market, so make sure to stop by the Bloemenmarkt on the Singel canal. 

5) EXPERIENCE ART: DUTCH MASTERS TO THE MASTERS OF QUIRK

The Netherlands have a deep history of visual arts from the Dutch Golden Age  to quirky graphic prints you can pick up at street markets.  From the Van Gogh Museum to a Banksy Exhibition at the Moco Museum, Amsterdam is stuffed with fine and contemporary masterpieces. Also, picking up original art from local artists is one of my favorite things to do while traveling.  It packs pretty well, creates a lasting and meaningful memento of the trip, and supports local artisans as well! A gallery I stumbled upon with original and non-cheesy Amsterdam-themed art and clothes is Mark Raven, with locations at Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 174 and Leidsestraat 42.

 

6) DUTCH TULIPS, REAL & CARVED

 Holland’s ubiquitous flowerthe tulip.  If you have some outside space at home that needs a little color, there are bulbs for sale literally everywhere in Amsterdam in all possible colors. Yes, you can buy them at the airport, and no, I had no trouble with customs. I was also drawn to the carved wooden versions which only cost a few Euros each.  You can find them at any of the street markets in the tourist areas. Of course the Bloemenmarkt, mentioned above, will definitely have both live and wooden tulips for purchase. 

 

7) LUNCH AT THE INDOOR FOOD MARKET

The only thing more fun than a Dutch street market is a Dutch indoor food market.  The colors! The smells! The weird sausages! Do yourself a favor and make your way over to Foodhallen  at Schellingwouderdijk 339.  Sort of a gathering of indoor food-trucks, there’s an option for a bit of everything.  I personally had a Bahn Mi from Viet View that changed my life. You’re welcome. 

8) ALL OF THE CHEESE

Does this picture even need a caption? Maybe just 😂😂😂😂😂😂.

It seems every neighborhood in Amsterdam had a cheese shop. Full disclosure—I took the above picture in Rotterdam, but I assure you the situation is just as cheese-friendly in Amsterdam. Several amazing shops are located on Singel street in Centrum, including the popular Reypenaer at Singel 182. Don’t be shy about asking for a taste! Also, if you’re flying internationally, it’s totally fine to bring back cheese if it’s vacuum-sealed.

9) A Surinamese feast

What is Surinamese food, you ask? Happy to answer.  It’s savory deliciousness. What else do you need to know??? While I was in Rotterdam, I met a girl from L.A. whose family was from Suriname.  She said I had to check out the Surinamese food scene in Amsterdam.  And I did exactly that.   I’d describe it as a mashup of Indian, Chinese, and Caribbean flavors and foods.  To add to the fun, you must try the traditional pink drink called dawet.  Made from coconut milk, lemongrass syrup, and rose paste (or red food coloring), the result is a thick tropical drink to enjoy with your noodles and curry.

I ate at Warung Sprang Makanda, and with three locations in Centrum Amsterdam, you should easily be able to add one to your itinerary!

 

10) Take a lovers cruise

On my first trip to Amsterdam, I found myself on a Lovers Canal Cruise with my 19-year-old sister and 16-year-old brother. There are many outlet’s offering canal trips, so I’m not sure how we ended up on the Lovers version, but it ended up being a rather amusing, yet thankfully platonic event. Nearly 20 years later,  I was delighted to find the same company still in business!  It’s a little touristy, sure, but it’s a relaxing way to glide through the city from a different perspective.  Just make sure to avoid the booze-cruise variety.  Tickets on the Lovers Canal Cruise start at 15 Euros.  

P.S. If you visit in the winter, you can experience the Amsterdam Light Festival from the water!

 

11) Day trip to Rotterdam

The Netherlands is a compact county.  Paired with highly efficient train travel, well my friends, you have the perfect mocktail for a day trip! Traveling to nearby Rotterdam, The Hague, or even Belgium by train is a breeze.  On my most recent trip, I spent several days in Rotterdam exploring the modern architecture and killer foodhall scene.  Another optiontake a day trip to one of the cheese markets, such as in the town of Gouda.  

12) SOMETHING SWEET TO TAKE HOME. 

Apparently I ate every stroopwafel within 11 seconds of my purchase, as I have zero pictures despite sampling quite a few. I had to borrow this picture from Wikimedia.  Not surprising, because they are divine.  Wafer-thin waffles sandwich a caramel center to make a delicate little cookie. Then my friend taught me to warm it up by balancing the cookie on the rim of coffee I’m drinking so it gets all melty inside.  Bring them home with you by the cases, that’s all I can say. You can find them wrapped for sale at the grocery and fine foods stores all over town, but I don’t think you’ll have any trouble, I even found them at Starbucks! 

Final Notes:  If you’re headed to Amsterdam soon, I hope you find these tips helpful.  But of course, they’re just a starting point—once you’re there, adventure will unfold naturally.  Can’t wait to hear what you discover; leave me a note in comments! 

Hungry for more? Read this post on why Sweden is a non-alcoholic paradise.