Amsterdam Travel Advice: Tips for staying in self-catered accomodation in Amsterdam

Welcome to Amsterdam... or welcome to getting ready for your upcoming Amsterdam trip!

I'm always banging on about how self-catering accommodation in Amsterdam is the best way to experience the city like a local (and you can find out where to stay with my Amsterdam neighbourhood guide) so I thought it about time I gave you some tips, tricks and advice for getting the most out of your stay in a holiday rental.

Don't be afraid to stay out of town


This was the main thread of my Amsterdam neighbourhood guide, but I'll say it again. There are just as beautiful houses, with more space and cheaper price tags to be enjoyed outside of the three main ring canals in Amsterdam, or in Amsterdam North. Public transport is very cheap (for a capital city) and efficient, and despite Amsterdam often looking like it's currently being eaten up by a plague of rusty old bikes, it really is a great, FLAT, walking city so don't think you need to be centrally-located to get around and see a lot. Indeed if you value your sleep, staying outside of the centre of town is a no-brainer at weekends.

Beware the stairs!

If you're staying in an old (pre-1920) Amsterdam house and your apartment isn't on the ground floor, the chances are you're going to come into contact with a flight or two of Amsterdam's famous stairs. Or should that be infamous, as what I'm talking about are more ladder-like and deathtrap-esque in their steepness. I often describe climbing up such stairs as coming face to face with them without falling over. They really are that steep, and narrow, and short, and uneven and basically everything stairs shouldn't be.

It never fails to amaze me how so few Airbnb descriptions fail to warn inbound holiday makers of these stairs, and many apartments describe themselves as "family-friendly" because indeed, the Dutch go up and down those stairs, carrying two infants, one baby and a pushchair without breaking a sweat. You, however, probably shouldn't attempt this. Instead, take your time, use your hands too, if needed and there is no shame in choosing to descend backwards... especially after a drink or too.

Love thy temporary neighbour

In the older Amsterdam houses, the floors can be thin especially in the upper "servants" levels so be nice to your temporary neighbours and take off your steel-toe stilettos before doing your morning Riverdance ritual. And try not to let doors slam. You'd be surprised how much this can shake all the walls in an Amsterdam house the foundations of which has been built on reclaimed land made up of mostly mud and sludge... oh wait...

Supermarkets and buying groceries

There are a number of big supermarket chains in Amsterdam, but the most common (countrywide too, I think) is Albert Heijn. They are everywhere. Just look for the blue and white AH signs and you'll discover they're a more common sight during your visit than your shadow. 

Albert (as we like to call it) is a good middle of the road supermarket and has everything you would expect such a place to have. That said, there are a few things that it will only stock a limited range of like over the counter meds (go to the pharmacy - look for green crosses like in most European countries) and cleaning products, domestic appliances and utensils (try Blokker - orange sign; you'll often find one close to an Albert) so don't expect Albert to be a one-stop shop. If you want to be really smart you can order an Albert delivery as their online shopping is pretty easy and is a great idea if you're in Amsterdam in a large group and need to stock up the fridge but don't want to waste time arguing with each other over what brands of corn flakes you should get. Normally, you can make an order and get a delivery within just a few days, sometimes the next day and you can pick a two-hour window.

It's worth knowing that Albert will take cash but doesn't accept international credit cards. 

Other supermarkets that you'll see scattered around the city are Dirk (cheap & cheerful, indoor-market style), Jumbo (very yellow branding but decent food and good value for money) and Lidl (very budget, all Lidl own branding but their fruit and veg is very good).

If you want to buy only organic produce or have some special dietary requirements, Marqt is the supermarket for you, and the word "Bio" is used here as organic so that's what to look out for on packaging. They also have lots of samplers in Marqt so if you time it right you can effectively get a free lunch. That said, I do think you end up paying for those samples as I find their stuff to generally be 10 - 20% more expensive than Albert stuff, and Albert is getting better at stocking gluten-free, and other alternative products. Another worthy note, Marqt doesn't take cash but does accept most credit and debit cards.

Stamps and postcards and Post.NL, oh my!

If you like to send postcards to gloat about how much fun you're having in Amsterdam, then you may find shops selling postcards also sell stamps, which is logical and convenient. But if not, try any Albert (go to their cigarette and flowers counter - what a great combination! - normally near the shop's entrance). Or seek out stationary/book shop style shops that have a orange sign saying, Post.nl. I love that the Dutch postal system just has one stamp for all International mailings so it makes posting a little note to Great Aunt Sheila in Aussie as cheap as sending mail to Belgium... but certainly not as quick. Don't worry, Post NL will have no problems taking their sweet time delivering your full-of-smug postcard.

Recycling and rubbish

Your host should explain these things to you, but if he or she doesn't because they have amnesia following a tumble down those Dutch stairs, then you can check the Gemeente Amsterdam website to find out if your address has a pick-up or if you have to take rubbish to a bin; you will just have to know which area ("stadsdeel") of Amsterdam you're living in, which should be fairly easy if you look at this map. My street is in the process of moving from bi-weekly collections (amazing, I know!) to having public bins we take our waste to when we need to. Of course, everyone can take their rubbish to public bins, regardless of whether you get a collection or not. If you do want/have to take them to the public bins, pop your sealed bags of rubbish in the bins marked "rest". And watch out for those metal openings. They are distant relatives of Amsterdam stairs and show no mercy if your fingers aren't quick enough to get out of the way.

Recycling is also taken to public bins and most "rest" bins will have "glas" and "papier" neighbours (if you need me to translate those words, we can no longer be friends), but some will also have plastic bins, though not all do. We don't. Boo. But you will find plastic collection bins outside some Albert Heijn or on other shops. (A side note. They don't seem to recycle tins or cans here, which were like the first things I learned how to recycle in primary school, so I have no idea what is going on there, but it's slightly upsetting.)

This map shows you where all of Amsterdam's recycling and rubbish collection points are and you can pop your address in the bottom left search box.

Paying for things

"That shop doesn't take cards, this one will only take Dutch debit cards and the restaurant last night only took cards!" These are the words many confused tourists have said to me. And they're right. Amsterdam is a bit weird like that but I would say that the predominantly successful method of payment is by debit or credit card with a PIN number. The Dutch call this "pinnen". If you see signs saying "Alleen Pinnen" or "Geen cash" then they only take PIN cards and won't take your notes and shrapnel. However, don't assume that all shops are like this and there may be some problems processing payments from some international PIN debit cards (Maestro is the number one debit method here). Most PIN credit cards will work everywhere. The obvious but important exception is Albert Heijn that doesn't take any credit cards from anyone, even Dutchies.

Ordering in food

Amsterdam is heaving in three things: tracksuit-adorned stag & hen dos from the UK, hell-bent cyclists who want to hurt you (see below) and good restaurants. But if you can't be bothered to go out - and let's be honest, we've all been there after a busy day of moving from cafe for breakfast, to restaurant for lunch, to cafe for a coffee and cake break - then you can order dinner in, and you can choose your dishes from the some of these aforementioned restaurants. There are a number of bike-courier services who will pick up your food and deliver it to you but we like Deliveroo the best. If you use this link you'll get €5 off your order (and yes, so will I, and no this post is not sponsored by them). Even if you don't want to order in, their website is actually a good way to try and find restaurants in your area as you will see which places are near your postcode. Most meals will get to you within 30-40 minutes thanks to the pedal power of not unattractive young Dutch students who work as couriers for them.

Tea? Milk and sugar?

So important for all my fellow British travellers who will be unwrapping their dodgy-looking clingfilm pouch of tea bags within just a few minutes of arriving... "volle melk" is full-fat milk, "halfvolle melk" is semi-skimmed milk and "magere melk" is skimmed milk. Albert stocks Twinings English Breakfast tea bags if you want to be like the Queen for a weekend, and don't get Google Translate out in the tea aisle because their "ochtend thee" (morning tea) is not one you want to mix with milk. If you need some sugar, look for "basterdsuiker" or try asking one of the shop assistants without chuckling like the immature wotsit you are.
 
Oh that reminds me - zout is salt and peper is... well, we're still friends, right?

Mosquitoes

I wrote about my distaste for Amsterdam's hungriest residents back in 2012 and my displeasure with them has increased at the same rate as their population, it appears. As sturdy and persistent as their human counterparts, Dutch mozzies can show up unannounced as early as March and will stick around until the leaves have started to fall off the trees so don't think an out of season trip means you won't spend your easyJet flight home elbowing the person next to you as you scratch away. Needless to say they're even more out and about in summer months and you'll certainly have more mosquito friends if you're close to water or the canals. So, keep windows closed, or curtains closed at least if you want to avoid getting enough bite marks you look like you actually returned from the tropics, just without the tan.

Houseboats are nice but...

They come with a few interesting considerations. 

Mosquitoes, for one thing.

And houseboats aren't as relaxing as you might think as many are on on busy roads so do check reviews or a map to find out about noise either from main roads running alongside the canal, or from drunken tourists (or locals) cycling past thinking it's hilarious to ring their bike bell every half-second on their way home from the Irish pub.

Furthermore, you shouldn't feel any rocking, but the canals get very, very busy in warmer months and there are more than a few idiots tourists who don't know how to drive the boat they've just hired or Heineken-fueled locals who have borrowed Papa's boat and think they've got a jet-ski out the back meaning the wake behind them gives you a gentle shake or two. This may not bother most people, but I'm incredibly sensitive to this kind of motion and it doesn't take much to make me feel travel sick.

Also if the weather takes an unexpected turn for the worst and a big storm is forecast, you may be asked by your host to leave the house boat quickly as it's worryingly common for trees to fall on them in windy weather. This probably makes me sound like a kill-joy, but I think it's just because a small part of me is jealous of people staying in houseboats.

Amsterdam cyclists hold no prisoners... or handlebars

So this has nothing to do with staying in self-catering accommodation but I'm going to throw it in here because I'm feeling generous and I can link to another post of mine all about cycling tips if you want to rent and ride a bike in Amsterdam. Whether you're on foot, on two wheels, watch out for bikes. They won't stop for you. I'm serious. They will ring their bell, give you stern looks from their high vantage point (did I mention all Dutchies are over 7 feet tall?), and will possibly accelerate on approach, but stop they will not. So do yourself a favour and look both ways when you cross a road/canal/bike path/street and even a pavement, because the only rule Dutch cyclists live by is: there are no rules.

Also if you're hiring bikes and are looking them up on a residential street close to your apartment, it's best to look them together, or if you only have one, try and put the chain through a bike stand as well as through the front wheel and frame. You're welcome! 

Emergencies

If you have an accident and need one of the emergency services, go to a coffee shop and smoke a doobie, that'll sort you out just as quickly...

I'm kidding! Dial 112. All operators speak English and from thankfully non-urgent personal dealings with the ambulance service and police here in Amsterdam, I can say I've had an extremely positive experience. So much so I sometimes think about ringing 112 to arrange another meet-up, but even I'm not that stupid.

No, I'll wait until I'm next eaten alive but Amsterdam mosquitoes.

*****

Hope this is helpful! If I've forgotten something you think people should know about, please do let me know or ask me a question in the comments.

Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before settling down with her Australian partner and having a baby boy in July 2015. She collects vintage clothes, loves 70s disco music and writes stories that move you.
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