Thinking about starting fresh and living in Amsterdam? You might be wondering things like, how’s the Dutch food? And, do I have to wear clogs to fit in? Well, you’ve got the questions — and we’ve got the answers.
Amsterdam is the cultural and financial centre of the Netherlands, and life in this bustling metropolis is certainly unique. The city is known for its liberal attitude, strong business acumen, and vibrant arts and entertainment scene — so there are plenty of reasons you might be considering moving in. But what can you really expect when you’re living in Amsterdam?
A snapshot of life in the Dutch capital
First, let’s zoom out for a bigger picture of what makes this city what it is today.
Amsterdam’s size and population
Amsterdam’s small area of 219 square kilometres (85 square miles) is jam-packed with a population of over 1.1 million registered inhabitants. Each square kilometre within the city holds nearly 5,000 people.
This is made possible by rows upon rows of quintessentially Amsterdam architecture — the tall and narrow brick buildings with charming gabled facades that stand confidently crooked on the discreetly rotting wooden pilings beneath.
To give you a geographic visual, the city itself is shaped like a wonky half-circle. You’ll often hear reference to the inner and outer rings, which are separated by the A10 highway. The inner ring holds the old Amsterdam city. Outside the ring is everything else — the suburbs per se, though it’s all really quite urban.
The “Venice of the north”
Nicknamed the Venice of the north, Amsterdam holds a labyrinth of over 160 17th-century canals and over 1,700 bridges. The city’s inner canal network is referred to as the canal belt (grachtengordel). The canal belt is such an important piece of history it’s been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Originally, most of these canals were constructed during the Dutch Golden Age for practical purposes while the city was expanding. Now, they’re lined with houseboats and ever-buzzing with tour boats and photo-snapping tourists — a far reach from the city’s humble beginnings as a small 12th-century fishing village.
The cost of living in Amsterdam
Amsterdam is an expensive city to live in. It has the highest cost of living of any city in the Netherlands and ranks as the 11th most expensive city to live in Europe. Housing costs in some regions are astronomical, menu prices in tourist areas can be comical, and income taxes take a major chunk out of the paycheck.
But along with the high price tag comes a high quality of life. And part of that quality is the ease at which you can live a cost-efficient lifestyle. Locals looking to save money will learn to avoid tourist traps and figure out without too much trouble the more affordable places to live, shop, and eat out. Many people also save money by qualifying for various government subsidies (toeslagen), as well as in simple ways like cycling and shopping at local markets.
Working in Amsterdam
To afford this cost of living, you’re probably curious about what the job market is like and how it is to work in Amsterdam.
What it’s like to work in Amsterdam
If you’re lucky enough to nail down a job in Amsterdam, chances are, there’s a bit of a cultural acclimation process. You’ll experience it in many areas of your Dutch life, of course, but there are some key distinctions in the workplace to be aware of.
As far as the basics, 36 to 40-hour workweeks are the norm, and part-time work is also popular. Salaries are generally high enough to meet the cost of living but not overly generous — they’re typically lower than in the US and UK, for example. You’ll also be likely to find that communication is direct, work environments are casual, and Friday happy hour (borrel) with your colleagues is common.
Another unique thing you might pick up on in the workplace is that Dutch companies don’t tend to put much emphasis on a hierarchical structure. There’s no need to bow down to your superiors; there’s more of an emphasis on equality, whether you’re entry-level or an executive.
But that equality doesn’t always translate to gender and diversity — at least not as well as you might imagine in a liberal, progressive country. Even though there are government policies in place to protect workers, many people do experience discrimination in the workplace. However, this certainly doesn’t apply to all companies, and it is a problem that many are working to improve.
Taking time off from work
Now, here’s something to knock all American’s socks off: in the Netherlands, mandatory vacations are a thing — a really nice thing. Holidays are so important to Dutchies that built into the employment structure is the requirement for companies to pay their employees what’s called the “13th-month” salary, or vakantiegeld (vacation money).
It’s 8.3% of your annual salary reserved for time off, that you’ll receive in May (usually). It’s not uncommon to take a month or more of holiday time per year (20 days is the minimum by law, in addition to public holidays). This set-aside money ensures that your time away won’t break the bank — work-life balance, baby. In fact, it’s no surprise that the Dutch boast the best work-life balance in the world.
How hard is it to find a job in Amsterdam?
So working in the Netherlands sounds pretty nice but how are you going to find a job? Your ease in finding employment will likely be determined by your industry and experience. For example, those working in finance or tech will likely find more opportunities than those working in social or humanitarian fields.
There are also a plethora of international companies with headquarters in Amsterdam (the Netherlands is a tax haven for large corporations). This means plenty of offices operate in English but doesn’t mean it’s easy to secure a job by only speaking English. Many companies prefer to hire candidates that can also communicate in the native language, Dutch (makes sense).
These large companies may still be your best bet for finding work in the Netherlands, but it can be a bit discouraging if that’s not the type of work that motivates you. So if you do move to Amsterdam without a job already locked down all I can say is, good luck, and hang in there. Some people find employment with relative ease but it’s certainly not common. Adjusting your expectations and being flexible is key.
Housing in Amsterdam
If the lifestyle, cost of living, and work environment seem like the right fit, you might be ready to start packing your bags. But before you do, there are some important things to know about housing.
Brace for the Amsterdam housing market
Finding a place to call home in Amsterdam is a challenge. The market is expensive and competitive. Extreme rental prices for tiny apartments in the city centre are the norm, and they’re always on the rise. Further outside the city center, costs are a bit more reasonable. Many people also choose to live in nearby suburbs or smaller cities and commute into Amsterdam to save money.
The Netherlands makes a distinction between private housing and social housing. Amsterdam housing associations must reserve a percentage of social housing for people with lower incomes. The government subsidizes the rent, which is capped at a certain amount. While some expats may qualify for social housing, it’s not generally very accessible, as the waitlists are often years long. With private housing, there are no limitations to the prices landlords can charge.
Renting vs buying a home in Amsterdam
Home buying is very common in Amsterdam, due to generous tax breaks for homeownership and the steep costs of rent. If you plan to stay in Amsterdam for more than a couple of years, it could be worth buying your own place.
Although, the cost of buying a home is still quite expensive, and many people report having to pay well above the asking price. Of course, you’ll also be responsible for all of your own repairs (which can be endless in these old buildings) but you’ll also have all the freedom that goes along with being the lord of your lair.
READ MORE | Top tips for buying a home in the Netherlands
Where are the best neighbourhoods to live in Amsterdam?
Where you’ll enjoy living is all about personal taste. If you like being around non-stop action and frequently puking, you’ll be right at home in the raucous city centre (Centrum). All the favourite tourist attractions, such as the Red Light District (RLD), canal belt, and Museum Quarter are situated here — meaning this area is no friend to claustrophobics. On the bright side, living in the heart of the city also means you’re surrounded by rich history, unique architecture, and close to Central Station (so you can always escape).
Some neighbourhoods just outside the centre that are popular among expats are De Pijp, Jordaan, De Plantage, and Oud-West, to name a few. Even the quickly growing Noord neighbourhood, which requires a quick ferry, is super close to the action but slightly separated by water.
Some other nice residential neighbourhoods can be found just beyond. A few of the locally-loved neighbourhoods are De Baarsjes, Bos en Lommer, and Zuidoost — all lively but removed from the central chaos.
Some family favourites in Amsterdam are Zuid, Oud-Zuid, Rivierenbuurt, Westerpark, and Watergraafsmeer, offering close proximity to schools, relaxed vibes, and space to play.
Getting around the city
If the housing situation didn’t scare you off, good! You’re going to make it in Amsterdam. Most other aspects of living in the city are quite manageable, so it’s all downhill from here. You can ease up on those brakes and start cruising — throw caution or helmet to the wind! (Kidding of course; as a self-appointed member of the safety police, I would never advise against wearing a helmet. You just probably won’t do it in Amsterdam.)
Riding a bike in Amsterdam
In Amsterdam, bikes are the boss. Cyclists rule the roads and are given priority over cars and even pedestrians. It’s the most efficient way to get around the city when it comes to cost and speed. You can easily get pretty much anywhere within city limits in under half an hour. There are even more bikes than there are people!
The cycling culture in Amsterdam can be a bit overwhelming for newcomers. Because bikes are the primary mode of transportation, cyclists move fast and don’t have much patience for bemused tourists who have unwittingly wandered off the sidewalk into the bike lane — avoid this mistake and you’ll be A-ok.
When riding on your own two wheels, you’ll likely find a similar lack of sympathy for those wandering into your bike lane, and your thumb will learn to hover effortlessly over your bell. You’ll also learn the importance of locking your bike with two locks to avoid having it stolen. Many of us learn this lesson the hard way but hopefully, you won’t have to.
Amsterdam’s public transportation
Amsterdam has an extensive public transportation network, which you will come to love on wet, blustery days, of which there is an abundance. Between the trains, trams, buses, ferries, and metro, it’s easy to get wherever you need to go. For all travel within the city, GVB is your go-to. The company’s extensive transportation network travels to every nook and cranny of the city.
Single-use tickets can be purchased in advance or bought aboard a tram or bus. Locals are best off using a public transport card called an OV-chipkaart, which can be refilled as necessary. Card options are available for discounted fares on weekends, holidays, and off-peak hours.
The NS trains connect Amsterdam to the rest of the country and beyond. They’re generally super comfy, regardless of whether you’re sitting in first-class or second. You’ll find Intercity (IC) trains that travel quickly between cities, and Sprinter trains that don’t move quite as fast as their name would imply, making various stops along the way. To board the train, you’ll need at least a €20 balance on your OV-chipkaart, but you’ll only be charged for the distance you travel.
Driving a car and parking
Driving a car in Amsterdam can be a feat, especially the closer you get to the centre. Not only do you have to be on high alert for preoccupied tourists and a rapid-fire succession of cyclists, but parking is a real monstrosity. Finding an available parking space is like finding a public toilet for women — good luck.
It’s also very expensive. On top of the high costs of owning a car, in the event that you’re able to secure a parking space, you’ll need more than just that spare change you have rattling around in your cup holder. Close to the centre, typical parking costs about €1+ per 15 minutes. For a full day of parking in the city, it’s not unheard of to pay around €80. You can save money by opting for long-term parking options, which are available throughout the city.
Outside the centre, it’s a bit easier to get by with a car. Parking is less expensive and more accessible.
Living in Amsterdam with children
At first glance, living in Amsterdam with children might not seem like a great idea. But don’t be fooled! Amsterdam has loads to offer for families. There are plenty of family-friendly neighbourhoods, parks, museums, and other entertainment. Plus, lots of options for education and childcare.
Sending your kids to school
While living in Amsterdam, you’ll have the choice of sending your children to either a Dutch school or an international school. The government subsidizes Dutch public schools so they cost next to nothing for parents and offer students a great education.
There’s also a wide range of private “special schools” (bijzonder onderwijs) with various pedagogies to choose from —Waldorf, Montessori, Dalton, religious schools, you name it. About two-thirds of children in the Netherlands attend a special school.
International schools are a popular choice among expat parents. They can be a good option for families not planning to stay in the Netherlands long-term, or for older students who will require more time to pick up the language. International schools are much more expensive than Dutch schools. Sometimes, the government also subsidises international schools but to a much lesser extent. Either way, you can expect to pay a hefty amount in tuition.
There are numerous options for childcare in Amsterdam, depending on your child’s age, when you’ll need care, and what you’re comfortable spending. Here’s a breakdown:
|Type of childcare||Description|
|Public daycare (kinderdagverblijf)||For children from the age of six weeks to four years old. The waitlist for some centres can be long, so it’s best to sign up sooner than later — even before your move, if possible, or as soon as you become pregnant.|
|Private daycare||More expensive but tends to have better flexibility with hours and more international options.|
|Preschool (peuterspeelzalen)||For children ages two to four, and helps prepare kids for primary school. It’s typically offered two or three times a week in the morning or afternoon.|
|Playgroup (peutergroep)||Provides activities and care for children ages two to four in a less formal setting.|
|After-school care (buitenschoolse/naschoolse opvang)||Available at some childcare centres for kids up to the age of 12.|
|Employers||Occasionally offer daycare, which can be a less expensive route.|
|Childminders (gastouderopvang)||Another option for babies and kids through their primary years. The childminders will look after up to six children in their home or a care centre and can be available on evenings and weekends.|
|Babysitters (oppas)||Can range from inexperienced teenagers to experienced childminders. If you register with a babysitting service (oppascentrales), you can easily find a sitter when you need one at a reasonable price, in exchange for a membership fee.|
|Au pairs||Popular in the Netherlands and can be another option on the lower end of the cost spectrum. They’ll care for your kids for up to 30 hours a week in exchange for room, board, and a small living stipend (around €350).|
What are the people like in Amsterdam?
Once you’ve got the picture of what life can look like for you and your family in Amsterdam, you might be wondering what the rest of your life might look like around you. Will you be welcomed? Will it be difficult to find a community?
The Dutch: Amsterdam locals
Let’s start with Amsterdam’s Dutchies. The coronavirus pandemic offered a reminder that, indeed, many Dutch do people live in Amsterdam! Because it’s such an international city and generally packed with tourists, this can often be overlooked. But in fact, Amsterdam’s population is roughly half Dutch and half international.
As to whether you’ll be welcomed, there is no blanket statement about whether or not Dutch people will be pleased with your presence in their city —everyone is different. Some Dutch find the influx of internationals bothersome, while others embrace the diversity (don’t take it personally if you encounter the former).
Dutch traditions to spot in Amsterdam
You’ll find that the majority of Dutchies living in Amsterdam speak great English but will appreciate your hilarious attempts at speaking Dutch. You’ll also catch onto the traditional Dutch greeting of not one, not two, but three kisses on the cheek.
When walking around the streets of Amsterdam at night, you’ll notice that many people leave their curtains open. You may even catch a glimpse of what’s known as a circle party, which is exactly what it sounds like — a traditional Dutch birthday party that’s held while sitting in a circle, for hours. It’s punctuated by mandatory balloons and very light refreshments.
It would be easy to go on and on about the interesting behaviours and traditions you’ll encounter, but to sum it up, Dutchies have plenty of quirks, and living in Amsterdam you’ll collect countless observations and anecdotes of your own.
Amsterdam’s international community
Amsterdam’s international community is made up of people from all over the world, with residents of 180 different nationalities.
A multitude of expats are drawn to the international job market, universities, and the all-around pleasant pace of life that Amsterdam offers.
There are numerous international pockets and plenty of expat groups, so if you find it difficult to break into long-established Dutch social circles (as many do), you shouldn’t have too hard a time meeting other foreign nationals.
Many others come to Amsterdam as asylum seekers. The city supports up to 2,000 asylum seekers in two temporary housing locations (Asielzoekerscentra, AZC).
Do I need to learn Dutch to live in Amsterdam?
Speaking Dutch isn’t mandatory to live in Amsterdam but it will certainly improve your experience. The majority of Dutchies you’ll come across in Amsterdam speak excellent English but it’s still courteous to learn the basics and offer up some pleasantries when you can.
Let’s be real, outside the Netherlands, speaking Dutch doesn’t serve much practical purpose (outside of being a neat party trick, of course). For many, this can be challenging in terms of motivation. But for those planning to stay long-term in the Netherlands or settle down with a Dutchie, learning the language is a great way to integrate.
READ MORE | 7 things to know before learning Dutch
Studying at university in Amsterdam
Many students come to Amsterdam to study at university. The city’s universities offer a vast range of programmes and disciplines, tuition is relatively reasonable, and conveniently, courses are taught in English. It’s also a hugely entertaining, fascinating, and inspiring place to live and study. So it’s no wonder so many earnest young people are drawn here.
The Universiteit van Amsterdam (University of Amsterdam, UvA) is the oldest, largest, and most popular university in the city, dating back to 1632 and hosting over 35,000 students.
The second-largest university is the Vrije Universiteit (Free University, VU), with over 23,000 students currently enrolled.
Being the tourist attraction that it is, the hospitality industry also draws many students to attend the Amsterdam branch of Hotelschool Den Hague (Hotelschool The Hague), which opened in 2002. They offer a popular four-year bachelor’s degree in hotel and hospitality management.
The culture in Amsterdam is unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s quintessentially Dutch at heart, with the addition of generations of multicultural influence. In the Netherlands, there’s Dutch culture, and then there’s Amsterdam culture. You’ll find this unique flavour everywhere from the food to the festivals to the arts.
How liberal is Amsterdam?
Some of the first things that come to mind for many people when they think about Amsterdam are drugs and prostitution. Compared to the vast majority of other countries, the Dutch government is quite liberal when it comes to protecting these personal freedoms.
One thing people often get wrong about Amsterdam’s Dutchies is that they’re all about indulging in said personal freedoms. Sure, some Dutchies smoke a joint now and then, but the behaviour you find in the RLD is not terribly common in Dutch culture. They simply have liberal drug and prostitution policies, which attracts a large international party scene.
The Netherlands has a long-standing reputation for liberalism, as the world’s first country to legalise both gay marriage and euthanasia. Prostitution is also legal, and, while many are under the impression that drugs are legalised as well, they are simply tolerated (gedogen).
Drugs in Amsterdam
This tolerance, or decriminalisation of drugs, is a bit different from legalisation. In Amsterdam, the sale and use of soft drugs is overlooked, and won’t land you with any criminal charges. But technically is it not legal to sell, purchase, or use drugs. This idea of “live and let live” is a trademark of Dutch culture.
This is not to say they’ve got it all worked out; the Netherlands manufactures more ecstasy than any other country in the world, so there are some serious kinks to still be worked out regarding the control of harder drugs.
But soft drugs, such as marijuana and truffles, are openly accepted. As of 2020, there were 32 smartshops, selling paraphernalia, seeds, and psilocybin in Amsterdam, and 164 coffeeshops (marijuana cafes) — a figure that’s been steadily declining since the ‘90s, when there were upwards of 400. The City is aiming to address the concern of overtourism with upcoming policies that may further limit the availability and sale of marijuana.
How is Amsterdam’s food scene?
The Dutch are not known for their vibrant food culture. They do, however, have a few signature staples: stroopwafels (thin syrup and waffle sandwich), poffertjes (little puffy pancakes), stamppot (mash pot — no further explanation required), bitterballen (scalding deep fried gravy balls), and drop (liquorice, often hard and salty), to name a few.
And, of course, we can’t forget about raw herring, which has dedicated stands throughout the city. Now, if the idea of sinking your teeth into raw fish makes your stomach do a somersault, relax! There’s very little chewing involved, as you simply tilt your head back and swallow it in one go.
There are many restaurants and kiosks serving up these and other traditional delicacies, and there’s so much more. Because Amsterdam has such a large international population, you’ll find restaurants of every variety. Surinamese food, for example, is very popular. So when you’re not in the mood for pancakes or thick pea soup, you can find pretty much anything else.
Are there vegan/vegetarian options in Amsterdam?
Amsterdam is a very easy city to get by in as a vegetarian or vegan. Although most menus generally cater more toward the meat-eater, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that doesn’t offer some kind of vegetarian option.
The city even has quite a few strictly vegetarian/vegan restaurants. Amsterdam even got its first vegan supermarket in 2021. But speciality supermarkets aside, even regular grocery stores in Amsterdam have a wide range of plant-based options and meat substitutes — and the prices are actually reasonable.
Entertainment in Amsterdam
One of the best things about living in Amsterdam is that there’s always something to see and do — even a simple walk around the city can be surprisingly interesting in itself. But for days and nights when you’re after a bit more action, there’s plenty to get into.
Of course, as we are currently in coronavirus times, these public activities are not available. So in the meantime, file them in your brain for future adventures, and be sure to stay safe and up to date with the government’s regulations.
Museums and galleries in Amsterdam
Amsterdam has phenomenal museums, galleries, and exhibitions. One of the best perks about living in the Netherlands, rather than just coming as a visitor, is the Museumkaart. For about €60 a year, you’ll have access to more than 400 museums and galleries throughout the entire country!
The highest concentration of museums is of course in Amsterdam. From the wildly popular Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank House to smaller niche locations like the Museum of Bags and Purses (Tassenmuseum) and Our Lord in the Attic (Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder), you’ll have VIP access. With 43 attractions in Amsterdam alone, you’ll never want for something to do on a free weekend — and it pays for itself after just a few uses!
*We’re not sponsored by the Museumkaart; this is just a heartfelt tip from a superfan.
If a night on the town is what you’re after, this city will not disappoint. While many people know Amsterdam for its Red Light District (RLD), there are bars, clubs, and cosy cafes all over the city.
Bars are allowed to stay open until 1:00 AM during the week and 3:00 AM on weekends, and clubs can stay open until 3:00 AM on weeknights and 4:00 AM on weekends. Night cafes (nacht cafes) are essentially just late-night cafes that can stay open even later — until 4:00 AM and 5:00 AM on weekends.
The two wildest areas for nightlife outside the RLD are around Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein — neither far from the city centre. You’ll find far more tourists in these city squares than you will Dutchies. In each of these areas, the city has instituted a ban on drinking in the streets to protect the poor souls who live there.
The dress code is usually casual at Amsterdam’s clubs. Often, they’ll charge a cover ranging anywhere from €5 to €20.
Performing arts in Amsterdam
The performing arts scene in Amsterdam is quite lively. From musical theatre to comedy, and everywhere in between, there’s always something happening on stage. The area around Leidseplein is home to some of the city’s better-known music venues. Paradiso, Melkweg, and Stagsschouwburg often host world-renowned bands and musicians. For most live shows, it’s wise to purchase tickets in advance to secure your spot and a better price.
For live theatre, modern dance, ballet, or opera, the Dutch National Opera hosts beautiful performances. The nearby Royal Theater Carré is another top destination for live performances geared more toward English speakers, with everything from cabaret and comedy to acrobatics.
Several locations around the city offer live comedy shows in English, generally geared toward expats and tourists. If you’d rather not be at the butt of the jokes, be sure not to reveal your nationality if you’re British or American — it’s too easy a target.
For a truly Dutch experience, you can head to an electronic music festival. These festivals draw massive crowds of both Dutch and international audiences alike. Amsterdam is a DJ breeding ground, claiming some of the most famous in the world (so they tell me). Even if you don’t know a thing about EDM (electronic dance music [even I know that]) while living in the city you’ll quickly pick up on a few familiar names here and there.
READ MORE | 31 things to do in Amsterdam in 2021
So that’s life in Amsterdam in a nutshell: DJs, bikes, museums, and expensive housing. Overall, it can be a wonderful place to live and comes highly recommended, but it is what you make it, of course. Oh, and about the clogs (as promised) — not the shoe of choice. So if you’re sold, the next step is to make it happen!
Do you have any other questions about what it’s like to live in Amsterdam? Or other experiences to add? Tell us in the comments below!
Feature Image: seregalsv/Depositphotos