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How Not to Get Lost in Amsterdam

Tips for Navigating the City

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With its ring of canals that all seem to look the same, a flat horizon that makes it tough to see landmarks and the tiny alleys whose names are longer than they are, it's no wonder the site of visitors staring blankly at upside-down maps is a common one on Amsterdam street corners. Follow this quick and easy advice to avoid getting lost in Amsterdam. Of course, if your travel plans include getting "lost" on purpose and going where your journey takes you, don't read on!

Use a Map

Don't assume that because Amsterdam is relatively compact you can just wing it and find what you're looking for. A good map is essential to getting around and helps visitors make the most of their exploring time.

I find the maps in most printed guidebooks to be limited; pick up a city map at a tourist office, your hotel or a souvenir shop. Keep these things in mind about the city's orientation:

  • Think of Centraal Station as the city's northern landmark;
  • Remember the three main canals that make a complete horseshoe are in alphabetical order (inner to outer): Herengracht, Keizersgracht, Prinsengracht;
  • Identify main squares like Dam, Nieuwmarkt, Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein;
  • Notice that street names often change when the route crosses water.

Make Your Mark

Once you're armed with the map(s) of your choice (I personally love maps and collect as many as I can when I visit a new destination), start circling, jotting and marking things like your hotel location, sights you'd like to see, that funky shop you stumbled upon in the Jordaan neighborhood, the hole-in-the wall café you found that you loved.

This will help you understand where things are in the city, relative to each other, to what areas you've seen and to what areas you'd still like to explore. And you'll have a record of your discoveries for your travel journal as a bonus.

Know the Law of Numbers

Amsterdam's canals make navigating challenging (Courtesy of Amsterdam Tourism and Convention Bureau)
Keeping this tip in mind will separate you from the tourists who spend an hour looking for the Anne Frank House by making a simple wrong turn on a canal. On any of the canals that ring the city (the three main ones are Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht), the house numbers get bigger as you head east along the horseshoe. This is because the city built the western sections of the canal belt first, then gradually expanded as it grew.

So if you find yourself on one of the canals and have no idea which direction you're headed, start looking at numbers. If they're decreasing, you're headed west, with Centraal Station on your right. If they're increasing, you're headed east, with Centraal Station on your left.

Ask the Locals

Shed the fear that you'll look stupid or encounter a language barrier if you ask for help. Almost all Amsterdammers speak great English and are happy to assist a (polite) visitor. They understand that the city can be confusing and take pride in being able to communicate with English-speaking travelers. It's simple really -- if you're lost, ask for directions!

Use Online Resources

I'm a big fan of knowing where I'm headed, so I use the following online resources religiously:
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