Arriving in a foreign city that you don’t know, and where you don’t know the language, can be a daunting prospect. Which is better, the tram or the bus? Do you need to buy a ticket for your luggage? Just how do you operate those automated ticket machines?
Fortunately, the Dutch capital, Amsterdam is a place where you can leave those concerns far behind you. The city is great for walking but if you are not so good on your feet, or you wish to go further afield, the city’s excellent transport system is easy to use. In fact, it has some of the most enjoyable public transport in Europe.
If you’re arriving by air you’ll need to find your way in to the centre and if you’re tight on cash you’ll want to find an alternative to a taxi. The cheapest way to do this is to take the Schiphol – Amsterdam train link which is fast and frequent. Trains run every ten minutes from the station at the main terminal building. You can buy tickets from the machines and you’ll need the correct change (in Oct 2010 a single journey costs €3.60); there is a staffed counter if you get stuck but there is an extra €0.50 if you buy you ticket this way. Alternatively you could take the Connexxion shuttle bus which links the airport with hundreds of hotels across the city; however at a cost of €11 one way, you may find it cheaper to take a taxi if you are travelling in a group.
Once in the city tourists will find that a bit of leg work is the easiest way to get around the major sights and walking will ensure that you get to see more of the city. To behave as the locals do, though, means cycling and the only place you’ll see more bicycles is Beijing! Amsterdam is a great city for cycling because it is virtually flat and there are plenty of dedicated cycle paths. There are numerous cycle hire locations and rental costs from around €8 a day.
Amsterdam has buses and a small underground train system but trams are the best way to get around if you don’t want to walk. However, trams run until just after midnight when night buses take over until around 7.00am. Tourists might also use the blue Stop/Go bus which can be hailed or stopped anywhere on its route along Prinsengracht to the Old Town so it’s handy for the Northern Church, the Northern market and the Anne Frank House Museum.
Tickets are valid on any form of transport operated by GVB which is responsible for public transportation throughout the city. The OV-Chipcard is available in a variety of permutations and you buy them from automated kiosks which can be found on many stations and also in the entrance to some supermarkets. There are 24, 48, 72, 96, 120, 144 and 168 hour chipcards available and these can be used for the validity of the card on any form of public transport including night buses. It is possible to buy a one hour chipcard but this is not very good value; if you do want to buy one of these you can do so from bus or tram drivers.
You’ll easily recognise a tram stop because of the yellow box bearing the letter H on top of the shelter. On the box you’ll also be able to see which zone the stop is in and the direction/destination of the trams calling at this stop. Trams do not necessarily stop at every station so you will need to raise your hand as the tram approaches to make sure it stops for you. Some trams have conductors, some don’t. If the tram does have a conductor you MUST get on at the door where the conductor sits, which is either the last or second last door from the rear of the tram, depending on how old the tram is. While this may sound confusing, it shouldn’t be; if you’re not meant to enter the train at a particular door, you’ll see an arrow directing you to the door you should use. (Fortunately you can enter buses by the front door). You must show the driver or conductor your ticket as soon as you get on, so don’t go looking for a seat first. If there is no conductor you can use any doors; the oldest trams have a button you must press for the doors to open. On these trains you are meant to stamp your ticket to validate it as soon as you get on but you only need validate a Chipcard on the first occasion you use it to prove when your allotted number of hours commenced. When you want to get off, press the one of the ‘Stop’ buttons which you’ll find several of inside the tram. If the red stop light is already showing, you’ll know that someone else has already pressed the button to request the stop.
Canal boats are not included in the OV-Chipcard but are worth including here because Amsterdam’s canals are an essential experience. One company, “The Canal Bus” operates boats every 40 minutes for which you can buy a day pass that enables you to hop on and off as you wish. The route takes in all of the city’s main attractions and features a commentary too. Alternatively another company operates a museum boat which links all the locations of the most popular museums and galleries. You buy a day ticket which gives you half price entry to most of the museums on the route.
More general tours lasting around an hour to ninety minutes are a good way to see Amsterdam from a different perspective. Most of the tours set out from around the Central Station or the Leidesplein. Some of the boats have special wheelchair facilities so it is worth enquiring in advance if you require this. The newer buses and trams can accommodate wheelchairs; if a vehicle cannot be accessed by a wheelchair user it is marked with an A on the timetable. The newer fast trams are the best option because you get on board at pavement level.
Amsterdam’s transport system is fast and frequent and reflective of a modern western European city; its buses and trams are clean and comfortable and easy to use. However, a spot of cycling is a more authentically Dutch experience while a canal boat trip gives you a view of the city you won’t get from any tram or bus. Which ever way you choose to travel, you can be sure of a fascinating and entertaining visit to the exciting Dutch capital.