Overcoming the Biggest Problem Visitors have in Amsterdam.

Gaining a Sense of Direction.

You may have been a Boy Scout, a Girl Guide, a Navy Seal or a SAS officer. Unfortunately, these skills don’t help you on your first, second or even your third visit to Amsterdam. The capital of the Netherlands rivals, parts of London, Istanbul, Hanoi, and Venice for complicated layout.



When in Amsterdam you maybe the sort of traveller that loves to wander, get lost and find weird new things. Great, there is good lost and bad lost. Wasting extended parts of your holiday can be an adventure but also extremely frustrating. With this blog entry you can do both because armed with some knowledge you can get more out of your stay in this beautiful city and find your way back to your bed.

First, why is Amsterdam so complicated?
  1.  Not too many high points or land marks. The country is topographically flat. Hence the name, the Netherlands. Most cities have hills, mountains, a coast, a river or a visible business district with tall skyscrapers that can serve as a reference point.
  2. The old city center has been designed on a semi-circle layout. No modern city grid system for Amsterdam the streets don’t run north-south, east-west, instead streets are circular and radial.
  3. The city has many street names that are longer than the ally or street they name. Also, street names can change suddenly at an intersection or a canal.

Common strategies:

Winging it:

Pros: Amsterdam is a relatively small city. Eventually you will find your way back. You will stumble on things you never would have found.

Cons: Everything looks the same. To an untrained eye most of Amsterdam buildings and canals look the same. This is because they were generally designed or built in the same period. This is why Amsterdam is one of the most intact historic cities in Europe.

 Looking for high points:

Pros: The high points, church towers and towers in the city center are high and can been seen from a radius of a few city blocks.

Cons: Most of the towers were designed by the same person, Hendrik de Keyser. This means they look the same and can easily be mistaken for each other. See the attached picture of Amsterdam’s skyscape. It hasn’t changed much in over 400 years.
Amsterdam towers

Using a paper or app map:

Pros: You think you know where you are, knowledge is power.

Cons: Many street names are too long to be printed on a map. This results in the street name’s omission or being shortened to something that is not on the street sign in front of you. For example:  Eerste Lindendwarsstraat but the map says 1e Lindendwarsstraat. You attract petty criminals with your fancy phone.

Essential tips from the locals:
  1. 1.       Know your north point

Generally, Central Station is your north point. When asking for directions ask where Central Station is and then get your bearings.
  1. 2.      Mark your map

Hotel/hostel, main attractions and places you want to visit. When you find a place you like ask someone to mark it on your map.  
  1. 3.       Know the main canals

Keizersgracht(Emperor’s canal), Herengracht (Gentleman’s canal, Prinsesgracht(Prince’s canal). You may not be able to pronounce them but knowing that these three canals run around the city centre in a horseshoe shape will help. Also know that the house numbers on these canals start on the north-west side of the city and go up in an anti-clockwise direction. Many a visitor has walked more miles than necessary without this information.
  1. 4.       Know your tram lines

Tram tracks are the best reference points. Amsterdam has a fantastic network of trams. Following the line is often the fastest way to get out of the maze of alleyways and heading in the right direction. Keep an eye out for Trams that are listed as Central Station. This will help you with gain your north point.  When using your map look how many tram lines you will cross to get to your destination and what number trams run on those lines.
  1. 5.       Ask somebody

This may help. Amsterdammers are famous for their tolerance and their friendliness. However, if you keep hearing ‘go down to the canal and turn left at the next bridge’ refer to the first four points.
  1. 6.       Go in, before you go out

What many people don’t realize and maps don’t accurately depict is that when a city is design on concentric circles the blocks get bigger the further you go out. Rather than follow the same canal it is often quicker to head one or two canals towards the center and then head back out. This will save your legs the extra distance.

6. Go on a walking tour on your first day.

Great way to orientate yourself and learn about the city along the way. There are tours for every budget from Free tours for those on a shoe string. There are small group tours for those that wish for value for money and Private tours for those who wish a personal experience or with large groups.

Lastly, When in Amsterdam….. Enjoy!