I have a friend who described Amsterdam as the most dangerous city in the world to navigate as a tourist. This is someone who spends much of her time in the sketchiest parts of South America and Africa.
She’s not referring to crime, drugs or prostitution but rather the challenges of crossing the road in The Netherlands.
You see, in Amsterdam there are pavements, next to cycle lanes, next to roads, next to tram lines and crossing 6 lanes to get from one side to the other can indeed feel like you are taking your life in your hands.
For locals, cycling in the city centre can be mind-bogglingly frustrating when tourists on foot, or even worse tourists on bikes, don’t know where they should be when. It results in visitors being yelled at or narrowly avoiding heart-stopping near-misses. I’m guilty of having let rip at times when an oblivious visitor is standing in the middle of a cycle lane taking a picture and ignoring my frantic bell ringing to alert them to get out of the path.
So, please, please have a quick read of these basic rules before you arrive but if you haven’t got time just know one thing:
Bikes take priority over pedestrians.
For the more nuanced hierarchy of right of way in the Netherlands read on:
- Emergency vehicles: No matter what, if you hear the sound of an emergency vehicle get out the way
- Trams: Trams take priority over cars, bikes and pedestrians.
- Bikes take priority over cars and pedestrians: It is critical to understand this. If you are on foot and a bike crashes into you on a bike lane, you are at fault. Do not, under any circumstances step into a bike lane without looking first (look both ways if you are English and at risk of forgetting which way the traffic is coming from.) Even if there is a zebra crossing, even if there is a traffic light – stop and look before you cross. To make matters even more confusing, whilst most bike lanes are clearly delineated some might look a bit like the pavement, or even be part of the pavement just painted red, or just marked with a bike. If the pavement is crowded (yes Nine Little Streets I’m talking to you) and you step into the road, be aware a bike might come whistling past you and if you are distracted, they may have to shout to get you out of the road. Whilst Dutch cyclists are adept at fancy manoeuvres to avoid you, tourists on bikes are the ultimate hazard.
- Cars: Bikes take priority over cars. Confusingly, although cars typically have to avoid tram lanes, some taxis are allowed to use them.
- Pedestrians: Pedestrians have the least priority of everyone. Wait for the traffic lights to change before you cross any road, and check that the traffic lights are green across all the lanes. And still look, very very carefully. Very carefully.
Right, now that I’ve got that off my chest, a couple of other extremely useful things to know when visiting Amsterdam:
- You can now tap into the tram with a debit card. This is a huge development and saves you buying an OV Chipcard (Oyster card) for your visit. Just remember to tap in and out. There are regular announcements about this on the tram.
- Be aware of pickpockets – especially on busy tram routes. Hold onto your belongings at all times.
- Most places take Visa and Mastercard. The one exception can be the ubiquitous Albert Heijn supermarket who for years have bizarrely only taken Dutch payment cards. Whilst some branches in the city centre do now accept international cards, those that don’t will accept cash.
Finally back to the subject of bikes.
If you are thinking of hiring bikes, please spend time cycling through the Vondelpark or one of Amsterdam’s other lovely open spaces first. And perhaps stay there.
Cycling in the city centre is not for the faint hearted. Locals will not be charmed by you wobbling around helplessly. If you are still determined to rent a bike, here are the rules you should know, which are so well put on iAmsterdam – the City of Amsterdam website – that I’m just going to post them below with a few of my own additions:
Stay in your lane: use the bicycle lane on the right-hand side of the road, marked out by white lines and bike symbols. Stay on the right of the lane to allow faster bikes to overtake. Basically KEEP RIGHT.
Follow the rules of the road: adhere to all traffic lights and signs; don’t cycle on footpaths, shopping streets or pavements.
Give a sign: always signal before turning by putting your hand out.
Watch out for tram rails: it’s incredibly easy to get your tires stuck in the rails – cross them at a sharp angle.
Park it right: make sure to park your bike in a designated bike parking section, rack or indoor parking facility as bikes that are not parked in the right areas may be removed and stored in the Bicycle Depot. And to avoid theft, lock your bike to something secure and immovable.
Make room for fellow cyclists: don’t bike more than two people across, keep pace with the other cyclists, and pull over to check the map or answer your phone – if you are caught using your phone whilst cycling you are likely to face a fine.
Avoid rush hour: between 08:00 and 09:00 or 17:00 and 18:00, there are thousands of bikes on the road, often resulting in big queues at junctions. If you don’t need to be somewhere, wait until the rush calms down.
Don’t imitate the Dutch: Amsterdammers are notorious for breaking the rules: cycling through red lights, cycling on the phone or biking at night without lights. Do not follow their example!
My final piece of advice – never eat at the crap Argentinian Steakhouses (fakehouses)
Now you know all the essentials. Have a wonderful time.