We just wrapped up a whirlwind two days of cycling around Amsterdam. When we rented our tandem bike (with a seat in front for the little one) from Mac Bikes, and I wobbled us out into the street and into the unending stream of bikes and cars, I had a big moment of, “What the hell did I get us into.”
By the end of the first day, we were feeling a little more confident and sure of where we were going. Here is everything that we learned about riding a bike in Amsterdam during our short visit:
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1) Rent the big red “tourist” bikes from Mac’s bike rentals:
This is arguably the biggest bike rental shop in Amsterdam. They have locations all over the city. They have bikes to suit all family configurations including tandem bikes, child/adult tandem bikes, bikes with kid seats in back, bikes with giant kid baskets in front.
The bright red bikes also identify you as a rookie (which in this case is an advantage) and the locals give you some grace if you unintentionally bend some of the rules (like riding the wrong way down the bike path because you are completely LOST) and a few extra inches of space.
2) If you rent a tandem bike, or a bike with a basket for putting the kids in, your learning curve might be a little steeper.
The first few miles with the tandem were a little dicey feeling. It was a little hard to steer and balance.
There aren’t very many hills in Amsterdam, but there are a few little ones (most noteably at each canal bridge). I am sure that to an Amsterdam native, this is no big deal, but for me it was sometimes tough to push both of us and our big bike up to the top (lets be honest, the little legs on the front of the parent/child tandem could only help so much). I am not telling you not to do it, just be mentally prepared in in reasonable physical shape.
3) The signs aren’t that hard to figure out…really.
- Zebra stripes (pedestrian crossings) you MUST yield to pedestrians.
- If the shark teeth (pointed triangles, painted on the bike lane when crossing another traffic source) are pointed towards you, you yield.
- The places where we COULDN’T ride our bikes were marked with a big red circle with a line through it with a bike picture underneath.
- Everywhere else seemed to be free game.
- If we wanted to cross the street, there was usually a crossing lane (like at an intersection.) If there wasn’t a proper crossing lane, the street was either too busy and we HAD to go find a place to cross, or it was quiet and we just did what everyone else was doing and looked both ways and went.
3) Stay on the right!!! Really.
It was both as a courtesy to the 99.9% of people in Amsterdam who were riding their bikes faster than us and a protection from the motor scooters who would occasionally come up behind us (we could hear them coming and tuck over a few extra inches and, while a little scary, it worked out fine).
4) If you are nervous about biking in Amsterdam, start out on a weekend.
We rode around on a Sunday morning and the streets were deserted. It was blissful. It got a little busier as the day progressed, but never anything like the chaos of riding on a weekday. Saturday was only slightly busier. If I were nervous about this whole adventure, this is when I would start out.
5) The old town at the center of the city is significantly busier than the rings of Amsterdam that are further out.
If you are feeling nervous, plan your itinerary so you tackle a few things that are on the outskirts (like the Vondelpark or the zoo) before tackling the old town.
6) Try to stick to really big roads or tiny, little quiet lanes.
The big roads SEEM scarier, but they almost always have a SEPARATE, designated bike lane with bike only traffic signals at each traffic light. It was the middle sized roads that had a decent flow of traffic that were the scariest, because there was no bike lane and we were riding next to parked cars who could open their doors at any moment.
5) If you are still really nervous, take an Amsterdam bike tour.
There are many tour operators that offer great bike tours of the city. Mac’s bike rentals also arranges tours, which would be really convenient if you were also renting a bike from them.
Riding around in a pack brings safety and some useful guidance on the rules when getting started. This would be much easier than the route we chose (being handed a giant, tandem bike and being turned loose.) This would definitely be an easier path to start.
6) Make sure to ask what to do in the event of a bike malfunction.
It was partially my fault. I should have asked, but my brain was so overwhelmed by the logistics of keeping us alive when we were going to get onto the bike a few minutes later that I didn’t have any room to think about what would need to happen if there was a problem.
The man who rented us the bike gave us no guidance on the subject, so when I heard the sharp “pop” of our front tire bursting unexplainably while we were standing still, only halfways from our hotel into the city, I had no idea how to proceed.
I did a search for a nearby bike shop and found one, but it was nearly a mile away. I knew that the chances of getting there with a broke bike and a six year old were slim, but we tried. When I had no way to get the popped tube off and it got tangled in the wheel, we had to stop.
We tried calling he rental place, but got no answer (Mac’s, shame on you!) We had to lock the bike up and leave it and continue on foot to the nearest train station (we took good pictures of where we left it so they could find it.)
When we got to the rental shop, the lady told us in a “Duh” sort of voice that we should have just used a scissors to cut the tube, but we had no such thing on us and it being Sunday morning, there weren’t a lot of people around to ask. Next time, I might think to carry a bike repair kit in case of emergency. I would still rent from Mac’s again (they did give us a discount when we returned the bike for our trouble).
7) If you stay outside of the city to save money, make sure there is an easy way to bike in.
Staying at a hotel a little outside the city definitely saved us money, but you will want to make sure there is a reasonably quiet bikeway in to ease us gently into bike readiness each morning and give us a clear shot home in the evening when we were WIPED.
We stayed at the Hotel Mercure. It was a good value, and it offered a pretty easy 15-20 minute shot into town along the quiet and beautiful Amstel Canal each day.
I also really liked that this hotel was within walking distance from the train station from the airport (with backpacks, but it may not have been walking distance with suitcases). It was also right next to the Amstel Park, a hidden gem in Amsterdam that many people miss.
I always like to read the Tripadvisor reviews before we book hotels. Here are the Tripadvisor reviews for the Hotel Mercure City that we stayed at in Amsterdam.
8) Biking will save you a TON of walking
Even if you take public transportation, Amsterdam is still a lot of walking for little legs (or even for big ones). Unfortunately, my little guy usually doesn’t ride in a stroller anymore, so the bike was perfect for us.
It allowed us to cover a LOT of ground without exhausting him (and me) by the end of the day. There is a good reason that so many locals ride bikes – it really is the easiest way to get around and the infrastructure is built to give bikes an advantage.
9) Ask if the bike rental shop has a basket to put on the front.
It would have been SUPER helpful to have had a place to put groceries and odd items while we were riding around. At the very least, make sure you have a backpack with you (one of these little packable ones would work great for this).
As an alternative, this folding bike basket would take up almost no room in your luggage (or you could use it as a carry on bag on the airplane!)
10) You need a navigation device.
Amsterdam is SUPER confusing. It is a series of ever larger rings made by the canals with names that all start to sound the same after a while. Stopping to look at a paper map is not handy (if you do, make sure you pull out of the bike lane!)
We used Google bike directions on our tablet and it worked great (I have this tablet case, and it made it so I could strap the tablet to the handle bars, but a bungie cord, or even better, a thingie like this, would have made it easier.) It read me the directions out loud so I didn’t need to stop every few blocks.
Note – running directions on your tablet uses up a lot of battery, so a portable charging bank like this would have been handy. Oh, and bring a little compass (this is probably something that you should have in your travel kit anyways).
The only time we got really lost was when our tablet ran out of battery and I was trying to navigate with a paper map of Amsterdam (it is always handy to have a paper map for this very reason!) I was getting nervous, because darkness was approaching (if I had a compass, we probably would have been able to get back on track). I finally stopped to ask a nice looking gentleman to show me where we were on my map, because none of the street signs that I was seeing were making sense with where I thought we were on the map.
He got us sorted and told us that luckily Amsterdam is pretty safe. We were not near any bad neighborhoods, so even if we were out riding after dark, we were probably going to be ok. We were only about 15 minutes from our hotel (once we got back on track).
10) Things that we had wished that we had while biking in Amsterdam
There are a few things that we had wished that we had for our days biking around Amsterdam:
- An Ipad/tablet holder for the bike
- A portable charging bank for our tablet (running maps eats up a lot of batteries)
- A small bike repair kit (in case of a flat)
- A folding bike basket like this (for groceries or picnics!)
11) Bring your own helmets if this is important to you!
Bike helmets are not a thing in Amsterdam. In the US, I am accustomed to my kids wearing their bike helmets while riding, so I brought my son’s bike helmet with us. We just clipped it to our carry on bags.
If you are worried about hot much space a helmet will take up in your luggage, here is a really slick foldable helmet!
12) Be bold and just do it!
Having the bike gave us a unique perspective on a part of normal life in the Netherlands that we would never have experienced had we been on foot. Folks in Amsterdam ride their bikes daily, year round.
And if you are going to do it, don’t just do what many tourist do and rent it for a couple hours. I suggest planning to use it for your main mode of transport for at least a couple days. This will really give you time to feel like you have (mostly) gotten the hang of it and are zipping around just like the locals.
Having the bike was a part of the trip that we will always remember (and next time I visit Amsterdam, I won’t hesitate to do it again!) There is a reason that the locals all ride bikes – it really is the easiest way to get around and the infrastructure is purposefully built to make it that way.