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Discovering Amsterdam as a solo traveler

A recent college grad takes a step into adulthood.

Aleenah Ansari
By Aleenah Ansari27 Sept 2023 3 minutes read
Canal in Amsterdam with parked boats, overlooking the streets beyond
A woman stands alone on the street in front of a canal building covered in green foliage
Canal in Amsterdam (L), Aleenah Ansari in front of shop in Amsterdam (R)
Image: Aleenah Ansari

My solo trip at a glance:

Hometown: Seattle

Destination: Amsterdam

Number of nights: Two

Biggest fear was: Traveling alone in another country for the first time

Most excited for: Having the freedom to create my own itinerary and walk 20,000 steps a day

Why I wanted to go:

I went into my senior year of college with a clear picture of exactly what job I’d have once I graduated—a privilege that came with a summer internship backed by a return offer. The liminal space between college graduation and my full-time job was an opportunity to travel without worrying about meticulously saved vacation days.

I had never traveled alone outside of the United States, so I recruited my roommate to help me plan a European getaway since she had interned in Switzerland a few years before. I was planning to travel during peak summer vacation season; she helped me book the most affordable flights I could find, research cost-effective hostels, and plan a route from Seattle to Amsterdam before meeting my aunt in Scotland to hike the West Highland Way.

How I balanced spontaneity with planning:

A woman rides a bicycle down the street
Cyclists in Amsterdam
Image: lechatnoir/Getty Images

I compiled all my must-visit spots—pulled from recs from friends, Instagram, and travel sites—into a map so I could pick the most central place to stay. This pre-research helped me identify any museum tickets I wanted to book; I also booked a three-hour walking tour to help me get acquainted with the city on the first day. I made sure to leave time each day to be surprised by the city, which usually involved window shopping for postcards or getting small bites at bakeries with enticing displays.

The people I met:

I usually made friends with other travelers when taking photos. If I saw a group taking a selfie, I’d offer to take a picture of them and ask if they could return the favor. I used the same introduction: “I’m traveling on my own so I don’t have many photos of myself this trip.” It was a great segue into talking about where we both were traveling from and where we were headed to next. I also met some folks at my hostel, Stayokay Hostel Amsterdam Vondelparkay, which was quite a social spot.

If I have only one solo-travel tip, it's this:

In the midst of planning, be open to finding tiny shops and eccentric cafes with strong coffee. And don’t be put off by the comings and goings of hostel life. No trip will go precisely as planned, but you’ll learn something about yourself along the way.

How I kept costs at bay:

Various travelers sit around a trendy lounge area with various multi-colored furniture
People relaxing in common area at Stayokay Hostel Amsterdam Vondelpark
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

During this trip, I chose to stay in a hostel, which made it easier to meet other young folks who were traveling or in a state of transition—plus, it made my trip a lot more cost-effective. It cost less than 30 euros a night in exchange for a shared room and bathroom. I didn’t mind sharing since I don’t spend much time in my room when traveling. Rather than splurge on a rental car, I walked a lot and relied on public transit.

The times when I felt safe/unsafe:

The benefit of traveling in the summer is that I could take advantage of jetlag and the sunrise to start my day early—I’d usually get back to my room around sunset. This made me feel safe because folks were always around, whether it was people headed to work or other travelers. I’m a big believer in prioritizing experiences, so most of my discretionary spending went to buying food and souvenirs like art prints and pins, which I display at home. I also found it helpful to travel light and only tote one small suitcase, which I could take with me onto public transit with relative ease. After all, you can never count on having elevator access.

What I learned about myself:

A street in Amsterdam overlooking the canal, dotted with boats, as well as the canal buildings in the background
View from walking tour of Amsterdam
Image: Aleenah Ansari

Solo travel was a lesson in enjoying my own company. There were moments when I wished I could lean on others to pick a place to eat or even watch my luggage, but I found strength in relying on myself. I also learned the importance of asking for help, even if it’s as simple as requesting directions from staff when the trains are down or asking where I could find the nearest public restroom.

My Amsterdam cheat sheet:

Eat

  • Get acquainted with the city by booking a spot on a free Sandeman’s walking tour. Bring cash as a tip for your guide and don't be shy about asking for recs.
  • Grab a coffee, avo toast, or pastry at TOKI. There's a no-laptop policy on the weekend so bring a notebook or book if you want something to keep you company.
  • If I could copy and paste any place in Amsterdam to take home, it would be Petit Gateau. The tartlets here, filled with chocolate, fruit, and nuts, are astoundingly good.

Play

  • Located next to the Amsterdam Centraal Station, Damrak Avenue is the perfect place to catch a view of those adorable houses that dot the skyline.
  • To get to NDSM, a former shipyard that’s now a vibrant artist community, take the short, free ferry ride from Amsterdam Centraal Station. There's also a famous Anne Frank mural and an indoor art expo.

The solo traveller's playbook

Tips, trip ideas, and essential info for getting out there on your own
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Aleenah Ansari
Aleenah Ansari (she/her) is equal parts storyteller, creative problem solver, and journalist at heart who's rooted in the stories of people behind products, companies, and initiatives. She writes about travel, entrepreneurship, mental health and wellness, and representation in media for The Seattle Times, Insider, Joysauce, Byrdie, and more. Outside of work, you can usually find her searching for murals, reading a book by a BIPOC author, or planning her next trip to New York. You can learn more at www.aleenahansari.com.