The Dutch are born on bicycles. They zigzag effortlessly, will ignore a red light and seem to go 60 miles per hour – all without bumping into each other. It’s a magical sight. If you wish to dive in and join the locals, you might feel overwhelmed. You should though! Amsterdam is best seen by bike (and even voted #2 city in the world for cyclists). You don’t need to be the most experienced cyclist to get on the road, though. Time for some tips on cycling Amsterdam like a local.
General rules about bike lanes in Amsterdam
Where are you NOT allowed to cycle in the Netherlands?
The highway. Please don’t get confused and bike along the highway. I know, it’s normal in Canada or the United States. In the Netherlands, you WILL get pulled over and stopped.
Someone WILL call the cops on you. You might get a fine. There might be some crying.
Generally, there are tons of alternatives next to or near the bigger roads, so there’s really no reason for you to bike on the highway. It’s not shorter. Drivers will get startled by the sight of a tourist being adorably naive, as it’s a very rare sight, and they’ll worry about your safety. The fine is around €150, though you might dodge it you play real dumb.
Cool if you wanna go all Lance Armstrong and bike real far. Select the bicycle option in Google Maps. Often, there’s a designated bike lane parallel to any bigger road.
A sidewalk. We know, sometimes it’s a great shortcut. The fine is around €64,-.
Parks. Some parks will have designated bike lanes in Amsterdam – clearly visible. If you don’t see them, assume cycling in that area is not ok. We don’t want you to hit grandma on her walk.
Designated tram- or bus sections. They’re fairly uncommon, but bigger Dutch cities sometimes have a separate path for public transport (tram, taxi or bus) in their city centre. They’ll be clearly marked with a sign and you won’t see a normal car use them either. Don’t worry, remember you have the red bike lines all around Amsterdam. It’s not easy to get confused.
Where are you allowed to cycle in the Netherlands?
Essentially… nearly anywhere else.
Most bikes lanes in Amsterdam (or any bigger city) are easily spotted. They’re red. When in doubt, there’s often a symbol in white paint on it or a sign at the beginning of the bike lane.
There are several types of red bike lanes. Is the bike lane separated from the main carriageway by a solid, continuous line? This means motorists aren’t allowed to drive in the cycle lane. You’re the VIP, back off. Do you see a dashed or broken line, dividing the two? It means motorists can use the bike lane when absolutely necessary. They can only do so when it’s absolutely safe – you as a cyclist have the right of way! If the street is too narrow, they simply need to stay behind you until there’s enough room to pass you.
Bicyclists are perceived as ‘weaker road users’. Motorists are almost always in violation if there’s an accident.
Not all streets will have segregated bike lanes. This mainly goes for smaller streets in quieter neighborhoods, or if you’re in the countryside. Simply bike as far to the right as you can. The Dutch are born on bycyles and it’s SO normal that most motorists will really, truly, 100% respect the rules that are in place. You’re safe.
12 tips for cycling Amsterdam like a local
1 Avoid tramway tracks
That’s a solid #1 cycling tip if I ever saw one. Do. Not. Go. Near. The. Tramway. Tracks.
Tram are everywhere in Amsterdam, especially around the city center. And where trams go, so will there be rails hidden in the asphalt. Those rails are a perrrrfect fit for the wheel of your bicycle. It’s the most popular way to fall on your face in the middle of the street and to get laughed at by locals, as it happens all the time.
It can get crazy unsafe too: imagine getting stuck with a tram heading towards you. The solution is simple: pass over the tracks with a 90-degree angle. Don’t drive straight into them.
2 To helmet or no to helmet
If you really want tips to cycle Amsterdam like a local, you might not want to wear a helmet. I’ve never seen a Dutch citizen wear one, besides the odd German tourist with their family. If you follow the rest of these rules, cycling is very safe.
That being said: you do you. Yes, you will look like a tool wearing a helmet, but decide on whatever provides you the most confidence and screw fashion. Who needs others’ opinions anyway. (Not all bike shops will have helmets available for rent, however.)
3 Lock that bike up real good
If you’ve never had a bicycle stolen in Amsterdam, you’ve not truly lived in Amsterdam.
The running gag is that a lock is more expensive than the actual bike itself. It’s true: many locals ride around on a beaten-up old bike worth about €50,-. Why? Because their good bike got stolen.
If you’re renting, the bike shop will provide you with a decent lock. If you’re buying, make sure you don’t use a simple standard lock – thieves will swiftly cut straight through that.
Pro tip: use the lock around the actual frame, not solely through the wheel. Oh, how many lonely wheels we have seen, with no longer a bike attached.
4 Pick the right type of bicycle
A city bike will do the trick just fine. If you’re not a local, please don’t drive an e-bike in the city center. It’s too much, really. Plus, you won’t be able to enjoy the scenery if you’re constantly on the fence.
5 Use the damn bell
I catch myself having my thumb ready on the bell every moment I’m cycling through the busiest streets. You’ll need it plenty.
Luckily and unfortunately, most of the city center in Amsterdam consists of historic and therefore narrow streets. They were often built for pedestrians and the odd horse – not designed to mix cyclists with cars and tourists. People WILL step out on the street in front of your bike, without looking. Don’t be afraid to use that bell. Teach them a lesson.
6 Give a sign
Point your arm left or right if that’s where you’re going. Easy.
7 Cycle with confidence – don’t flinch
Have you’ve ever seen a video of someone crossing the streets of Vietnam, while being dodged by a million mopeds that refuse to stop? Do you know why the guy doesn’t get killed? It’s because of confidence.
The Dutch are basically born on their bikes. They can and will avoid hitting you with the speed of light if you manage to mess up. The only problem arises when they can’t anticipate what your next move will be. Being self-conscious, making weird moves and sudden stops will make cycling Amsterdam less safe for you. Stick to whatever your body language is telling others: go left if you’ve already pointed left and don’t make up your mind halfway.
8 Say no to phones
We know, you want to take pictures and check Google Maps while you’re using Amsterdam bike lanes. You’ll see many locals on their phones as well. Still, keep your phone and selfie stick in your bag. The speed of traffic is simply too fast to combine both. What’s worse: using a phone while cycling was actually made illegal in 2019 and will land you a hefty fine.
9 Respect the sidewalks
Don’t be that guy and bike on the sidewalk to cut corners – even if it’s just for a few meters. In all fairness: it’s not as much of a big deal in most other cities in the Netherlands, but the streets of Amsterdam are simply too small and crowded. Only the rudest locals will cycle on a sidewalk in the city center.
10 Use a light at night
Considering the speed some cyclists go, not using a light when it’s dark is really no joke. The biggest threat is cars – it’s near impossible for them to spot a cyclist zigzagging around the narrow streets and side alleys. The fine for not having a light is €55,-. The good part? A car is always in the wrong in the case of a collision, even if you’re the one that messed up. Ha.
11 Park in the right places
Placing your bike in the wrong spot will risk it being removed by the city. Or worse – grumpy looks by locals. Place your bike in designated spots – there are racks all over town. Don’t park your bicycle in front of a window store – the owner won’t be happy.
12 Cycle single-file – others want to pass you!
Last, but not least: for locals, nothing is more annoying than tourists cycling side by side in the crowded city center. We know, it’s fun to talk and share all the pretty sights with your friend, but now we can’t pass you on the bike lane. Because yes, the locals will undoubtedly cycle faster than you ever will. Locals won’t offer you any patience whatsoever – we’ve got places to go!
Useful Dutch words for this article:
- bicycle = fiets
- tramway tracks = tramrails
- helmet = helm
- moron = debiel
- I have a flat tire = Mijn band is plat
- Be careful, idiot = Kijk uit je doppen, idioot