In my not so humble opinion, you do not come to Amsterdam for its museums or points of interest. Of course, as in any big city, there are some specific sights that most travelers would enjoy. But first and foremost, you come to Amsterdam to experience its uniqueness. Smaller Dutch towns may have their own canal systems and look more quaint, and Venice may own the mantle of the quintessential city on canals, but only in Amsterdam can you appreciate the scale of city engineering around planned waterway system, married with a very attractive look and a very liberal spirit.
So, you are in Amsterdam for the very first time and will spend 3 or 4 days. Here is my rundown on what you should or could do and what I wouldn’t do if I were you.
This may be redundant given the introduction but in Amsterdam you should walk around possibly even to the extent of skipping some of the popular points of interest. Throughout the central canal ring or in Jordaan, you will be able to see a living city unlike any other. There are fun canal houses on practically every block, enjoyable views on every bridge, and the hustle and bustle of major metropolis rarely follows you if you step away from hot spots.
You shouldn’t completely ignore hot spots, though. One of them that you should stop by is Rembrandtplein, where the monument to the great painter is guarded by the brilliant sculptural representation of his famous The Night Watch. A few short blocks from the square is the canal crossing known as Bridge of 15 Bridges, from which spot you can see 14 different crossings (the 15th is the one you are standing on) in all directions; truth be told, you have to be uncommonly tall to clearly see the couple of farthest of them.
If weather permits, you absolutely should hire a canal bike and pedal around the city for a while. The perspective on the city from the water level is something else entirely. Time investment: 1 hour-plus, but feel free to make it longer if you don’t mind paying a few euros extra.
I am a big fan of orientation tours, and while I am not entirely ecstatic about glass-roofed vessels with sequential multi-language narration, you should take a canal cruise. It provides a good overview of the city and its major sights, although your preferred language – if it is not Dutch – will often kick in when the boat is already past the sight in question. Time investment: 2 hours including acquisition of tickets and waiting for departure, although my brother sensibly suggested in an essay on his blog talking to various companies on site in order to pick the right one, which may lengthen the overall time spent. His narrative also suggests that there are open-air boats, which I myself have not seen in enough quantities on my trips to Amsterdam and have never taken while there – they would certainly be miles more enjoyable in nice weather.
Unless you are afraid of heights, you should climb to the top of Westerkerk. It requires some advance work, since only 6 people can go up each half an hour; you will need to stop by, reserve your place for a later time, and find things to do while you wait (Jordaan starts literally across Prinsengracht from the church – so go take a walk there; or visit one or two minor points of interest in the vicinity), but it is very much worth it. The views from the top are breathtaking. Time investment: 30 minutes for the tour itself.
You should visit Van Gogh Museum. This is one of rather popular stops on any tourist’s itinerary which becomes a veritable partying place on some nights, with music, food, and light shows. It is also one of the more impressive spaces devoted to a single painter that I have ever seen. Time investment: 1 hour may be sufficient for some since the collection itself is not overwhelmingly huge, but a true Van Gogh admirer would probably linger for at least 3 hours; in busy times and without advanced ticket purchase, you may spend up to an hour in line to get in.
You should take a stroll in Red Light District. It is unquestionably seedy and may feel repulsive to the more prudish. But its uniqueness makes it a must in my book. View it as you would a museum, this one being dedicated to the variety of female body shapes. Time investment: Half an hour should be enough.
If you are an avid classical art lover, you could visit Rijksmuseum. I nearly put it into wouldn’t section but realized that I could not devalue my bona fides so. You would come primarily for the Dutch Masters to the main art museum in the country, and the problem is that you can only truly manage to admire the lesser lights. The rooms of the most important painters, such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, van Ruisdael, are invariably bursting at the seams with visitors through all hours; I only managed to get literally the last 5 minutes before museum closing for a comparatively quiet appreciation of The Night Watch. Overall, by my estimation, there are too few of truly great works on display to make the visit exceptionally worthwhile. But then, I know of a couple of museums that I would return to just to see a single work of art. The Night Watch could be your choice in that respect. Time investment: At least 2 hours – you come to a major art museum, you have to do it justice.
If you want a closer acquaintance with one of the greatest painters in history, you could see Rembrandthuis. The paintings on display here are not from the A-list, but the life and times of Rembrandt are covered in great detail, and many original features of the house remain. Time investment: 1 hour.
If you are interested in rare bits of history, you could see Our Lord in the Attic, a unique church that is hidden inside adjoining canal houses. Time investment: 1 hour.
If you are interested in civic history of Amsterdam, you could visit Konijklink Paleis. The palace itself is not as opulent as some famous royal residences elsewhere in Europe, but it offers a very good audio-guide narration on the history of city governance. And there are a few impressive rooms as well. Time investment: 90 minutes.
If you want to see a fully furnished patrician canal-side house, you could go to Willet-Holthuysen Museum. The kitchen and the garden are the main highlights, but the living spaces provide a good insight into how those well-to-do lived in Amsterdam in 18-19th centuries. Time investment: 1 hour.
If you are fascinated with houseboats, you could see Houseboat Museum, which gives you a good idea of how people live on these. Time investment: 30 minutes, with the added benefit of it being a couple of blocks from Westerkerk in case you need something to fill your time while waiting for the climb.
If you are a cheese aficionado, you could visit Cheese Museum. You don’t even have to see the exposition on the lower level; just taste two dozen varieties in the ground level store – a free lunch if there is ever one. This is another attraction close to Westerkerk that is an option for the wait to climb up the church tower. Time investment: 1 hour if you both do the tastings and see the exposition.
If you are into tulips, you could browse Bloemenmarkt. You will probably walk by it even if you do not plan to stop there. Please keep in mind: You will not see much in terms of blooming flowers except during the few weeks of the blooming season – but the sheer variety of tulip species and other flower bulbs for sale will unquestionably impress you.
If your idea of slowing down revolves primarily around the notion of going to a park, you could head to Vondelpark. It is slightly outside the city center, a large green space full of cyclists, walkers and picnickers.
If Jewish history is important to you, you could visit Joods Historisch Museum. Despite my Jewish background, I have to admit that I have never prioritized visiting such standalone museums, so I cannot make a proper recommendation.
You could also visit the nearby Portuguese Synagogue. This is a lot more inexcusable miss on my travelling resumé. I don’t have a very good track record of coming to synagogues when they are not closed for a Jewish holiday or some other occasion. Something I need to rectify.
A few other places that I have not been to that may warrant consideration for visiting:
- For city history, Amsterdam Museum.
- For modern art, Stedelijk Museum.
- For those interested in exploration of the seas, Het Scheepvaartmuseum. Drawing on my brother’s experience as mentioned in the above-linked blog essay, this is a great place to go with the kids.
- For history of tulips, Tulip Museum. This is another option for the wait to climb the Westerkerk.
I am going to catch a tremendous amount of flak for this, but I wouldn’t recommend that you spend your time on visiting Anne Frankhuis. You may not have a choice if you heritage or general disposition cannot justify skipping a Holocaust-related sight. I felt the same way on my first trip to Amsterdam. After all, I am of Jewish descent, I had read Anne Frank’s Diary (or, as it is called in English, The Diary of a Young Girl) when I was not yet in my teens, and it is such a signature testament to the power of human spirit under most trying conditions that you can’t help but think the house should be unmissable in your itinerary.
The problem is, it is largely disappointing. Thousands of people visit it every day; if you do not procure tickets in advance, you may spend a couple of hours in the line before you get to enter. The number of people inside is limited by the timed entry, but there will still be plenty of other people sharing the space with you to somewhat diminish the somber mood. And the rooms are mostly empty, displaying excerpts from the diary and a variety of supporting documents and small artifacts. You hardly get the sense of the place as it was during the two years the families were hiding there, beyond the notion that the spaces are cramped. This is really in part a museum of the book itself and in part a subdued Holocaust memorial, but it is not a place that helps you visualize the book, which is what I had expected before my visit.
My inquisitive niece apparently wanted to go and liked the museum a lot, so if someone in your party has a special affinity for seeing it, feel free to ignore my recommendation and go. Time investment: 1 hour with advance tickets, half a day if you join the ticket line.
A visit to a church is frequently opportunistic and does not require a significant time investment. When the entrance is free, it is usually a no-brainer for me to pop into any church I am walking by for a few minutes. But Oude Kerk and Neuwe Kerk both charge money for entry and, on balance, I wouldn’t be too worried about skipping them. Their interiors are not especially impressive. Soaring spaces, a huge main organ, a couple of stained-glass windows, sparse other decorations. The last time I stopped by Oude Kerk, it housed a rather incongruous exhibition of modern art that I have to say made the interior livelier.
Westerkerk is free to enter – take a quick look while you are waiting for your scheduled time to climb its tower. As pretty as it may be on the outside, it is quite dull inside.
I wouldn’t rent a bike for navigating the city. I have actually done it twice now and I realize that if you come from a car-centric culture, you are completely unsuited to share cycling lanes with the locals. No matter how well you think you can ride a bike, if you get on one, you will be a danger to yourself and others; accidents will be avoided only because the natives are much better at city-cycling than you; aggravation and verbal abuse will ensue. Instead, stay on foot and take the tram when necessary.
Joining a guided bike tour that lasts a few hours is not that bad, though, since it is likely to take you away from the city center for a significant portion of the tour. Also, if you plan on using the bike primarily for trips outside the city, this could be a could category item.
I wouldn’t try any of the mind-altering substances. This is not experience speaking – I have never tried any drugs while in Amsterdam or anywhere else. I simply do not understand why someone would waste their time in a city with so much to see on experimenting with that. You may argue that this is one of those unique experiences that cannot be skipped because they cannot be found elsewhere, but I’d rather find myself another route to walk in my usual unaltered state. I promise not to think any less of you if you decide otherwise.
There you have it. If you think I am patently wrong on any of this or you know a must-see or must-avoid place that I have omitted, please feel free to drop me a note.
My original Amsterdam Travelog entry.