For your first visit you need no less than 4 full days to be able to fully appreciate the city and all of its major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace.
Distances are walkable in the city center, you are unlikely to need use of public transport much, except for going further afield.
Love its canal-side architecture, the unique look.
Don’t miss: paddling along the canals on a canal bike; catching the flower market.
On the other hand: The canals are flushed nightly and the city streets are cleaned, but all of the rubbish floating in the water and strewn on the sidewalks during the day makes for a slightly off-putting impression.
Worthy attractions: Central canal ring; Rijksmuseum, with good collection of Dutch masters; Van Gogh museum; Rembrandtshuis, with many paintings by the master; Anne Frankhuis; Oude Kerk; Westerkerk and its bell tower; Willet-Holthuysen museum; Our Lord in the Attic, a unique church; Bloemenmarkt, which will bowl you over with its variety of tulip bulbs on sale; Koninklijk Paleis; Vondelpark, a wonderful place to kick back; the Red Lights District.
Recommended day trips: Zaanse Schans; Muiderslot.
Left for another visit: Joods Historisch Museum; Portuguese Synagogue; Amsterdams Historisch Museum; Nederlands Scheepvaart Museum; Stedelijk Museum; NEMO.
No intention of trying: Drugs.
Last visit: April 2015.
Unlike other major European capitals, Amsterdam does not blow away a visitor with monumental architecture and grand public places. Instead, it awes with its uniqueness of having been built on an expansive network of man-made canals and offers a mostly intimate and peaceful atmosphere, supplemented by a wealth of museums and activities.
In addition to the summary below, you can also check out my Shoulda, Coulda, Wouldn’t essay on Amsterdam.
Things to See
Exploring the central canal ring ♥♥♥ is something you would do whether I recommended it or not, no doubt. Prinsengracht is the outer boundary and one of the more picturesque of the water arteries, but Herengracht, Keizersgracht, Singel, or any number of smaller canals connecting them offer plenty of visual delights. You’d do well with a good tour book providing commentary for various buildings, but even without one, you can stroll pretty much aimlessly in any direction and be amazed at what you see.
One of my favorite activities in Amsterdam is renting a canal bike ♥♥♥ and pedaling around the canal ring. There are several canal-bike stations in different parts of the ring; the bike can be returned at any of them. If you are willing not to worry about returning it on time (the cost is €7 per person for an hour; you pay €1 per person per 10 minutes of extra time above that, taken from your security deposit of €50), then you will be free to take any route along the canals and observe the marvelous architecture and delightful houseboats from an excellent vantage point.
Taking a cruise on the canals ♥ is generally a good idea. There are many companies that offer them, and I have a feeling that they all provide a similar experience. We cruised with a couple, departing from either in front of the Centraal Station or by the Westerkerk, and were reasonably happy with the quality of commentary and the boat itself. When there are multiple languages that need to be used for the audience, the order is likely to be Dutch, German, English, French, and the rest; you may actually be past the attraction by the time recognizable commentary rolls in; that could be a bit disorienting, but hardly something to negate the enjoyment. We also read somewhere that taking a cruise in the evening is especially enchanting, but that turned out not to be true, as not every bridge is lighted, and few of the canal houses are either; a reasonably sunny day is better for appreciation.
Of the city squares, the central Dam ♥ square certainly aspires to be a grand public place but does not quite get there on the account of middling architecture that surrounds it. The Koninklijk Paleis ♥ is imposing if not exactly extraordinary; it offers an interesting audio tour that highlights the details of pre-royal management of the city; the spaces themselves are not as luxurious as one would expect from a royal palace.
Rembrandtplein ♥♥ is a lively oasis surrounded by cafés; its central square houses the monument to Rembrandt and an amazing representation of his famous Night Watch in statues.
There is a number of museums in the city that certainly warrant attention.
The expansive modern building of the Van Gogh museum ♥♥ belies the compact chronological exhibition of the painter’s work, complemented by paintings of his contemporaries and a floor devoted to prints. The notes on many paintings go well beyond naming and dating them, providing an excellent narration of the master’s troubled life. We did not try the audioguide. This is probably the most impressive of all of Amsterdam’s museums, but it is also pricey and can get crowded.
Rijksmuseum ♥♥ is a must for anyone appreciating classical painting, as it boasts a good collection of Dutch masters. It is also hopelessly overcrowded throughout the open hours in the section of the museum when one wants to linger the most; getting an unobstructed view of Rembrandt’s Night Watch is nigh impossible until the last few minutes before the closing. The rooms exhibiting Vermeer, van Ruisdael, and others are marginally less crowded.
Rembrandtshuis ♥♥, where the dwelling of the great master has been meticulously recreated according to records and his own paintings, is a fascinating place to visit. Beyond a fine exhibition of etchings by Rembrandt and his pupils, there are not many of Rembrandt’s paintings on display, but that is hardly a shortcoming. The complimentary audioguide is very well composed.
Anne Frankhuis ♥ is obviously a somber place, and unfailingly moving, despite the fact that it is constructed literally around passages from the girl’s diary and contains very few actual exhibits of the hiding place (absence of any furniture was somewhat of a disappointment). Even the youngest visitors will be affected by the experience but expect a long line to get in – this is one of the most-visited places in Amsterdam. The number of people sharing spaces with you will also diminish your impression.
Of the major museums in Amsterdam, the only couple I have not visited are the National Maritime Museum (I heard positive reviews about it from people I trust, but it never fit into my itinerary) and Stedelijk Museum (I can only find time for modern art if there is absolutely nothing else for me to do, which is impossible in Amsterdam). A couple of other historic museums are probably worth considering in the future, Jewish History Museum, and Amsterdam City History Museum. I also never managed to be near Portuguese Synagogue when the entrance to it was allowed, which is a big miss in my itinerary.
To see a furnished canal house, head to Willet-Holthuysen museum ♥. Its interiors date mainly from the 18th century, and you can imagine how a wealthy merchant family lived in that age. The main staircase, the dining room, and the bedroom are especially impressive, and the garden and the kitchen are perfectly delightful, although other rooms are also well presented. In addition, there is a large collection of porcelain and objets d’art on display.
Among smaller attractions is the Houseboat museum ♥, which is simply a well-furnished houseboat, providing excellent insight into this unique Amsterdam phenomenon. You may have to wait for some time to get on – there is obviously a very limited space inside – but twenty minutes should be more than enough for viewing unless your child gets too much into coloring a houseboat picture in the kids’ corner. November through February the museum is open only on weekends.
There is also a cheese museum and a tulip museum (in the vicinity of Westerkerk), which could be mildly entertaining to some. In the former, the shop area offers over a dozen varieties of cheese for tasting ♥ – free lunch if there ever was one.
The major churches of Amsterdam are mildly disappointing. They are relatively impressive on the exterior, but not too impressive once you step inside. The spaces are uplifting, as one would expect from any grand church, the main organs are huge, but the decorations are sparse, the stained glass windows are few and far in between, and you might chance upon a somewhat incongruous display of modern art inside. Oude Kerk ♥ is just about worth the price of the ticket. Nieuwe Kerk offered a glimpse of its interior from the ticket lobby and I estimated that it was not worth proceeding further. Westerkerk is free to enter, but although it is the prettiest on the outside, it is probably the dullest on the inside. St Nicholas Church, along with a few others, I only looked at from the outside.
You should make an effort, however, of climbing Westerkerk tower ♥♥. The narration given by your guide is not extensive but quite interesting, and the view from the high terrace is excellent. You have to be somewhat determined as well as lucky to get on. There are only six people allowed on each tour, once every half hour; advance reservations can be made on the same day in person – you will likely have to return later in the day for your allocated time.
Our Lord in the Attic ♥♥ is a different type of church. A relatively small place of worship contained within a couple of adjoining canal houses, it illustrates the period of history when Catholic and Protestant faiths were really at odds with each other. A good audio guide helps along an interesting visit.
Remarkable Bloemenmarkt ♥ is worth a visit. The sheer variety of species of tulip bulbs on sale is astounding, but do not expect to see rows of blooming tulips – for that, you have to head out of the city.
The Red Light District ♥ is certainly another major attraction of the city. Especially late in the evening, there are huge crowds of hooting males on its streets (occasional female revelers are seemingly outnumbered 15-to-1). Sex shops and shows abound, with lingerie-clad prostitutes providing an obvious source of free amusement from their full-height windows. More than half of them appear visibly bored by the proceedings, which somewhat unexpectedly makes this “window-shopping” duller. If you are not interested in the activities available in this area, the stroll around the neighborhood can be viewed as an exhibition of the female form in its worldwide variety.
The largest park in the city, Vondelpark ♥♥, is a huge pleasant retreat, with meadows, ponds, biking and walking paths, a couple of restaurants and even a movie museum. There are children’s playgrounds as well as a fountain-like pool that moms with little kids turn into a beach on hot days.
Bicycles are an essential part of the Dutch way of life, and no Amsterdam experience is complete without getting on a bike. There are several organized tours available, of which we used Mike’s Bike Tour ♥♥, which departs twice a day, 11 and 4, from in front of Rijksmuseum (the open-field side, not the canal-facing side). The 4-hour tour is not at all taxing, providing a good overview of the city and its environs, with stops at a cheese-making facility, a clog (wooden shoe) factory, a windmill, and a bar for drinks at the end.
You can also rent a bike ♥ and explore the city on your own. You do not need anything besides a credit card if you are renting from a central depot, such as Mike’s or Macbikes. There are many bike paths all over the city, and a cyclist always has a right of way over a motorist at unregulated intersections (I did not figure out how a pedestrian fits into the equation, but had to dodge bikers regularly while on foot). Still, city biking requires certain skills that you may not outright possess. I got into a few near-accidents with other bikers and did not get entirely comfortable the whole time.
You can also take a look at the Amsterdam Shoulda, Coulda, Woudn’t entry on my main blog.
Places to Eat
On my most recent stay in Amsterdam, in the spring of 2015, I kept largely superficial records of the meals in Amsterdam. With the ascent of TripAdvisor, it seems somewhat unnecessary to record details of a single given meal for posterity. Here are brief notes.
Getto ♥ – lively vibe although not too crowded, burger-centric menu, pretty good, with reasonable service.
Kadijk ♥ – Dutch Indonesian fusion, excellent food, small place, service on the slower side. For payments, Maestro cards only or cash.
Tomaz ♥♥♥ – great ambiance, friendly service, excellent food, all-around gem.
Mashua ♥♥ – Peruvian (or South American, to be precise) cuisine, very good food, nice modern ambiance, and friendly service. Slightly more expensive than other choices on this trip.
‘t Gasthuis ♥ – pub-type cafe, with a limited menu of simple choices. Big portions, good vibe, no credit cards accepted.
St James Gate ♥♥ – a good sports pub on Rembrandtplein, if you are a fan of the English Premier League, this is very you go to watch games.
Although the records from the previous long stay in Amsterdam, in the spring of 2007, were a lot more detailed, the limit of their usefulness has probably been exceeded in the eight years since. It should be noted that I did not dine in any of those restaurants on the most recent trip.
As in any large city, the options for a hotel or an apartment are nearly endless on major online platforms. Any location in Centrum will put you within walking distance to most of the points of interest. The excellent tram network makes staying somewhere outside of the city center workable as well.
Staying in a canal house or even a houseboat is certainly something to be considered for the uniqueness of the experience and the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the specific canal house that we rented in 2007 is no longer offered for short-term rent.
On one of my visits, the base was the Heyniek apartment ♥♥ rented through Airbnb (listing).
This is a great apartment for a couple or solo stay. Niek is a prompt communicator, a pleasure to deal with, and able to take care of additional requests. The apartment is his home when not rented out and offers a full kitchen and all proper living amenities (a good coffee machine, for instance, was most welcome), with a separate toilet with sink and a reasonable-size shower room.
The open-plan space is light and airy, all on the same level on the first floor (the first above ground, that is) accessible by a reasonable-width staircase. The bedroom area is in the back of the apartment, opening up to a balcony that overlooks a quiet courtyard.
The location is at the edge of the central area, within walking distance to all main attractions and communication hubs (5 minutes to Central Station or Oude Kerk or Maritime Museum, less than 10 minutes to Rembrandtplein or Dam, less than 15 minutes to any point on the main canal rings). In a city that is as walkable – or bike-able if you’d like – as Amsterdam, one cannot ask for a better combination of being tucked away from the bustle and at the same time being close to everything than this apartment. Last stay: 2015.
Further afield on a bike
As a general note, it is possible to explore places outside of Amsterdam via bicycle. However, this pursuit requires not only a reasonable physical shape but also either a working GPS or a very detailed map. Although there are plenty of signposts directing cyclists, they are sometimes confusing and rarely point to specific sights. If you somehow end up navigating marker-to-marker, adopt the rule of not taking any turns unless you see a marker specifically instructing you to do so in order to continue to your destination.
A typical, if too tourist-oriented, Dutch village a dozen miles to the north of Amsterdam, Zaanse Schans ♥♥♥ gives you an excellent chance to explore working windmills. There are also several workshops and demonstrations (such as a quick primer on modern ways of making traditional wooden shoes called clogs) and a couple of small museums. You will rub shoulders with hundreds of tourists in some areas, but you will also discover peaceful and picturesque nooks to linger at.
Defence Line of Amsterdam
This UNESCO-recognized serial sight consists of over 40 forts encircling the city. Unfortunately, practically all of them are either inaccessible to the public or open on a very limited schedule. I took a look at a handful of these fortifications in Diemen, Muiden and Weesp, but only a hard-core “World Heritage hunter” such as myself would claim that as truly enjoyable.
Thankfully, the towns of Muiden ♥ and Weesp ♥ are quite picturesque and may support a day trip composed around visiting them. In the former, you can spend a couple of hours at Muiderslot ♥♥, a well-preserved castle offering a couple of mildly curious self-guided routes as well as one fairly interesting 30-minute guided tour (narration is likely to be in Dutch only; there are English and other language booklets that give the same information as the guide, and my tour guide tried to engage me in English a few times – it’s a pity I could not understand her presentation in Dutch – she was very expressive). The grounds include a garden and a falconry.