I used to think Amsterdam was one of those places you could zip through on a layover. You know, walk over some canals, swing by the Anne Frank House, brave a walk through the Red Light District and maybe even have enough time to grab a coffee before heading back to the airport. Boy was I wrong.
After spending days in the incredible city and still not feeling like I even scratched the surface, I strongly believe you shouldn’t even bother coming to Amsterdam if you have less than two days. Why? Because similar to other world class cities like New York, Paris and Rome, there is an endless amount of attractions to tour, houseboats to ogle over, quaint side streets to get lost on and local specialities to savour—all while plotting exactly what you’d have to do to be so lucky to call Amsterdam home someday.
While you could easily spend a week simply wandering around the picturesque city, here’s a travel guide to the main highlights you shouldn’t miss, regardless of how much time you have.
A canal tour is the perfect way to start off a trip to Amsterdam, as it gives visitors a great overview of the city so they know which areas they’ll want to go back to later. There are dozens of tours throughout the day, which typically last one hour and include an audio guide for about €15 per person. There are also special packages available with extras like a dinner cruise.
Be sure to pay special attention when the boat passes through the Prince’s and Gentleman’s canals—the surrounding houses are nothing less than impressive!
The famous I Amsterdam sign lures travellers to this area, but it’s well-worth sticking around to enjoy the gorgeous museums and laneways in this district. Start by crossing the canal in front of the gargantuan Rijksmuseum, which houses exhibitions detailing Amsterdam’s long history, and stop to take photos from the beautiful bridge. Just be sure to watch out for the onslaught of cyclists, as it’s a popular crossing!
Passing straight through the museum, you’ll find yourself behind the larger-than-life I Amsterdam sign, which is literally crawling with tourists who hang off of it like monkeys trying to get a good photo.
The plaza in front of it is simply vibrant, and a hotbed of activity. A great place to grab a drink or lunch, there is also a pool of water, a playground and a pathway leading towards other attractions such as the Van Gogh Museum.
The 9 Streets
Without question, this is where Amsterdam’s trendiest residents can be found. The 9 Streets refers to a hip shopping area near Dam Square and Jordaan, which is overflowing with cute cafes, beautiful storefronts and incredible boutiques. But be warned: it’s not cheap!
Red Light District
Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you venture down the famed area in search of, ahem, ‘adventures.’ However, it’s worth a quick walk through just to get an idea of what all the fuss is about.
Taking up only a few blocks near the Central Station, the Red Light District has numerous adult stores, ‘coffee shops’ and brothels that have made it notorious, yet they’re seamlessly mixed in with innocent things like donair stalls and souvenir shops. You can easily walk through the entire district in less than 10 minutes—but rest assured it will be an experience you’ll never forget!
Heineken Brewery Tour
For another adult experience that is decidedly less risque, head to the world famous Heineken brewery. This fantastic tour takes a couple of hours and includes details about the history of the beer empire, a VERY cool interactive video about the brewing/bottling process, the chance to make your own music video (hilarious) and of course—tasting! You can even make your own personalized Heineken beer bottle. The tour costs €18 per person, or €13.50 with an I Amsterdam card and includes a free gift.
Anne Frank House
Arguably one of the best known landmarks in the entire city, Anne Frank House is where young Anne hid with her Jewish family for more than two years during World War II, as she chronicled the entire ordeal in her now famous diary.
The site is now home to numerous exhibitions, including information about those who tried to help the Frank family, Anne’s famous hiding spot and explaining the persecution of Jewish people.
The Anne Frank House is extremely popular which can mean long lines, but it is possible to buy tickets online ahead of time to bypass the line. It is also open almost every single day of the year, but beware if you’re planning your visit around a Jewish holiday as you might be confronted with this sign:
Other ways to spend the day
Even if you hit the main sights, there will always be plenty of others worth exploring. Good picks include:
- Oosterpark: The large park located in the east part of Amsterdam is the perfect place to go for a run, long walk or enjoy a picnic.
- Van Gogh Museum: A large collection of artwork from the famed artist are on display.
- Seven bridges: Found along the street Reguliersgracht, these seven brick bridges make for a pretty picture.
- Magere Brug: The Skinny Bridge was originally so narrow that people could barely pass by each other. It has since been expanded, and is now a popular spot for couples during a romantic night out thanks to its illuminated frame.
- De Pijp: For a fun night out, head to this district in south Amsterdam which is overrun with lively pubs and bars.
- De Bijenkorf: This department store in Dam Square attracts fashionistas from near and far. Hosting luxury retailers such as Burberry and Louis Vuitton alongside more affordable options, De Bijenkorf is a must for those who appreciate the finer things in life.
Getting around: It’s no secret that the Dutch love their bikes. In fact with nearly 900-thousand bikes in Amsterdam, it’s not cars, trams and buses you have to watch out for as a pedestrian—it’s the cyclists speeding by! With that in mind, it can be fun to rent a bike for the day and explore the city on two wheels. There are 513 kilometres of dedicated bike lanes throughout the city, and most importantly, no hills.
If that seems like too much of an effort, Amsterdam is surprisingly walkable (though it can be tough to track down specific addresses as the city is not on a grid system). Alternatively, ride around on the trams which are frequent, fast and easy to navigate. One-way tickets or day passes can be purchased on board.
Secret savings: If you plan to visit many of Amsterdam’s attractions, use transit and do a canal tour, it may be worth buying an I Amsterdam City Card. Available at numerous locations around the city, the card can get you free museum entrances, a canal cruise, unlimited public transportation and discounts at restaurants.
Tourists can also enjoy tax free savings at many retailers when they spend minimum €50 at a single store. If you qualify, you can get cash back at Amsterdam’s airport by presenting your stamped shopping cheque.
Photography tip: Amsterdam is overrun with tourists, which means it can be tough to get a clear photo of major landmarks without dozens of people in the way. However, if you get out and about by around 8 a.m. you will have the quiet streets all to yourself.
Currency: The euro.
Language: Dutch, but most people also speak English very well.
Where to stay: The hub of activity is near Dam Square and the Central Station, and both areas offer good food, lodging and shopping options along with being on the major transit lines. However, hotels in Jordaan or near Oosterpark can give you a reprieve from the swell of tourists, and have a quieter, neighbourhood feel.
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