How much of Amsterdam can you actually see in one day? Here’s a real-life itinerary, from museums to canals to restaurants.
Yes, we actually did this.
They say every good thing has to end, and that included our fabulous Rhine River cruise. Many of our cruisemates headed straight to the airport but as a world-class city in its own right, we figured Amsterdam deserved at least a little attention before we headed to the City of Lights. Okay, it was only a single day but still, it was better than nothing, right?
Except … How can anyone actually appreciate a world-class city like Amsterdam in one day?
Amsterdam in a day?
I had seriously pondered this dilemma for months: How much of Amsterdam can a person see in only 24 hours? I would hate to leave a place and then discover that we had missed visiting a mega-famous site only after we had flown home, wouldn’t you?
Well, I finally figured out which of the city’s highlights to see, thanks in no small part to my Dutch friend Farieda’s thoughtful advice. Here’s what Dan and I saw in our one day visit to Amsterdam and how we managed to squeeze it all in.
Our day in Amsterdam begins
Our final morning on board started with the usual huge buffet spread that Viking had prepared. As usual, they gave a nod to the day’s port by adding local specialties, like delicious Dutch cheeses, traditional brown bread and ontbijtkoek (a cake made with rye flour and spices like cloves, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg). As excited as we were to see Amsterdam, we were glad to have enough time to savor a few of these delicacies before our scheduled departure.
A taxi arrived promptly at 9:30 (how typically Dutch!) to take us to our hotel. We dropped off our bags at the front desk and got a tourist map and a one-day tram pass. We had considered renting bicycles to get around, but Farieda had advised against it because we didn’t know the city very well. It’s very unsafe to read a map while you’re cycling through city traffic.
The first place we headed was to the Rijksmuseum, a world-class museum that has the largest collection of Dutch art in the world, painted by such famous artists as van Ruysdael, Hals, Vermeer, Steen and Rembrandt. (Not Van Gogh, though. Vincent has his own museum next door.) We budgeted two hours to see as much as we could and managed to hit the highlights without feeling too rushed.
As we left we stopped for a simple, lightweight souvenir: a photo with the IAmsterdam sculpture. It is always on display on Museumplein, the public square bordering Rijksmuseum.
2. Walking along Amsterdam’s streets to Leidseplein
By now it was lunchtime so we headed to Leidseplein, a lively, open-air square full of cafés that is only a few blocks from the museums.
No sooner had we left the IAmsterdam sculpture than we were passing the House of Bols. You may have heard of Bols liqueurs: They are the world’s oldest distilled spirit brand, making liqueurs in Amsterdam since 1575! Had we not been museum fans this would have made a good option.
Bols offer a fascinating, interactive tourist attraction called the Cocktail and Jenever Experience. Foodies that we are, it was tempting to go in, especially because the tour ends at the Mirror Bar, where bartenders will mix any cocktail you create before your very eyes. You can also learn the art of flair bartending (think Tom Cruise in ‘Cocktail’) and shop in the Bols Shop.
Waving goodbye to the missed opportunity we continued walking. A few blocks further on we found an enchanting, willow-lined canal … and stood on the bridgefor a few moments to enjoy the ambiance. On the far side were both the Hard Rock Cafe and a square called Max Euweplein, full of cyclists, pedestrians and a couple of people playing a life-sized chess game. Souvenir time: Rather than add weight to our bags with dust-collecting mementos, we take photos of Hard Rock Cafes as we travel.
3. Dutch Food for Lunch
Once at Leidseplein we went in search of a a traditional Dutch brown café and found Reijnders. The café was founded in 1880 and it hasn’t changed much from what it was back then. Inside you will even find pictures of how it looked on the Leidseplein almost 100 years ago.
The weather was too nice to eat inside so we found an empty table on the square. We both ordered a beer, chicken satay skewers and frietjes, a.k.a. “chips” or “French fries”. Both Belgians and Dutch eat frietjes with mayonnaise, so of course we had to try it. Verdict: it’s a keeper. We also noticed that the mayo tasted different than what we have in the U.S.
Strictly speaking, chicken satay is Malaysian or Indonesian cuisine, but the Dutch don’t seem to care; it’s extremely popular in the Netherlands. There’s a good reason for this: Dutch East India Company once reigned supreme in much of Asia and the traders brought many of Asia’s delicious recipes back to their homeland.
4. Canal Cruise
With happy mouths we walked back to take our €13 canal tour and see Amsterdam from the water. (Click here for more on canal cruising in Amsterdam.) It’s a good way to see the city because canals are everywhere: Wealthy merchants dug a ton of them in the 17th century during Holland’s prosperous period (aka the Dutch Golden Age). Besides, the Amsterdam Canals are a UNESCO world heritage site.
Distinctive houseboats and narrow, side-by-side homes line the picturesque canals wherever you look. The stairs in these buildings are so narrow they need to use hooks on the gables to hoist goods from the waterways to upper floors.
5. Jordaan Neighborhood
Once back on land we walked to the upscale Jordaan neighborhood so we could photograph its classic 17th and 18th-century buildings and the 400-year-old Dutch Protestant Westerkerk church. Many Dutch painters are buried here, including Rembrandt. Unfortunately, we couldn’t enter. We were there on a Saturday and the church is only open on weekdays between 10:00 am – 3:00 pm.
6. Anne Frank Huis
Anne Frank House was on Dan’s must-see list, and for good reason. We booked online ahead of time and paid extra for an informative orientation. The speaker talked about the life and times of the Frank family and then entertained questions.
After the Q&A we were escorted next door into the building where the Frank family had hidden for two years during the war. Everyone was asked not to talk during the visit so as not to disturb other visitors.
- On the lower floors are photos, exhibits and videos about Anne, her family, the war and the Holocaust. The curators have also mounted informational writings on the walls and videos play here and there along the way.
- The top floors are the actual rooms where the family stayed, furnished with items similar to what they had.
By this time our feet were hurting from all the walking so we took a tram to Rembrandtplein.
Dear Farieda had recommended that we eat at a restaurant there called Café l’Opera. She even told us what we should order: Bittergarnituur, a plate of appetizers that included bitterballen and kroketten. So we did. A Dutch beer on tap washed it all down.
Usually served with mustard, bitterballen are meatball-sized balls of potato and ground beef that are breaded and fried. Kroketten are similar but in an oblong/football shape. They were both delicious and the restaurant’s prices were fair.
8. Dam Square
Our tram pass took us to Dam Square, Amsterdam’s central square. It was too late to tour the Royal Palace but we could still photograph the National Monument and Nieuwe Kerk (New Church).
9. Red Light District
The infamous Red Light District is one of Amsterdam’s most renowned tourist attraction. It really comes alive after dark. This is window shopping on a completely different level, where scantily clad women (and some men!) display their attributes, standing in windows illuminated by the fluorescent red lights overhead. Whatever adult pleasure you might desire, it’s available here.
The area has more to offer than that however, so look above the windows as well. This is a beautiful area in its own right, where you can also see 300-year-old gabled buildings and other expensive, photo-worthy real estate.
For more inspiration
Save Amsterdam on Pinterest: Click the Pin It button in the upper left of our images to save this story for when you’re ready to plan your trip.
- National Geographic Walking Amsterdam: The Best of the City
- Lonely Planet Amsterdam (Travel Guide)
- Rick Steves’ Pocket Amsterdam
Where we stayed
We have stayed at both the Bilderberg Garden Hotel (in a residential area of Amsterdam) and at the more central Renaissance Amsterdam Hotel (mere blocks from Centraal train station). We were pleased with both.
If you think one day in Amsterdam won’t be enough, you have a variety of lodging options, everything from hostels to hotels to staying in a local home (Airbnb and Homestay are two examples). You can even sleep in a houseboat on a canal if you want. How fun does THAT sound?!
Since tastes and budgets vary, this comprehensive search engine will help you compare lodging rates across the internet:
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