How much of Amsterdam can you actually see in one day? Here's our 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 shipmates 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 in a day?
What can you see with only a day in Amsterdam?
I had seriously pondered this Amsterdam dilemma for months: How much 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 single day visit and how we managed to squeeze it all in.
Super-important tip: Protect your back and feet; be sure to wear good shoes!
Tip: Amsterdam is chock full of bicyclists who expect pedestrians to yield, so beware. Cyclists have the right of way, and bicycles hurt.
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.
Tip: Instead of renting a bicycle, purchase a 24-hour tram ticket to get around. You can purchase tickets both on the tram and at many hotels. Be sure to make a note of the tram numbers that stop closest to your hotel!
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.
Tip: To avoid long lines at the Rijksmuseum, purchase your museum ticket online before you go. Arrive early to avoid the crowds; the museum gets busy after 11 am.
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 bridge for 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.
Tip: Next to the bridge is a stall where you can purchase tickets for a tour of Amsterdam via canal. Canal tours are a top attraction in the city and you will need reservations. Buy tickets before you eat for an after-lunch tour. We scheduled our tour for 2:00 pm.
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 Dutch mayo tastes 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.
Tip: Try your frietjes the way our friend Farieda likes them: smothered in peanutty satay sauce. (Omigosh … where has THAT been all my life?)
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.)
A canal cruise is 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.
Tip: There are two types of tours: Choose between a hop-on hop-off boat or a regular tour that brings you back to where you started. Check various tourist brochures for available discount coupons, or buy your tickets here.
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's 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.
- The lower floors display 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.
Tip: To avoid long lines and the risk of not getting in, reserve online ahead of time. Pay a little extra for the 30-minute advance lecture portion; it’s worth it.
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.
Tip: Learn how to make bitterballen and kroketten and you’ll be able to use up leftovers as Dutch housewives traditionally do.
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).
Tip: If you enjoy shopping and have the time and energy, stop in at De Bijenkorf (“The Beehive”), Amsterdam's premiere department store.
9. Red Light District
The infamous Red Light District is one of Amsterdam's most renowned tourist attractions. 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.
Tip: Be careful with your camera as you walk because one of the girls might think you’re taking a photo of her. That’s a strict no-no.