How much can you actually see with only one day in Amsterdam? Here's the itinerary we created and used to see the best of Netherlands' capital, from museums to canals to restaurants.
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 like Amsterdam in a day?
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 our 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. But here's her #1 tip: Protect your back and feet; be sure to wear good shoes!
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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.
By the way, even if you don’t care to visit the Rijksmuseum, it’s worthwhile to visit just to see the beautiful building.
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. Museumplein and the IAmsterdam sign
As we left the museum, we stopped for a simple, lightweight souvenir: a photo with the IAmsterdam sculpture. It's the newest city landmark, and an ideal obligatory photo stop for many visitors, though I can't figure out how you could take a selfie.
It is always on display on Museumplein, the public square bordering Rijksmuseum.
TIP: if you want to get a photo without the crowds, you should go there very early in the morning.
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 might have made a good alternative.
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. Cruise boats puttered below us, showing their passengers the best of Amsterdam from water level.
On the far side: 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. These cruises are a top attraction in the city, so you will need reservations. Buy tickets before you eat for an after-lunch tour. We scheduled our tour for 2:00 pm.
4. Lunch at a brown cafe – with Indonesian food!
At Leidseplein, we went in search of a traditional Dutch brown café. Bruine (brown) cafés are to Amsterdam what pubs are to London. The cafés are as much a part of the city's charm as its canals, architecture, and its other famous sights.
The weather was so pleasant that we asked to be seated at one of the tables 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. By the way, Dutch mayo tastes different than what we have in the U.S.
Although it hails from Malaysia and Indonesia, chicken satay is extremely popular in the Netherlands. There's a good reason for this: Dutch East India Company once reigned supreme in much of Southeast Asia and the traders brought many of Asia's delicious recipes back to their homeland.
We also tried our frietjes the way our friend Farieda likes them: smothered in savory, peanutty satay sauce. (Omigosh … where has THAT been all my life?)
Where we ate: Reynders 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.
5. Amsterdam canal cruise
With happy mouths, we walked back to take our canal tour and see Amsterdam from the water. (Read our story here.)
Amsterdam is full of canals, which is why a canal cruise is an ideal way to see the city: 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.
If we were to advise just one thing that you absolutely must do, it would be to take a canal cruise in Amsterdam! No matter how much exploring you do on foot, you'll get a completely different perspective of the city from a boat. Besides, this one-day itinerary requires a lot of walking, and this is a perfect way to save your feet.
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 see a list of cruise options here..
6. The Nine Streets
Once back on land, we headed to our next destination via The Nine Streets (De Negen Straatjes). These old cobbled streets run between Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht, three canals which Farieda told us shouldn’t be missed.
Photographers like Dan will think they were in heaven. The canals are surrounded by some of the most beautiful traditional Dutch houses in Amsterdam.
7. Jordaan neighborhood
The Nine Streets border the enchanting Jordaan neighborhood, which was our next destination. If you want a sense of authentic residential Amsterdam. Jordaan is full of classic 17th and 18th-century buildings with cozy courtyard gardens, and narrow streets sprinkled with local shops, quaint bars and brown cafés.
The Jordaan is also home to two of Amsterdam's landmarks, both of which we wanted to see: Anne Frank House and the 400-year-old Dutch Protestant church, Westerkerk.
Many Dutch painters are buried in the church, 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. Rats.
8. Anne Frank House
Anne Frank's house was on Dan’s bucket list. During World War II, Anne Frank, her family and four other people hid from Nazi persecution in secret rooms at the rear of the 17th-century canal house. Their hiding place came to be known as the Secret Annex. Anne Frank did not survive the war but she became known in 1947, when her wartime diary was published.
We booked online ahead of time and paid extra for an informative orientation that covered the life and times of the Frank family. The questions folks asked afterward were most enlightenting.
Next, 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.
9. The floating flower market, Bloemenmarkt
By this time our feet were hurting from all the walking, so we took a tram to our next destination. On the way, we passed the only floating flower market in the world, Bloemenmarkt. This unique market, with flower stalls on houseboats, has been here since 1862.
You can buy flower bulbs, all kinds of souvenirs, or just walk around and take colorful pictures. We saved this for our next trip, but if you have want to stretch your one day in Amsterdam into two, this is a must-see.
10. Rembrandtplein – and traditional Dutch snacks
We alit the tram at Rembrandtplein, where Farieda had recommended that we eat at 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.
These appetizers were so filling that we never bothered with an official “dinner.” Fine with us….
Tip: Learn how to make bitterballen and kroketten and you’ll be able to use up leftovers as Dutch housewives traditionally do.
11. Dam Square and the Royal Palace
Our next destination (via tram) was Dam Square, Amsterdam’s central square, where the Royal Palace is located. This is one of the most well-known locations in Amsterdam.
It was too late to tour the Royal Palace but we could still photograph the National Monument and Nieuwe Kerk (New Church).
Tip: Shoppers should make it a point to visit De Bijenkorf (“The Beehive”), Amsterdam's premiere department store.
12. Amsterdam's Red Light District
With its in-your-face prostitution and coffeeshops, Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District is one of the world's most renowned tourist attractions. 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.
You can easily visit during the day, but if you want to see the true side of the Red Light District, you’ll need to visit after dark, when it really comes alive. Amsterdam is generally safe, but iif you don’t feel comfortable walking around at night on your own, you can always join a guided tour like this one.
The Red Light District has more to offer than that however, so make sure to 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.
13. Amsterdam canals at night
Amsterdam’s nighttime splendor isn’t limited to the neon lights in the Red Light District. Its houses and bridges are beautifully lit after dark. Had we thought of it, we would have ended our day in Amsterdam with an evening canal cruise.
Big regret that we didn’t. Maybe next time….