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How much can you actually see with only one day in Amsterdam? Here's the Amsterdam 1-day itinerary we created for our first visit. We used it to see the best of Amsterdam, Netherlands' capital, from museums to canals to restaurants.
They say every good thing has to end, and that includes river cruises. When our Rhine River cruise ended in Amsterdam one Saturday morning, many of our shipmates headed straight to the airport. That mystified us. After all, we had just arrived in a world-class city with bunches of things to see. Why miss the opportunity? Even though our travel plans only allowed enough time to be in Amsterdam for a day, it was better than nothing, right?
Except … How can anyone actually appreciate a world-class city like Amsterdam in one day?
We had seriously pondered this “day trip to Amsterdam” dilemma for months. How much of the Netherlands' capital can a person see with a one day itinerary? How sad would it be to spend our 24 hours in Amsterdam sightseeing, only to discover afterward that we had missed visiting a mega-famous site?
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.
Tip: To help with your own planning, we've included links to tickets, tours, etc. for your convenience. If you find them useful, please book through our page. The price is the same, but some of the companies will pay us a small referral fee. Thanks for your kindness!
Getting around Amsterdam
First, here's our #1 tip: Protect your back and feet; be sure to wear good shoes!
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.
Instead of renting a bicycle, we decided to walk or use public transportation to get around. With trams, buses, boats, and the metro, we had lots of options,
- Amsterdam offers an affordable public transportation ticket. That’s what we bought. You can purchase tickets both on the tram and at many hotels. Or buy them here before you go to save time and hassle.
- For more convenience, the IAMsterdam City Card offers unlimited use of the transport system plus free admission to many Amsterdam attractions.
- This 24-hour pass gives you access to the city’s public transport network along with a full day’s access to the hop-on and hop-off canal bus.
You can download a transportation app which will help you find your way around Amsterdam by tram, bus, metro, ferry and even train. We found the tram system to be convenient and fun, not to mention a welcome break when our feet got tired.
Tip: Before you set out, make a note of the tram numbers that stop closest to your hotel!
One day in Amsterdam: the itinerary
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.
1. Visit the Rijksmuseum
The first place we headed was to the Rijksmuseum, a world-class museum that has the largest collection of Dutch art in the world. We saw paintings by famous artists such as van Ruysdael, Hals, Vermeer, Steen and Rembrandt. Not Van Gogh, though. Vincent has his own museum next door.
We budgeted two hours for the museum. Thankfully, we didn’t lose any time on the ticket line because we had pre-purchased our tickets. We managed to hit the highlights without feeling too rushed.
By the way, even if you don’t care to visit the Rijksmuseum for its art, its architecture makes the building still worth a visit.
Tip: To avoid long lines at the Rijksmuseum, purchase a skip-the-line Rijksmuseum ticket online before you go. Arrive early to avoid the crowds; the museum gets busy after 11 am.
2. Snap a selfie with the Museumplein 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: To get a photo without the crowds, you must get there very early in the morning.
3. Stroll through Leidseplein
By now it was lunchtime, so we headed to a lively, open-air square that is only a few blocks from the museums. Leidseplein is full of cafés, and we knew we’d find something to our liking.
We didn’t expect to pass any Amsterdam attractions en route, but we did: 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. 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 the Hard Rock Café on the far side. Souvenir time: Rather than add weight to our bags with dust-collecting mementos, we take photos of Hard Rock Cafes around the world. Maybe it's silly, but we think it's fun.
We stood on the bridge for a few moments to enjoy the ambiance. Cruise boats puttered below us, showing their passengers the best of the city from water level. Knowing that a canal tour is one of the best things to do in Amsterdam, we stopped at a nearby kiosk and bought tickets for a 2:00 pm tour.
We enjoyed strolling through Max Euweplein next. The square was full of cyclists, pedestrians, and a couple of people playing a life-sized chess game
Tip: When it comes to canal cruises, Amsterdam has a boatload of options, from hop-on-hop-off to dinner cruises to Amsterdam by night. Click here for examples.
4. Lunch at a brown cafe – with Indonesian food!
Bruine (brown) cafés are to Amsterdam what pubs are to London. They are as much a part of the city's charm as its canals, architecture, and its other famous sights.
Not far from We found At Leidseplein, we stopped for a bite at Café Reynders, a traditional Dutch brown café. Founded in 1880, Reynders café 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 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.
On a side note, Dutch mayo tastes different than what we have in the U.S.
Although it hails from Malaysia and Indonesia, chicken satay is a favorite 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 a savory, peanut satay sauce. (Omigosh … where has THAT been all my life?)
5. Take the Amsterdam canal cruise
With happy mouths, we walked back to take our canal tour and see Amsterdam from the water. (Read our Amsterdam cruise story here.)
Amsterdam is full of canals, which is why a canal cruise is an ideal way to see the city: Wealthy merchants dug more than one hundred kilometers 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 Amsterdam 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. Photos in 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. Admire 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. Experience history at 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 enlightening.
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. if you’re willing to 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 hopped on a tram. 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 one of the best attractions in Amsterdam.
10. Have a traditionally Dutch snack at Rembrandtplein
We alit at Rembrandtplein, where Farieda had recommended that we eat at Café l'Opera. She even told us what we should order: Bittergarnituur. This is a plate of Dutch appetizers, including bitterballen and kroketten. No regrets for following her advice. 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, more time to explore Amsterdam!
Tip: Learn how to make bitterballen and kroketten and you’ll be able to use up leftovers as Dutch housewives traditionally do.
11. Be amazed by 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. Walk through Amsterdam's Red Light District
With its in-your-face prostitution and coffee shops, 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 if you don’t feel comfortable walking around at night on your own, you can always join a guided tour like this one. Or, if you have walked off the appetizers you had at l’Opera, you can opt for an even more creative experience with this Private Red Light District and food tour.
As intriguing as the “window shopping” might be, the Red Light District has more to offer than that. Raise your eyes above the windows while you’re walking arounl. This is a beautiful area in its own right, full of 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. End you day with Amsterdam canals at night
Amsterdam’s nighttime splendor isn’t limited to the neon lights in the Red Light District or at the Amsterdam nightlife spots. The city’s houses and bridges are beautifully lit after dark. Use your remaining energy to enjoy a canal cruise or stroll across Amsterdam’s many bridges on your way back to your hotel. It’s a magical way to end your day in Amsterdam.
Where to stay
If you think one day in Amsterdam won't be enough, the city offers a variety of lodging options, everything from hostels to hotels to staying in a local home. (Check HotelsCombined for all your choices.) You can even sleep in a houseboat on a canal if you want. How fun does THAT sound?!
We have stayed at both the Bilderberg Garden Hotel (in a residential area of Amsterdam) and at the more central Hotel Renaissance Amsterdam mere blocks from Centraal train station). We were pleased with both, and both were conveniently near a tram stop.
Related books on Amazon
- National Geographic Walking Amsterdam: The Best of the City
- Lonely Planet Amsterdam (Travel Guide)
- Rick Steves' Pocket Amsterdam
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