Our three days in Amsterdam, the Netherlands became a whirlwind tour, mostly because, in truth, we had only two-and-a-half days. Plus, we cheated a bit by taking a tour outside of the city. No matter. Our jam-packed itinerary gave us plenty to do and see. I’m amazed by how much we managed to fit into a short period of time.
Best museum: the Rijksmuseum
Best restaurant for foodies: Rijks
Most surprising: the speed and danger of the cyclists whirring down the streets
Favorite out-of-Amsterdam stop: Edam
Most disappointing: The Heineken Experience
Instead of earth, wind, and fire, Amsterdam’s elements are flowers, cheese, and canals. Plus 880,000 bicycles speeding down the streets. Even well beyond tulip season in August, window boxes overflow with petunias and other colorful blooms, and the flower market is a riot of silk flowers and bulbs. Cheese shops stock wheels of wax-covered Edam and Gouda. And the network of canals, laid out in concentric half-circles, seem to outnumber streets. We learned to count canal crossings to find our way.
Things to Know in Advance
Before you leave home, buy tickets online for the museums and anything else you really want to see. You can then tailor your itinerary around the times and events you book. Because the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House require advance purchase tickets — you cannot buy tickets at the door — start with those. Other online tickets, while not required, allow you to skip the lines. On our trip, we booked almost everything in advance, from museums to tours to concert tickets to an evening canal ride. Timing was tight at times, but we made everything, sometimes with only seconds to spare.
We found that we could fit the following into our three days in Amsterdam while still allowing us time to walk about the city, enjoy some fine meals, and to pick up a few souvenirs. With a limited time, choose in advance the best things to do in Amsterdam that suit your interests.
Van Gogh Museum
After we checked into our eclectic hotel, the Hotel Esteréa, we headed to the Van Gogh Museum for our timed entry. Along the way, we peered into store windows, snapped some photos, and learned to be exceedingly careful about the speeding bicycles.
The museum houses the world’s largest collection of paintings and drawings by Vincent Van Gogh, with a few works by others who inspired him. You cannot take photographs of any kind once inside. That allows you to soak in the visuals. To learn about the artist and his life, make sure you read all the signs. I found them informative and even at times surprising.
Because we are both readers and art lovers, we could have used a full two hours there. Unfortunately, we only had an hour-and-a-half due to an early dinner reservation at the nearby De Knip. Plan on at least 90 minutes to view this museum. Most visitors agree that this is one of the best things to do in Amsterdam, and you don’t want to rush it.
My husband adores classical music, so he bought us tickets to a Ravel, Debussy, and Saint-Saens concert at the famed Concertgebouw. Even if you don’t want to see a concert, the interior is so gorgeous that it’s worth booking a tour of the building.
Outside the building, a rock concert on the green expanse between the Concertgebouw and the Rijksmuseum drew crowds, so you can always find another type of music. Check the events in the city for evening events.
Tour Outside of Amsterdam
While we could find plenty to do in the city, we wanted a taste of the Netherlands outside Amsterdam. We booked a tour that took us to Zaanse Schans, Edam, Volendam, and Marken, collectively known as the Waterlands. A word of warning: don’t trust the stated duration of this tour. At each stop, people mozy back to the tour bus on their own time, holding everything up. Even worse, the tour bus leaves you off across the Amstel River from where you began. The ferry back to the starting point is free, but it takes time. We had to sprint across the city to make our Anne Frank House tour despite our supposed 90-minute buffer.
Zaanse Schans: Windmills
We really didn’t want to leave the Netherlands without seeing traditional windmills. Wind turbine farms just aren’t the same. Our first stop on the tour was to Zaanse Schans, a manufactured “town” where a series of real windmills have been relocated for tourist viewing.
We didn’t have enough time to walk out to the windmills and poke around in the shops and food stalls, so we chose the windmills. You can walk to the farthest one on an even footpath.
I loved, loved, loved Edam, a quaint canal town known for its cheese. Our tour guide walked us through the quiet streets while giving us a history of the town. Once a busy shipyard and port, the village was cut off from the sea in the 16th century by a dam. According to our guide, this enormous loss to the village led to a special tax-free status for its market. Now, the town subsists on tourism and, of course, cheese.
Make sure you stop to appreciate the reflections of old buildings in the canals and to listen to the carillon coming from the tower of the “small church.”
Cheese Tasting and Wooden Clog Making
If you’ve ever been on a tour, you know that they herd you into at least one cultural exhibition and gift shop. Here, the information about cheese making was mildly interesting, with the clog-making demonstration more unique. You can even have wooden clogs carved on the spot to fit your foot. But the cheese! After the clog-making demonstration, you exit into the gift shop and its cheese samples lining the area around the wares. Although the Netherlands makes other kinds of cheeses, you’ll see only edam and gouda in either their pure form or with flavorings. Since we are fans of aged gouda and also did not trust the legality of bringing it into the U.S., we bought a chunk to enjoy in our hotel room. Later, back in Amsterdam, we purchased a loaf of spelt bread to eat with it.
We arrived in bustling Volendam around lunch time. Located on the largest fresh water lake in Europe, it felt like a typical beach town. Here, the tour allotted us only 40 minutes, not enough time to eat in a proper restaurant but plenty of time to hit up a food truck for kibbeling, a traditional Dutch street food. The fried fish pieces tasted fresh and not greasy. Of course, we also grabbed a still-warm stroopwafel from Woltje’s Backerij diagonally across the street.
Our last stop on the tour brought us to another lake town, Marken, known for its wooden buildings and lake harbor. Once an island, Marken now connects to the mainland via a permanent dam on top of which they built a road. We loved seeing the marina and strolling through the quiet streets. Other than those, you won’t find much to do in this village of roughly 2,000 residents.
Back in Amsterdam . . .
The free ferry from one side of the river to the other leaves every fifteen minutes. Luckily, we caught one just before it left. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to complete our cross-town sprint to our next event.
Anne Frank House
Three days in Amsterdam wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the sobering Anne Frank House. We bought tickets that included the introductory lecture and admission into the house itself. I highly recommend the talk, as our guide provided excellent context to what we were about to see. Even if you’ve read The Diary of Anne Frank, as we had, the 30-minute talk goes beyond it to describe the events in Europe as the backdrop to the Frank family’s history. Although the talk did not whitewash the truth, it was appropriate for children old enough to know about the Holocaust.
The “house” is the building where Otto Frank once conducted his business and where, in the “secret annex,” the Frank family and others hid. The tour here is self-guided, with artifacts and descriptive signs to view. The bookcase behind which the Franks hid still remains. At the end, you’ll have the chance to see the actual diary (second version, when Anne decided to clean up her first for publication) written in the author’s hand.
Timed tickets must be purchased in advance, whether you choose to add the introductory lecture or not. The staff takes these times seriously. We arrived out of breath 30 seconds before the talk, and we just made it inside before the docent closed the door.
Known in English as The Flower Market, Bloemenmarkt is a famous series of stalls along the Singel Canal. Although it has become more of a tourist destination than a florist’s dream, it’s still worth a visit. You’ll find silk and wooden tulips, bulbs of many kinds, and a few trinkets. Expect to spend 30-minutes tops perusing the stalls. If you plan to purchase bulbs to take back to the United States, make sure they are packaged for export into the country. Customs regulations are strict, and you must declare them upon reentry.
The Rijksmuseum houses important art created by artists who once called the Netherlands home. From medieval religious art to Rembrant to Van Gogh, the collection seems to go on forever. The most famous attraction is Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Unfortunately, it was being scanned for restoration when we visited, and that meant that part of the painting was blocked off.
Expect to spend a minimum of two hours here. Even then, you won’t be able to see it all unless you breeze through some galleries.
Note to foodies: the associated Michelin-starred restaurant Rijks is excellent for lunch or dinner. We ate lunch there, and ordered the tasting menu for our best meal of the trip.
The Heineken Experience
When researching the trip, I encountered many sources, including a Lonely Planet guide, that suggested a stop at the Heineken Experience. We hesitated, but because our visit to Guinness in Dublin had fascinated us, we hoped for more of the same here. Nope. This stop ended up being our only misstep of the trip. We shuffled into the exhibit with probably 50 other people. Instead of having a tour guide, we stopped by stations where an employee described the beer making process. Sometimes, the talk began before all of us were present in the room.
The “experience” part of the trip sounds like an amusement park ride but fell decidedly short of that. All you do is stand on metal platforms that vibrate while you watch a video of beer or green bottles on all sides of the room.
After the “experience” you walk through a series of game rooms where you can stop to play foosball or something else. You end up in the tasting room to get your two free beers (you get a smaller beer when you leave the vibrating platforms) in a large and crowded room with amped up music and colored lights. If you are in your 20’s or early 30’s and still into the rowdy pub scene, then you may love it. We would have rather just had a couple of beers in a real Amsterdam pub or bar.
Evening Cruise on the Canals
The weather during our three days in Amsterdam was surprisingly warm and without rain; however, we couldn’t anticipate that when we booked a canal cruise for our last evening in the city. We booked a Blue Boat cruise that used a boat that could be covered if necessary. If you want to take a chance, you can either book an open boat for better photos or get your ticket the day of. Be forewarned: evening cruises tend to sell out in advance, particularly for the smaller boats. When we looked, day cruises were much more available.
We loved this way of enjoying our last night after our three days in Amsterdam. Although the city isn’t aglow in lights the way other major cities are, you can peer inside homes and buildings due to their illuminated interiors. Otherwise, I never would have seen the elaborate chandelier hanging inside a houseboat. Our cruise motored by the Red Light District, the National Opera & Ballet building, the view of the 15 bridges, the Dancing Houses (tilted every which way), and other sights.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the delightfully eclectic Hotel Estheréa, right on a canal, but we mulled over several good options in different areas of the city. If you want a quiet room, choose a hotel on a canal since the streets lining the waterways tend to be narrow and not terribly busy. You can even splurge on a canal view for a glimpse of classic Amsterdam.
Where to Eat
Our best meal by far was at Rijks, the Michelin-starred restaurant attached to the Rijksmuseum, followed by Restaurant d’Vijff Vlieghen (“the Five Flies”) and De Knijp. See my separate blog on where to eat in Amsterdam for more information.
Because I had never visited Amsterdam or the Netherlands before, I enjoyed getting out of the city for part of one day to see the countryside. That said, three days in Amsterdam — actually in Amsterdam — would have opened up other possibilities such as the Stedelijk Museum, spending more time poking around the Jordaan, shopping, and even seeing the Red Light District on foot. I have no regrets, however, with our itinerary with the exception of the Heineken Experience.
The miracle of the trip? We survived Amsterdam without a serious accident with a cyclist.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann