I’m fortunate to have many friends and family who live in London. For many years it served as a jumping-off point for our Europe travels. We were able to fly cheap budget airlines out of London to France, Spain and Italy. But Amsterdam seemed so close that we always eschewed it for a more exotic destination. So when we recently planned a quick trip to London and wanted to include a short side trip, Amsterdam turned out to be the perfect 48-hour destination.
A brief outline
Amsterdam is made up of a series of canals that make up semi-circles, with the center of the circle being the portion of the city referred to as Centrum. There are trams, buses and ferries that run through the city, but it’s extremely walkable. The distance from the center where the central train station is located to the outer Singelgracht canal is only about 1.5 miles. But note that the cobblestone streets, while pretty, aren’t kind to the feet. Wear supportive footwear!
How much time you spend in Amsterdam on your first trip is entirely up to you. Our recommendations can comfortably be completed in two days, but they can also serve as a foundation to build a more robust vacation on. Here is our list of things you shouldn’t miss on your first visit:
Do a canal tour
If you’re wary that this sounds like a terribly touristy activity, you’re right. But even though Amsterdam is a city that is best enjoyed on foot, a canal tour is a necessary supplement. Why? The canal ring of Amsterdam inside the Singelgracht is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because “it is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, town planning, and a rational programme of construction and bourgeois architecture”. We took a basic one-hour tour that gave us a brief history of the city and pointed out significant buildings from the water. We were also able to enjoy views only accessible from the canal.
Many reputable tour operators are located right outside of the Amsterdam Centraal station, such as Lovers and Stromma. Tours operate frequently, and much of it is available as an audio guide in multiple languages. There are also niche operators that offer longer, more customized experiences. If you decide to do that, just be sure to check ratings and reviews ahead of time.
Pro Tip: In colder weather many boats are heated, but windows can still be opened. If you’d like a clear view for photographs, be sure to grab a window seat. If temperatures are mild, some boats have an uncovered section in the back for unobstructed 360-degree views.
Go up the A’DAM Lookout
Walk all the way through the Amsterdam Centraal station to get to the GVB ferry quay. Jump on the free Buiksloterweg ferry which will take you across the IJ in 3 minutes. When you get off, head to the A’DAM hotel. There is an entrance for the Lookout, which requires an entry fee. A basic fee allows access to the top, with options to upgrade the experience as desired.
There’s an indoor lounge at the top, so if you’re interested in resting your feet for a few minutes, you could do worse than enjoying a drink while you take in the view. On the outdoor rooftop, Over The Edge allows you to swing off the side of the 20-story building (though just the thought of this gives me heart palpitations!). If you want some cheesy photographs with views of the city super-imposed onto the background, those are available for a fee. The ride up and down the elevator includes a light show. But all gimmicks aside, the views from the A’DAM Lookout are simply unparalleled. It’s well worth the visit just for that.
Pro Tip: If you can spare the time, the futuristic building next to the A’DAM Hotel is the EYE Film Institute, which is the national museum for film. Its collection represents an outstanding sample of film history, from classics and blockbusters to cult films.
Visit the world-class museums
Amsterdam is home to several spectacular museums. If you’re anything like us, you could get lost in museums for days on end, so if you’re strapped for time you might need to choose wisely. At the top of the list should be Anne Frank House. I have a small confession: we almost passed on this completely. The subject is never easy to digest, and we were clinging to our special experience at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Thankfully, my sister-in-law pushed for us to include it, and we’ll do the same here. It’s a gut-wrenching experience, but one that’s entirely unique and special.
The Van Gogh Museum is also high on our list, because it captures the artist’s life in such a personal way. Rijkmuseum houses amazing works by the Dutch masters and is housed in a stunning building with both gothic and renaissance elements. If you’re not sure where to start, Rijkmuseum sorts its collection by century, and does a wonderful job of highlighting key pieces in their visitor guide. Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum are both located on Museumplein, where you’ll find other great museums like the Stedelijk and Moco Museums for modern and contemporary Art.
Pro Tip: If you’re visiting more than three museums on your trip, check out the Museumkaart option. You can buy it at any of the participating museums and use it immediately for entry. It’s good for 30 days, so it’s also a great savings if you’d like to make repeat visits.
Enjoy Indonesian food
Amsterdam is a pretty cosmopolitan city, but there’s a special relationship between Indonesia and the Netherlands. Indonesia is the largest former Dutch colony, with Dutch control and influence exerted there from 1602 to 1949. Because the two are intrinsically tied, there is a large Indonesian presence in Amsterdam. Which means you can find authentic Indonesian food here. If you are new to the cuisine, try the Rijstaffel, which serves as an Indonesian food “sampler” of sorts. Indonesian food, similar to Malaysian food, centers around rice. Rijstaffel offers a selection of small dishes to accompany the rice, and the options will vary from place to place.
If you’re familiar with the cuisine, then feel free to order a la carte based on your preferences. We tried Sampurna, which offers a more elegant and familiar culinary experience. But we also thoroughly enjoyed Sari Citra, where you make a selection from pre-prepared dishes behind a glass case (this is common in Asia). The food you select is warmed up and paid for by weight.
Sample local delicacies
The Dutch love their bread and cheese, which is enough to endear them to us. But there are a number of Dutch specialties that we also sampled, and dare I say, fell in love with. At the top of our list is Stroopwafel, made up of two thin waffles with a special sweet and sticky syrup (the ‘stroop’) sandwiched in between. While you can find varieties all over Amsterdam, the undisputed best can be found at a food stand in Albert Cuypmarket: Original Stroopwafels. If you choose the chocolate version (and why wouldn’t you?), only half is covered in chocolate. Eat towards the chocolate. #lifehacks #yourewelcome
We also thoroughly enjoyed poffertjes, which are essentially fluffy baby pancakes. How could we say no? The original version is served with powdered sugar, but there are many varieties of toppings available. We enjoyed ours at De Vier Pilaren, a well-known local spot. But as long as you’re getting them fresh, I don’t think you can go wrong with these. Other local specialties include bitterballen (savory meat-based balls deep fried and traditionally served with mustard), kroket (a deep fried roll with meat ragout inside, covered in breadcrumbs) and Haring or Hollandse Nieuwe (raw herring served with chopped raw onions and gherkins).
We’re already thinking about when we can go back. Have you been to Amsterdam? We’d love to hear your favorite memories!
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