As a European travel destination, Amsterdam doesn’t get the respect it deserves. You often hear the stereotypes: hookers on display in the red light district, or cannabis in the “coffeeshops.” But there is so much more to experience in this livable and friendly city.
So here’s my three-day itinerary for spring break in Amsterdam. Click on the links to learn more or see my Trip Advisor reviews of the places mentioned.
Your Home Base
I wanted to stay in the historic Jordaan area where hotel rooms are tiny and expensive. An apartment on the Bloemgracht provided a more affordable option for our family of three. This charming “flower canal” street is residential and quiet, except for the booming bells from the nearby West Church. Everything we needed was close by: grocery store, specialty wine and cheese shops, fun bars and restaurants. All the major tourist attractions were within 20 minutes walking distance and the Anne Frank house was a block away. Our rental is no longer available, but you can find a similar one by searching on Trip Advisor.
When searching online, be aware that these canal houses can be oddly laid out with steep, narrow staircases. This one involved only one flight of steps outside and a few more steps inside the front door. We picked up the keys from Vivian, an Amsterdam native who took time to share a list of favorite restaurants, like Cafe de Klepel. This wine bar with great food was fully booked with happy locals, but they welcomed us to sit at the bar. This meal was the perfect start to our trip.
We saved time and money by purchasing the “large” version of the Holland Pass for 82 euros each. It includes three gold tickets, three silver tickets and a transportation ticket for either a canal cruise or the tacky “hop-on hop off” bus. Only one of the gold tickets can be used for the Rijksmuseum (17.50 admission) and it allows you to skip the ticket line.
We used another gold ticket for the Van Gogh Museum (17.00 saving and a shorter line for pass holders) and combined the third with a silver ticket for a 50-euro trip to the Keukenhof tulip gardens. At this point the pass had paid for itself, so in effect the canal cruise and silver-ticket admission to “Our Lord in the Attic” were free! Plus, we purchased online in advance to take advantage of free train tickets from Schiphol Airport to the city center, which we downloaded in advance.
We had a silver ticket left over and never found a reason to use the included discount card. Technically, the pass is good for a month throughout Holland and there are lots of other options to explore in the handy guidebook. It takes some hunting in the vast airport arrivals area to find the pickup point for Holland Pass but it’s worth it. Be aware that this does NOT include the Anne Frank house. More on that later. You are ready to hit the streets!
We are early risers who believe in beating the tour-bus and school-group crowds to the major attractions. After coffee and croissants in the apartment (we grocery shopped the night before), it was off to the Rijksmuseum, a brisk 20-minute hike along the Prinsengracht Canal. Not only did we skip the ticket line, we were able to get into the Hall of Fame to see Rembrandt’s masterwork “The Night Watch” before it got too crowded with selfie-takers. Although this is one of Europe’s great museums, it’s delightfully accessible to the art novice and you don’t need to do the audio tour. Pick up the explanatory cards that point out the features of most of the noteworthy artworks. You’ll feel like an expert. Allow a full morning.
Museum-going can tough on the mind and the feet, We were ready to sit down for savory crepes at the Pancake Bakery, followed by our canal cruise. The departure point was in the next block. We were blessed with warm, dry spring weather for the entire trip.
Later, after a brief rest stop at the apartment, we walked the red light district with our college-age son as the sun went down. My husband’s appetite was definitely aroused, not by the women in the windows, but by the array of sweets on offer in countless storefronts. We had to stop for Nutella waffles! Although I’m troubled by the human-trafficking aspects of legal prostitution and don’t do pot, the neighborhood had the energy of an adult theme park and didn’t feel quite as sleazy as I had feared. We also passed by the departure point for the Keukenhof tour and made a reservation for the following day — essential.
Up early for apartment breakfast and the walk to the departure point for Keukenhof. We were a bit too early in April to see the gardens in full bloom, but greenhouses provided a wealth of photo opportunities. Again, taking the morning bus means you will be able to get better pictures before it gets too crowded. During the hourlong bus ride, the tour guide explained the historical data in English, German and Spanish, then left us on our own to wander the flower gardens for about three hours. Plenty of time.
We were back in Amsterdam in time for a late lunch at the Central Library. The self-serve cafeteria on the 7th floor offers organic, fresh-made options for a reasonable price. Highlights: the french fries and the view from the terrace. Refueled, we made our way back toward the St. Nicholas Church, and on to “Our Lord in the Attic.” This little gem of a museum on the edge of the red light district recalls the days when Catholics could not openly practice their religion in this Protestant city.
It’s another early wake-up call for your date with Vincent Van Gogh. Plan to be in the shorter Holland Pass line when the museum opens at 9am, or you’ll have to wait. In contrast to the broad sweep of the Rijksmuseum, this is a deep dive into the talented and troubled soul of one artist. On the ground floor, you meet his self-portraits at eye level. The no-photograph rule is strictly enforced, which is understandable given the crowds who would no doubt be jostling for selfies with the sunflowers if cameras were allowed. Familiar and less famous works are displayed alongside art that inspired Vincent and his colleagues in Holland and France. Outside on the Museumplein, don’t miss the photo opportunity at the iconic iamsterdam sign.
Back to Jordaan for lunch. The Cafe de Oude Wester, across the canal from the church on a busy corner, is a casual stop for a pancake or a pizza, a cold beer and some people-watching. The line for the Anne Frank house winds around the church, and we’re told the wait time can be two hours. Fortunately, we visited the web site TWO MONTHS before our visit and grabbed the last three tickets for the days we were in Amsterdam.
With our printed online tickets in hand, we walked past the line and reported to a special door at our appointed time. While climbing up and down the stairs and shuffling through the dark rooms where the family was in hiding, you hear the voice of the girl who wrote the diary. Small wonder that Van Gogh and Anne Frank museums draw the biggest lines: each has a personal story that visitors want to experience up close. (If you do end up waiting in line, have a copy of the Diary of Anne Frank or her short stories to read on your Kindle.)
At the end of this emotional one-two punch, you’ll be ready for a relaxing beer! Head down the Prinsengracht to P 96, a friendly bar that has a canal barge tethered outside. They can’t serve you on the barge, so walk inside the bar, order your drinks and bring them out. Watch the sun set behind West Church as you soak up the hip and festive atmosphere.
On our way out of town, we discovered an awesome breakfast place, Broodje Mokum, just around the corner from our apartment. They open early for omelets and a “real Dutch breakfast,” served with a smile at a bargain price.
We never worked up the nerve to try Amerstdam by bicycle. Locals drive their bikes like people in my home town of Los Angeles drive cars. It’s competitive and they probably can do without clueless tourists clogging the fast lane. The plus for visitors is that the air is clear of the diesel fumes you find in many European capitals. You share the streets with trams, bikes, other pedestrians and occasionally a car. English is widely spoken. And I’m glad they’re into the whole sustainability thing because Amsterdam will be there for me when I am lucky enough to return.
Hat Tip: This article on Trip Advisor helped me plan this itinerary.