Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities in the world. I love its brick buildings, open skyline, rich history, and relaxed, easy going attitude towards life. Over the years, I’ve visited Amsterdam more times than I can count (I’m bad at math) and have spent countless hours walking the city, making friends with locals, and getting under its skin.
Amsterdam has so much to do that, even after so many visits, I still find new things to do and see. The city deserves more than just the few (and often smoke filled) days travelers give it, but if a few days is all you have and you want to make the most of it, this is the itinerary I would give to someone looking to get a good overview and feel for what makes Amsterdam so special:
Free walking tour
A great way to orient yourself to the city is with a walking tour. You’ll learn some history, find out where the major sites are, and explore all those winding canals. Free walking tours are a wonderful first activity in any city. I recommend the free New Europe walking tour. It covers a lot of ground and gives you a general overview of the city and landmarks. The tour meets in the main square and lasts about 2-3 hours. (Be sure to tip your guide though!)
Amsterdam is a city tied to the water – it grew around its canals and the taming of the Amstel River. The canals of Amsterdam are incredibly beautiful, and there’s nothing like seeing the city from a boat. Skip the big canal boat tours you see around the city — they’re overpriced. You can often hire a private boat tour for about 20 Euros an hour (look for guides around the Red Light District). Moreover, you can also take the open-air Canal Hopper Small Boat. This is the company I use when I run group tours to the city — the boats are small, the tours more intimate, and your driver will give you a good personalized tour. The tours last about an hour.
Van Gogh Museum
This may be one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, but don’t let the crowds deter you. The museum features many of Van Gogh’s best works of art alongside an excellent biography of his life and is laid out in chronological order, starting with his earliest works. Though not a huge museum, I can spend hours just staring at the paintings as Van Gogh is one of my favorite painters. The museums also has paintings by other famous artists of the period, like Monet, Manet, and Matisse. Try to come late in the late afternoon when the crowds subside.
The Rijksmuseum is located right next to the Van Gogh Museum, and after years of renovation, it’s now beautifully remodeled. The museum still features an extensive Rembrandt collection, and you’ll be able to see the famous painting “The Night Watch.” Besides Rembrandt, there’s also an incredible and robust collection of other classic Dutch painters, like Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. Over one million works of art, craftworks, and historical objects are kept in the collection, and around 8,000 objects are on display in the museum so be sure to budget a few hours!
Anne Frank House
In all honesty, I don’t like this place. I found it to be anticlimactic. You basically do a slow walk through the house as the crowds pack the place. You don’t get to let everything soak in as you’re being pushed from behind by the endless crowds. It’s maddening! But, if you don’t mind waiting in line and you’re curious about Anne (I think the Jewish History Museum does a more thorough job of relating the events in Anne Frank’s life to the Holocaust), it might be worth the visit for you. You can book tickets online up to two months in advance, which lets you skip the line. If you don’t do this, get there very early in the morning to avoid the long queue that develops over the course of the day!