Tips for Taking a Short Break in Amsterdam
Tranquil canals with waters reflecting beautiful old merchant's houses, world-class museums and galleries, an easy-going atmosphere, great places to eat and drink, and bicycle-friendly streets. These are just a few of the reasons Amsterdam is one of our favourite European city-break destinations.
Amsterdam has countless museums and galleries devoted to all sorts of subjects. The most visited include the Rijksmuseum for artworks by grand masters, the bath-shaped Stedelijk Museum for modern and contemporary art, the Anne Frank House, and the Van Gogh Museum. You can also see inside one of the most stunning buildings in the city, the 17th-century Royal Palace Amsterdam, King Willem-Alexander’s official reception palace — then head to the adjacent Dam Square for great photos of the exterior. These attractions are always popular, so try to buy tickets in advance and be prepared to queue to get in, even if you already have tickets.
Amsterdam has lots of markets, selling flowers, antiques, food, and much more, to peruse. Our favourites include the city's oldest flea market at Waterlooplein in the old Jewish Quarter (Jodenbuurt) — it's a great place for browsing bric-a-brac. The Amsterdam Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt), the world's only floating flower market, is a kaleidoscope of colour and a profusion of scents whatever the season. It's on the south side of the Singel canal.
Of all the cities given the nickname of the Venice of the North, few deserve the title as much as Amsterdam. Its pretty canal network dates back more than four centuries, and its original ring of canals comprises a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To get a different perspective of the city, take one of the many boat tours, or you can take a hop-on, hop-off canal bus. Along the way, look out for landmarks like Amsterdam's narrowest house, which is by the Singel canal. These waterways are even more magical at night, when the pretty little bridges are illuminated by fairy lights. You could even rent a pedalo and take a tour under your own steam, or hop aboard the free ferry across the IJ River to the Amsterdam Noord district.
Snacks on the go
A busy weekend in Amsterdam will undoubtedly make you hungry. For a wide range of snack options, head to Foodhallen in Amsterdam Oud West, which has many street food stalls serving cuisine from around the world. Elsewhere, we love Coffee and Coconuts, which is set in an Art Deco cinema building not far from the Museumskwartier. You can chill out on the mezzanine level and tuck into a great selection of breakfasts, brunches, and lunches. Another good way to take some time out from sightseeing is to park yourself in a bar (or outside if the weather's nice) and order a beer along with some delicious deep-fried Dutch snacks such as bitterballen and kroketten.
Vondelpark is the largest of central Amsterdam's many parks, and it's a great place to take a stroll and have a picnic on the grass or beside one of the ponds. In summer, there are concerts at the park's open-air theatre and the bandstand. Vondelpark is a short walk from the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, and you can also reach the park by taking a stroll along the Singel canal.
See the Red Light District... by day
Amsterdam Red Light District, also known as De Wallen, is a historic and pretty area of narrow cobbled streets, old houses, and tree-lined canals. Landmarks include the Gothic 13th-century Oude Kerk (Old Church), plus there are many waterside cafés, and it's a pleasant area to explore in daylight hours. At night the area changes completely, though, when it becomes much more touristy, crowded, and seedy.
The Netherlands is famous for its tulips, and there's no shortage of them at the Keukenhof gardens near Lisse. Only open from mid-March to mid-May each year, Keukenhof is home to more than seven million bulbs, and the displays are absolutely stunning. The gardens are 30 minutes by bus from central Amsterdam, but there are plenty of other places closer to town. During the Tulip Festival, museums, public buildings, and private homes sow more than half a million bulbs, so spring is a great time to cycle or walk around the city. At any time of year, the 4000 plant species of the Botanical Garden (De Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam) help create a beautiful environment. You can find our tips on what to do in Amsterdam in summer here.
Hire a bike
Amsterdam is one of the most cycle-friendly cities in the world, and it's home to more bikes than people. There are plenty of cycle lanes (with dedicated traffic lights), the city is flat, and it's easy to find shops where you can rent a bike, so there's no need to take public transport or drive round looking for car parking spaces. To get to know Amsterdam better, you could take an organised cycle tour of the city, or just do your own thing.
Amsterdam may be best known among beer drinkers for brands like Heineken (production actually takes place 40 kilometres away, but the old brewery is now the Heineken Experience), but there are many microbreweries and brew pubs you can visit. One of our favourites is the IJ Brewery, which produces a wide range of beers, and is right next to an old windmill called De Gooyer — it's the tallest wooden mill in the country. (Maybe keep the drinking to a minimum or skip the bike when you're finished at this one!)
One of the most atmospheric areas of Amsterdam is the former working-class neighbourhood of Jordaan. Today it's home to galleries, restaurants, vintage and antique stores, and historic brown cafés (similar to local pubs). It's also home the Noordermarkt market, tree-lined canals, and the Anne Frank House.
The Nine Streets
The pretty area known as De Negen Straatjes (The Nine Streets) is between the Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht canals. It's a great place to go shopping; its streets are full of designer boutiques, vintage stores, galleries, and gift shops, plus there are plenty of cafés, bars, and restaurants.
This huge park, just south of the city, is a wonderful place for visitors of all ages. Its 10 square kilometres are home to an outdoor theatre, a goat farm, meadows, forests, swimming ponds, and canoe, kayak, and bicycle hire. There are also a few cafés, including a nice crêperie. It's easy to reach Amsterdamse Bos — the park is less than 20 minutes by bus or bike from the Museumskwartier.
Just north of Amsterdam is Zaanse Schans, a traditional Dutch village complete with windmills, barns, and old houses, plus museums that tell the story of the surrounding Zaanstreek region's 18th- to 19th-century industrial heritage — this included weaving, barrel making, shipbuilding, and agriculture (many of the buildings you'll see were relocated from across the region). It's a very scenic spot, and rather than just being a visitor attraction, Zaanse Schans is also a residential area. Spend as much time eating cheese at the shops and wandering the fascinating houses on both sides of the bridge. You can get there by train in 40 minutes from Amsterdam Centraal, or an hour by bike.
Taxis can be expensive in Amsterdam, but public transport, including trams, the Metro, and buses are reliable, and you can buy unlimited-use travel cards to get the best value on multiple trips. It's easy to get to the city centre from Schiphol Airport — trains run every few minutes direct to Amsterdam Centraal Station, and cost 4.60€ each way. Bus 397 to the city centre takes about 40 minutes, costs around 3.50€, and departs from the airport every eight minutes. Taxis cost around 40€. Within the city itself you're covered by so many different options you'll never feel stranded. it's easy to buy tickets from some of the stops or ask in a local shop.
Take the train, not the plane
If you’d prefer a more relaxed journey, consider travelling to Amsterdam by rail. Eurostar has direct services from London's St Pancras International to Amsterdam, which take four hours. Even if you're travelling from outside London, when you factor in the time spent getting to and from the airport, plus check-in times, the overall journey will be smoother and is likely to take less time than flying. Plus, all the luggage (and goodies to bring home) you can carry!
Read more tips for Amsterdam on our Instant Expert series, and find out when the best time to go to Amsterdam is. You can find out more at the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions official site, the official visitor information from amsterdam&partners site, and the Amsterdam public transport website.
Find out why Amsterdam is one of our top picks for places to go in April.
Laura Summers, Nick Elvin, and Giorgio Petti contributed to this post.