Don’t make the mistake of summing up the destination of Amsterdam as a city of tulips, cheese, and bicycles, alone. There is so much more to this iconic European city, packed with layers upon layers of beautiful sites to see. As the capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam has a reputation that tends to precede itself. Most people know that it’s quaint and friendly, but few know how dynamic this city really is.
History of Amsterdam
The capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam exudes a warmth and charm that is uniquely Dutch. In many ways, it is the ideal city, offering a combination of historic sites and modern amenities that’s difficult to replicate anywhere else. You can see your fair share of Amsterdam if you plan to stay a couple of days before or after your cruise.
The city is probably best known for its beautiful canals, tall narrow buildings, and numerous squares, coffee houses, trendy restaurants and museums. The city also boasts one of the most impressive collections of heritage buildings – more than 7,000 – of any European city and remains largely unchanged since the 1800s.
Amsterdam is also recognized for its tolerant attitudes. Prostitution is a legalized, regulated industry here, and if you choose to wander around the Old City Center, chances are you will run into the city’s Red Light District at some point.
Marijuana, while not strictly legal, is tolerated here, and has given rise to numerous coffeeshops. Not to be mistaken for cafes or coffee houses serving up caffeinated beverages, these coffeeshops serve up cannabis for those who wish to partake. All of these are regulated to some degree, so don’t expect to see people stumbling around in a stupor. Professional shops take their wares – and their consumption – seriously.
Tolerance, however, is arguably one of the most attractive features of this fascinating city. Amsterdam is a family-friendly destination, despite some of the “seedier sides,” which can be easily avoided, that are part of the unique and diverse culture.
Since Amsterdam is a major embarkation port for river cruises, chances are you may be spending some extra time in this lovely city pre-or-post cruise.
Where To Stay in Amsterdam
The city caters to all budget types, but if you’re looking for something more luxurious, here are some of the best hotels in Amsterdam:
- The Pulitzer Amsterdam — found in the heart of central Amsterdam, near the Prinsengracht
- Hotel Okura Amsterdam — also in the heart of Amsterdam, less than 2km from the Rijksmuseum
- De L’Europe Amsterdam — overlooking the Amstel River, this hotel is also centralized, and 1.6 km from the popular shopping area on P.C. Hooftstraat
- Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam — set along the iconic Herengracht, this hotel is just a short walk from Dam square
Where you choose to stay in Amsterdam largely depends on your budget. If you’re interested in more budget-friendly options, you want to consider Yays! It’s an apartment rental company that offers hundreds of apartment options throughout the city at reasonable rates.
Your River Cruise Ship Docks …
While some river cruise vessels tie up at the large Amsterdam Passenger Terminal utilized by larger cruise ships, many will dock closer to the city center, at Westerdoksdijks (Western Docks), Oosterdoksdijks, (Eastern Docks), or along De Ruyterkade. In all cases, many of Amsterdam’s key attractions are just a stone’s throw away.
Where To Dine in Amsterdam
The city is host to a plethora of incredible restaurants, cafes, and indoor food markets. With so much choice to choose from, here are some of the top spots to eat your heart out:
- Amsterdam Foodhallen. This is a large, indoor food market offering delicious eats for all tastes, from sushi to burgers and traditional Dutch fare. Find it in the De Hallen cultural complex in the city’s Oud-West neighborhood, with operating hours from Monday – Sunday,
- Pancakes Amsterdam. If you’re looking for a taste of traditional Dutch pancakes, both sweet and savory, don’t miss this spot. You can find this popular gem across from the Central Station in Amsterdam, open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 9-4 pm.
- Balthazar’s Keuken. For one of the best 3-course meals you’ll have in the city, you want to visit this family-run institution. The menu is not vast, but the dishes they serve are always seasonal, fresh, and absolutely delicious. You can find Balthazar’s on the Elandsgracht in Northern Amsterdam. They operate every day of the week except Mondays from 6-10.30 pm.
- Dignita. And what trip anywhere in the world would be complete without good brunch fare? If you’re on the hunt for something satiating, delicious, and a little bit quirky, you can’t miss Dignita, located in Vondelpark, Hoftuin, or Westerpark. All eateries are open every day from 12-6 pm.
When in Amsterdam …
One of the great things about Amsterdam is just how pedestrian-friendly the city is. Most major attractions can be reached in under 30 minutes on foot. The city is also a cycler’s paradise. Bicycles can be rented from numerous vendors, and make an excellent mode of transportation for those looking for a leisurely way to explore the city or the beautiful (and nearby) Dutch countryside.
- This biographical museum is not only an ode to the life of Jewish World War II diarist Anne Frank. But it’s also an ode to Jewish life and all those who suffered or lost their own lives during the Holocaust. Many people come from around the world to see the Achterhuis, the building where Anne Frank hid in a secret back room, fleeing Nazi persecution. Though she was eventually captured and perished at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, both her diary and the Achterhuis serve as a reminder of her struggle, and the dangers of discrimination. You want to pre-book your tickets well in advance for either an early session or late afternoon session to avoid the crowds. Operating hours are seasonal and will depend on the time of year you visit.
- Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most famous Dutch painters of all time. As a pre-Impressionist painter, he only sold one artwork in his entire lifetime. Only after his death did his paintings gain worldwide notoriety. Art aficionados should head to the Van Gogh Museum, which houses the largest collection of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and artwork worldwide, and is a must for anyone interested in the famous artist and his works. Some of his most popular works include The Starry Night, Garden of the Asylum, Cypresses, Olive Trees, and Les Alpilles. Explore over 200 of his original artworks at the museum, with daily opening hours from 9 am to 6 pm.
- Canal Cruises are also very popular here, for obvious reasons. Amsterdam is a city that’s intimately connected with water. With its network of 165 canals that wind throughout the city, this is hands down one of the best ways to explore Amsterdam. If you’re looking for a pure canal cruising experience that allows you to soak up the vibrant beauty of the city, it’s best to catch a hop-on, hop-off canal cruise. There are several different tour providers, but one of the most popular is with Stromma. You can even purchase a valid ticket for 48 hours, allowing you to explore Amsterdam and all its most popular sites via canal boat.
- Liquor connoisseurs may want to pay a visit to the Wynand Fockink Distillery. Founded in 1679, this distillery’s tours are extremely popular and should be booked well in advance of your visit. They boast a wide selection of liquors and encourage visitors to try something new in the dedicated tasting room.
- Shopping die-hards might want to check out the Albert Cuyp Street Market. The largest in Amsterdam, this incredible outdoor market is bound to offer something for everyone. Open Monday to Saturday, the market can be crowded. Be alert for potential pickpockets.
- Those looking for out-of-the-way shops may want to stroll over to De Negen Straatje (The Nine Streets). Covering nine narrow streets just south of Dam Square, this area boasts plenty of boutique shops, unique restaurants, galleries and other assorted businesses.
- The Netherlands in general is well known for its beautiful Tulips, and many of these can be had for purchase in Amsterdam. Note that if you intend to buy and bring Tulip bulbs back to the United States or Canada, they must be “approved,” and should be marked as such.
- You can even take free, guided tours of this beautiful city, courtesy of New Amsterdam Tours. These meet at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. across the street from Amsterdam Centraal Station, and are roughly three hours in duration. A two-hour Red Light District tour is also offered, departing at 6:45 p.m., though this comes with a €10 per-person charge.
- Show Your Appreciation for Dutch Cheese. You’ll find the small Amsterdam Cheese Museum just a couple steps from the Anne Frank House, too. Located on the other side of the Prinsengracht, this museum is dedicated to the history of Dutch cheese and its many variations. You’ll have a chance to not only taste your way through these delicious cheeses but buy your own. Don’t miss the Gouda museum, located below ground level. The museum opens Monday-Friday from 9 am – 9 pm, and Saturday from 10 am – 7 pm.
- Bike Ride Around Picturesque Vondelpark. This is the city’s most popular park, for many reasons. Not only is it large enough to accommodate thousands of people, but it’s also beautifully picturesque. Cycling is an integral part of the Dutch lifestyle. Naturally, this is something you have to experience while visiting Amsterdam. Vondelpark is the perfect spot to hire a bike and explore. You can hire bikes from A-Bike Rental and Tours for affordable rates.
- Marvel at the Amsterdam Tulip Museum. If there was any flower synonymous with the Netherlands, it has to be the delicate tulip. Make sure to visit the small, private museum just across the bridge from the Anne Frank House. You can even purchase your own tulip bulbs from their onsite store. The museum operates daily from 10 am- 6 pm.
Explore Outside the City Limits
If you’d like to get a true feel for the Dutch way of life, you want to plan a half-day trip outside of Amsterdam. Here two of the best (and closest) areas to visit:
- Haarlem. Also known as ”Little Amsterdam”, this is the second-largest city in the Northern Netherlands. Here you can discover ancient churches, intricate architecture, fascinating museums, and delicious local cuisine. You can get to Haarlem via train for a half-day of exploration. Catch the train from the Central Station in Amsterdam, and in just 15 minutes you’ll arrive in Haarlem. Tickets cost an average of €5.60 one-way and €11.20 for a round trip.
- Zaanse Schans Windmill Village. If you’ve always dreamed of visiting the picturesque windmill villages of the Netherlands, you can do so with another half-day trip, just outside Amsterdam. This is your chance to disembark and step back in time to perfectly preserved windmill houses dating back to the 18th century. To get to Zaanse Schans, you can either catch the Connexxion Bus 391 or a train, both departing from Central Station in Amsterdam. For a single ticket, you’ll pay €6.50. However, it’s better to purchase a day ticket for €11.50.
Bike Tour Through Waterland
Amsterdam is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. Just north of Amsterdam is Waterland, a quaint region situated on the banks of Markermeer lake. If you are gearing up for a bike tour, going cycle seeing through Waterland’s scenic bike trails could be a great adventure. This area is a haven for locals and tourists alike looking to stretch their legs and engage in a bit of adventure.
You can do the entire bike tour through Waterland in about a day, or you can opt for shorter outings of just a few hours. The entire route, depending on the one you choose, is between 30 kilometers and 55 kilometers.
The Marken Cycle Route takes you to the former island of Zuiderzee in the Waterland region. You will pass through a couple of notable villages such as Zuiderwoude, Holysloot, and Ransdorp.
Waterland is dotted with quaint villages and breathtaking scenery. There is plenty of information out there if you want to check some more out-of-the-way villages and plan your own route.
Many of the old town districts of these villages have world-class cheese shops, cozy pubs, and enchanting shopping opportunities. Each village has its cultural flavor and fun things to explore.
All are linked by Waterland’s magical scenery of dykes, canals, rivers, open country, and waterside pastures. The late spring and summer are two of the best seasons to visit, as the weather is lovely. In the fall and winter, the region gets more inclement weather and colder temperatures that may not make it appropriate for a bike trip.
Getting to Waterland From Amsterdam
Waterland is easy to access from Amsterdam via public transit, private car, ferry, or even your bicycle. It may be cheaper to find accommodations in Amsterdam and do a bike tour through Waterland as a day trip.
You can leave northern Amsterdam on your bicycle and circle the entire region in about two hours and thirty minutes of non-stop cycling.
Marken on the former island of Zuiderzee is a bit more out of the way and may take you a little longer to access. It is well worth the trip however as its classic wooden houses in the quaint fishing village are an interesting tourist attraction.
If you want a full cultural immersion experience in the hinterlands, you may want to try finding accommodations in one of the rural villages in the region and using this as your home base.These may be a bit more expensive than somewhere in Amsterdam proper, but they will be quieter and add to the overall allure of the country-style vacation you may be seeking.
River Cruisers Should Know!
- While not the city’s native language, English is widely spoken in Amsterdam – though knowing a few basic Dutch words and phrases always makes a good impression.
- The Euro is the official currency in the Netherlands. Other currencies can be exchanged at major banks and financial institutions.
- Smoking is banned in Amsterdam’s restaurants and bars. If you want to light up, be sure to do so in an appropriate outdoor area.
- While the crime rate in Amsterdam is generally low, it always pays to be aware of your surroundings in crowded squares, train stations, and congested attractions. Pickpockets commonly work these areas in many European cities, and you would be wise to invest in a money-belt or pouch that can be placed under your shirt to store cash, cards and identification.
Getting To Amsterdam
Traveling to Amsterdam couldn’t be easier. Flights from around the world arrive at Schiphol Airport, located just 15 kilometers from the city.
National carrier KLM operates the majority of the flights here, though North American travelers may also utilize nonstop flights operated by United Airlines and US Airways. Connecting flights are available on many major European carriers as well.
Schiphol also has its own dedicated train station, with up to seven departures every hour running into the city center and the central rail station (Amsterdam Centraal Station), not more than 10 minutes walk from where most river cruisers dock and the Amsterdam Passenger Terminal.
Travelers making their way to Amsterdam from other parts of Europe may have other alternatives open to them. Rail service here is very good, most of which depart and arrive from Amsterdam Centraal Station. Connections can be made with Eurostar trains for passengers arriving from England and France, as well as Germany, Italy, Prague, Austria and Russia.
Ferry service also runs from the Dutch port of Ijmuiden from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which is serviced by DFDS Seaways.