Conquering Amsterdam: Travel Planning Guide

Intro

Amsterdam is one of the most dynamic and intriguing cities in Europe.  It is a popular tourist destination in large part due to its beautiful canals, wonderful architecture, and alluring sensual side. 

Amsterdam is a city of contrasts.  It is one of the great cultural cities in the world featuring several world class museums and art galleries.  Perhaps it is best known for tolerance of behavior deemed unsavory by other communities.  Coffee shops that sell marijuana and the famous red light district make the city a popular stop for those interested in letting go.    

  

Statues representing Rembrandt’s Night Watch stand near Rembrandt’s House

When to go and how long to stay

For a combination of best weather and lower crowds the best time to visit is in the spring and fall.  Summer has the best weather with long days, but also is the most crowded and highest prices in what is already one of the more expensive places to stay.  Winter is characterized by cold, wet and short days, but will see the lowest crowds.      

Amsterdam is packed with lots to do in a small area.  You should be able to see the best of Amsterdam in 3 full days.  The Netherlands is a small country with many other places to see.  Easy day trips are available for anyone staying longer.    

Money and language barrier

The Netherlands uses the Euro.  ATM’s are all over and provide the best place to exchange money.  Credit cards are accepted nearly everywhere and it maybe easier to use over cash.  European credit cards use a chip and pin system as opposed to the United States which is chip and signature.  American’s should rarely have an issue, but some machines may only accept chip and pin, so you may have to use a ticket window and buy directly from an agent. 

English is widely spoken and you should not encounter a language barrier at all.  While walking into many shops in tourist areas you are as likely to be greeted by the shop owner in English as Dutch. 

Getting to Amsterdam

Amsterdam is easy to get to from anywhere by plane, train, or automobile.  The Netherlands is well connected by train routes and Amsterdam can easily be part of a trip that includes many of the best cities in Europe.     

By Plane

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (AMS) is located a few miles outside the city.  It is one of the largest and best airports in the world.  It is easy to get in and out of and well designed.  There is a train station at the airport and only takes 20 minutes from the airport to Amsterdam Centraal Station.  You may also take a direct train to other parts of the Netherlands as well.  Buses also run between the airport and the city and take about 40 minutes. 

By Train    

If you are coming from other cities in Europe it maybe cheaper and quicker to travel by train.  High speed trains run from Amsterdam and other large cities and go from city center to city center in no time at all. Thalys runs trains from Paris in just over 3 hours and Brussels in under 2 hours.  From London, take the Eurostar to Brussels and transfer to Thalys onward to Amsterdam for a total transit time is usually under 5 hours depending on layover time.

ICE International offers service to and from cities such as Dusseldorf in just over 2 hours, Cologne in under 3 hours, and Frankfurt in under 4 hours. 

Getting Around Amsterdam

Amsterdam has an excellent public transportation system but you may not even need it.  The city center is compact and best experienced on foot.  You will quickly learn the favorite mode of transportation is bicycle.  Amsterdam Centraal even has a multi story bicycle parking garage. There are plenty of places to rent a bike and travel like a local. 

Public transportation is combination of metro, trams, and busses.  All three are excellent and well maintained.  Trams are probably the best way to get around the city center. The metro is the fastest way to get outside of the city center and buses can fill in any gaps.  There are also ferries that will take you to places like the Eyefilm Museum. 

To use any public transport options you need a contactless OV-chipkaart card.  You can purchase rechargeable cards and load on as much as you would like or buy cards good for unlimited journeys within a specific time frame (24 hours, 72 hours etc.). The IAmsterdam tourist card also includes the use of public transport along with admission to tourist sites.  When using the card be sure to check in and out to be sure you are charged the correct amount.  Readers are located at the entrance of the vehicle you are boarding. 

City Layout

The city is divided into several districts.  The most important ones for tourists will be the old centre, canal ring, Jordaan, South, and Plantage.  Amsterdam Centraal Station sits at the edge of the harbor.  From there the different districts fan out.  The various canals form semi circles connecting to the harbor.

Navigating the city is easy by simply following the various canals as they bend around the city.  Most of the top spots to see are congregated in a few areas.  The area around Amsterdam Centraal, Dam Square, Museum Quarter, and the port area are littered with plenty to see. 

NEMO Science Museum

Things to See and Do

Amsterdam is packed with things to see and do.  The old centre will have some of the oldest most historic architecture. There is Dam Square, home to the Royal Palace, the old church, the new church, and the red light district in De Wallen.  The nearby Jordaan district has the Anne Frank House and Westerkerk. 

The Canal Ring is home to Rembrandtplein, various markets, and museums such as the Amsterdam museum and Rembrandt House Museum.

The south is home to the museum quarter.  The Rijksmuseum is the top art museum in the Netherlands, a country famous for art.  The Van Gogh Museum is the place to see the best of the famous artist, and Stedelijk Museum is the best place to see contemporary art.  Nearby Vodelpark is the Central Park of Amsterdam and is a place to relax or take in a free concert on a sunny day. 

Other tops things to do are take a canal cruise, take in a show, or see some modern Amsterdam at the NEMO Science Museum or EyeFilm Museum. 

Budget Tips

Amsterdam is an expensive city by any standard.  There are some things you can do to save money on your trip.

Lodging

  • Stay out of the city centre and use public transportation to commute in
  • Stay in a hostel
  • Use hotel reward points

Attractions

  • Get the IAmsterdam card.  The tourist card includes admission and discounts to many of the top sites in the city and even the surrounding area.  It also includes use of the public transportation system.  You can get it for one or multiple days.  If you plan on seeing a lot of museums it will pay for itself and then some.
  • Take a free walking tour.  There are plenty to choose from and are very informative.
  • Shop in markets.  There are plenty of open air markets to shop in.  Do not miss the Albert Cuyp street market.
  • Walk around the city.  You are paying high prices in part for the atmosphere.  Be sure to take it in and enjoy instead of running from place to place.  Take a stroll and enjoy being in the city.
  • Have a picnic.  Restaurants are expensive.  Have a picnic in Vondelpark or one of the many squares.

Itinerary

Day 1:   Tour the old centre.  Begin your day at the Amsterdam Museum to get a history of this fine city.  Nearby is the Begijnhof, a picturesque little square. 

Visit the Bloemenmarkt flower market on your way to the FOAM Photography museum, followed by Rembrandtplein and then the Rembrandt House Museum to see the home where the master artist Rembrandt lived. 

Head off to Dam Square to see the Royal Palace and De Nieuwe Kirk (new Church.) See the De Oude Kerk (old church) and take a look at what all the fuss is about in De Wallen Red Light District.  Even if that isn’t your thing, it is a curiosity and the area happens to be filled with wonderful architecture.

Day 2: Museum Quarter and Vondelpark.  Begin your day at the Van Gogh museum before it gets too crowded.  Next door is the Stedelijk Museum and then move to the Rijksmuseum. 

Head over to the Albert Cuypmarkt and also nearby is the Heineken Experience for beer lovers.  Enjoy a late afternoon stroll and picnic in Vodelpark.  End the day strolling through the atmospheric Amsterdam evening.  The Jordaan area is particularly nice in the evening. 

Day 3: Begin your day at the Anne Frank House.  The Westerkerk is next door and worth a look as well. 

Near Amsterdam Centraal is the Het Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum), the Verzetsmuseum (Dutch World War II Resistance Museum), and the NEMO Science Museum.  Be sure not to miss going to the roof of the the NEMO and take in the views. 

Take a ferry to the Eyefilmmuseum. 

Day 4: Day trip to Haarlem.  Only 15 minutes away by train, Haarlem is a wonderfully quaint town that feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam.  Be sure not to miss the Frans Hal Museum, Tellers Museum, and Grote Kerk. 

Final Thoughts
  • Buy tickets online in advance for the Anne Frank House.  If you don’t, you will either wait in line for hours or not get in at all.
  • Have some fries with Mayonnaise.  Believe it not, they are delicious. 
  • Do not take pictures in the red light district.  You may lose your camera from an upset girl. 
  • Amsterdam has reputation of anything goes, but that is not the case.  They are lax on prostitution and marijuana, but illegal activity is strictly enforced.  It is also one of the safest cities in Europe. 
  • Take a day trip to Haarlem, Delft, The Hague or one of the other wonderful Dutch cities.  You won’t regret it.
  • Theme park lovers should not miss The Efteling, one of the top theme parks in Europe.  It is approximately 2 hours away.  

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