It has long been on my bucket list to see Holland in tulip season. So when a girlfriend suggested a long weekend break to Amsterdam in April, I jumped at the chance.
The other girls spent three days in Holland, so I will give you their 3-day Amsterdam Itinerary. I gave my self an extra day to leave the city and see the tulips, so will also include my 4-day Amsterdam Itinerary for spring. I used my friends’ advice from 10 Not-To-Be-Missed Amsterdam Adventures to help me plan.
Although we used Amsterdam as a home base, we did explore outside the city, ultimately spending 2 days in Amsterdam, and 2 exploring the Netherlands. In our four days, I got to experience some of what the Netherlands is known for– cheese, canals and tulips!
The tourism office in Amsterdam was kind enough to provide me with an IAmsterdam City Card, which allowed me entrance into many museums and free transportation. If you are going to keep yourself busy in Amsterdam, you should definitely consider buying a card. You can do that online or at the airport. It includes most of the museums and attractions that you will want to see, as well as public transportation within Amsterdam.
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Table of Contents
A Short History of Amsterdam and the Netherlands
Water, Water Everywhere
The first thing we noticed flying into Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport was the water everywhere. The Netherlands was created by sediment deposited on sandy shores. The resulting land is wet and low-laying. The people made the land usable and safe by using dikes, dams, and drainage ditches. Not only that but when they need more land, they reclaim it from the water, by laying down more land.
Amsterdam was a city built around a dam on the Amstel River. Can you see how it got its name? It started as a fishing village but soon became a world trade center. It is now the capital of the Netherlands, although the government sits in the Hague. In the 17th Century city planners put in 4 semi-circular canals. The canals were paid for by taxes based on the amount of canal-front property you owned, explaining the unique houses lining them. Much of the city is supported by poles reaching deep into the sandy soil. If you pay attention while walking along the canals, you will notice many of the houses are leaning a lot!
How the Inquisition Contributed to the Liberal Nation the Netherlands is Known to Be Today
In the 16th century, Spain controlled much of what is now the Netherlands. Conflicts about taxes and religion led to the Eighty Year’s War, lead by William the Silent. The Netherlands won its independence. The rest of western Europe was living the craziness of the Inquisition. Although Protestantism was the official religion of the country, the penalty of disagreement wasn’t death like much of Europe. The Netherlands started its reign as an accepting country that still draws immigrants from all over the world.
If you want to read more about the history of Amsterdam, check out Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto.
Amsterdam: The Most Multicultural City I Have Visited in Europe
I have to be honest… I was excited to visit the Netherlands, but Amsterdam wasn’t on my radar. No judgment to others, but the whole red light/ legal drug things made the city seem a little too much for me. My least favorite US city is Las Vegas and I think I had that sort of hedonistic place in my head. Although this is present, it is such a small part of this fabulous city.
One of the first things I noticed while walking around Amsterdam was all the cultures represented here. It reminds me of New York City on canals. Maybe that is appropriate because New York was originally a Dutch colony called New Amsterdam. Read more about New York City’s immigrant history. Immigrants from 180 countries call this city of around 800,000 people home.
Is Amsterdam in the Netherlands or Holland?
This is a confusing one for Americans, but the Kingdom of the Netherlands (AKA the Netherlands) is Amsterdam’s country. Holland is an area made of two provinces called Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland, but many people erroneously refer to the country as Holland.
The Netherland Basics
Official Language: Dutch, but perfect English is spoken everywhere. The only communication problem that I had was when I mispronounced Dutch names.
Currency: Euro. The only time I needed cash was for taxis.
Now that you know the history and the correct name for the country that you will visit– on to the fun stuff– what to do with your 3 days in Amsterdam!
How to Get Around Amsterdam
The Netherlands is a relatively small country, as you can drive across it in just a few hours. The airport is about a half-hour drive south of Amsterdam. The Netherlands has Uber and taxis, but also ample public transportation.
There is an express shuttle train that you can buy tickets for at the iAmsterdam tourism office right outside of customs. In about half an hour, it will bring you to Amsterdam’s Central Station. From there, it is easy to catch a trolley or train.
In spite of the fact that public transportation is ubiquitous, we spent most of our time walking. Amsterdam is small enough to get around by foot and it is a perfect way to experience the city.
Bikes in Amsterdam
If you want to get around like a local, rent a bike. Although there are dedicated bike roads, you have to be brave to do this. They ride fast and don’t stop for anything- even pedestrians!
Where to Stay in Amsterdam
Stay in the Haarlemmerbuurt
My preferred location to stay anywhere is within an easy commute to the major attractions, but within a neighborhood, so I can get an idea of the real-life of locals. The Haarlemmerbuurt was perfect for me. It is a 10-minute walk to the Anne Frank House and the Central Station, which makes it easily accessible to transportation both in Amsterdam and around the Netherlands. We loved the shopping and dining in this small neighborhood.
If you would rather stay in a hotel, check out the Renaissance Amsterdam Hotel.
Where to eat in Haarlemmerbuurt
We are crazy about the small cafe, Harlem Soul Food. When the weather is nice you can sit on the patio and people watch and eat food as diverse as nachos and Israeli food.
Stay near Dam Square
If you are more the sort that wants to be where the action is happening, stay near the square that puts the dam in Amsterdam.
I spent one night at the Radisson Blu Hotel Amsterdam. It is a lovely hotel on a side street in close proximity to Dam Square and the Museum District.
3-Days Itinerary in Amsterdam
I have divided this Amsterdam Itinerary in a way that makes the most sense geographically. Check websites for hours or closures.
Day 1: Things to do in Amsterdam in One Day
If you only have time for two things in Amsterdam, I would recommend the Secret Food Tour and Anne Frank House. They are quintessential Amsterdam and our favorite things that we did.
Take a tour with Secret Food Tours
On this visit, we chose to do a food tour through Secret Food Tours and it was definitely a highlight of the trip for all four of us ladies. My tour was hosted by Secret Food Tours. Our guide, Judith, started the tour with a history of the city and an overview of its geography. We then walked around the trendy, immigrant Jordaan neighborhood sampling Dutch foods. It was the perfect way to open our eyes to the city, find out what Dutch food is all about and explore an area that wasn’t on our radar.
I will write more about my food tour in a few weeks, stay tuned for it. If you aren’t already, be sure to subscribe to know when new posts come up.
The tour starts at the Anne Frank statue, so it is perfect geographically to then…
Climb the Westerkerk Tower (Westertoren)
The Westerkerk or Western Church is just a few doors away from the Anne Frank House and the statue is on its grounds. She referred to its bells in her diary.
Visit the Anne Frank House
Before I visit a country, I read books to inspire my trip. (Read my whole list of favorites.) Before this trip, I immersed myself in the world of Anne Frank. Anne Frank was a Jewish girl who hid in an attic in the middle of Amsterdam in World War 2 to evade the Nazis. Learning about Anne Frank puts a face to the nameless masses affected by WW2 and to Amsterdam as a refuge for immigrants and acceptance through time.
To understand the world of Anne Frank, I read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies. Miep is one of the people who hid the Frank family and her book was my favorite, as it gave a broad view of what life was like in Amsterdam at the time.
The museum is so well done- definitely one of the best in the world. You actually get to tour the annex where Anne and her family lived for around two years.
You have to buy your tickets for the Anne Frank House before you visit. 80 percent of a day’s tickets go on sale 2 months before the date at noon. They sell out quick– I bought mine in the afternoon and there wasn’t much left. They also sell the last 20 percent on the day of at 9 am, but I would not take the chance of missing this fabulous museum.
Cheese Museum and Tulip Museum
If you are not going to Alkmaar or leaving town to see the tulip fields, be sure to visit both of these museums while you are in the area. The Tulip Museum is included with your Iamsterdam City Card.
End Your First Night in Amsterdam with a Canal Cruise
You should not spend time in a city on the water without getting out onto the water and a canal tour is a great way to see the whole city. There are many tours to choose from and a few choices are included with your iAmsterdam city card.
You can also take a specialized canal tour, such as a cheese and wine canal tour or a private dinner tour, which we did.
Red Light District
On your way back, walk through the Red Light District, if it suits you. This is the oldest part of Amsterdam and lays under the Oude Kerk, or Old Church. You will know you have entered by small red lights on the cobblestone. You are not allowed to take pictures of the windows illuminated by red. I must admit I found the section sad. I also learned that red-light districts aren’t distinctly Dutch, but are found elsewhere in Europe. It looks like any tours will be stopping in the district soon.
Another thing Amsterdam is known for are coffee houses which confusingly don’t serve coffee. For coffee, you need to head to a koffiehuis,, or cafe. The drugs they sell are legal to buy in Amsterdam, although still not legal to produce, an interesting conundrum.
Day 2 in Amsterdam
The Lord in the Attic Church (MUSEUM ONS’ LIEVE HEER OP SOLDER)
I loved this quirky little museum set in three connected historic canal homes. In the Inquisition, even though Amsterdam was an accepting place, Catholic churches had to go underground. You can tour this fully intact church learning about Catholicism and the history of the time and see the inside of a canal house. Entrance was included with my City Card. You can see this museum in about 1 hour. It is open a little later than some museums as well.
Explore the World-Class Museums
For its size, Amsterdam has a lot of museums, varying from art to shoes. The two you shouldn’t miss are The Van Gogh Museum and the Rijkmuseum.
You can not visit the Van Gogh Museum without a reservation and the weekend we were there was sold out. My recommendation is to book this well in advance here. It is included with the City Card, but I would book before you come if you are just in for a few days.
There are many more museums as well. A few examples are the Diamond Museum, Museum of Prostitution, Bag and Shoes Museum.
See How Beer is Made in Amsterdam
Heineken Factory Tour
If you are interested in beer, tour the factory that the world knows Amsterdam for. You need to make reservations for this experience in advance as well. You will spend about 2 hours here, learn all you want to know about how beer is made, and even drink a few beers. It is a polished, commercial tour.
This is the beer that we are drinking in the food tour picture. The locals seem to be more proud of this smaller brewery that is under a windmill and offers tours.
An Indonesian Dinner
Indonesia was a Dutch colony, so immigration was allowed between the two places. Because of this, Amsterdam has some incredible Indonesian food! A bit of research led us to two Indonesian restaurants right next door to each other, Tempo Doeloe and Tujuh Maret. Both are listed as among the best in the city, are expensive, and require reservations.
What to order is a rijsttafel, or rice table. A rijsttafel consists of rice, kabobs with luscious spicy peanut sauce, and an array of dishes, ranging from mild to spicy. The dishes include everything from veggies to meat. You will leave full and satisfied! We ended up eating at Tempo Deoloe and were so happy with the meal, although the service was awful for such an expensive meal. That being said, we would absolutely repeat our visit.
On another night we ate in another Indonesian restaurant, Sie Joe. It was very good, but a completely different experience. Located near Central Station, Sie Joe was a hole-in-the-wall BYOB with two employees, simple and cheap food. Definitely worth our time!
There is so much to see in the Netherlands and we decided to spend our last day exploring it. Spring is an ideal time to explore the things that are open in the summer, such as the Alkmaar cheese market and Zaanse Schans, but also things that are only available in the spring, mainly the tulip fields!
What is your favorite part of Amsterdam? Let me know in the comments.