Culturally rich – and occasionally risqué – Europe’s most laid-back city is famous for its art, canals and quirk. You can reach the heart of Amsterdam in just under 4 hours with Eurostar’s direct service and with this three-day guide, you’ll get to experience the head-spinning variety this pocket-sized capital offers.
Not only will our tips help you break up your sight-seeing without running yourself into exhaustion, you'll find out about getting free access to big museums, how to navigate the unpredictable weather and what to do when you inevitably run into some Dutch food lingo…
From cultural powerhouses to cutting-edge boutiques, here’s how to make the most of your stay.
Start with some serious art immersion. Rembrandt’s Night Watch may be the big draw at the Rijksmuseum (1), but there’s much more to see at the Golden Age art trove. You could easily spend a whole day here, but you may want to limit yourself to the well-known Dutch masters on the second floor. If bearded men in breeches and still life paintings of cheese are not your thing, head to the Van Gogh Museum (2). It offers an in-depth look at the life and art of the tormented painter, while the building itself is an architectural masterpiece. You’ll need to book tickets online, or you won’t be able to get in.
By now you’re probably ravenous, so make your way via the Vondelpark (3) to the Foodhallen (4). Rain or shine, this covered market is the place to be. Stalls in the former tram-turning shed (prettier than it sounds) rustle up locally made delicacies, from bitterballen to burritos.
Amsterdam has more than its share of cute boutiques, so leave enough time to do some shopping. Streetwear brand Daily Paper (5) fuses Dutch simplicity and African flair. Its colour blocks and patterned trims have found favour with Puma: it recently launched its second collection for the sportswear superbrand. If you fancy a pick-me-up, try a nitro bowl at dry-ice spectaculars Ludo & Hedo HQ (6).
For a taste of the city’s postcard-perfect charms, explore the Nine Streets (De 9 Straatjes, 7), a grid of picturesque streets to the west of the Canal Belt that has something for everyone. Head to Reestraat for restaurants, Hartenstraat for Scandi-style fashions and Runstraat for cheese.
Catching the ferry to Amsterdam-Noord can feel like a mini adventure. In this relatively undiscovered part of the city you’ll find skybar Madam (8), offering towering vistas and delectable rhubarb negronis, and the Eye Film Museum (9), jutting out of the river IJ like a giant robot shark. End the day with a screening or enjoy a meal with great views of the river.
After breakfast, head for the Begijnhof (1), a bijou courtyard right in the centre of town. The almshouses here were built for a community of unmarried Catholic women in Medieval times and it is still the site of two churches, including the English Reformed Church.
Next stop, De Wallen (2). While the infamous Red Light District has cleaned up under a recent gentrification drive, you should still expect to see plenty of seediness. But look beyond the tack and you’ll discover one of the prettiest parts of the city.
De Oude Kerk (3) is the focal point of the area and is Amsterdam’s oldest standing building, now hosting a range of experimental art and music. Nestled on the main thoroughfare of the city’s Chinatown, clothes shop Zeedijk 60 (4) champions local labels, including Bonne Suits. For additional fashionable fare, cross Dam Square (5) and head for X Bank (6), a 700m2 space dedicated to Dutch design. You’ll find everything from Bas Kosters’ fluoro fashions to posh candles.
Stop at Breda (7) for a mystery lunch experience. Choose the number of courses you’d like, let them know of any dietary requirements, and prepare to be surprised.
Wind your way to the Jordaan (8) via the canal belt. In this neighbourhood you’ll find traditional brown bars alongside trendy coffee roasters, as well as an organic market, tiny art galleries and well-fed house cats roaming the charming residential streets. The smaller canals such as the Egelantiersgracht and Bloemgracht are arguably even prettier than their bigger, concentric cousins (Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht), so keep your camera handy.
One of Amsterdam’s most popular attractions, the Anne Frank House (9) should be high on the list of any first-time visitor. Besides the secret annexe where Anne and her family went into hiding during the Nazi occupation, you’ll be able to see an exhibition dedicated to the persecution of the Jews during WW II. Be sure to book tickets online, as you can no longer buy them at the door.
Relax with a drink at canalside bar Waterkant (10) or snap the swirling, hand-painted signage of the delightful Café de Eland (11) in the Jordaan before rewarding yourself with a ‘fluitje’ (flute – beer served in a tall, dainty glass). If your feet can still carry you, meander back to Daalder (12) for a leisurely five-course dinner. Risotto with Lagavulin whisky and mango and flower salad with Madame Jeannette chilis are just some of the imaginative dishes on the menu.
On your last day in Amsterdam, revisit the Museumplein for a final culture fix. The Stedelijk Museum (1) is one of Europe’s best modern art museums, with an amazing permanent collection hidden in its bathtub-shaped extension. Look out for pieces by Marlene Dumas, Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol, among other international artists. If you buy a ticket online you can skip the queue, and entry is free for under 18s.
Peckish? Head to the bohemian De Pijp neighbourhood, where you’ll find lots of trendy eateries and cafés. Try Little Collins (2) for a laidback Aussie-style lunch, or The Butcher (3) if you fancy a burger.
With around 260 stalls, the bustling Albert Cuyp market (4) is the city’s largest of its kind. You can buy anything from clothes and electronic items to flowers, fish and fruit. Expect plenty of shouting and patter from cheeky market vendors. Stock up on souvenirs like stroopwafels (caramel waffles) and cheese here rather than in the touristy shops in the centre, to get a better deal.
Learn how to pull a pint, find out more about the brewing process and sample some beer at the Heineken Experience (5). Tours take you round the historical building that used to house the beer giant’s brewery until 1988 and take about two hours.
Alternatively, if you don’t mind taking a tram to the eastern part of the city, visit Brouwerij ‘t IJ (6) for a more authentic look at a working brewery. It’s also a chance to see an actual Dutch windmill.
If beer doesn’t appeal, skip the breweries altogether and, instead, soak up the peace and quiet of the Sarphatipark (7). Named after sanitation hero Samuel Sarphati, it’s a perfectly formed pocket of green serenity in De Pijp.
Time for dinner. Serving fish and drinks with a Tel Aviv twist, Bar Fisk (8) has sharing plates galore and a rough-hewn bar tiled with scales. Pricey but irresistible, Asian fusion restaurant Izakaya (9) is ideal for people-watching over black cod. For late-night shenanigans, head back to the centre. Private-booth karaoke bar Duke of Tokyo (10) has brought a new note of fun to the Reguliersdwarsstraat, the city’s once-beleaguered gay and lesbian street.
Get one of the many city passes that are available to visitors, such as The Amsterdam Pass, The I Amsterdam City Card or the Holland Pass. They give you free access to the big museums and attractions, and sometimes even public transport. Some also allow you to travel to destinations outside of Amsterdam, should you want to venture beyond the city’s borders. All passes have different benefits, so it’s worth investigating which one suits your travel plans best.
When visiting a museum, always check the website to make sure that you’ll be able to get in that day. For many museums you have to book a time slot in advance. Sometimes you’ll have to reserve your slot weeks ahead; for example during the summer or school holidays, slots for the Anne Frank House sell out quickly, so do your research before you go.
Be very careful when crossing the road because cyclists don’t always keep an eye out for pedestrians. And whatever you do, don’t walk on the cycle lanes, as it will enrage the locals. Likewise, if you are going to rent a bike and do some cycling yourself, don’t ride on the pavements. Listen out for the sound of bicycle bells so you know they’re coming. The same goes for trams. You can’t always see or even hear them coming, even though they too have a warning bell that rings when they approach.
The weather in Amsterdam is as unpredictable as the weather at home, so make sure you bring an umbrella and suitable clothes. On a rainy day you’ll see people wearing head to toe ‘rain suits’ – a jacket and trousers made of water-repellent material. It’s not the most flattering look, but especially for cyclists it’s worth the hassle of putting it on to avoid getting drenched. If you want to try one yourself, HEMA is a safe bet.