As far as popular destinations go, Amsterdam is up there with Paris, Rome, and London. If you didn’t visit on your first trek overseas, then you’ll certainly pass through it on the next. After all, it’s a few hours from both Paris and London on the train, making it a convenient second or third leg for your escape.
And just because it’s the smallest of the three—and most manageable on foot, bike, or transit, don’t relegate it to the backseat. There’s more to the city than just smoke shops and red lights. A four-day weekend is the perfect amount of time to get a slice of actual life in Amsterdam (and a visit to a thriving neighboring city as well—one that’s way less crowded but equally charming). Below is an itinerary that should give you a well-rounded and unforgettable visit.
Before you go, decide whether or not you need to snag an I amsterdam City Card for the duration of your stay. It gives you free entrance to 60+ attractions and museums, plus unlimited public transit access, and can be purchased at Centraal Station, which you’ll pass through if you come by train or plane (there’s a rail shuttle that brings you from the airport into the heart of the city).
How to Get There: Consider the Train!
On the one hand, it’s easy to fly to Amsterdam from most major U.S. markets, since KLM—Delta’s partner airline—is headquartered there. However, since most travelers want to maximize their Euro visits and experience more than one place, it’s important to note you can also get to Amsterdam quickly and cheaply from London by train. (Or vice versa.)
Eurostar launched a high-speed express route in 2018. Trains run twice daily for now, but that’ll soon increase in frequency. It’s $48 one way, and takes 3 hours 41 minutes from one city center to the next—which is less time than it’s gonna take to get to the airport, wait for your flight, and do the reverse once you land. (It stops in Rotterdam en route, too, in case you want to hop out there. You’ll read about that spot later.) Should you travel in Business Premier Class, there’s a meal served any time of day from Michelin-star chef Raymond Blanc. It’s seasonal fare that’s a fusion of French and British cuisine. (Also there’s a private lounge in London for breakfast or a cocktail…) We’ll advocate a train trip any day when it’s fast, efficient, and affordable…especially with two bags included in the ticket fare. This one can check your fantasy of riding the rails without any old-world hurdles being thrown in the way. Plus, nothing feels cooler than chugging along from London’s St Pancras to Amsterdam Centraal.)
Where to Stay
Kimpton De Witt: This hotel boasts bright, inviting rooms with modern-luxury details. There’s a 24-hour fitness room, and a location that can’t be beat. It’s in the heart of the city—right off a public-transit thoroughfare that’s tucked away from the foot-traffic throngs. If you’re too tired from the day’s touristing to escape for dinner, just mosey downstairs to Wyers for comforting classics or a nightcap. Their public lounge spaces are conducive to productivity or just lolling about, particularly the calming inner garden.
Conservatorium: With high-end luxury on the Museumplein, Conservatorium makes anything but a conservative impression. It stuns with every detail: Art Nouveau design, light-flooded rooms, plus an on-site brasserie, upscale Asian eatery, and cinematic cocktail lounge. From superior singles to penthouses, there’s a room with your name on it (and we wouldn’t be shocked if it was embroidered into the sheets).
Day One: Do the Obvious
Cliché as some may be, these are the staples for any first-time visitor.
Anne Frank House: Yes, it’s Anne’s actual home. Book ahead.
Van Gogh Museum: This is another one you need to book in advance: It houses the largest collection of Van Goghs, and exhibits other post-Impressionist icons like Gauguin and Cezanne.
Rijksmuseum: A collection of Dutch art and relics (Golden Age and modern alike) housed inside the city’s most famous museum.
Dam Square and Royal Palace: This is the tourism crossroad of Amsterdam, surrounded by shops, restaurants, and bars, with the Royal Palace on its perimeter.
Red Light District: Only because we know you want to see it. (Pop into The Bulldog for a smoke if you want to check off all the clichés—we’ve all done it.)
Day Two: Live Like a Local
You’ve made a big dent in your list already, so take a day for leisure and pure culture.
Rent a bike: One of the first things you’ll notice in A’dam is that all the locals get around on two wheels. (You’ll be promptly scolded for meandering into their lane, too.) If you can keep up—and follow the rules—then consider renting a bike to get farther away from the city center and navigate the canals like you live there. As for rentals, A-Bike is the favorite amongst visitors. They offer various bike tours too.
Meander Vondelpark: With 127 acres of fields, lakes, and biking paths, Vondelpark is an oasis within the city center that’s beloved by city residents for picnics and recreation. Pop into the rose garden, or rent skates if you’re not cycling.
Visit Another Museum: True, the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh are first on the list, but Amsterdam has dozens of museums that are worth a visit. Try the modern and contemporary Stedelijk Museum; it’s on the “Museumplein” along with those other two. Foam Photography Museum or the world-history Hermitage Amsterdam will also leave a lasting impression.
Check Out the Markets: On Saturdays, stop by Noordermarkt for vintage attire and farm-fresh goods, or go Monday to pick up some one-of-a-kind antique mementos.
Cap It with Culture: Before your arrival, browse the calendars of The Dutch National Opera & Ballet and Het Concert Gebouw (for symphonic and orchestral showcases)—then book ahead. Or, stop by Waterlooplein Markt on Saturdays for old-timey trinkets and an array of food vendors.
Day Three: Go to Rotterdam
Here’s a wild idea: On your first visit to Amsterdam, leave Amsterdam. That’s right. Get away from the hoards that congest the city to see something equally worldly and equally Dutch 30 minutes south: Rotterdam. It’s a quick ride on the Intercity Direct, as well as Eurostar. You might know it because of the infamous 1940 air raid that decimated the city. Rotterdam had to rebuild itself from the ground up, and it’s done so meticulously. It has the bustle of a university town—akin to Boston, with all the biking and water-webbed magic of Amsterdam—and a roster of modern architectural wonders, too: The oddball Cube Houses (a row of block houses each standing upright on its corner), the Euromast TV tower, cable-stayed Erasmus Bridge, a hollowed-out loaf-shaped market (with apartments built into its side), solar-paneled Centraal Station, the yacht marina in Delfshaven (which is a relic of pre-war Rotterdam), the glowing art museum Kunsthal that deserves a visit, and the “vertical city” tri-columned De Rotterdam building, which towers over the waterfront.
There’s no need to rush back to Amsterdam, either: Stay overnight at the Rotterdam Marriott for front-door access, since it’s directly across from the train station. You can get back to Amsterdam after breakfast the next day.
No matter what, plan a dinner at Restaurant De Jong, open Wednesday through Sunday, nestled under the train rails. Of all the farm-fresh restaurants popping up around the globe (and especially in northern Europe), this is one of the most delightful. Jim de Jong customizes his daily prix fixe menu (4, 5, or 6 courses, your choice) depending on what’s freshest from his network of farmers, butchers, fisherman, and other suppliers. You’ll enjoy the bustle of the open-face kitchen, the witty banter from the waitstaff, and natural wine pairings that embellish each bite. Really, your best meal in Amsterdam is going to be in Rotterdam, and they’ll tailor it to any vegetarian requisites, too.
After dinner, grab a cab, then a brew at Locus Publicus, a beer hall outside the center that samples over 200 varieties.
Day Four: Fill in the Blanks
What’d you miss? Here are a few ways to end on a high note.
Hortus Botanicus: This expansive botanic garden—about 400 years old (and the oldest in Europe)—has some 4,000 plant species on display.
Canal Tour: Sure, you’ve already navigated the city by foot and pedal, but nothing compares to seeing it by boat. Plus, you get to learn the city’s history from an expert guide (often with food and drinks, too!).
Peruse a New Neighborhood: Perhaps you missed some of the city’s less touristy nooks. Now’s your time to go explore (maybe even by bike?). Consider the hipster-pedaled Bos & Lommer (BoLo), gallery-lined Westerpark, or the evergreen de Plantage (where Hortus Botanicus and the Zoo are both located).
Amsterdam Restaurants We Love
Restaurant Entrepot: Fine comfort food in a former billiards hall (renovated with a modern but minimalist twist, of course).
Café Caron: World-class French cuisine and wine from renowned chef Alain Caron.
Spaghetteria: Perfected Italian, with just three menu staples and a few rotating specials. Chase it with espresso and tiramisu.
Hartog’s Wholegrain Bakery and Milling: The freshest, sinful-est baked goods in the entire city.
Amsterdam Bars We Love
Alex + Pinard: Small-producer wines, artisan beers, craft cocktails—and a selection of fresh, sharable plates.
Bimhuis: Not so much a bar as it is a jazz club…the jazz club, that is. Check the calendar and book ahead, and enjoy some jazz between wine refills.
Japanner: Beer, sake, and Japanese fingerfood in the middle of Albert Cuymarkt.