Three Days in Amsterdam

One of my favorite cities in the world is Amsterdam, and it has nothing to do with the colorful red lights that are so characteristic of the city. What I love about Amsterdam is that it reminds me of home, with its brick buildings, open skyline, history (the Pilgrims came from Leiden before they landed on Plymouth rock!), and similar attitude towards life. Over the years, I’ve visited Amsterdam many different times, and I’ve spent countless hours walking the city, making local friends, and living in the city for a few months in 2006. The city deserves more than just the two days in coffeeshops most people give it. But if a few days are all you have, here’s an itinerary that will give you an idea as to what the city is really about:

Day 1
Free Walking Tour
Bridge over the canal in Amsterdam, surrounded by trees
A good way to orient yourself to the city is with a walking tour. You’ll learn some history and be able to see where all these windy canal streets take you. I recommend the free New Europe walking tour. It covers a lot of ground and gives you a good general overview of the city.

Canal Tour
Perspective view of Amsterdam's canals with boats in it
Amsterdam is a city tied to the water. The canals of Amsterdam are incredibly beautiful, and there’s nothing like seeing the city from a boat. Skip the big canal boat tours you see around the city. They’re overpriced, and you can hire a private boat tour for less. Look for guides around the Red Light District.

Van Gogh Museum– This may be one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, but don’t let the crowds deter you. The museum features many of Van Gogh’s best works of art alongside an excellent biography of his life. The museum is laid out in chronological order starting with his earliest works. They also have paintings by other famous artists like Monet, Manet, and Matisse. I’ve been three times, but I love Van Gogh.

Rijksmuseum – Rijksmuseum is located right next to the Van Gogh Museum. Although it’s constantly under renovation, the museum still features an extensive Rembrandt collection, and you’ll be able to see the famous painting, The Night Watch. Besides Rembrandt, there’s also a good collection of other classic Dutch painters.

Vondel Park
People lying around Vondel Park in Amsterdam on a summer day
Amsterdam’s largest and most popular park is a great place to walk, bike, people-watch, or relax, especially after a visit to a local coffee shop. There’s a playground, places to play sports, and numerous areas for hanging out. During the summer, Vondel Park is filled with people.

The Heineken Experience
This museum used to be a lot better when it was cheaper and they offered more beer. It’s not a working brewery, and in comparison to the Guinness Museum in Dublin, it’s lame. The price of admission buys you three beers, and you’ll learn a bit of the history of Heineken. There’s even a video game.

Day 2
Anne Frank House
Anne Frank House with a line outside of it in Amsterdam
In all honesty, I don’t like this place. I found it to be anti-climactic and overall, I felt the Jewish History Museum does a more thorough job of relating the events in Anne Frank’s life to the Holocaust. You basically do a slow walk through the house. But if you don’t mind waiting in line and you’re curious about her, it might be worth the visit. Get there early to avoid a line.

The Jordaan Area– This heavily residential area is probably the most missed attraction in Amsterdam. I think it’s the best area of the city. Although it’s right near the city center, hardly any tourists enter this maze of restaurants, cafes, and stores. Make sure you walk around. It’s peaceful and a great place to avoid the mass of tourists crowding the main streets.

The Tulip Museum
Outside the Tulip Shop, a place that tells the story of tulips in Holland
Located in a room inside a tulip shop, this little place does an interesting job of telling the history of tulips in Holland and the infamous Tulip craze. It’s one of the best off-the-beaten-path attractions in Amsterdam. Best of all: you’ll never find a crowd.

Amsterdam History Museum– This museum features a very thorough history of Amsterdam. It’s big, and you’ll need three or four hours to really see it. There are a lot of relics, maps, paintings, and audio visual information throughout the museum. My favorite is the computer graphic showing the growth and construction of the city over time.

Saint Nicholas Church- This is my favorite church in Amsterdam and one of my favorites in all of Europe. It’s a baroque style church with nothing amazing about it, but the immense interior, its age, and the stained glass make it beautiful. You can sense the history inside.

Red Light District
The Red Light District in Amsterdam with red lights shining from the shop windows
Though much tamer than in previous years, the Red Light District is still an interesting area. You’ll find all the seediness you’d expect, and even a few families. Just don’t take pictures of the girls in the windows. Big bouncers might appear out of nowhere and smash your camera.

Day 3
Do a Bike Tour
Group on a bike tour through a city in The Netherlands
Bikes go with Amsterdam like wine goes with France. The city loves bikes, and there are supposedly more bikes than people in Amsterdam. In fact, forget about keeping a lookout for cars. It’s the bikes that will run you over! Seeing Amsterdam and its surrounding area from a bike is something I definitely encourage people to do.

Jewish History Museum– An often-overlooked museum, the Jewish History Museum tells the history of Jews and their prominent and influential position in Amsterdam. The exhibit on World War II does a great job of highlighting Dutch complacency, resistance, and guilt over the Holocaust.

The blooming trees in Oosterpark in the Netherlands
Everyone goes to Vondelpark to sit around, bike, or get high, but east of the main city center is a beautiful park with a lot fewer people and green space that is just as nice. It’s about a 30-minute walk from the city center, but it takes you through residential areas of the city not often seen and way off the tourist map.

FOAM– This photography museum houses wonderful pictures and sees few crowds despite being in the main part of the city. It’s a must for any photography lover. I really enjoyed all the black-and-white photographs and the outdoor garden.

(Optional activity: Coffee shops. I didn’t include any in this list of things to do because there’s more to Amsterdam than its famed smoke shops. If you do want to go to some, you’ll find them all around the city. They’re like Starbucks—one on every corner! I like Dolphin. Skip “The Grasshopper,” though. They grossly overcharge.)

This list only touches the surface of things to do in Amsterdam. There are a lot of off-the-beaten-path activities you could include as well as many markets, shops, and museums to see. Three days in any city is never enough time to really see it, but given Amsterdam’s compact nature, it’s definitely enough time to hit all the “major” attractions here. You just won’t hit anything else.

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  1. Great suggestions! Amsterdam is indeed a unique city, and not just for its famed attractions. Like you said, there’s more to the city than just prostitutes and pot.

    Isn’t there also a popular kind of old convent garden worth the visit?

  2. I also love Amsterdam. The downtown core is so condensed with so many great cafes (and coffeeshops) and cool little shops. It is so beautiful with all the old buildings and canals.

    Dutch people also seem to have a different personality and openness. Amsterdam is a very culturally alive city with a great art scene and many innovative entrepreneurs.

  3. Strange to read this about Amsterdam as a Dutch person myself. I actually found the people in Amsterdam to be quite closed and stiff (@John) You can disappear in a city like that, everybody is anonymous. Talking to total strangers is something I’d rather not do, I always have the feeling that people there are looking for trouble. But that’s just me. Going through the city by bike definitely is the best choice, but that goes for just about any city in The Netherlands.

    As long as you stay away form the big shopping streets Amsterdam is quite nice, but it’s so damn crowded.

    Okay, I might be a bit negative here. I think I’ll have to just tag along if one of you guys ever visits the city again. Seeing things from a different perspective.

  4. I was pleasently surprised by my visit to Amsterdam (several years ago!) We went on a bike ride through Oosterpark – and loved how quiet it was. Off the beaten path for sure. Thanks for the lovely reminder!

  5. Both your and Andi’s blogging of Amsterdam this week have made me super homesick for living in Holland! I didn’t love it while I was living there (other than the meeting the husband part!), but now I get super nostalgic for that way of living on a regular basis.

  6. Don’t forget the St Nicholas Boat club– an excellent alternative to the expensive boat tours. They meet at Boom Chicago Comedy club in the middle of town. Last time I checked they worked strictly by suggested donation, and they use a smaller boat so that you can go many places the big boats can’t. We had a great guide, too.

  7. My mom’s family is Dutch and I have been going to Holland since I was a child, however, most of the time is usually spent hanging out with family. Of course, we eat out sometimes in Amsterdam but I am just usually following wherever they take me and not taking note of the area, per se. We love perusing the open air flea markets. I’ve been to the Anne Frank and Rijkmuseum and there is a fabulous Theater Museum I went to many years ago. Next time I go, I’m going to act like a tourist and take in some of these other sights. Thx for the info.

    • NomadicMatt

      When I was last in Amsterdam, I took some of my Dutch friends around and they played tourist. They said they never knew being a tourist in Amsterdam was so fun. I think you’ll enjoy it!

  8. We’re heading to Amsterdam this year which is not that far from us, the French Alps. We’re still debating the ‘coffee shops’ though since neither one of us have ever done anything like that before. Of course, we could just order coffee! Thanks for the great tips. I’ll be printing this and taking it with me.

  9. sofia

    The red light district is an interesting place, and even without looking for it you suddenly find yourself in the middle of it all..!
    That happened to me and my family a couple of years back, we were offered family discount on spanking before we found our way out…!

  10. Aerlanga Floris

    Its always good to see other people enjoying the real Amsterdam, not just the coffeshop or red light. I self live near A’dam town called Almere, about 20 min by train, and i do spend a lot of time in Amsterdam during my free time and hang out in the Flying Pig (i worked there as a intern), i LOVE meeting travellers. To make a long story short, if you guys are planning to visit Amsterdam anytime soon and wanna see some places outside of Amsterdam like my hometown, please contact me!
    we’ll just hangout and see the different part of Holland

  11. Jonathan

    Good tips. As I live in Amsterdam, three more tips. I will post some other tips “off the beaten track” at that post.
    1. Museum Geelvinck or Museum Van Loon. They are right next to each other and both display the original interior of the 17th Century canal house. Beautiful gardens. Check opening times on the internet.
    2. A guided tour of the “hofjes”. These are small areas which you cannot see from the streets. They were intended to provide living space for widows or other females who needed safe, cheap accomodation. Built by wealthy benefactors. Only if you are interested in social history and its stories.
    3. For the girls. The “Tassenmuseum Hendrikje”: a museum dedicated to handbags and purses. In an original canal house (and in the dead center of town). they have a very good high tea.

  12. nicole


    Just wanted to say to people who might plan their trip around to be in Holland for queensday, we don’t have a queen anymore.. It’s kingsday from now on and it won’t be on April 30 anymore but on April 27! (only in 2014 it will be on April 26)
    It would be a shame if you came in three days late!

    • nicole

      I didn’t know where else to comment cause I can’t comment on ‘The Netherlands travel tips’ but it mught be handy to change if you didn’t knew allready 😉

  13. Vandeerhelst

    The Rijksmuseum has now reopened, and it’s very much worth the visit. The Museumplein has a great feel about it, particularly on good, sunny days. But beware of bicycles – wa actually bike through the museum and it may be a bit dangers to an innocent tourist who is not really paying attention. And last tip: the garden of the Rijksmuseum has regular sculpture exhibitions, has free entrance and holds the best place in Amsterdam for coffee.

  14. Hi Matt – Very nice overview for a quick trip to Amsterdam.
    One question, something I’ve been wondering about for awhile. When you take one of those free walking tours in Europe, such as Sandeman’s, what would be considered an appropriate tip. I have no idea if it should be 5 Euros or 20? Any suggestions?

  15. Lezanne

    Hi Guys,

    Great itinerary! Any suggestions where to stay?
    We are a young married couple, would prefer a hotel or nice B&B.
    -from South Africa -so they currency is not in our favour! :)

  16. Man, I lived in the Netherlands (in Leiden, half an hour away) for three years and even though I must’ve been to Amsterdam 20 or 30 times, I haven’t done the majority of these things! Next time I’m in Holland I’ve gotta work on seeing some of the museums, haha.

    The only thing I could add is that maybe instead of going to the Red Light District for boat rentals, the cheapest way to go is just to head to a little hole-in-the-wall kayak or canoe rental place outside the city center and start your tour from there. If you start somewhere in the IJsselbuurt or North Amsterdam it should just be a few euros per hour, and since you won’t have a guide you can be a bit more adventurous exploring the city :-)

    It really is a magical city! Glad you’ve enjoyed it so much and put this together for us.

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