High culture meets good times in Amsterdam, a city as popular for museum-hopping mini-breaks as it is for raucous hen or stag trips.
Its iconic 17th-century canal houses, delightful cafés and fleets of vintage-style bikes project an air of wholesome, timeless charm. In between sampling local food and drink, there are some truly unmissable sights and events to discover. Make no mistake: there’s more to this destination than Rembrandt and tulips.
Amsterdam’s centre is very walkable, with a high number of top attractions within just a few minutes of one another, so you can pack in more sights than you'd normally expect in half a day – ideal if you're looking to add a bit of leisure time onto a business trip.
Start your morning in the Old Centre, where the medieval buildings that line historic streets such as Zeedijk appear in stark contrast to the throngs of international tourists that reveal Amsterdam’s status as a thoroughly modern city.
Find a café with a view of the harbour to enjoy your breakfast. Afterwards, visit Dam Square to see stately buildings such as the Nieuwe Kerk and the Royal Palace, then prepare yourself for a rapid change in atmosphere as you head east to De Wallen, the red-light district. As you can imagine, it’s a different place after dark, but even during the day you get a vivid sense of the complex take on social tolerance and approach to civil liberties that's been a mainstay of the city for centuries.
Wander south at your own pace, crossing photogenic canals to reach the less hectic area of Jordaan. Spend some time browsing the little boutiques of De 9 Straatjes, then carry on drifting southeast to take in the riotous colours of the Bloemenkmarkt. After lunch at a canal-side café, you should still have time to stop in at some of the interesting galleries and museums in the area. The Foam photography museum, located in a stunning canal house, is not the most obvious choice, but it’s one of the best. The Anne Frank House is also nearby.
However long you have in Amsterdam, you’ll probably want to start by taking in the sights of the Old Centre and the Jordaan area, criss-crossed with canals. You can do this by foot, but with two days to fill, it’s also very much worth hiring a bike.
In the evening, dine at a restaurant in Leidseplein and you’ll be within easy walking distance of a vast number of bars and clubs. Take your pick from expensive cocktail bars, clubs or a quieter drink at a traditional brown café (more like a local pub and so-called because of their interiors, which are stained brown from up to a few hundred years of smoke).
The next day, recover from the excesses of the previous night as you spend a quiet few hours browsing the Museum Quarter at your own pace. Take your pick from the main attractions here: the Stedelijk Museum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Any one of these could fill hours, so doing more than two in a day is probably ambitious. Grab lunch at one of the museums’ excellent cafés, then catch the last rays of the sun as you wander through Vondelpark.
On your final evening, stay central with a bar crawl in Rembrandtplein. If you’re in the right frame of mind, you could also hang out in busy Dam Square, taking a detour to De Wallen to see what Amsterdam’s most notorious area, the red-light district, looks like after nightfall.
However, if you’re still feeling a bit fragile after the previous night and would prefer to have a more low-key evening, you could take in a film at one the city’s lovely independent cinemas such as EYE Film Institute, arthouse-style Filmtheater Kriterion, or the oldest cinema in the city, single-screen De Uitkijk. The latter dates from the 1920s and is known for its decadent velvet seats and accompanying table lamps.
Alternatively, get dressed up for a night at the Concertgebouw, where the splendour of the interior simply has to be seen to be believed. Make sure you plan though – concerts here sell out months in advance.
Days 1 and 2
Spend the first couple of days of your trip exploring the most well-trodden tourist paths in the Old Centre, Jordaan, the red-light district and the Museum Quarter. Yes, these places are obvious, and yes, they’re busy, but with good reason. Hire a bike to cover more ground. You’ll save time and will be able to fit in trips to excellent museums aside from the headliners, such as the Rembrandt Museum.
By now, you should have got your bearings, so this is as good a time as any to shop. Amsterdam has so much to buy that you can easily get carried away. De Pijp is a brilliant neighbourhood for independent boutiques, and is also home to Albert Cuypmarkt, the city’s largest market. Fill up on stroopwafels and other tasty treats as you browse for souvenirs. If you start to get thirsty from all that spending, take a trip to the nearby Heineken Experience. And in the evening, stick around in the area to experience its eclectic nightlife.
Time for a change of scenery. Take the ferry north, to NDSM wharf area, and get lost amid the gritty, graffiti-flecked landscape of the former shipyards, now favourite haunts for artists. Get lucky and your trip will coincide with IJ-Hallen, a vast flea market held here once a month. Otherwise, chill out in the local cafés or, if you’re feeling brave, head up to the observation deck of the soaring A’DAM tower. Its rooftop swing offers a unique perspective on the city.
Escape the city on a day trip. At the right time of year, the Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse are a must-see, but miss the fleeting spring window and they won’t be open. Cheese-lovers can stock up at the market in either Gouda or Alkmaar, both beautiful towns less than an hour away by train. Leiden, Rembrandt’s hometown, is another popular choice. Finally, Muiden’s splendid castle museum, Muiderslot, is ideal for a family-friendly trip.
Relax with a slow-paced day in the west of the city. The massive De Foodhallen indoor food market, in the Oud West area, is a feast for all the senses (though, admittedly, mostly taste). Intriguing events spaces nearby include De School, to the west, and Westergasfabriek to the north. Stay here late enough and these two buildings turn into nightclubs.
Weather permitting, a trip to Zandvoort Beach (half an hour by train from Amsterdam Centraal) is a glorious way to round off an Amsterdam visit. If you prefer to stay closer to the centre, though, use your final day to do a sweeping survey of some of Amsterdam’s quirkier museums. These include the likes of the KattenKabinet, dedicated to cats; the world’s only Houseboat Museum; and the utterly dazzling Our Lord in the Attic, an opulent Catholic church concealed within a 17th-century townhouse, a relic of the prohibition of Catholicism.