Late last month I took a once in a lifetime trip with some of my favorite people. I went to Paris and Amsterdam with Mike and my sister Jillian. We spent 3 scorching hot weekdays in Paris and then it was time to travel by train to Amsterdam. There we ended on the highest note of the trip (pun intended). Two amazing capitals of Europe in one week! Here is a roundup of our favorite Amsterdam activities.
Walking out of Amsterdam Central Train Station, we were smacked in the face with the unassuming beauty of the city. Streets, bridges and sidewalks weave over, through and along the famous canals that were once the lifeblood of trade in the Dutch capital. Amsterdam still looks like it did in the 1600s when it was the world’s richest city and the center of global capitalism. You can barely tell if you’ve entered modern day Netherlands or the Dutch Golden Age.
When we left Amsterdam Sunday afternoon, we all agreed on two thing. We needed more time in this incredible city and we are all planning to return. While we couldn’t see everything in two days, here’s a run-down of 5 things we hit. There are Amsterdam activities that you shouldn’t miss, even if you only have a weekend in this remarkable Dutch city.
So what Amsterdam activities should you do?
1. Do a Canal Tour
Whatever you do, the best way to get introduced to Amsterdam is from the perspective of the canals. The beauty of the canals at night is hard to describe, and pictures don’t do it justice. We booked a ride through Those Dam Boat Guys for an intimate BYO trip with 4 other couples.
Our guide, David, was funny, knowledgable and answered any and all questions from smoking pot in the coffee shops to peep shows in the red light district – he even invited the whole boat to his house the following night! It was great to start out with a local to advise us and for €25, the price was just as friendly as the crowd. I highly recommend booking a trip with these guys!
2. Visit the Rijksmuseum
Amsterdam itself is a work of art but you don’t have to dig deep to find other masterpieces from Van Gogh to Vermeer to Rembrandt in this Dutch National museum dedicated to the history and art of The Netherlands. The Van Gogh Museum was highly recommended but we had to pick one and decided that this museum would give us a more well-rounded tour. Best of all, the Rijksmuseum has a convenient app and free wifi that gives you a 45 or 90 minute narrated tour of the museum.
Tour options include viewing the gallery by exhibition, a highlight tour, tours by theme and collection. You can also wander around yourself and play narrations by entering a number located on most pieces. After being somewhat overwhelmed by The Louvre, this app was perfect for us. Don’t forget to bring earbuds or headphones. Make sure you don’t miss my favorite piece, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. This awesome museum is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm daily with a ticket price of €17.50.
Here are some Tips for Visiting an Art Museum to get the most out of your time there.
3. The Infamous Marijuana Coffee Shops
Through the questions of our fellow canal tour passengers, we learned a lot about the marijuana coffee shops in Amsterdam. We discussed their history and how the whole thing works. If you want to “smoke weed legally” in Amsterdam it’s possible depending who you ask. The ganja laws have always been a bit fuzzy here, but in 1976 the Dutch decriminalized Mary Jane.
Four years later they authorized over-the-counter sales in coffee shops. Unfortunately, they never legalized the ability for coffee shops to buy it from growers. I guess they assume it automatically appears in their storage rooms. This ambiguity leaves the coffee shops to dance around the law. It’s also a good example of the Dutch ethos – “anything goes” especially if makes a profit.
Northern European culture is very “live and let live” which makes coffee shop pot culture possible, and a must-see. When you visit, be prepared to pay cash and buy a non-alcoholic drink once you enter (€1-3). Coffee shops do not serve alcohol. Most offer you pre-rolled joints of pure marijuana and tobacco/marijuana combinations (about €10 and €7 respectively). Check one out (we enjoyed Damkring) smoke a joint and drink a Yoo-hoo.
4. Fondue: the cheesiest of Amsterdam activities
You probably won’t be craving traditional Dutch food once you have the munchies. The people of Holland aren’t exactly known for their culinary expertise, but they DO love cheese. There’s even a Dutch Cheese Museum, but we skipped that in favor
of fondue. We had this delicious cheesy goodness twice. Our favorite was Het Karbeel near the red light district. Once there, you’re in a perfect location to take a post-meal stroll and see what that famous neighborhood is all about. Het Karbeel has a fantastic beer selection, a knowledgable staff and 7 types of cheese fondue along with a traditional menu. A pot of fondue is under €20 and can comfortably feed two people. Not without mention, they also have a cute cat in the restaurant because… Amsterdam.
5. Get Historical: The Dutch Resistance Museum and The Anne Frank House
The imprint of the Holocaust and World War II is felt throughout Europe, and Amsterdam is no exception. Although this history is somber, it’s important to include in your visit to Amsterdam. Two stories to experience are that of Anne Frank and the history of the Dutch Resistance.
My recommendation is to visit The Dutch Resistance Museum, or Vezetsmuseum, first. This helps you to fully appreciate the elaborate planning and network involved in hiding Dutch Jewish citizens and resisting the German occupation. Unimaginable risks were taken by every-day citizens of The Netherlands. Their incredible acts are well-honored here.
Both exhibits offer online ticket booking. It is essential to book tickets for The Anne Frank House because the space is small and they are in high demand. For the Anne Frank House, online tickets are required before 3:30pm. Ticket costs are €10 for The Dutch Resistance Museum and €9.50 for the Anne Frank House.
There’s no way you can visit Amsterdam and be bored. There are just an endless array of things to do and see. It’s a very tourist packed place to visit in the summer months. Mike and I have returned in the fall the last two years and love the city then. It’s a little quieter in shoulder season but just as charming. If you’re planning a visit and curious where to stay in Amsterdam, try to find lodging in the inner canal rings. Of course you will pay a little more for that proximity. Here is a thorough guide on where to stay in Amsterdam. It will give you options for price points, location and type of trip you’re taking and traveler you are.
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