Windmills, cheese and lush, green countryside conjure up images of the Netherlands. The Dutch capital of Amsterdam is just as inspirational. From its canals to its storied timbered houses that still lean at odd angles, to its vibrant nightlife and grand collection of some of the world’s best museums, Amsterdam is the sort of place that demands days, if not weeks, to even scratch its surface.
Both river and ocean cruises use Amsterdam as a turnaround point. Most river cruise ships dock right in the heart of the city, just steps away from Passenger Terminal Amsterdam and Amsterdam Centraal Station, where regional and international rail connections depart. A day trip to Rotterdam or The Hague takes but a few hours in each direction, and even Paris isn’t out of reach.
That is, of course, assuming you become bored with Amsterdam and its environs – which isn’t likely to happen. Here’s our guide to why you should spend a few extra days in this vibrant Dutch city.
Amsterdam Does Museums
The simple truth of Amsterdam is that you could stay here for weeks and see nothing but museums.
At the top of the pack, the Rijksmuseum re-opened in 2013 after a decade-long renovation and quickly became the most visited museum in the country for the next two years. It’s not hard to see why: nestled within a gorgeous heritage building built by Pierre Cuypers that was completed in 1885, the Rijksmuseum houses over one million different pieces of art, artefacts, and historical objects, dating from 1200 to 2000. At any time, about 8,000 objects are on-display in the museum, including striking original Dutch Masters by Frans Hals, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, who’s haunting 1642 painting, The Night Watch, dominates over an entire room.
You can buy an e-ticket online that eliminates queuing for day-of tickets. It’s also a good idea to go during nonstandard hours; the museum notes that 11am to 2pm is the busiest time. We’ve had luck in the past with arriving first thing in the morning, and visiting a couple hours before the posted last entry time. Do this, and you’ll have the museum (mostly) to yourself.
Just up the street, the Van Gogh Museum displays the works of Vincent Van Gogh, and was the second-most visited museum in the Netherlands in 2015, and the 31st most-visited museum in the world. It’s worth a visit here if only for the gift shop, which sells some of the least-tacky souvenirs, including gorgeous umbrellas with Van Gogh reproductions.
Also nearby: the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, which is dedicated to contemporary art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Dating back to 1895, the museum’s collection includes over 90,000 items, housed in a sleek and futuristic-looking building constructed in 2012. Located on the Museumplein, getting here is easy: tram lines 2, 5, and 12 run right past it.
There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of other museums in Amsterdam. Few, however, have the knockout power of the Anne Frank House. Located on Prinsengracht 263-265, lineups wrap around the block along the canal even in the dreariest Dutch weather for the chance to see the house that young Anne Frank and her family lived in hiding in an Achterhuis – or Secret Annexe – at the back of the building.
It is still unclear who turned the Frank family in to the Nazis. Only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, would survive the Second World War. He lost his entire family, and set about publishing Anne’s diary. The house was purchased in 1957, and the museum opened in 1960.
The experience is claustrophobic, crowded, and unbearably moving. Don’t expect to just waltz up on the day of your visit and purchase tickets; unless you’re lucky, you’ll be queuing in lines for hours. Instead, purchase your ticket (and make a reservation to visit) online. You’ll save yourself endless time and disappointment.
Canals, Red Lights and Cycling
Of course, Amsterdam’s other areas of interest are equally attractive. A canal cruise is a must on any first-visit, whereas frequent visitors might prefer to loose themselves in the city’s Venice-like labyrinth of cobblestone streets, sidewalks and squares.
No visit to Amsterdam is complete without a stroll (by day and night) through the city’s Red Light District. Located near Amsterdam Centraal station, the Red Light district is devoid of the shame and seediness that would accompany similar areas in North America. Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, and is strictly regulated by the government. And yes, if you stroll through the area by day – or by night – you’re liable to see women in all states of dress, waiting for customers. Here’s the interesting part: you’ll see couples, families, older people, and single men here. Everyone is out for a stroll around, and there’s remarkably no judgement here. Check your preconceived notions at the canal, and see it for yourself.
Amsterdam is also know for its Coffeeshops. Unlike a Coffee Shop, these “Coffeeshops” serve up Amsterdam’s other forbidden sin: recreational marijuana, in all its various forms. This is entirely legal within these establishments, where the pot is dolled out as drinks might be dolled out in a bar. Just don’t do something dumb and try to carry it back through Schiphol Airport, okay?
Finally, you haven’t truly lived until you’ve cycled Amsterdam. One of the most bike-friendly (and some would say ‘bike-crazy’) cities in the world, cycling around Amsterdam is about as authentic as cultural experiences get. Once you get the hang of it – and understand that the city’s bike lanes operate on much the same basis as driving a car along a city street would – it can be immensely enjoyable. Don’t be afraid to cycle outside of the city, too – places like Zaandam and Hoorn aren’t out of reach for the moderate-to-experienced cyclist.
These are just a few of the things that make Amsterdam wonderful – and we haven’t even touched on the city’s amazing food scene, it’s cozy bars and lounges, or its fantastic shopping opportunities.
If you’re booked on a river cruise that is scheduled to start or end in Amsterdam, do yourself a favor: book an extra day or three here. You certainly won’t regret it. In fact, in all the years we’ve been writing here on River Cruise Advisor, we’ve never heard a bad word about it.