Amsterdam is a beautiful city with more canals than Venice, and a laid-back down-to-earth feel. It is arguably most well known as the home of the Anne Frank House, a touching tribute to a young girl who believed, despite all the terrible things going on around her, that people were still truly good at heart. Amsterdam is also a cultural center with two world-famous museums, countless artists, and quaint old cafes. You could spend days upon days exploring all that Amsterdam has to offer, but we were able to get a feel for the city and take in the majority of its highlights on a well-planned two day visit.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Amsterdam has a dually opposing reputation as a free society where anything goes. Many things considered socially unacceptable in the United States–prostitution, smoking marijuana, taking “herbal” drugs–are legal and in-your-face out in the open. While that wasn’t the aim of our visit to the city, it is estimated that it makes up about 25% of tourism in Amsterdam.
On Day One, our first stop was the famed Anne Frank House (above). The Anne Frank House was where 8 Jews hid from the Nazis for two years during World War II, including the young Anne Frank. Sadly, they were discovered after two years by the Nazi and sent to concentration camps. While Anne and 6 of the 7 others perished at those camps–her father was the only survivor–the diary she kept during that time lived on. The Diary of Anne Frank was translated into 67 languages and sold over 30 million copies worldwide. Visiting the site was a stark reminder of the atrocities the Jews and countless others endured at the hands of the Nazis during WWII.
I booked our tickets to the Anne Frank House ahead online since I’d read that the site had a reputation for horrible lines. I saw this first-hand during my visit–the line of people waiting for admittance wrapped down and around the block. Luckily, with my pre-booked tickets, we were able to go to a door to the left of the main entrance, past all of the people waiting in line, and simply press the doorbell there for admittance. The space was surprisingly small and could easily be visited in under an hour. It was exceedingly difficult to imagine 8 people in those cramped quarters. I could definitely understand how this started to wear on the families over time.
Our second stop of the day was the Rijksmuseum (above). The Rijksmuseum was filled with famous works by Dutch artists, particularly from the 17th century. The 17th century was the zenith of Dutch sea trade. The influx of wealth to the merchant class poured money into the arts, creating the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals (to name only a few of the featured artists in the museum). I was able to book our tickets ahead, so we were happily able to skip another line. There were some serious renovations going on when we were there, so some wings were off-limits, but we saw the must-sees with no difficulty.
After the Rijksmuseum, we had worked up an appetite, so we found a local shop selling various sandwiches, salads, and tasty treats by the weight for a quick, delicious lunch. The friendly counter server gave us some great cheese recommendations and made sandwiches to our specifications. We found a nearby bench and sat down for a moment to enjoy our meal. After, we found a European chocolate shop to pick our some dessert. The variety of options bordered on overwhelming, but we did our best!
In the afternoon, we decided to take it a bit easier and just enjoy the sights and sounds of Amsterdam. Historic old buildings, bustling central squares, leafy canals, and picturesque bridges dotted the city. Viewing the city itself and wandering down some of the many side canals was the best thing we did while in Amsterdam. We came across a variety of surprises from a rowing team out practicing to a mini boat parade to a musician with a specially outfitted musical boat!
We stopped for a late afternoon pick-me-up at an outdoor cafe–not to be confused with a coffee shop–in Dam Square (below). While sipping on our coffee–which they also apparently served in Amsterdam–we had a chance to take in the hustle and bustle going on around us. Dam Square was a very lively place with the Royal Palace, a Madam Tussauds wax museum, shops, hotels, restaurants, and street performers all sharing the inviting, open space.
After our break, we continued our city wanderings, which included a brief stop in the Red Light District just for curiosity’s sake. It was definitely not a G-rated experience; and I was initially taken aback by how openly prostitution–which is legal in Amsterdam–was advertised. You could literally see ‘advertisements’ for these services posing in the windows. The area was definitely a bit seedy, and we did not feel the need to stick around after initially checking it out.
For dinner, oddly enough, we found a falafel restaurant near our hotel. It wasn’t exactly local, but it was absolutely delicious. After, we called it an early night (jet-lag). Our hotel, Hotel Pulitzer, was located near the Anne Frank House on a quiet side canal. Hotel Pulitzer was built out of a block of 25 restored 17th and 18th century canal houses that had been converted into a connected hotel. From a historical and location perspective, we couldn’t have stayed in a more perfect place. From a logistics perspective, it was a HIKE to our room–up, down, left right… Consisting of 25 connected houses, the hotel had a lot of different passages, stairways, etc. to navigate. At the end of our hike, though, our room had a beautiful timbered ceiling, and the bed was extremely comfortable–which was all that really mattered at that point!
The next morning, we headed out to the Koningsplein neighborhood to check out the Bloemenmarkt (flower market). Holland had a reputation for tulips, even trading them like stocks in the 17th century until the market’s bubble burst. So, it was no surprise that the flower market had a ton of tulips on offer, in addition to a variety of bulbs for sale. We checked out the potted plants and beautiful floral arrangements on offer while walking the long block that made up the floating flower market.
After, we headed to the last site I wanted to get in while in Amsterdam–the Van Gogh Museum. (Again, I booked our tickets ahead of time online in order to avoid the lines. That would be my biggest tip from Amsterdam–book the sites ahead to avoid spending half of your visit waiting in lines.) The Van Gogh Museum (below) housed approximately 200 of Vincent’s famous paintings and was my favorite museum in Amsterdam. The audio-guide was a must and really added to the experience, as well. Between the flower market and Van Gogh Museum, it was a very colorful morning.
In the afternoon, we strolled around the city some more. We did go past the Heineken Experience but decided we’d prefer to enjoy our limited time in the city outside rather than on the 1.5 hour self-guided tour. The weather was cool, and the vibe was relaxed. An afternoon canal stroll was the perfect way to cap off a wonderful first visit to Amsterdam. For more information on how to plan your entire trip to Amsterdam, skip the lines, and get the most out of your adventures, click here to view our detailed Amsterdam city planning guide!