When I travel to any new city the first thing I like to do is take a walking tour to get the lay of the land, a better sense of the culture and hear about the local history.
If you haven't traveled to Amsterdam before, the historic part of the city is designed in concentric circles made up of canals and streets radiating from the central train station. This makes quickly seeing the major sites reasonable, but there is so much rich history and culture it can be hard to see everything you want in the course of the two city days I had.
Given my travel planning, I was able to see the top spots on my list and enjoy a little shopping too (more on that in our last blog). Here are a few recommendations and the places that made my Amsterdam experience so memorable.
Get Lost on a Walking Tour in Amsterdam
On this trip my travel buddy found a great podcast of a Rick Steves walking tour to give our schedule a little flexibility. Be sure to pack your headphones and you too will be ready to take on the city at your own pace!
This tour ended up being fantastic and led me through hidden spots I otherwise would have missed, like this famous Begijnhof. The courtyard dates back to the Middle Ages and later served as a sort of convent. The location is not far from the busy Dam Square, so worth a quick visit. In addition to a chapel, the courtyard also contains Amsterdam's oldest house, The "Wooden House" (Houten Huys).
Take a Canal Tour to Explore the Heart of Amsterdam
So much of life in Amsterdam happens on the water! To get a great view of picturesque Canal Houses, water side cafes and local culture, take a boat or barge tour in the morning or at sunset. I did a combination tour that included a boat tour and the Heineken Experience. Although kitchy, it was a fun way to see the city at sunset from the top of the old beer store house.
Stop and Smell the Tulips: Visit the Bloemenmarkt
A beautiful part of Dutch culture was observing the care to gardens and lush green spots in the city (including Vondelpark). If you need to find your green thumb or want a fun souvineer, you can purchase tulips at this floating flower market located not far from the Begijnhof above. Just make sure your tulips are sealed and ask a merchant if they are approved for US customs before purchasing.
Eat Something New at De Kaaskamer, Stash, or Blauw
Broadly speaking, Dutch cuisine isn't something universally sought after. However, what they specialize in, truly is special. Any trip to the Netherlands in my opinion wouldn't be complete without sampling the country's famed cheese (Gouda, Edam, Maasdam, etc.) and stroopwafels.
De Kaaskamer was a recommended stop from a Dutch friend and was the perfect place to get an introduction from a seasoned cheesemonger. This cheese shop is the best place in Amsterdam to purchase cheese to enjoy at the time (they offer take-aways with bread, cheese and other savories) and vacuum sealed slices to take home.
Unfortunately, I didn't make it to the famed Banketbakkerij Lanskroon Stroopwafel shop down the street before closing time. Luckily I did discover a great alternative at Stash! This is a wonderful epicurean market near Vondelpark perfect for picking up picnic supplies and their homemade waffles are delicious.
If you are on your way through Vondelpark, a great spot to end the day is Restaurant Blauw. They specialize in Indonesian rijsttafel, another must do in Amsterdam. This restaurant serves traditional vegetarian, fish and meat rice dishes with a modern flair.
Don't Miss the Culture: Visit a Museum, or Five
One thing I didn't want to miss in traveling to the Netherlands, was taking in original artwork by Dutch Masters and the many gifted contemporary Dutch artists. Beyond providing context to history, seeing local artwork provides great insight into the culture, spirit and values of a country.
Amsterdam is home to many fantastic museums. I was lucky enough to visit the Van Gogh Museum, The Rijksmuseum and The Anne Frank Haus. All three, were incredibly moving, well done and added a depth to my visit beyond enjoying the physical beauty of Amsterdam.
Most museums allow you to purchase tickets online ahead of time. I highly recommend doing so months in advance for the Anne Frank Haus to avoid long lines and/or searching daily for ticket sales.
Regardless of the tours you take, countless canals you stroll along, or friendly merchants you meet, Amsterdam is a city full of adventure, culture and beauty guaranteed to charm you.