For myriad reasons, Amsterdam is one of the most popular cities to visit in Europe. Whether you’re coming to swoon over the charming canals, gorge yourself on stroopwafels, or let down your hair a bit, Amsterdam has a lot to offer. While you can certainly spend a few days in this historic city, it’s also small enough to make a good day trip or long weekend destination. In fact, you can have a fantastic time with only one day in Amsterdam.
M and I visited Amsterdam as a part of our pre-baby vacation in August, 2018. (He hates the word “babymoon.”) It was a quick trip – just three nights – but more than enough time for us to gain an appreciation for this beautiful, historic city.
We arrived in the early afternoon on the train from Paris, which gave us enough time to check into our hotel and wander the streets a little before our entrance ticket time at the Anne Frank House. The next day, we chose to bike to nearby Zaanse Schans, continuing my hot streak of failing to stay within the city limits of the places we travel to see. Our final day in the Netherlands was spent perusing the Rijksmuseum, taking a canal tour, and exploring Amsterdam on foot.
As I look back on our time in Amsterdam, I have realized that it would be fairly easy to hit some of my favorite spots in the city all within the space of a day. Obviously, there’s no way to get to the heart of a destination in only twenty-four hours, but Amsterdam is one of few major cities in Europe where it’s possible to scratch a little deeper than the surface in such a short amount of time. Whether you’re only able to spend one day in Amsterdam or you just want a time-efficient itinerary for part of a longer stay, I hope you enjoy this schedule filled with great things to do!
How to Spend One Day in Amsterdam
Stop 1: Visit the Rijksmuseum
Start your day with a visit to Amsterdam’s impressive Rijksmuseum. This national museum has eight thousand historical artifacts and priceless works of art on display. The majority of these treasures chronicle Dutch history and art from the turn of the 13th century to the present day. Most notable among the artists represented are Golden Age masters Vermeer and Rembrandt.
The most famous painting in the Rijksmuseum is Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Roughly twelve feet by fourteen feet in size, The Night Watch anchors two galleries: the Night Watch Gallery and the sweeping Gallery of Honour. It is to the Rijksmuseum what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre, though the crowds aren’t quite as formidable.
Even if you’re not overly passionate about art, the Rijksmuseum is still well worth a visit. The collection of paintings is incredibly impressive, and you’ll also gain a new appreciation for Dutch history and culture. Many of the paintings capture small moments of daily life in the Netherlands’ past or idyllic rural scenes from a bygone era.
The museum is open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day of the year. As with most major European museums, it’s wise to purchase your tickets to the Rijksmuseum online in advance of your visit. Not only will this save you time when you arrive, but you can take advantage of the modest (€1) online discount. Adult tickets are €20, and children 18 and under are free.
The Rijksmuseum also has a nice little cafe if you’d like to grab a bite before hitting the galleries.
Stop 2: Lunch at a Sidewalk Cafe
If you’re anything like me, all that art and history will make you hungry. It’s time for lunch!
If the weather is nice, there’s no better way to fill your belly than to do so alongside one of Amsterdam’s famous canals. Many of the cafes in the canal belt have outdoor seating. Grab a table, place an order, and enjoy your food while watching the boats, bikes, and pedestrians pass by.
You’ll find a wide range of international cuisines available, but if you only have one day in Amsterdam, you should try some local cuisine! Sandwiches and Dutch pancakes are ubiquitous on lunch menus, and you can also find sausages, salads, soups, and fried snacks.
While it’s not localed canalside, I also highly recommend Dignita, which cooks a delicious brunch. There are three locations in the city, and their business model focuses on providing career training and opportunities for vulnerable individuals.
Stop 3: Anne Frank House
Inside, you’ll find the “Secret Annex” where 13-year-old Anne, her family, and four others hid from the Nazis from 1942 until their capture in 1944. Anne is best known for the diary that she kept during their confinement, which was found after their arrest and published by her father – the lone survivor of the Secret Annex – after the war.
A visit to the Anne Frank House first takes you through the building that used to be Otto Frank’s business. There, your audio guide tells you about the Frank family before the war, the events that led them to go into hiding, and the people who risked their lives to care for them.
The most powerful part of the tour starts when you step behind the reconstructed bookcase that once concealed the entrance to the annex. In a moment, you’ve entered the cramped apartments where eight people spent two years in hiding. A heavy sense of claustrophobia and foreboding settles on you almost immediately. As you move through the tiny rooms listening to the audioguide narration, it feels as though the occupants have only just stepped out. Photos and magazine clippings still cling to the wall where Anne glued them.
It’s hard to find the right words to describe this carefully preserved museum along the Prinsengracht canal. It’s a place of terrible tragedy that also represents the larger horror of the Holocaust. At the same time, however, there is so much hope and goodness to be found there. Anne’s diary was filled with all the heartfelt dreams and optimism of a young teenager, and it’s impossible not to be awed and inspired by the selflessness of the people who risked their lives to protect and sustain the people in hiding.
You absolutely must pre-purchase tickets to visit the Anne Frank House. Try to get them as far in advance as possible, as they sell out quickly. This is the most visited attraction in the city and visitor numbers are strictly limited. Adult tickets are €12.50, kids aged 10-17 are €6.50, and children under ten pay only the €1.00 booking fee.
Stop 4: Canal Tour
Sure, canal tours might be a little bit “touristy,” but there’s no better way to experience the Amsterdam canals than exploring them by water. It’s also an enjoyable, efficient way to see and learn a lot about the city in a short amount of time if you only have one day in Amsterdam.
As the name suggests, canal tours take their guests through the waterways of Amsterdam, pointing out significant landmarks and sharing historical and cultural information about the city. You get a different perspective seeing things from the water, and it’s fun to cruise under the many pretty bridges and past all the fun houseboats. We learned a ton about the history and architecture of Amsterdam, and our Dutch guide gave us plenty of insight into what it’s like to live in the Netherlands today.
We moseyed our way through smaller canals lined with picturesque row homes as well as larger waterways dotted with some of the most important buildings in the city. It was impossible not to be charmed by the architecture and uniqueness of the experience. Being on the canals made it easy to forget the party nature of Amsterdam and just enjoy her idyllic beauty.
There are multiple companies offering boat tours of the canals, so feel free to shop around. We set sail with Those Dam Boat Guys thanks to their positive online reviews and cheeky website. They were great and I would highly recommend them to anyone not traveling with young children. (Some of that cheek can be a little bawdy, alcoholic beverages are allowed and encouraged, and the tour is generally catered to adults.)
Pro Tip: Make sure to dress in layers, as even in warmer seasons it can be chilly down on the water.
Stop 5: Dinner
While Dutch food isn’t exactly world-renowned, Amsterdam actually has a great restaurant scene. Great foodie finds dot the city, and a visit to the trendy De Pijp neighborhood will land you among restaurants and cafes boasting cuisines from all over the world.
M and I had three tasty dinners during our stay, but if you only have one day in Amsterdam I highly recommend De Belhamel. The interior of this delicious and romantic little restaurant is decorated in a gorgeous art nouveau style that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Alternatively, if the weather is nice, you can sit outside on their waterfront terrace and admire the view of two picturesque canals at once.
Other dinners we enjoyed were at canalside In de Buurt (stop giggling) and a brewpub called Gollem Cafe. The latter, we later learned, has six locations across the city. We ate at Gollem’s Proeflokaal around the corner from our hotel, which was about as far as we wanted to travel after our long day biking to Zaanse Schans.
I recommend making a reservation, especially if you’re planning to visit an upscale restaurant in one of the more tourist-heavy areas.
Stop 6: Relax in a Brown Cafe
If you want to lounge like the locals do, there’s no better place to do it than a brown cafe. Brown cafes are old, traditional pubs that in many cases have been neighborhood mainstays for generations. Named for their wooden decor and the walls that are stained brown by years of tobacco smoke, brown cafes are a great place to sit back, relax over a pint, and rest your feet after a long day of sightseeing. After a couple of brews, you might even be ready to snack on a tosti (grilled cheese sandwich), bitterballen (deep fried meat-based balls), and/or other pub fare.
Recommended brown cafes include Café Hoppe, which dates to 1670 (Spui 18-20); atmospheric Café De Dokter (Rozenboomsteeg 4); Proeflokaal Arendsnest, which has an all-Dutch beer menu (Herengracht 90); and artistic Café de Pels (Huidenstraat 25).
Anytime in Between: Stroll the Streets and Along the Canals
Amsterdam is a city that is perfect for strolling, especially as you move away from the main tourist drags to the farther reaches of the canal belt.
Grab a paper cone of Dutch French fries (patat or frites) or some stroopwafels to munch while you enjoy the scenery!
Alternative Things to Do With Your One Day in Amsterdam
If the schedule above doesn’t float your (canal) boat, swap in any of the great options below!
Visit the Van Gogh Museum
The third in Amsterdam’s trio of excellent museums is the Van Gogh Museum. This tribute to the Netherlands’ favorite tortured soul is well worth a visit if you have the time and haven’t yet had your fill of art.
Rent a Bike and Cycle the City
This suggestion is not for the faint of heart, as cycling is serious business in Amsterdam. If you’re up for it, though, there’s no better way to channel your inner Dutch person than renting a bike and hitting the streets. There are numerous rental agencies throughout the city, and many hotels rent bikes as well.
Visit the Royal Palace
Originally Amsterdam’s town hall, the Royal Palace is the official reception palace of the Dutch monarchy. This Golden Age building is where King Willem-Alexander receives foreign leaders and holds various events and ceremonies, making it one of the most important structures in the city. As long as there are no state events going on, you can tour the palace and admire the historical treasures, furnishings, and works of art. (Tours are €10 for adults and include an audio guide.)
Take a Walk in a Park
Amsterdam has some beautiful parks that are well worth visiting if you have the time. M and I particularly enjoyed the Vondelpark, and the little bit we saw of the Westerpark was lovely as well.
Wander a Neighborhood
There’s a lot more to Amsterdam than the city center and main tourist canals. Take some time to wander through other nearby neighborhoods. Scenic Jordaan is slightly west of the more popular canal blocks and is filled with galleries, restaurants, and boutiques. De Pijp, mentioned above, is also known as the Latin Quarter and has a fun bohemian vibe. If you’re looking to get away from some of the tourist hustle and bustle during your one day in Amsterdam, these neighborhoods are the perfect places to get pleasantly lost.
The number of good museums in Amsterdam belies the city’s small size, and there seems to be something for every interest. Curious what it’s like to live on the Amsterdam canals? Check out the Houseboat Museum. For the history buff, the Dutch Resistance Museum offers a glimpse into anti-Nazi efforts during World War II. Art enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the Rembrandt House Museum. Finally, the National Maritime Museum celebrates the seafaring history of the Netherlands and is great for families.
Where to Stay in Amsterdam
There are loads of accommodation options all across Amsterdam. No matter your budget, you should be able to find something that works for you.
Many of the major tourist attractions are within easy walking distance of each other, so staying near the city center and the canals puts you right in the middle of the action. With only one day in Amsterdam, it’s wise to base yourself as centrally as possible so you don’t lose any time!
M and I really enjoyed our stay at Hotel Roemer. Our room was on the lower level (our window looked up at the sidewalk), but it was clean and well-furnished and absolutely massive as far as European hotel rooms go. (Seriously, the shower felt bigger than our whole bathroom in Paris.) The location of Hotel Roemer was a big plus, too. It sits on a quiet side street within walking distance of both the Vondelpark and some of the prettiest canals.
A Note on Airbnb in Amsterdam
As in many cities across the globe, Airbnb is being blamed for a lot of issues associated with the overtourism problem in Amsterdam. As the income potential for short-term rentals in such a popular city grew, more and more people started buying or renting out apartments for exclusively for tourists. This, in turn, drove up real estate prices and rents, squeezing out native residents due to costs or lack of availability. Amsterdam has been working to combat the problem through increasingly tight restrictions, resulting most recently in an April announcement that the city would ban Airbnb rentals in some of the most popular tourist areas beginning July 1.
To avoid contributing to the problem yourself, please consider staying in a locally-owned hotel rather than an Airbnb.
So there you have it! My best recommendations for how to spend one day in Amsterdam. I hope this guide is helpful for you as you plan a quick trip or just gather suggestions for a longer stay.
But Wait... Aren't You Missing Something?
You may have noticed that I have omitted of one of Amsterdam’s most famous attractions: the Red Light District. For many visitors, the District is at the top of their must-do list. They crave a place to let loose and legally indulge in desires that are forbidden back home. There is a policy of tolerance toward cannabis, meaning that it’s widely accessible and consumed, and prostitution is legal and regulated. It feels like a place where anything goes, and that’s quite nearly the case.
I have not included the Red Light District as a recommendation for a number of reasons. First and foremost are my own moral concerns with prostitution, drug use, and excessive drinking. It would be hypocritical for me to hold the beliefs that I do and still encourage others to take part just because it’s a major attraction in Amsterdam.
Second, when M and I passed the Red Light District at night after exploring the area nearby, I found it more sad, chaotic, and unsettling than thrilling.
Third, I have serious concerns about how the party draw of Amsterdam is upsetting locals and contributing significantly to the negative impact of overtourism in the city.
If the Red Light District is enticing to you, either to take advantage of her legal pleasures or just to experience the spectacle of it, that is absolutely your choice. It just wasn’t mine.
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