Amsterdam is like a rite of passage for all 20-something backpackers exploring Europe for the first time. Salacious imagery of the infamous red light district and seedy smoke filled alleys might spring to mind for some. But beyond the stereotypical party scene there’s a whole other side to this guilder and I’m about to tell you how I explored it in just about 24 hours – on about 2 hours’ sleep. Let’s jump right in, shall we!
First things first, let me tell you, the weather in Amsterdam compared to stormy Inverness was HOT. So hot that I considered changing my outfit in the airport bathroom. I settled for stripping off the heavy leggings under my long sleeved dress and hoping no one could tell that I hadn’t shaved since the last time I’d seen a shower. Which was about a day too long ago. #backpackerlife
Another thing to note about Amsterdam on a Saturday is that it is crowded. The streets were a sea of college city-breakers and tourists, which made maneuvering at 5’2″ with a backpack half my size a bit difficult. Like Frogger but with bicycles and tall Dutch people who all appeared to have somehow gotten a humane amount of sleep Friday night.
But feel free to ignore the bitter ramblings of this permanently sleep deprived author, here’s what you should do with 24 hours in Amsterdam.
Take a boat tour
I know, I know. Every time someone heard of my plans to go to Amsterdam and enthusiastically recommended the ever-popular boat tour I would inwardly cringe a little bit. For some reason the idea of floating around listening to a guide recite the city’s Wikipedia page was a source of dread for me, but I put my doubts aside and one of the first things I did after checking into my hostel was to seek out a boat tour. And it was … Okay. So now you’re probably wondering why it made this list, right? Well it’s because I can tell you exactly *how* to experience a boat tour the right way. AKA not the way that I did it, which was to wander down to the nearest dock and hop on the next boat that was accepting passengers with cash. Bad tourist, bad.
So, for your personal edification and benefit, here are my official boat tour rules of engagement:
- Book your boat tour at sunset or at nighttime. You may think you won’t see as much but the fact is that the city will be much more enchanting as the twinkling lights blink on and the sun sets on the water. Plus you won’t get sunburned and be a surly lobster for the rest of your trip. You’re welcome. A gentle boat ride around the city is the perfect way to wind down after a full day of exploring, plus there’s free wine or beer on most tours, making it the perfect opportunity to recoup and pregame at the same time.
- With that said, take the time to research and book your tour ahead of time! You don’t want to end up on some run of the mill tour with a jaded guide that you can barely hear over the din of the motor. This kind of experience can make a one hour tour feel like those field trips you wished your parents hadn’t found the permission slip for. Not fun. Some tours to check are Boat Amsterdam, Blue Boat, Pancake Boat, Combo Cruise
- Don’t book a plain ol’ tour! You can absolutely find tours that include drinks, food, or entrances to other attractions (see above), so don’t settle for ordinary.
- Scout the city calendar for special events and festivals going on, then search for cruises that highlight them. For example, in the winter time Amsterdam’s Festival of Lights is in full swing, and lots of cruises tailor the experience to make the most of the displays.
- Know thyself. If you’re incredibly impatient, don’t care much for history, or are a self described landlubber, don’t book a boat tour – or if you do, don’t book one that lasts longer than an hour.
- This should go without saying, but if you choose to partake in some of the electric lettuce, don’t do it before a cruise. Stick to the safety and comfort of a “Coffee Shop” and don’t waste your money on an informational tour that you won’t remember. Stick to the free wine. Pro tip.
Visit a museum
I’m going to be straight with you all and admit that I did not follow my own advice on this one. But only because I was so tired I clocked out at my hostel around 5PM. No regrets, the sleep was amazing.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to me though. There’s a museum for everyone in Amsterdam, from the most popular Rijksmuseum (famous for the Iamsterdam sign that has since been removed due to excessive selfie-ing), to the Van Gogh Museum, to the Anne Frank House. You’ll find plenty of art and history no matter where you go in the city, just make sure you book your tickets online to save time and make sure you get in, especially if you’re on a tight schedule like I was.
Or poffertjes, which are tiny, adorable, fluffy Dutch pancakes that traditionally come topped with powdered sugar. You can pretty much get any toppings you want, though be warned that food is a bit pricey in Amsterdam. These poffertjes were my only restaurant splurge in the city. The strawberries alone made it worth the price. I can recommend PANCAKES Amsterdam in Westermarkt, where I felt very comfortable as a single pringle and even got a little wooden shoe key chain as a souvenir. Touristy, but in the best way.
Visit a market
On Sunday morning after my pancake breakfast I still had a few hours before my bus to Luxeumbourg so I decided to walk to the station – which was a few miles away but I was committed/lazy in a weirdly illogical way and didn’t feel like figuring out public transportation. On my way there I made the glorious discovery of the Sunday Markets (cue heavenly angel sounds).
If you happen to be in Amsterdam on a Sunday then you have the same opportunity to stroll over to the beautiful area of Westerpark, where you’ll find green spaces, eateries, and indie shops on any day. But on Sunday the park transforms into an indoor/outdoor market filled with food, fashion, books, produce, and so much more for decent prices. The energy is laid back yet lively and I happened to find some snacks and reading material for the journey ahead. Sitting in the sun and drinking sangria was very enticing, but tragically I had to get moving before the stand opened. Someone go buy one for me once the sun comes out again in Amsterdam, okay?
Find a windmill
It’s stereotypical, it’s silly, it’s possibly very underwhelming once you’ve done it, but it’s your touristic duty to find and take at least one photo of a windmill while you are in the Netherlands. If you only have one day in Amsterdam and no plans for continued travel into the countryside, this is your only chance. Apparently there are 8 in the city. Go forth and photograph, fair traveler.
Hint: This one is called Molen De Bloem, a private residence which means fewer mill hunters but also no tours.
And that’s a wrap. Of course there is so much more to do in Amsterdam, from nightlife, to culinary experiences, to history – not to mention the flower markets! I went to Amsterdam with no expectations and no idea what I would get myself into, and that turned out to be the best way for me to make the most of my first time there. If I ever go back I’d definitely delve a little deeper into the museums and nightlife, and try to experience some of what modern Amsterdam has to offer from eclectic galleries to the buzzing music scene. My advice for the city? Make it your own. It’s easy to put Amsterdam in a box based on what we see on American TV or hear on the news, but if someone else’s idea is what you go looking for you’re going to miss out on what’s right in front of you – which, trust me, is going to be better every time.