Last weekend we took advantage of the unusually beautiful weather and decided to make a day trip to Amsterdam. We knew that we wanted to explore the canals – that’s a must in Amsterdam, so we booked our canal cruise in advance. But the rest of our day itinerary was completely blank. Since we hadn’t been to Amsterdam in years, I did some research on what we could do in Amsterdam in one day, and found some great advice. However, I had to read a paper travel guide and seven different websites before I came up with a somewhat feasible itinerary with the best things to do in Amsterdam if you only have one day.
Yes, there are many amazing and also quirky museums in Amsterdam, beautiful parks to visit, and lots of great bars and cafes where you can have the best meal in town… But unless you have more than one day, you will probably not want to waste your time shopping at the huge warehouse Bijenkorf or walking to the other side of town in search for that one restaurant that someone recommended…
So this is my no-nonsense guide to the best things to see and do in Amsterdam in one day. At the bottom of the post you can find some suggestions on what to see and do in and near Amsterdam if you have more time.
What to do in Amsterdam in one day
Amsterdam city centre is not very big, so you can see and do quite a lot in one day. Find out the best things to see and do that you shouldn’t miss, even if you only have one day in Amsterdam. I created this map to give you a better idea of where all these places are and help you better plan your day in Amsterdam.
1. Explore Amsterdam canals on foot
There are many canals in Amsterdam, but if you only have one day, there are three main canals that shouldn’t be missed: Herengracht, Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht. All dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age and surrounded by some of the most beautiful traditional Dutch houses that Amsterdam is famous for. Singel is another canal that is definitely worth strolling along, as is the Brouwersgracht.
Actually, you can skip the Herengracht canal when exploring Amsterdam canals on foot, because it’s one of the main canals, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you will probably pass here by boat. Which brings me to the second thing you must do in Amsterdam…
2. Take a canal cruise
If I were to choose just one thing that you absolutely must do in Amsterdam, it would be a canal cruise. Whether you are visiting Amsterdam for one day or a week, don’t miss this! No matter how much exploring you do on foot, seeing the city from a boat gives a completely different perspective. It’s also a perfect way to see a lot without having to walk even more.
When it comes to Amsterdam canal cruises, there are countless options. Some excellent, some good, and some… not so good. But how do you know it when you are in town and are overwhelmed by all the boats you see there? We thought that the best way to avoid disappointment and long queues would be to research and book the canal cruise in advance. And indeed, it saved us lots of time and we got exactly what we expected.
GetYourGuide sponsored Amsterdam canal cruise for our family so that we could share our first hand experience with searching and booking tours through their website. GetYourGuide offers more than 30,000 activities worldwide, and to give you an idea – over 100 canal cruise options in Amsterdam.
After some research we quickly found a semi-open boat tour that looked perfect for the beautiful sunny day we knew we would have. Customer reviews were good too, so the choice was quickly made. The booking process was extremely easy and a few minutes later we received a confirmation email with the vouchers. The only thing we misunderstood (= didn’t read properly) is that we had to exchange the vouchers for the actual tickets at the nearby office before heading to the boat. But we made it to our boat on time. And because we had an advance booking, we could pass the long line of people who were waiting for a boat without a reservation. This was mid October!
TIP: If you are traveling to the Netherlands in high season, I strongly suggest to book your canal cruise in advance. This is especially the case if you are short on time and only have one day to see the best of Amsterdam.
3. See Damrak, Dam Square and the Royal Palace
Don’t miss Damrak – the big avenue running in the direction of the Central Station (Amsterdam Centraal) that is home to the former stock exchange building, the monumental Beurs van Berlage, and some other historic buildings that you often see on the postcards from Amsterdam.
Dam Square with the Royal Palace is one of the most well-known locations in Amsterdam. Many events take place here, and it’s always very lively. You don’t need much time to visit (unless you go inside the Palace), but it would be unthinkable not to pass here when visiting Amsterdam.
4. Visit Amsterdam Begijnhof
If you are looking for a more authentic experience in Amsterdam, the Begijnhof is a true hidden gem right off the hectic city center. This small area houses a church, historic houses and one of the two original wooden houses in Amsterdam. However, don’t expect to be alone – it’s just as popular with tourists as the rest of Amsterdam.
Begijnhof is open daily from 9AM to 5PM and is free of charge. There are two entrances: at the Northern side of the Spui and at the Gedempte Begijnensloot (at the end of the Schuttersgallery).
5. Stroll through the floating flower market
Even if you are not planning to buy any flowers, the floating flower market is a must in Amsterdam. You can buy flower bulbs, all kinds of souvenirs, or just walk around. You don’t need much time there, but it’s a fun place to visit and make some colourful pictures.
6. Visit one museum: Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, or Anne Frank House
Amsterdam is famous for its museums, but honestly it’s difficult to visit any of them if you only have one day in the city. If you are keen to visit one of the most famous museums like Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, or Anne Frank House, pick one that interests you the most and make sure to book your tickets in advance (Anne Frank House tickets can only be purchased directly). Otherwise, just forget it. It’s not worth it to spend two hours of your time queuing at the Anne Frank house if you only have one day in Amsterdam.
7. Museumplein and I Amsterdam sign
Even if you don’t have the time to visit the Rijksmuseum, it’s worthwhile to walk there just to see the beautiful building. And of course don’t miss the I Amsterdam sign, located on the Museumplein at the back of the museum. Installed in 2005, it quickly became a new landmark in the city, and an obligatory photo stop for many visitors to Amsterdam.
TIP: if you want to get a picture without the crowds like the one below, your best bet is to go there very early in the morning.
8. Explore the Jordaan neighbourhood
If you want to get a feel of an authentic residential Amsterdam far from the crowds and tourist attractions, don’t miss the charming Jordaan neighbourhood. There is no specific place you should go to, and no time limit that you should spend here. I suggest to put away the map and explore the labyrinth of narrow streets dotted with local shops, quaint bars and cafes, and residential houses with cozy courtyard gardens… You can skip Jordaan if you are really short on time, alternatively you can go there for lunch.
9. Stroll the Nine Streets
The Nine Streets (De Negen Straatjes) are the old cobbled streets that connect the main canals between Leidsegracht and Raadhuisstraat. You can easily explore these little streets together with the canals. This area is famous for independent boutiques, specially stores, and vintage shopping. It’s a very different shopping experience than the main shopping street Kalverstraat with big chain-stores.
10. Visit the Red Light District
This is not my most favourite area of Amsterdam, but the Red Light District with the coffeeshops and window prostitution is a unique place in the world, and therefore worth a short visit. It can easily be visited during the day, also with kids (just try to distract their attention from the ladies in the windows). However, if you want to see the true side of the Red Light District, it’s probably best to visit in the evening. Just try to be very open-minded! If you don’t feel comfortable walking around at night on your own, you can always join a guided tour.
11. Explore Amsterdam canals at night
If your legs are still not sore, head back to the canals in the evening. The houses and the bridges are so nicely lit. If you want to get the best of both worlds (i.e. see the canals in the evening and save your legs), why not take an evening canal cruise instead!
So this is the best of Amsterdam in a nutshell – things you can see and do in Amsterdam in one day. If you have more time, you may want to visit some of the world class museums, rent a bike or take a stroll in one of the many parks, or take a day trip from Amsterdam and see more of the Netherlands.
Practical tips for visiting Amsterdam
- Pack comfortable walking shoes – you will be walking a lot.
- If you are not keen on walking, use public transport. Renting a bike might be a nice way to explore the parks. But the city streets are so busy with people and bikes that even experienced local bikers have difficulties navigating.
- Stay as close to the city centre as possible. You can find the best deals for Amsterdam accommodation here.
- If you don’t absolutely have to, don’t come to Amsterdam by car. We came from Belgium and visited Amsterdam for just one day and the car park cost us 50 EUR.
- And once again, Amsterdam is one of the busiest tourist destinations in Europe. So if you are planning any day trips or excursions, best book them in advance – it will save you lots of time and frustrations.
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