While Amsterdam is commonly known for its legalized prostitution and marijuana, the capital of the Netherlands is so much more than that. Amsterdam, the man-made city of canals and rivers, is full of rich culture and beautiful sights. On my first trip to Amsterdam, 10 years ago last month, I was visiting as part of a college class trip. I knew nothing about Amsterdam, besides the X-rated stories, and had only 24 hours before heading off to Germany. My lack of knowledge about my destination, mixed with my jet-lag and culture shock, meant that I barely scratched the surface on taking in all that Amsterdam had to offer. So this year when a friend and I snagged cheap flights to Amsterdam, I was determined to redeem myself.
Because my friend doesn’t work remotely, like I do, we decided to just take a four day weekend. Some people thought it was crazy to go all the way to Europe for “just the weekend,” but we determined three or four days were better than no days. After all, we’ve both driven 8-12 hours in the U.S. for weekend trips to places like Boston, Niagara Falls, North Carolina and Nashville; so why should this be any different?
Would we have liked more time? Sure, but did the weekend provide adequate time? Absolutely.
Below are our top recommendations for an off the beaten path weekend in Amsterdam. I have set up the recommendations as a three-day weekend itinerary and tried to arrange them by location (so you aren’t backtracking too much). You can, of course, move things around to best fit your scheduling needs.
While I am not always a fan of organized tours, if you’re on a budget and time is limited, I recommend taking advantage of the Hop-On Hop-Off Tours. For about $30, you can get a 24-hour pass (a few dollars more will get you a 48-hour pass) to the canal tour boats and buses that take you all over the city to popular spots. Hop On – Hop Off is a quick and easy way to learn about the local history, get your bearings, and save time (as opposed to walking). Everything listed for Friday, except Foodhallen, is located nearby a Hop On – Hop Off stop. Tip: Be sure to find out how late the boats and buses are running because you’re on your own for transportation after that.
Albert Cuyp Stroopwafel
Take the canal boat to Albert Cuyp Market, which offers everything from bohemian clothing and leather goods to produce and fresh fish. The market, patronized by both locals and tourists, first opened in the early 20th century and has a rich history full of odd traditions, determination, and even sabotage.
The must-see (or taste) here is Rudi’s Original Stroopwafels. While there are many mass produced opportunities to try stroopwafel throughout the Netherlands (and even in America), Rudi’s Original Stroopwafel is one of the only spots that you can try one prepared in the traditional way. These “proud craftsmen” have been serving up the original at Albert Cuyp for generations.
Tip: Be sure to purchase a tin of extras to bring home with you.
Located near the Museumplein (or Museum Quarter) is Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s largest city park and a nice spot to soak in the sun, go for a bike ride, have a picnic, or take in the scenery.
After walking around the city for a few hours, we relaxed in the grass before continuing our explorations. On another day, we stopped for drinks in at Vondelpark 3, one of the park’s cafes.
If we’d had more time, I would have liked to have rented bikes and explored more of the park.
On your way into or out of Vondelpark, head across the street to a unique and off the beaten path spot known as Zevenlandenhuizen, which I am told translates to “Seven Countries Houses.” The seven houses, built in 1894, each represent the architectural style of a different European country (Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, France, and England) and were commissioned by a philanthropist named Sam Van Eeghen and designed by architect Tjeerd Kuipers.
Just down the street from Vondelpark and Zevenlandenhuizen is the Van Gogh Museum. This fascinating museum tells the story of Vincent Van Gogh’s life and art career, alongside samples of his work from each period. While I do not know much about art, I found the museum incredibly interesting and learned a lot there.
Tip: The museum sells timed tickets. Since it gets really crowded, aim for visiting at one of the less crowded times that they have listed.
De Gooyer Windmill
At one time there were thousands of windmills in the area, but only eight still remain within the capital. One of these eight remaining windmills is De Gooyer, a former flour mill that has been out of commission since 1972. Dating back to 1725, De Gooyer is the tallest wooden mill in the Netherlands. De Gooyer is located in Oost (East) Amsterdam, a little ways from everything else, but conveniently near a couple Hop On – Hop Off stops.
While you’re at De Gooyer, you’ll notice a brewery right next door (in what was once a public bathhouse). Brouwerij ‘t IJ (or IJ Brewery) brews 100% organic beers and offers both an indoor bar and outdoor beer garden.
I am a really big fan of food trucks and markets. I’d much rather try various foods than be stuck sitting in one restaurant with only one menu. Amsterdam’s Foodhallen was definitely one of my favorite spots.
Located within a renovated tram depot, this indoor food market boasts more than 20 food stalls and offers a variety of options, ranging from gourmet signature dishes to international street foods. My only warning is prepare to be overwhelmed by options.
I first learned about Mook when we passed it on our way to the Foodhallen. I looked in the window, thought, “That place looks good!” and considered throwing out our plan to go that moment. Later, I asked the woman working at the Hop-On Hop-Off ticket counter where she would recommend getting really good pancakes, and she suggested Mook.
Sadly, the travel gods did not have it in their plans for me to get to try Mook pancakes. I wanted to get breakfast there before leaving for the airport, but my travel buddy is one who likes to get to the airport extra early, and so I surrendered my desire for pancakes for his sanity (and I have still not quit trying to make him feel guilty about it).
Be sure to book tickets well in advance for the Anne Frank House. An incredibly somber activity, but no trip to Amsterdam would be complete without taking the time to visit the site where the Frank family hid for more than two years. Although I’d read the diary and seen the play, it all took on deeper meaning walking the halls and exploring this museum. Even now, more than two months later, I am still struggling to figure out how to make sense of everything I learned while visiting and what it means in today’s world.
Explore Jordaan’s Westerstraat
Amsterdam is full of many unique neighborhoods worth exploring. My favorite is Jordaan, originally a poor district built for working class families and immigrants in the early 17th century, now full of beautiful homes, cafes, galleries and one of a kind shops. I particularly enjoyed exploring Westerstraat because it felt lived in. The shops and cafes weren’t overly glitzy making you feel out of place, nor were they full of souvenirs and targeted at tourists. On Saturdays and Mondays, Westerstraat hosts lively markets offering delicious foods, Authentic Frites (delicious hand cut fries), incredible cheeses, and unique artisanal clothing, jewelry, crafts, and more.
Located at one end of Westerstraat is Winkel 43, a bar and restaurant known for serving the best apple pie in Amsterdam. (Honestly, it was the only one I tried, so I can’t confirm that it’s “the best,” but I was incredibly satisfied and impressed.) The food and drinks here were good, but I highly recommend that you just skip straight to the dessert.
Park Plaza Victoria
If you’re a fan of the strange and lesser known, take a walk past the ritzy Park Plaza Victoria Hotel, located across the street from Centraal Station. Standing on the Prins Hendrikkade side of the building, take in the grandeur of this hotel built in the late 19th century. Be sure to note how the hotel is built around two small 17th century homes. When the Victoria Hotel was being built, the owner of these two homes refused to sell, and so the builders had to get creative.
NDSM and Pllek
Behind Centraal Station you can catch free ferries over to the lesser visited Noord (North) Amsterdam. We chose to visit NDSM, a former shipping yard and now a thriving arts community. The graffiti street art here was some of the most unique work I’ve ever seen, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time to explore and take pictures. After trying to channel my inner hipster (i.e. this ridiculously goofy photo), we headed over to Pllek, a restaurant and bar creatively built out of abandoned shipping crates. The restaurant is reservation only, but the manufactured “beach” outside was just as cool. Out here you’ll find cushioned lounge chairs made out of refurbished pallets, bean bags, fire pits, and a great view of the harbor looking back towards Amsterdam. We grabbed a bottle of wine from the bar and just hung out on the beach, making friends with strangers.
Tip: Check the Pllek events calendar. They often have live music, yoga classes and more.
Bike the Countryside
If you’re in Amsterdam in the late spring, be sure to make time to bike the tulip fields; but even if you’re visiting out of season, I’d recommend taking a bus or train out to Noordwijkerhout and biking through the countryside and/or along the coast.
We didn’t know about the option of biking through the dunes and along the coast until we were wrapping up our bike ride around Keukenhof. Had we known, I would have definitely made the time to do this.
Note: Pack water and lunch/snacks. Since you’re headed out to the countryside, the few options available are priced up for tourists.
Back in Amsterdam, you must experience a couple cheese shops called Kaasland (can you guess the Dutch word for cheese?), known for being very friendly, offering up samples and teaching you about the different cheeses. Take your time here, and if you find one that you like, ask them to shrink wrap it so that it doesn’t require refrigeration.
Another unique and off the beaten path spot that we found was Stuyvesant Wine Bar. The building that now hosts this trendy wine bar was built in 1614 and served as the West Indies House/home of the Dutch West India Company. This very spot is believed to be where the decision to settle New York (originally New Amsterdam) was made.
Dinner at Moeders
Moeders (or Mothers) is a traditional Dutch restaurant that finds quirky ways to pay homage to mothers all around the world. From the mismatched china and furniture that gives your meal a thrown together family dinner feel, to the photo lined walls featuring the mothers of staff and customers, this restaurant screams home. Want to have your mother honored? Just bring in a photo of her and they’ll add her to the collection.
Note: You may want to consider calling ahead or making a reservation online. They can get a pretty good wait at times.
While there’s always plenty more to see and do, this is a great starting point for planning an off the beaten path weekend in Amsterdam. If you have questions or want to add your own suggestions to the itinerary, please share in the comments.
Photo from the Van Gogh exhibit is courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum and taken by Jan Kees Steenman
Photo from Anne Frank House and Museum © Anne Frank House / Photographer: Cris Toala Olivares
Photo from Mook Pancakes courtesy of Mook Pancakes