This post was most recently updated on February 17th, 2019
Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.
– John Green, Fault in our stars
First time to Amsterdam and wondering what to do in Amsterdam in three days? Here is the story of our trip to Amsterdam after months of research and planning.
The choice of Amsterdam in our 15-day Euro-trip itinerary in spring was simple for two reasons-
Note that this is the best 3-day itinerary for Amsterdam in Spring. If you visit Amsterdam on any other season you can replace Keukenhoff day trip with a day trip to Giethoorn village or Rotterdam. Depending on your interest you may choose the Heineken experience instead of parks or biking tour instead of walking. We had to skip Volendam, Marken, and Vondelpark because of some last minute plans to visit old friends.
Amsterdam is an expensive city. Everything from food to accommodation is costly, more so in the peak season of the Tulip festival in Holland during April. It is also crowded at this time, so we did not want to experiment with a hostel in this city. If you are willing to spend over 200 euros per night, you may book a hotel at the city center which is close to the major attractions, but we were not, so this is where we stayed.
IBIS budget Amsterdam City South We planned for the trip well in advance hence got this hotel at the same price as that of any standard hostel dorm and we did well with our choice 🙂 It is located in the tranquil Amstelveen, away from the city crowd yet within 50 meters from the metro+tram station Kronenburg. Never regretted not staying in the city center itself because it took us hardly 20 minutes to reach Amsterdam Centraal by metro.
Public transport of the city is as close to perfect as I could imagine – the 72-hour Iamsterdam card which we booked online at 87 Euros made it faster and cheaper for us with unlimited use of public transport within the city and free access to most of the museums within and around Amsterdam. The physical card needs to be collected at the airport or any Iamsterdam center and it comes with a welcome kit that includes a travel magazine, Amsterdam neighborhood guide booklet and a handy pocket map with the entire list of museums and experiences covered by the card.
Few important exclusions under the Iamsterdam card that should be noted-
Dam Square is the central square of Amsterdam located 750 meters away from the Amsterdam Centraal, the busiest gateway to the Netherlands. The National Monument (in the picture below) erected in 1956 in memory of the victims of World War II is the most iconic structure of the historic city center. It is surrounded by major tourist attractions – the Royal Palace, Madame Tussaud’s wax museum and the Gothic New Church among others. The place is always throbbing with a large number of activities happening at the same time.
My uncle and aunt, the eldest couple of our family exude the kind of energy that could put twenty-year-olds to shame. They came all the way from England on an overnight cruise just to spend a few hours with us and those were indeed among the best few hours of our trip. We met them at the Amsterdam Centraal station, from where we took the Canal cruise around the city, had lunch near the Dam square, checked out local markets and even strolled in the famous red light district.
With 165 canals and 1281 bridges, Amsterdam is touted as the “Venice of North” in Europe. The canal circle is well-deservedly a UNESCO world heritage site.
Fun fact: Amsterdam has more bridges than Venice.
We read about so many things to do in Amsterdam, but just walking on the bridges and along the canals is activity enough to keep you engaged on all 3 days in the city. On day 1, during our hour-long audio-guided canal cruise, we listened to the history of Amsterdam starting from the 12th century. The canals that stretch over 50km today, were built in the 16th and 17th century before which these were swamp-lands. The canal-system connected the different parts of the city serving as a means of transport, trade, irrigation, water management as well as defense. This engineering masterpiece is a symbol of the Dutch Golden age during the 16th and 17th centuries. We were told that the houses along the canals, which cost a bomb at present, were intentionally built leaning towards the canals a bit. The audio-guided canal cruise was a highlight of our 3-day itinerary for Amsterdam.
The houses had a hook at the top of the triangular facade to help lift goods from the boats without touching the windows. The audio documentary did not shy away from mentioning the role of Amsterdam in moving slaves across other European and Arab countries, though the Dutch did not keep slaves. It is a practice that has been abolished and is a part of a shameful past, but hiding or denying the truth wouldn’t change it, rather accepting that it happened and that it was wrong, is what prevents a country from repeating mistakes.
As a tourist, I was filled with respect for the country for being vocal about the wrongs of the past. We also heard about the conquest of the Netherlands by Hitler’s forces and the heart-wrenching story of Anne Frank who, along with fellow Jews had taken refuge in a house behind the Cathedral.
On the remaining days, we never missed stealing some time to just stroll on the bridges.
Do you know half of the Netherlands was below the sea level? And that was before global warming!
Amsterdam is known for a throbbing nightlife and summer is the best time to explore it. April is usually cold at night, but thankfully we got to spend one of the warmest days of the month when we landed in Amsterdam. We walked along the bridges looking at the night cruises, floating flower markets and hippie houseboats in the canals – it was like poetry in motion. We go to the hills and forests in search of such serenity, that you can enjoy such an unobstructed view in a densely populated city was unknown to us.
Then we went to the famous Red-light District once again to see what the fuss was all about. It was nothing like the rest of the city and the red neon lights on the cobbled streets and even in the outdoor eateries made it stand apart even more. There are hoardings at places stating “Sex Work is Real Work”. Well, that’s one hell of a bold statement to be made- but coming from the country that was one of the first to legalize prostitution and marijuana this is not entirely surprising. It’s amazing how safe the city is despite (or perhaps “because of”?) being so open about the “taboo topics” of other parts of the world. Thoughts?
A visit to the peaceful countryside of Zaanse Schans must be in your 3 day Amsterdam itinerary at any time of the year. Deriving its name for from the Zaan river, Zaanse Schans in Zaandam neighborhood became the world leader in production during the 16th and 17th century with its windmill technology. The Windmills near the Zaans river form an important part of its landscape and have been romanticized by artists for centuries. With the advent of more advanced production technology around the world, the golden era of the city was gone, and it slowly retreated into a modern countryside. Some of the old windmills are preserved and even operated regularly here thus making it a nostalgic place for the Dutch.
We had free pass to the Zaans museum with our Iamsterdam card and enjoyed an hour-long audio guided tour into the history of Zaanse Schans which is an anchor point of the European Route of Industrial Heritage, The state-of-art museum has models demonstrating the process of production, the history of famous business families like Heineken and a large collection of paintings and artifacts from the aristocratic families of the past. This is the most fun-filled museum experience I have had, with interactive history lessons and games attracting kids and adults alike. Outside the museum you can also enter one of the three windmills that are open for tourist visits – see the machines being operated inside, climb up the steep ladders and rise to the top to get a panoramic view of the countryside. You can spend the rest of the time exploring the place on foot or on rented bikes.
Tulips are an integral part of Holland’s culture and every year people from all corners of the world throng into the city for this ultimate sensory delight of being surrounded by millions of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. The entire city of Amsterdam is adorned with tulips at this time of the year – you find colorful blossoms in front of almost every shop, restaurant and balcony. The Keukenhof garden in Lisse hosts the world’s most famous flower show in Spring every year. Remember to book the tickets online to avoid the queue – the place is unbelievably crowded for a European destination even on a weekday!
When in the garden you can also see a tiny shelter for rabbits, turkey and other domestic animals where children can run around and play with them. At the far end of the 32-acre garden lies the vast Tulip fields which can be accessed by a boat ride in the river. The garden itself has a large number of flower shows each with a unique combination of colors and designs, the most iconic one being the river of blue Muscari flowers (also called grape hyacinths) with colorful tulips on both sides. Other striking sights to mention are the windmill near the riverside and the yellow blossoms on the hood of an old Volkswagen.
A must-visit place in the city is the Anne Frank House museum- the secret annex where the Frank family, along with a few other Jewish families hid for over two years during the second world war. Owing to the high demand, and the design of the old building, the entry is highly regulated during the peak season. When we visited, the booking could only be done online, and entry was permitted only during the booked time-slot. We booked a slot at 8:00 pm and was allowed entry exactly at that time, not a minute earlier. The museum is open till 9 pm and the entry passes include free audio-guided tour that gives you a peek into the lives of innocent families clamped into a secret annex hidden behind a cupboard, living in silence and constant fear of being discovered. An eerie feeling engulfs you as you hear the lines from Anne Frank’s diary while walking into the nooks and corners of the building. The Diary of a Young Girl, based on Anne Frank’s diary is available at a huge discount on Amazon, so I’d recommend you buy the book online rather than on site.
Museumplein is the one-stop place for the best art and historical museums of Amsterdam – Rijk’s museum, Van Gogh’s Museum, and Diamond museum to name a few. Last entry to the Rijk’s museum was at 4:30 pm (which we missed by whiskers) but we could still enjoy the musical atmosphere in the corridors and the lovely garden outside. Please keep these timings in mind when you visit Amsterdam.
On Day 3 we took a guided tour of Van Gogh’s museum, a monument dedicated to the famous Dutch artist known for his heartfelt depiction of peasant life. Along with a collection of Van Gogh’s paintings, the museum also has a collection Van Gogh’s handwritten letters -from those expressing the joy of sharing his work of art to those revealing his painful struggle with mental illness.
One of the most underrated aspects of this romantic city is a large number of parks – Vondelpark, Westerpark, Rembrandt park to name a few. The Vondelpark which is the most famous city park was on our list but we missed it.
Instead, we spotted a park while on our way to IBIS city south in Amsterdam Zuid. I don’t know the name of the park, but it looked like a dream, so we decided we would spend some time there on our first day in the city. There were hardly ten people we could see in the park even on a Saturday evening, and some of these pretty creatures. When in Amsterdam keep an eye on these nooks and corners of the city to discover such hidden gems.
A three-day trip and six months of meticulous research do not make me an expert on Amsterdam. However, based on the comments from locals, I feel we really did experience the best of Amsterdam in 3 days. Of course, I also have my Netherlands expert aunt to thank for.
I can’t say much about Marken and Volendam which were there in our Amsterdam 3 day itinerary but we had to skip for other plans. You must do both of them in day 2 along with Zaanse Schans. Check out the top 15 things to do in Amsterdam recommended by locals. You may find more about those three places here. Also, read about sustainable travel in Amsterdam.
Now enjoy this 2-minute video that I made and leave your comments.
Disclaimer – All photographs are original and owned by us unless otherwise mentioned. Do not reproduce any of these without permission. The opinions expressed are my own and they are subject to change with time. All the details are true to my knowledge based on my personal experience. I update the post from time to time with the latest details. The post contains affiliate links which means I will be eligible for some commission if you make any purchase through these links, at no additional cost to you. Yes, you get the same discounts and experience as you’d get otherwise.
I only spent a free day in Amsterdam when I attended a training in Delft years ago. Seeing this post makes me want to come back, especially that the Anne Frank House was closed when I went :-(. Your description of the Zaanse Schans as a modern countryside has also stirred my curiosity. You've shown that Amsterdam is worth coming back to.
This brought back great memories of me of Amsterdam as I used to live there! The tulip 'river' is a must see and so pretty. I love your photos too, well captured!
There's so much to see in Amsterdam I often forget exactly how much there is until it gets pointed out in a post like this. I unfortunately missed the Anne Frank Museum because I didn't book and the queue was so long they were not letting more people queue up! I wasn't there at the right time of year for those stunning tulips either, they look gorgeous.
I have been to Amsterdam few times and this city has a lot to offer. From being a bachelor to travelling with kids it has always kept me occupied every time I have visited. It is indeed an expensive city as you stated specially during the peak tulip season. Great transportation and live the vibe of the city. Brings back memories of my visits and makes me want to plan my next one. Amar Singh
Wow, Amsterdam – it is on my travel wish list so long. You have taken stunning pictures of this beautiful city, especially those canals, trams and river of flowers. It is great that your uncle and aunt are super energetic at this age and came a long way to meet you personally. What a great reunion in such a beautiful city of flowers and canals.
Have been to Amsterdam twice but unfortuantely both the times, it was a transit. Loved this itinerary and would use it as a reference for our future trip.
I went to amsterdam during winter. I should comeback for spring as the weather is nicer and its more colorful. I loved my stay though, everything was cheaper and it was less touristy during winter.
I visited Amsterdam in several different occasions and this city has a lot to offer. Three days seems like too less to fully explore the city but you sure managed to cover a lot in such a short time. As you said, it indeed is an expensive city and one of the most touristy ones in Europe but visiting in the winter is completely possible without breaking the bank.
Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities in the world. I haven’t been in decades but plan on going back this year or next, so this is a useful guide. I do love tulip season. I also think the Anne Frank Museum is worth the visit, as well as the Van Gogh Museum. I’m looking forward to exploring the iamsterdam card, though it’s a shame that it doesn’t include transportation from the airport. And thanks for the recommendation on where to stay!
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