Amsterdam is a city of contradictions. Most of it looks like a 17th-century city, but Amsterdam is progressive and open, unlike any other European city. A day is not nearly long enough to explore the 70 islands, 60 miles of canals, 1000 bridges, and the largest Old Town in Europe. However, most cruise lines only port at Amsterdam for the day, leaving the passengers wanting more as the ship sails. Others use Amsterdam as an embarkation point, and river cruises on the Rhine River or on spring tulip cruises include time in Amsterdam.
If your cruise is embarking or disembarking in Amsterdam, you can extend your vacation and use the time to explore the city and the surrounding countryside.
If you only have a day or two in Amsterdam, here are some interesting things to do. Don't feel like you have to do them all - choose those that appeal to you, or let the weather be your guide.
Take an Amsterdam Highlights Tour.
Most ocean and river cruise ships will offer a half- or full-day highlights tour that will give you a chance to get a feel of the city and see some of the bridges, canals, and architecture. The tours usually include a bus ride around the city, a canal ride, and entrance into the Rijksmuseum. A tour of the Anne Frank House is not included on these highlight tours.
Amsterdam has museums for all tastes. Several are located in a large park area within walking distance of each other. The Rijksmuseum is the national museum of the Netherlands. With about 200 rooms, you could easily spend the day here. If your time is limited, and you want to see many of Rembrandt's most famous works, like the Night Watch, go to the Gallery of Honor on the upper floor of the main building. Elsewhere in the Rijksmuseum are exhibits of architecture and antiquities. There is also a large dollhouse collection.
The Vincent van Gogh Museum includes 200 of his paintings (donated by Van Gogh's brother Theo) and 500 drawings as well as works by other well known 19th century artists. It is located near the Rijksmuseum.
Next to the van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Modern Art Museum is filled with fun works by trendy contemporary artists. Major movements of the last century such as modernism, pop art, action painting, and neo-realism are represented.
The Dutch Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum), across the street from the zoo, has displays explaining the Dutch resistance to the German occupying forces of World War II.
Propaganda movie clips and touching stories of efforts to hide local Jews from the Germans bring the terrors of living in an occupied city to life. Interestingly, the museum is also near the location of the former Schouwburg theater, which was used as a holding place for Jews awaiting transport to concentration camps. The theater is now a memorial. To get a feel for occupied Holland, you might want to rent and watch the movie "Soldier of Orange" before leaving home.
It might be surprising to hear that Amsterdam is home to a large Museum of the Tropics (Tropenmuseum).
If you remember that the Netherlands' explorers traveled to Indonesia and the West Indies. The museum's architecture is interesting, and it has displays portraying life in the tropics. There is also a large children's museum upstairs, but adults can only visit if accompanied by a child!
Those interested in architecture or the Dutch culture of the early 20th century will enjoy the
Museum Het Schip. Michel de Klerk designed this apartment building in the Amsterdam style of architecture for the working class, and it has many interesting details, including a residence that looks like it hasn't been changed since the 1920's, and a Post Office.
Looking for something really different? How about a sex museum? Amsterdam has two sex museums, one in the Red Light District, and the other a block from Central Station on Damrak. I didn't visit either (although I walked by the one on Damrak by accident).
Take a Ride on Amsterdam's Canals.
This is a good way to see the city, especially if it is raining and you don't want to walk! The Canal-Boat tours leave continually from several docks around the city for a one-hour introduction to Amsterdam.
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For many visitors to Amsterdam, this is a "must do". However, you must time your visit right, or you will spend more time waiting in line than in the house! You will have to visit on your own, because the house is so small that no shore excursion groups are scheduled by any of the cruise lines, and no tour groups are allowed.
Buy your tickets online before you go, and you will not have to stand in line. Avoid the crowds and go early, or avoid the crowds and go after dinner (unless your ship is sailing). From April to August, the museum is open from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm. The rest of the year it closes at 5:00 pm. This tiny house is one of the world's most visited. Whenever I think of the story of Anne Frank and her family, hiding in the tiny attic for two years before their capture, it always brings tears to my eyes. Seeing that tiny space and reading about the persecution of the Jews in Amsterdam during the War will be moving to anyone.
Stroll the City of Amsterdam.
Walking is one of my favorite activities, and I love exploring the city and the country. Ships dock near the Central Station, so you can walk there to start your wandering. You can either walk around or through the back door of the Central Station and exit onto Damrak, one of Amsterdam's main streets. Damrak is always filled with visitors, and you can stroll along the street to Dam Square, the city center. This square was where the original dam was built across the Amstel River. East of Dam Square is the Red Light District.
Although I wouldn't recommend wandering around this area after dark, it always seems perfectly safe in the daytime or early evening. Be sure to also stroll up and down the narrow streets and gaze at the interesting architecture and canals.
If you are looking for fun, this interactive tour and beer museum has it. The Heineken brewery was great fun. We learned a lot about beer making and also had the "Heineken experience", which was a little like a Disney World tour. You stand in this room and watch a movie about the beer-making process. Along the way, you will get shook, wet, and have bubbles all around. (They make you put up your cameras before starting the "ride".) You don't actually go anywhere, but will do quite a bit of moving.
At the end of the tour, you will learn how to pour beer (2 fingers of foam on top to keep the oxygen out) and get a short glass. Then you go into the pub where you will get a large one. It's both fun and educational.
If you are in Amsterdam between late December and May, you might want to visit a tulip farm to see how tulips are grown, harvested, and taken to market. This is a short, one-hour tour, but it's really fascinating to see how mechanized this family's farm is.
Take a Grand Tour of Holland and See Some of the Rest of the Netherlands.
Many cruisers have visited Amsterdam and want to see the rest of Holland. Most ocean cruise ships offer a Grand Holland Tour, which features a drive through the countryside and visits the Hague and Delft. Since The Hague is the country's seat of government and home of the royal family, you will see the Royal Palace, Houses of Parliament, and the Peace Palace. Delft is the home of that wonderful blue and white pottery. This tour lasts all day and usually includes lunch. Note that you won't see any of Amsterdam if you choose this shore excursion.