How to Make the Most of an Amsterdam Weekend Break

A Guide to Touring, Eating and Sleeping in the Netherlands’ Most Famous City

Bridge-crowned canals. Gorgeously ancient architecture. World-class museums and a thriving arts scene. Rich, world-defining history. To someone who simply glanced at an eavesdropper, it might sound as though we were describing Venice, that striking city on the Italian peninsula. And, yes, such words would apply to La Serenissima, but they also depict a city that’s much easier for U.K. travelers to reach: Amsterdam.

Indeed, Amsterdam’s popularity among British vacationers owes a lot to its proximity. A flight from London will take you only about an hour, and a train ride will get you there in about four hours. Such closeness has led Amsterdam to gain a reputation as a hedonist’s hangout, a place for young men to enjoy rowdy stag parties and pleasure seekers to partake in the prostitution and drug use prevalent in the city’s iconic Red Light District.

In recent years, though, Amsterdam has sought to shed its grimy image, and Mayor Femke Halsema has intimated that she wants to reform its rougher areas. “Our inner city is one of the oldest in Europe with an enormous culture historical significance,” she said. “We would like tourists to see the cultural value.” Indeed, weekend breaks to Amsterdam can be much more cultural than carnal.

Read on to learn about some of its must-see sights, great places to eat and drink, and wonderful spots in which to lay your head each night.

Essential Amsterdam Attractions

Some of Amsterdam’s most significant attractions are also it’s most visible: its canals. Given the city’s more than 100 kilometers of waterways and 1,753 bridges, you can understand the inevitable comparisons to Venice.

Dam Square is definitely the most famous place to see Amsterdam’s many canals. Located near Koninklijk Palace, which once housed the Dutch royal family, Dam Square is a nearly 800-year-old area that today is surrounded by stores, restaurants, buskers and the National Monument, which commemorates Dutch soldiers who perished during World War II.

Strolling along the Canal Belt is also a great way to get a feel for Amsterdam’s waterways.

Of course, you’ll do even better getting to know the area during Amsterdam weekend breaks if you take a tour. FreeDam Tours provides free and private walking tours. (You can tip at the end of the former if you think the guide did a good job.)

The tours meet in front of De Oude Kerk (i.e., the Old Church), a house of worship smack in the middle of the Red Light District that’s also worth taking time to tour. With gorgeous architecture, art dating back to the 15th century, and 2,500 tombstones under which 10,000 people lay interred, it’ll keep history buffs more than occupied.

Speaking of the Red Light District, Mayor Halsema’s point about its cultural import might sound a little like politicking, but she’s absolutely right. Just consider In’t Aepjen, a famous bar and boarding house from the early 16th century that lets its guests pay their bills with monkeys.

Eventually, the simians got so numerous that the proprietor gave them to a regular guest, and thus Natura Artis Magistra, one of Europe’s oldest zoos, was born. Today, Artis contains a gorilla house, butterfly pavilion, an array of waterbirds, big cats, elephants, and a planetarium in addition to the monkeys.

Museum lovers can easily lose themselves in what Amsterdam has to offer. The Rijksmuseum houses work from Vermeer, Rembrandt and Fra Angelico, while the Van Gogh Museum contains the biggest collection of the titular artist’s works in the world.

The Anne Frank House serves as a biographical museum in the very home where the young Jewish girl hid during World War II for more than two years. Families with children will particularly enjoy the NEMO Science Museum, which is uniquely geared for youngsters.

Sometimes, you just want to get out and stretch your legs, and Amsterdam has ample opportunities to do just that. Stroll through Albert Cuypmarkt, the largest market in the city with more than 250 stalls, or peruse the blooms at Bloemenmarkt, a floating flower market that has existed since 1862.

Walk the gorgeous grounds of Vondelpark, a park so popular that it draws 12 million visitors annually. Or rent wheels from Ajax Bike and enjoy a three-hour tour.

Gastronomy and Mixology in the Venice of the North

In addition to seeing striking sites, you can also enjoy amazing grub in Amsterdam. History meets gourmet fare at D’Vijff Vlieghen, a high-end restaurant that bills itself as “a culinary museum.”

Housed in five 17th-century row houses, it not only boasts gourmet Dutch fare, it also boasts original Rembrandts and a guest list studded with such as Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen. The Michelin-starred De Silveren Spiegel is in an even older edifice and serves up to eight-course meals on handcrafted porcelain. With a menu dedicated entirely to caviar and serious foodie credentials, Ciel Bleu calls the 23rd floor of Hotel Okura Amsterdam home.

Not every option has to be pricey. While France and Belgium may bicker over who invented frites, Amsterdam simply serves up some of the world’s best deep-fried potatoes at Vleminckx. They usually come swaddled in mayonnaise, but you can also pick from more than two dozen other sauces.

A Christian mission combined with a bistro serving local and organic dishes, Dwaze Zaken provides high-quality meals at a reasonable price. And Vegan Junk Food Bar combines meatless offerings with pub favorites such as double-decker burgers, faux-chicken sandwiches and chickpea fries.

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Staying in the City of Bridges

The hotel situation in Amsterdam shows a similar high/low divide. On one end, the Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam is located on a UNESCO World Heritage Site, melding white-glove service with amazing historical beauty.

With its modern flourishes, location in the center of the city, and antique architecture, the Conservatorium has won numerous awards for the best hotel in Amsterdam. And with more than 150 years of service, the NH Collection Amsterdam Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky is an established presence in Dam Square.

If you’re looking for something more low-key than luxurious, you still have options. Cocomama Hostel adds a charming twist on the hostel formula with group meals and local tips as to the best attractions. Taking a page from Tokyo’s famous coffin hotels, CityHub provides rooms with a bed, a charging station and basically nothing else.

Meanwhile, Hotel Not Hotel adds a little more splurge for a lot more pizzazz. Each of its rooms is unique and was crafted by a different designer in a specific style. Guests can rest in a secret library nook, a miniature trolley car or a cottage cutout. Adorable, even if it’s not quite downtown.

As you can tell, these barely scratch the surface of the number of options in the City of Bridges. In fact, the best way to enjoy an Amsterdam weekend break is to show up and find the best bits all on your own.

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