When I pictured 48 hours in Amsterdam, visions of wild, drug-fueled bachelor parties (or “stag parties” as Europeans call them), danced in my head. But my actual first impression of Amsterdam? It’s ridiculous charming. From the crooked canal houses to beautiful parks and cobblestone streets, it’s honestly hard to believe Amsterdam is the international headquarters of debauchery its reputation implies.
While a visit to the infamous Red Light District is something you have to do – just so you can say you went – there’s way more to this city than its sleazy side. Here’s my itinerary for 48 hours in Amsterdam.
48 Hours in Amsterdam, Day 1
One of the best things about Amsterdam is that its city center is small and very walkable. And if you’d rather move around faster, there’s an excellent tram system and insanely well-planned bike paths that will take you wherever you need to go. Unless you’re planning to spend hours at individual museums, the city’s highlights can all be hit in one day, which means 48 hours in Amsterdam is plenty of time to explore. It’s also fast and painless to get to the city center from the airport on the train, so you don’t have to spend half your weekend on the commute.
Start your day off with a Dutch staple: pancakes. I’d never heard of Dutch pancakes until I had them for the first time at Diana’s Pancake Place in Aruba, and I can guarantee that they’re quite different from the American version of pancakes. These are wide but thin, and come topped with both savory and sweet ingredients of your choice. American pancakes, on the other hand, are thicker and fluffier with ingredients mixed in. You’ll find pancakes, or “pannekoeken” on practically every corner in Amsterdam’s city center, but the most popular spot to indulge is The Pancake Bakery.
After breakfast, it’s time to explore. If the weather’s nice, just walking around Amsterdam is a dream. Seriously, every street is more picturesque than the one before it. Make sure you visit The Jordaan, Amsterdam’s most famous neighborhood known for its beautiful canal houses, art galleries, and shops.
After a morning spent wandering, a great place to stop for lunch or a coffee is Rembrandtplein, a busy square surrounded by bars and restaurants. The square is named after Rembrandt van Rijn, the famous Dutch painter, and you’ll find a large statue of him right in the middle of it. Grab a table outside facing the square for some people watching.
If it’s your type of thing, you can also stop by a local “coffeeshop” for another type of afternoon refreshment. Coffeeshops – note that it’s one word, how they differentiate themselves from actual coffee shops – sell marijuana. Each coffeeshop has a menu, and you’ll likely be able to recognize them from a very distinctive smell coming out the front door. You’ll see (and smell) them everywhere in Amsterdam’s city center.
After lunch, it’s time for a canal tour where you’ll explore Amsterdam from the water. There are many tour operators to choose from, and the price usually start around $12, with more expensive options for smaller, personalized group tours. A number of canal tour companies depart from the area across from Amsterdam Centraal Station.
The hour-long canal tour will point out several interesting sights, from historical buildings to Sea Palace, an enormous, three-floor floating Chinese restaurant, but what I found most interesting? If you look closely at the Victoria Hotel, a major hotel near the train station, you’ll notice that it’s been built around one tall skinny canal house. The owner apparently refused to sell or move during the development of the hotel, so they simply had to work around him.
Dinnertime: Indonesian Food
One of the things I’ve complained about when traveling Europe before is the severe lack of ethnic food. For example, in most parts of Italy, you’d be hard pressed to find some decent Thai or Mexican food. Perhaps a kebab shop here or there, but otherwise, things don’t get too exciting.
Amsterdam was completely different. The city is much more of a melting pot than the European cities I’ve visited in France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Norway. It actually reminded me a ton of Sunnyside, the neighborhood I lived in for three years in Queens, New York, which is known for its main street where you can find cuisine from 27 different countries and 5 continents in a 7-block stretch. Well, if you erase the icky, New York City-ness of it, replace the 7 train tracks with picturesque canals, and put down cobblestones on Queens Boulevard.
One of the best cuisines to try in Amsterdam is Indonesian. The reason you’ll find it everywhere is that Indonesia was a colony of The Netherlands from 1800 to 1949, and was known then as the Dutch East Indies.
The thing to get, specifically, is rijsttaffel, or “rice tables.” Meant for sharing, a rijsttaffel is an enormous sampling of various Indonesian dishes served with rice. While most of the food itself is authentic Indonesian, the concept of a rice table was born in The Netherlands and it’s unlikely you’d find one in Indonesia. Rice tables for two probably have about a dozen dishes to taste, while larger options can have up to 20 or 30. Seriously, there’s something for everyone from meats to veggies and varying degrees of spicy-ness.
Pictured: the rijsttafel at Soenda Kelapa.
48 Hours in Amsterdam: Day 2
On day two of 48 hours in Amsterdam, you’ll want to hit up some of the city’s most famous museums, explore the beautiful Vondelpark, walk through Amsterdam’s hipster neighborhood, and finally, visit the infamous Red Light District.
Breakfast: Zuivere Koffie
Grab breakfast at at Zuivere Koffie on the same street as Soenda Kelapa. It’s a really cozy cafe where you can fuel up on caffeine, a bagel with lox and avocado, and a slice of apple pie (a Dutch specialty).
Museums in Amsterdam
After breakfast, it’s about a 15-minute walk to Amsterdam’s Museumplein, a public plaza surrounded by three of Amsterdam’s most famous museums: Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum. If you’re only spending 48 hours in Amsterdam, you should probably pick one so you can maximize your time for the cost of a pricey ticket. I chose the Rijksmuseum, which is a Dutch national museum.
The areas of the museum I found most interesting were the model ships (there are more than 1,800 – including one with holograms of miniature people going through daily life on the sea), and of course, Rembrandt’s paintings, which are enormous.
It’s another short walk over to the beautiful Vondelpark, which is the most famous park in the Netherlands and a great place to take a walk or have a picnic on a nice day. There are also bike and skate rentals nearby. Fun fact: Vondelpark is visited by more than 5x the amount of people per square meter than Central Park in NYC is.
De Pijp Neighborhood
De Pijp translates to “The Pipe,” but apparently no one really knows why. Today’s its one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Amsterdam, known as a melting pot of different cultures. While it was once an affordable area for artists, students, and families, like many trendy neighborhoods, it’s grown to be almost as expensive as the rest of Amsterdam. Regardless of its hipster status, De Pijp is a really cool place to walk around and absorb the energy of Amsterdam with its plethora of cafes, exotic cuisines, and shops.
While you’re there, I would highly recommend a stop at Bulls & Dogs for one of their insanely Instagram-worthy and delicious milkshakes.
Red Light District
As I mentioned, a first-time visit to Amsterdam isn’t complete without a visit to the Red Light District. You can sign up for a walking tour, or simply wander around yourself. Our hostel even offered a group trip to a “sex show,” which is just what the name implies.
Walking around the area is pretty interesting. The streets are lined with red-lit windows where scantily clad prostitutes pose and try to lure men passing by into their rooms. There are also a ton of rowdy bars and cheap street food vendors there too.
The Red Light District used to be really shady – like really shady – but officials have attempted to clean things up by taking measures to eliminate illegal pimps, human traffickers, and money launderers. There are today more than 290 window brothels where prostitutes are legally employed. And they can make quite a decent amount too – some estimate 50 euros for just 7 minutes of “work.” Yep, they even pay taxes!
While you’re there, be respectful and don’t photograph or film prostitutes in the windows. If you do, your camera just might get tossed into the canal.
48 Hours in Amsterdam: Where to Stay
There are a ton of hotels in the city but I stayed at two different places that were affordable, conveniently located, and comfortable during my 48 hours in Amsterdam.
Boutique Hostel in Amsterdam: Cocomama
If you’re looking for a hostel where you can meet fellow travelers and participate in organized events, Cocomama Hostel is conveniently located in De Pijp, right across from a tram stop. A private room for two people was about 90 euros per night, and they also offer dorm rooms.
The staff here is incredibly friendly, there’s a common area with a kitchen and a fridge of beers you can buy for 1 euro (there’s an “honesty box”), and the rooms are as cozy as one can expect from a hostel.
There’s also a cute kitty roaming around, named Joop.
Affordable & Stylish Hotel: Motel One
If a hotel is more your thing, Motel One is a great bargain (in full disclosure, the link I included here is an affiliate link, meaning if you book via Booking.com I earn a very small commission). It’s located a little out of the way from Amsterdam’s city center, but it’s really convenient to the airport. Seriously, you can be in your hotel in like, 10 minutes. If the weather’s nice, you won’t mind the long walk downtown. If you want to save your feet, there’s also a tram stop about a block from the hotel that will take you into the city center.
Motel One was also about 90 euros for one night, a bargain given that it’s a very modern hotel with small but comfortable rooms complete with USB ports, flatscreen TVs with faux fireplaces, and rainfall showers.