All sorts of things come to mind when you think of Amsterdam. The Red Light District, marijuana, and prostitution are top contenders. But it’s also known for other things such as the canals and the Anne Frank house. We had two days in Amsterdam and made the most of it.
Our Rhine River Cruise was set to leave from Amsterdam. Viking set up our airfare to fly into Amsterdam on Sunday morning and the boat would leave that evening. You had better believe that, in my mind, a couple of jet-lagged hours was not going to cut it for this notable city. We tacked on a day and flew in Saturday morning instead.
The Anne Frank House
First things first: The Anne Frank House. This was my absolute number one thing I wanted to do in this city. I have always been an avid reader and, like a lot of kids, voraciously flew through series like The Baby-Sitters Club, Animorphs, and The Saddle Club. My mother, also a reader, one day gave me The Diary of Anne Frank. As an adult, I realize how amazing it is that she gave it to me so young in a world that struggles with hard topics and a country with areas that still censor books on the Holocaust. But she knew what I could handle and was not willing for me to be censored on a difficult topic. I re-read this book in the weeks before my trip and learned even more that, as a child, was just over my head.
Anne Frank Facts
- The Frank’s were German but emigrated to Amsterdam in 1934, after the Nazi’s came to power.
- The Frank’s went into hiding in July of 1942 with another family. Shortly after, another joined them making them eight people hiding in a shared space.
- The hiding place was discovered on August 4, 1944. They were sent to Westerbork transit camp for a month and, on September 3 (the day the Allies captured Brussels) they were put on a train to Auschwitz.
- They were amongst the last group of Jews (1000 total) to be transported out of Holland.
- Anne Frank died in late February or early March 1945, a few months shy of her 16th birthday. Her father, Otto Frank, was the only survivor of the eight in hiding.
To get tickets to the Anne Frank house, do it online and ahead of time. The tickets go on sale online at noon (Amsterdam time) the first Tuesday of every month for the entirety of the following month. While we saw comments that they went on sale at noon, there was nothing on any official channels and all we could verify for sure was that they went on sale the first Tuesday. Other possibilities, in my mind, were midnight or 9:00am (when it opens). Given the time change that meant either 6:00pm on the Monday, 3:00am, or 6:00am. The friend I was going with checked at 6:00pm the night before to be safe but they weren’t available. So I set my alarm for 2:45am. Turns out it wasn’t 3:00am either so I re-set my alarm for 5:45am. I was put in an online queue and was somewhere around number 1800. Totally worth the crazy wake-up time. I waited patiently and was able to secure my first choice time slot.
Turns out, they were pretty relaxed about it. When we got there, we were an hour early and they had no problem letting us in. Which was great because, when we left, we saw the front was mobbed with people and a large tour group.
I knew, going in, this would he a heavy stop. And it was. But I cannot recommend it enough. It’s so important to see these realities in person and learning these histories is such an invaluable part of traveling.
I welled up with tears a few times. It was impossible not to. Especially having just re-read the book. The photos that Anne hung on the wall are still there. Her room, which she shared with another person, would barely fit my bed.
There is no photography allowed in the house and the tour is an audio tour and you just scan your device in every room. It did not feel overcrowded to me, which made me thankful for the online reservation system.
Three Big Hitter Sites You Don’t Want to Miss
Dam Square is a historic square that is used for rallies, celebrations, and royal weddings. It was pretty and felt like a pretty traditional European city square.
This was pretty cool. The Homomonument is exactly what it sounds like: a tribute to the gay community to commemorate people who were, and are, persecuted for their sexuality. It also stands as a reminder that gays, alongside Jews, were placed in concentration camps. It’s in the shape of a triangle with each of the three corners pointing in the direction of a significant location: The Anne Frank House, The Nationaal Monument, and the Dutch gay rights organization headquarters.
This museum is huge. It’s been called the most famous museum in The Netherlands. It, most notably, houses Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.” With only two days in Amsterdam I did not make time to go inside but I went to walk the grounds and it was worth going just to see it.
The Red Light District
We did it. We went to the red light district. On a Saturday night no less. My friend and I aren’t exactly red light district type of gals (whatever that means) but we are curious travelers and explorers. And, you know what? It was neat. Interesting and instructive actually.
While there really are women in windows selling sex, here’s the thing: no one can touch them. At first thought, it sounds disturbing but, really, it’s just progressive. It’s a business and this is their current job and this is the safest way to do it. The women were beautiful and healthy looking. They definitely did not fit the standing on street corners/trashy looking stereotype. They are safely behind windows, you can’t touch them, and, if you want to get to the other side, you have to get through a big bouncer first (I mean a really really big bouncer). And don’t be squirrely: those guys are known to side with the women every time. I read in one guide book to be careful where you take your pictures because the bouncers have been known to take the phones of people taking photos of the girls and throwing said phones into the canal (wish I had seen this, not gonna lie).
The area was crowded but the streets were clean and no one was rowdy. Given the amount of people it was actually pretty chill. (Maybe everyone was high on marijuana? ha).
One of the big things to do in Amsterdam are the canal tours. Definitely a huge tourist attraction. There are several companies that offer them which you can find online but also can’t miss just by walking around. They are everywhere.
We did one but I think I would have been fine without. It was nice but perhaps a little overrated. That being said, I like to walk and we walked a lot and therefore saw a lot. A canal tour would be a great option if you’re looking to limit your walking but still want to see a lot of sites. We did a traditional tour. There are other tours available such as wine and cheese tours.
If you decide to go, you definitely want to try and get yourself a good seat on the boat. We had obstructed views both from an overhang above us and because we weren’t sitting on the edge. This may not be possible with the amount of people that sign up for the boat tours but you could probably ask to wait for the next boat.
Food and Drink
The Ice Bar
I’ve heard of these and I know they’re in multiple cities, some as pop-ups during the winter here in New England, but I’ve never been to one. My friend threw the idea of the Xtra Cold Amsterdam Ice Bar at me depending how much time we had and we were able to fit it in. It was, simply put, fun. Not a totally amazing, can’t miss experience, but different and interesting.
- All of the glassware is literally made from ice so they just crush it down when they’re done with it.
- The drinks are only beer or shots because mixers will freeze.
- You get three drinks with your purchase. One for the regular bar outside while you wait for your time slot, and two for when you’re inside.
- They provide you with a jacket and gloves.
Definitely eat some cheese. Maybe a little cheese or maybe a lot of cheese. But you’ve got to have some cheese.
Okay. Go to a restaurant called Pancakes and get a pancake. More specifically (and just hear me out on this one), get a ham and cheese pancake and put syrup on it. I know. I KNOW. But I read that this was an Amsterdam thing and, ever the traveler, I gave it a go. And you know what? It was delicious. Really, really delicious. (My guidebook also said many places in Amsterdam serve these so you don’t actually have to find that specific restaurant).
Another huge activity to do in Amsterdam is renting bikes to ride around. With two days in Amsterdam I thought this would be a sure thing I would do. I did not do this. Mostly because I value my life. All jokes aside, the bike scene is intense. There are specific bike lanes everywhere, and bikers are as aggressive, if not more so, than drivers of cars. If you’re a pedestrian, don’t just look out for cars, but look out for bikes; they will run you over. Actually, look out for bikers more than cars. They’re ruthless. The vast amount of bikers everywhere was so intimidating that I chose not to rent one. Honestly, the idea of trying to navigate that was terrifying.
It was interesting to see how immersed in their lifestyle biking is though. It’s so flat and people genuinely use bikes as transportation as opposed to for fun or for sport as in the United States. Most of the bikers were in regular clothes, including skirts and dresses, and it was not uncommon to see bikers transporting groceries or pets with them. There were massive bike parking garages that were three stories high for people to park their bikes.
I really liked and enjoyed Amsterdam. I was not taken by it like the way that some cities you just fall in love with and dream to revisit. But it was a great place to go and I feel like two days in Amsterdam was the perfect amount of time to see most of what I wanted to see. The people were friendly, the cheese was delicious, the buildings were interesting, and the canal was pretty. And the pancakes. Don’t forget the pancakes.
Frank, Anne, et al. Anne Frank : The Diary of a Young Girl. New York, Bantam Books, 1993.
Pip Farquharson. Walking Amsterdam : The Best of the City. Washington, D.C., National Geographic, 2021.