Time is a luxury, and it's one we're often short of when we travel. But Amsterdam, as one of Europe's smallest capitals, lends itself well to whistle-stop tours thanks to its compact city center and excellent public transit (or rent-a-bikes!). If I had just 48 hours to see it all, this is how I'd pack the most of Amsterdam into two days: a personalized tour for the time-constrained, from the wonders of the 17th-century Low Countries to modern Dutch life.
Need some pointers on accommodations? Find the low-down on everywhere from backpacker hostels to five-star luxury hotels under Amsterdam Hotels & Hostels.
Tip: A 48-hour I Amsterdam Card is the ideal complement to my 48-hour tour: it offers free city-wide public transport, free entrance to most of the recommended attractions, and a 25% discount at a selection of central restaurants. A map is also handy for Amsterdam's often serpentine street plan: the I Amsterdam City Map sold for € 2.50 at the VVV (Tourist Information Center), across from Central Station, is adequate.
The first 24 hours are devoted to Amsterdam's Central Canal Belt, which arcs in a semi-circle around the Central Station. Start at the station and head south to the Damrak; this most conspicuously touristic street in Amsterdam is loaded with souvenir shops whose wares run from tasteful to hilariously kitsch. At the end is Dam Square, with the Koninklijk Palais (Royal Palace) to the west side and the National Monument to the east. Step into the palace and admire the 17 illustrious rooms of Empire-period decorative arts.
Take a peek inside the Gothic Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) and check out the temporary exhibition if it appeals. Then head west on the Radhuisstraat to the Westermarkt, site of both the Homomonument – a sensitive memorial to all those persecuted for their sexuality – and the Westerkerk, whose 85m church tower, the tallest in Amsterdam, rewards climbers with a lovely panorama. To the north, the Anne Frank Huis needs no introduction; bypass the queue with pre-purchased online tickets. (Note that the Anne Frank Huis is not included in the I Amsterdam Card!) Visitors are unanimously moved by their experience at the Anne Frank Huis, and you will undoubtedly be too. (Afraid it's inappropriate for children? See our advice.)
Don't stop now – retrace your steps to Spuistraat and head southeast: with only 48 hours, have lunch on the move from De Vleminckx Sausmeesters, Amsterdam's favorite friet (French fries), at Voetboogstraat 31.
Witness the most picturesque enclave in all of Amsterdam farther north on Voetboogsteeg: the Begijnhof, whose private residences nestle around an inner court. The handsome wooden house at number 34 is one of only two that survive below the river IJ.
Follow the Oudezijds Voorburgwal up north to Oudekerkplein (Old Church Square), seat of the monumental Oude Kerk, consecrated in 1306. At the north side of the square is the Museum het Rembrandthuis, where the artist lived in his heyday; here Rembrandt's masterpieces are superimposed on a superbly restored interior.
By now you've probably realized that you're in Amsterdam's fabled red-light district, De Wallen. Adults with a sincere curiosity about the sex trade in the Netherlands can take a non-sensationalistic tour of De Wallen with a former sex worker. Or you can climb up to the splendid attic church concealed in an ordinary house at Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder ("Our Lord in the Attic"), where persecuted Catholics worshipped in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Round off your first 24 hours in Amsterdam with a typically Dutch supper: the Pannenkoekenhuis Upstairs at Grimburgwal 2, one of Amsterdam's best pancake restaurants, where savory pancakes are doled out in a tiny but convivial space. Think pancakes are just for breakfast? Sample the irresistible fondue at Café Bern (Nieuwmarkt 9), which serves Swiss specialties in a typically Dutch bruin café interior.
Day 2 in Amsterdam is set in the Old South, whose celebrated Museum Quarter houses the pride of Dutch patrimony in its three institutions, and where the Vondelpark with its innumerable attractions sprawls.
Start at the Rijksmuseum, another attraction included in the I Amsterdam Card, whose permanent collection boasts the best of Dutch and Flemish masters. The museum is under renovation until 2013, but visitors can still drop in to see "De Meesterwerken", a temporary exhibition of the Rijksmuseum's most beloved masterpieces. This naturally includes Rembrandt's De Nachtwacht, the Leiden-born artist's 1650 ensemble portrait of city militiamen, as well as selected works by Jan Vermeer.
The Rijksmuseum collection reaches into the 19th century, but the most seminal Dutch painter of the century has his own institution in the Museum Quarter: the Van Gogh Museum. Gerrit Rietveld's phenomenal architecture sets the scene for this entirely unique collection of some 200 canvases and hundreds more sketches by the artist, in addition to his Impressionist friends and Post-Impressionist disciples.
Catapult into the 20th century with a quick meal at the Cobra Café. If the artworks from the Brussels-born Corneille or the Amsterdammer Karel Appel (the "Br" and "A" in CoBrA, respectively) tickle your fancy, pencil in a trip to the brilliant Cobra Museum in nearby Amstelveen for next time; for now, it's off to another bastion of modern art, the Stedelijk Museum.
The Stedelijk Museum is Amsterdam's answer to MoMA, the Musée d'Orsay and other worldwide temples of modern art. Its Museumplein location has been temporarily reopened to the public (until January 9, 2011) in the midst of renovation and expansion for two contemporary art exhibits – an excellent window of opportunity for art lovers!
Head northward and let culture secede to consumerism on P.C. Hoofdstraat, Amsterdam's own Champs-Élysées. Upscale chains line the street; rub elbows with their well-heeled clientele as you browse Hermes, Louis Vuitton, and other exclusive retailers. Or just skip on over to the Vondelpark, the verdant heart of Amsterdam, for a late afternoon stroll or one of the abundant indoor and outdoor activities in the park.
Celebrate the close of your 48 hours in Amsterdam with one last typically Dutch experience: eat rijsttafel at Sama Sebo, one of the top Indonesian restaurants in the city. Rijsttafel, which literally means "rice table", is like tapas on overdrive: a feast of small Indonesian dishes, plus rice, that tests even the heartiest appetites. Not traditionally Indonesian, rijsttafel is a Dutch colonial invention that allowed colonists to sample dishes from all over the islands. So eet smakelijk ("bon appétit!"), and have a toast to your next 48 hours – or more – in Amsterdam!
Hem Hotel Amsterdam
Tulip Inn Amsterdam Centre
Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Amsterdam Centraal Station
Grand Hotel Amrath Amsterdam
NH Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky