The capital city of the Netherlands is often a common layover point between the United States and many European cities, especially on Northwest and KLM. So if you happen to find yourself stuck on a layover over at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, fear not—because there are plenty of fabulous things you’ll want to take full advantage of with the short (or long) amount of time you have in this appealing city. Why not explore the City of Canals for a few hours by train-- it only takes fifteen minutes to get to downtown Amsterdam from the airport and costs about €8.40 for a day return ticket plus a €1 surcharge for a disposable ticket. (Remember though, the OV-chip smart card system is now used on Dutch railways, so you’ll need to check-in and check-out of your journey using the card readers near the platforms).
If you’re lucky enough to have an entire day to explore, there are a variety of adventures to be had within the 17th-century Golden Age city center, which is chock full of historical museums, artwork, seasonal festivals, a year round party scene, and a remarkably laid-back atmosphere that makes the area one of the most offbeat metropolises in the world. Grab a quick café lunch, glide through town via a canal way, and don’t forget to photograph those spectacular sites. Just make sure you get on the correct train by checking the overhead platform boards for destination Amsterdam Centraal, and try not to board the trains going to Amsterdam Zuid, Amsterdam RAI, and Amsterdam Bijlmer – or you’ll be missing your flight back home! The “Venice of the North” awaits, my friends.
10 Things To Do On A Layover In Amsterdam
1. Tour the actual airport
Surprising as it may be, the Schiphol airport can be a fine vacation all in itself—it offers more than enough things to do while you wait for that connecting flight. There are dozens upon dozens of regular and duty free shops, an overtly large selection of dining spots and bars located in Departure Hall 2 between Gates E and F, as well as a prayer and meditation room, a historical museum (an extension of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum which has a permanent exhibition of Dutch artwork located between E and F Pier on Holland Boulevard), a stylish airport library with books and multimedia stands focused on Dutch culture, a nice airport casino to play a few rounds at, endless comfortable airline passenger lounges, as well as a renowned relaxation spa, the XPresSpa, which offers massages, Manis/Pedis, facials, and tons of Back To Life chair massages to unwind with. The airport also has personal banking, ATM, and business services, as well as kid friendly-facilities for the little ones.
What’s more is that there’s also the onsite Hotel Mercure Schiphol in the Terminal Building, which boasts over thirty rooms and complimentary shower rooms for passengers hoping to freshen up before their next flight. For those just wanting to catch a little bit of shuteye, check out the Yotels—a.k.a. small and affordable rooms with electric pull out beds where you’ll be able to catch some zzzz’s (they are located on the 2nd floor behind Passport Control at the beginning of Pier D). Really, it’s possible to spend a whole day and night at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. It’s definitely worth the trip.
2. Walk and photobomb your way through city center
What better way to enjoy a few hours in Amsterdam than by wandering aimlessly through the cobblestoned streets and canals of the city? Get lost within the alleyways surrounding Amsterdam Central station—it’s a space full of unique architecture, whizzing bicycles, gorgeous canals, vibrant cafes, and lots of boats that can make for awesome shots to add to any growing photo album.
There are various places to explore on foot such as Dam Square, which has the Royal Palace, the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), and Bijenkorf department store. From Dam, make a run over to the Kalverstraat shopping district for some major splurging, especially at the striking Magna Plaza mall that stands close by. Head out further west to the Negen Straatjes (9 streets) and Jordaan area where you’ll find even more pretty canals and independent shops. Or, try heading to the east of Dam/Damrak to Zeedijk – a.k.a. Chinatown, or Nieuwmarkt, as well as the infamous Red Light District. Even try taking a free ferry ride to NDSM wharf, one of Amsterdam's prime spaces for creativity and development.
3. Stroll over to the Red Light District
Speaking of the Red Light District—any trip to Amsterdam is not complete without a peek into one of the city’s oldest, most historic, and most wild and kinky neighborhoods. It’s known for its red-lit windows, beautiful canals, famous churches, and frequent outdoor markets. Plus, it’s just steps from the train station, so mosey on over.
4. Check out the Anne Frank Museum or some awesome others
Museums are abound all throughout this culturally-infused European city. Major museums in the area include the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank House, which was once a hide out for two Jewish families during World War II and offers visitors a historical glimpse of what it was like to be Jewish during the Nazi occupation of Europe. It’s truly an emotional exhibit that allows for reflection and always boasts super long lines, so get there early.
There’s also the Stedelijk Museum, which has a bar on the eleventh floor of the building its housed in that provides splendid views of the entire city, as well as the Hermitage on the Amstel river, and the more contemporary EYE Film Institute on the north bank, which has a huge collection of Dutch movie posters and foreign film screenings all day and night.
5. Take a canal tour
Those hour long canal tours (Rondvaart) aboard a glass-topped boat are one of the best highlights of any trip to Amsterdam. Luckily, there are a number of companies running tours from just outside central station that cost around $20 per person. There’s even commentary provided in multiple languages so that no matter where you are from, you’ll be able to get a unique perspective of the perfect city by seeing it by water.
6. Go cuckoo for coffee at an Amsterdam java spot
“Coffeeshops” are one of the nation’s biggest attractions, especially since people head over not only for a nice cup of Joe, but for some marijuana or hash as well. Yes, that’s right, folks, the city is notorious for its legalization of marijuana—hence, most Amsterdam coffee spaces offer a legal place for customers to fearlessly consume marijuana products.
If you’re hoping to get a little on the high side of life during your next layover, beeline over to one of the numerous coffee spots in front of Centraal Station (there are about forty within a ten-minute walk!) to enjoy a puff, some baked snacks, and a safe accepting environment. Be very wise and careful though, as smoking, like alcohol, is a drug that can inhibit your judgment—which is something you most definitely don’t want while on vacation.
7. Peruse the stacks at Amsterdam Centrale Bibliotheek
Bookworms, listen up, because it really would be a shame not to visit the largest public central library in Europe. The beautifully designed Centrale Bibliotheek is a fantastically wonderful place to relax, unwind, and get into a good read, or to browse around a phenomenally abundant array of photo collections that’ll have any photo lover’s mind totally blown.
Bloggers and writers can take some time behind the tech-savvy computers to reflect on the spectacular travels they’ve had so far. There’s even an onsite cafeteria if that tummy gets grumbling. So grab a bite on top of the upper floor patio and make the most out of that layover.
8. Rent-A-Bike and ride around town
Another rad way to see the city would be to do it on two wheels. Grab a rental bicycle in between flights to cruise through the city in a whole other manner that’s definitely more exciting than doing so on four. If you’ve always dreamed of biking amidst a canal-filled city that melds history with modern urban flair, don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity.
9. Grab a bite at an Amsterdam café
Sure, delicious coffee and scrumptious deserts may be what come instantly to mind when thinking about Amsterdam—but the grubs around town happen to be pretty stellar as well. If you’re lucky enough to visit in the spring or summertime, sip and savor a nice drink on a patio overlooking the canals, or delve deep into a traditional Dutch Gouda, mustard, gherkin, and rye sandwich within one of the array of diverse local cafés. It’s definitely a way better alternative to airport food!
Hotspots include Bird, an authentic Thai food favorite in the Red Light District that is known for huge portions at very affordable prices, or Proeflokaal Janvier, a French spot in Eastern Canal Ring that’s located in an historic 17th-century wooden church and has a chef that’s famous for his terribly tasty dishes. Try Supperclub if you’ve got some time on your hands, which is another Red Light District restaurant that offers set five course meals. There are even chances to lounge on beds while munching on all those unusual courses. So chow down to your hearts content along with the live entertainment and DJs that play every night.
10. Shop 'til You Drop… At least with the time you have
What better way to get through a layover than with shopping? Fashionistas will gawk over the huge walking-only shopping district of Kalverstraat located just to the right of the train station. There are lots of trendy clothing stores to choose from, each offering a little bit of everything no matter what your best style is. The entire space goes on for nearly a mile until you hit Rembrandtplein, which is a popular nightlife locale, so buy something snazzy and get ready to dance until dawn—or at least until your next flight arrives!
This article was written by Pamela Chan.