Colorful bicycles, miles of canals, rows of toy-like houses with gabled façades, and open-air businesses and cafes — these are the things that come to mind when I reminisce about my time in Amsterdam. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that Amsterdam holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first European city I’ve visited.

Courtney Birchmeier, editor in chief at Group Tour Media, poses in Dutch wooden shoes in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Courtney Birchmeier, editor in chief
Credit: GTM/Courtney Birchmeier

Amsterdam is where I used my first Euro, where I rode my first ICE train, and where I slept in my first (tiny) European hotel room. Even though Amsterdam holds a special magic in my memories, it was immediately obvious the city is unique for travelers of all experience levels.

Bicycle culture 

I arrived in Amsterdam by train from Schiphol Airport to the grand Amsterdam Centraal Station, which is located in the heart of the city. The neo-Renaissance station was bustling; every day, an average of 250,000 people travel through it. Amsterdam Centraal also serves as an active, open shopping center, with cafes and fast-food restaurants.

After leaving the station, I started out on a 15-minute walk to my hotel, luggage in tow. I crossed bridges over canals and was mesmerized by parked bikes with baskets full of beautiful flowers. I passed by bike racks that seemed never-ending, jammed full of bikes of all colors. On the sidewalks, a stream of endless bicycles zoomed by me on parallel bike paths, through which I learned bicyclists in Amsterdam mean business.

Row of bicycles in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Bike racks, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Credit: iStock

There are more than 800,000 bikes in Amsterdam; that’s roughly four times the number of cars in the city. Amsterdam has about 2,480 miles (4,000 kilometers) of designed cycle paths. It’s much easier to walk or ride a bike in Amsterdam than it is to travel by car. In just 48 hours, my Fitbit clocked 35,000 steps.

Groups visiting Amsterdam can take advantage of bike tours throughout the city and the countryside. Tours vary in theme and duration. Bike rental companies also are plentiful for those wanting to explore on their own. 

Canal city

The Amsterdam canals provide the calm for the city and are the yin to the bicycle culture’s yang. There are more than 160 canals in Amsterdam, many of which were built in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age. Bridges in the city are abundant; 1,700 of them are found throughout Amsterdam (that’s 1,300 more bridges than you’ll find in Venice).

The best way to experience Amsterdam’s canals is to take a cruise. Aboard my Lovers Canal Cruises daytime tour, I traveled from the Amstel River through the UNESCO World Heritage-listed 17th-century Canal Ring. The boat’s glass-top roof made for easy viewing and the audio-guided tour gave fun facts about the city as we passed grand merchant houses, gothic churches, museums and medieval buildings.

Lovers Canal Cruises offers group tours of varying themes, including candlelight cruises, burger/pizza cruises and dinner cruises. Other canal cruise companies also are available for booking in Amsterdam. 

Canal in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Canal, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Credit: GTM/Courtney Birchmeier

Anne Frank Huis

Like most American schoolchildren, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, but seeing the actual house young Anne and her family hid inside was something I wasn’t emotionally prepared for. 

The building at Prinsengracht 263 would blend in with its neighboring canal houses if it weren’t for the modern front façade, roped off entrance queue and the museum’s subtle signage. The Anne Frank House, or Anne Frank Huis, stands as a museum dedicated to the Jewish wartime diarist who hid in the building’s annex for two years before being discovered by the Nazis.

The house in central Amsterdam recently completed a major renovation to better accommodate the more than 1.2 million visitors who walk through it every year. The tour experience is audio-guided, and took my group and I past photos, videos, quotes and original items. No photography is allowed inside the museum, which let us fully immerse in the experience. 

When we reached the bookcase that concealed the entrance to the Secret Annex, a silence seemed to wash over the already-quiet group. One by one, we walked past the bookcase, now encased in glass, and felt the weight of its significance. In the annex itself, we walked through the rooms once occupied by the Franks, most of them empty, and saw several personal mementos left behind, like the growth lines of the children on the wall.

Inside the diary room, we saw the original red-checkered diary, and it was then when the emotions of the tour started to rise to the surface. At the end of the tour, films in the “Reflections” exhibit pull the whole experience together. 

In the films, authors, politicians, visitors to the Anne Frank House and people who knew her all talk about what Anne’s diary and life story mean to them. Needless to say, I left the tour, tissue in hard, contemplating and reflecting on Anne’s story, the Holocaust and the state of the world today.

Buildings along a canal in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Credit: iStock

More to see

  • Vondelpark: Every year, 10 million people visit Amsterdam’s largest park. On a typical day, visitors find locals riding bikes, walking their dogs, roller-skating, sun bathing or enjoying free concerts in the open-air theater. Groups can see the park in true Dutch style on a guided bike tour. 
  • Albert Cuypmarkt: Located in the neighborhood of De Pijp, the street market features more than 300 stalls lining the Albert Cuypstraat. There’s fruit, vegetables, cheese, fish, spices, clothing and souvenirs, among other items. Grab a Dutch stroopwafel and stroll the always-bustling market, which is the largest day market in Europe, open six days a week. 
  • I Amsterdam letters: The collective catchphrase of Amsterdam has several physical locations throughout the city, which offer great group photo ops. The most popular location was previously found at Museumplein, but the letters were removed in December 2018 due to overcrowding. Those letters will now be traveling the city and region, putting lesser-known neighborhoods and attractions in the spotlight. You can find a permanent set of letters at Schiphol airport. 

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