As popular as Amsterdam is as a destination, it seems to be just as popular as a place to change planes in the middle of a long journey, especially if your flight to Amsterdam is on either KLM or Northwest. The great news is that Amsterdam is one of the very few cities in the world where even a short layover can be turned into a fascinating, albeit brief, look at the heart of town.
This subject has quite a few different aspects to it, and not all of them will apply to everyone. Below you’ll find, in order of appearance, the following topics:
- Is your layover long enough?
- Something to consider in the airport itself
- Tours leaving right from the airport
- How to get into the city quickly
- Get a map and get oriented in Amsterdam
- Canal tours – the best first option
- Self-guided walking tours
- Restaurants, bars, and coffeeshops
Let’s begin, shall we?
Be realistic with the timing
Once you walk off your plane and into Schiphol you can usually be in the city in around 45 minutes, or even less if things go smoothly for you. And it takes a bit north of 30 minutes from walking back into Centraal Station in Amsterdam until you are in the security line back at Schiphol. So with this in mind, if your layover is six hours or more the sky’s the limit for your city trip. You can pretty much pick any one thing you want (including one of the big museums) and you should still have time to walk around the city a bit. Check out the main travel guide for some of the most popular options.
If your layover is scheduled for 3 hours or less you are probably trapped at the airport, since leaving the terminal means going through Customs on the way out and security on the way back in. The city is close and easy to reach from the airport, but racing into town only to have to race right back to the airport is probably not worth the possible heart attack or the strong possibility of missing your outbound flight.
With a 3-hour layover you might play it by ear. If your flight lands early or the Customs lines look empty, you can actually have a meaningful visit even if you have to be back at the airport exactly two hours later. Obviously you’ll leave your luggage behind, so if you can waltz through Customs into the big shopping area at Schiphol Airport quickly, read on and you can judge the risk/reward for yourself.
If you ARE trapped at the airport
Schiphol Airport routinely ranks as one of the finest in the world so you could do a lot worse than being trapped there for a couple hours. There is some shopping available in the terminals and a decent size airport shopping mall just outside of Customs, but the shops there are mostly the typical chains with a few places to buy goofy Dutch souvenirs mixed in.
But just inside Passport Control (meaning you don’t need to go through customs or come back through immigration to visit) you’ll find the world’s first in-airport museum. That’s right, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum (the state museum) has a mini branch located at Schiphol featuring ten works by Dutch masters of the Golden Age in their permanent collection, and temporary exhibits that change every few months in addition. The Rijksmuseum Amsterdam Schiphol is located in the area on the inside passport control between the Piers E and F, which means you won’t have to go out through customs or back in through immigration to visit.
Airport museum hours: daily – 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
If you’ve got even more time to kill
These layovers are so common here that Schiphol Airport has even put together their own Sightseeing at Schiphol page. It’s kind of silly stuff, but if you’ve got some time to kill it’s worth a look.
Prefabricated tours leaving directly from the airport
The tours aren’t cheap, but a company called Holland Tours Schiphol has a variety of planned excursions that load passengers onto luxury minibuses and take them either through Amsterdam or through other nearby areas based on a theme. As long as 4 or more people sign up you can set out on a fixed journey of between 2.5 and 4 hours costing between €40 and €60 per person. They have two booking desks at Schiphol, which close at 4:30 p.m. each day.
They offer three different Amsterdam tours:
- A 2.5-hour basic city tour (€40)
- A 3.5-hour city tour that adds a 60-minute canal tour to the basic tour (€50)
- An “Evening in Amsterdam” 3-hour tour (€50), which includes one drink at a bar
Again, they are kind of pricey, but they look like comprehensive and professional tours and they limit your chance of missing your flight to basically zero as long as you have your details correct on your end.
DIY tours begin here
For a grand total of €6.40 (which is the return/round-trip 2nd class train fare for adults) you can get into Amsterdam quickly and build your own walking tour, adding whatever options you please. Below I’ll describe the transportation information and then a list of options you might consider.
Getting into the city
You’ll be catching the train, which helpfully leaves from a station beneath the airport. It’s fast, cheap, and easy, as long as you know what you are doing. You’ll hear people say “the train into Amsterdam takes 15 minutes,” but there’s a bit more to it than that.
Turn right out of Customs and look for the overhead signs pointing to the train station. In a few minutes you’ll be in a part of the airport that doesn’t really look like a train station, but it is one. You’ll see escalators that descend down to the tracks, and on the right you’ll see a large group of ticket windows.
Get in any line (they are often long, but they move fast) and when you get to the front ask for however many return (round-trip) tickets to Amsterdam Centraal Station you need. You’ll get one ticket for the way into the city and one ticket for the way back. When using a return/round-trip ticket in the Netherlands you have to use both halves on the same day. If you are coming back to the airport another day just ask for a single ticket and buy the ticket coming back at Centraal Station.
- Cost – €6.40 return (for adults) or €3.80 each way if purchased separately (plus a €0.50 fee per ticket if you purchase at the windows instead of the machines)
- 5:30 a.m. through 9 p.m. – 6 or 7 per hour
- 9 p.m. through 1 a.m. – 2 or 3 per hour
- 1 a.m. through 5:30 a.m. – 1 per hour
It can’t hurt to confirm this from the ticket salesperson, but the trains to Amsterdam Centraal have always left from Platforms 1 and 2, down the closest escalator to the ticket windows. Head down the escalator and hop on the train waiting there on either track, or the next one to pull in. These trains are on lines that go in both directions so this isn’t the end of the line, but the trains on Platforms 1 and 2 always go into the city.
Trains leave about 6 or 7 times an hour during the day, so chances are you won’t have to wait more than 10 minutes once down on the platform. Climb in a carriage with a 2 on the side (assuming you bought a 2nd class ticket) and you’ll soon be on your way. The schedule says the trains take between 15 and 19 minutes to get to Centraal because some of them stop twice at suburban stations along the way, while others go nonstop to Centraal. Just take the first train you see, but pay attention to make sure you get off at Amsterdam Centraal. Most people on the train will be getting off there so if you aren’t sure if you are in Centraal Station or not, chances are you are not.
It’s rare that a conductor will even come by to ask to see your ticket on this short journey, but being caught without one is both expensive and humiliating. Once you arrive at Centraal Station head down the stairs or escalators and then make a right turn, assuming you are still facing the same direction the train was traveling in. Welcome in Amsterdam!
Getting back to Schiphol
When you are ready to head back to the airport just enter Centraal Station and look at the big departure board or any one of the many TV screens in the main hall. You should see at least a couple that list Schiphol as their first destination. Assuming you bought a return ticket at Schiphol, you can just head to the appropriate platform entrance, head up the stairs or escalator, and climb on board. Again, trains go back and forth about 6 or 7 times per hour so you should be underway in under 15 minutes from when you enter Centraal Station.
Get a free map (if you like)
Amsterdam has quite a confusing layout, especially your first time in the city. If you can print out a map from a website it’s a good idea. You can download the miniature Amsterdam pdf travel guide from BootsnAll right here, which has some good-but-not-great maps near the end of its 15 pages. There are a couple of places within the airport that offer free maps, and any of them should do nicely. If not, there are two options for getting a free map right in front of the train station.
Carefully cross the tram paths right out front and just to the left you’ll see the VVV (official tourist) office. They have 9 lines inside and it’s often crowded, but they do give away free maps if you need one. Just next door is the GVB ticket office, which sells tram and bus tickets. They have free maps that detail the public transportation in the city.
A quick orientation
Standing in front of Centraal Station looking forward you are in the busiest part of Amsterdam, although it’s not exactly the heart of the city. Everything visitors care about is in front of you and there is a river behind the station so you’ll not be going in that direction at all. Slightly to your left is the oldest part of the city, including the infamous Red Light District. Straight-ahead and going away from you is the Damrak, which is the central main street that connects the main square (Dam Square) with Centraal Station. Slightly to your right and branching off Damrak is the giant main pedestrian-only shopping area of Amsterdam centered around Kalverstraat.
Okay, here you are. Now what to do? That all depends on your interests and the amount of time you have at your disposal. If you’ve got 5 or more hours before you’ve got to be back on a train you can pick nearly anything on the Attractions page, or just find a bar or coffeeshop and get wasted, but careful not to lose track of time if you choose this option!
Possible things to do now – the first one is highly recommended
This might be the only city in the world (other than Venice, Italy) that is better seen from the water than from terra firma. Many canal cruise companies offer 60-minute basic canal tours of the city (all basically the same) for between €7 and €12 for adults. You can find the docks for these tours either just to the right as you exit Centraal Station, or cross the street onto Damrak and there are several companies stationed just to the left. You should be speaking to a ticket seller in less than 5 minutes from exiting the station if you head right there.
>>more information on Amsterdam canal cruises
Testimonial: If my best friend had a short layover at Schiphol for their first-ever visit to the city I would definitely recommend a one-hour canal tour first, and then after that choose from the rest of the options with the time left over. Not surprisingly, these tours cover a lot of ground in a short time and are the best way to see the city regardless of how long you are staying.
Self-guided walking tours
As long as you’ve got a basic map and a non-tragic sense of direction you can set out on foot and wander around to see what interests you. Once you get to the outer ring of canals it’s extremely easy to get lost – even with a map in hand – but if you concentrate on the areas close to Centraal Station you should be fine.
You have three main options and in even as little as an hour you can do all three as long as you keep moving.
1- Red Light District – Yes, this is where the women flirt with passersby in their red-lit windows, but it’s also the oldest and most historic neighborhood in Amsterdam. The canals in this area are particularly gorgeous and there are a couple of famous churches and frequent outdoor markets here. It’s also an active residential neighborhood so there is no reason to feel embarrassed passing through.
2 – Kalverstraat Shopping – Cross the street in front of Centraal Station and just to your right is an enormous pedestrian-only shopping district, although it’s hidden from view until you actually reach one of its many streets, with Kalverstraat being the central artery. You’ll find mostly trendy and youthful clothing stores, but there is a little bit of everything. Keep walking away from Centraal Station and it goes for about a kilometer before it arrives at Rembrandtplein, which is the fancy nightlife area. It’s pretty dead on Sundays and Monday mornings, but otherwise it’s usually jammed with people, which makes walking quickly nearly impossible.
3 – Dam Square – About a 10-minute walk from Centraal Station is Amsterdam’s official main square. You can get there much faster if you walk on the wide sidewalk along the Damrak, but walking through the Kalverstraat shopping district sends you directly into Dam Square (usually at a slow pace for all the other pedestrians). This all-concrete square is where you’ll find the fairly impressive Royal Palace and lots of dodgy tourist traps as well. Often there is a carnival set up in the square, but it’s not really a must-see place in and of itself.
If you are a determined walker you can start through either the Red Light District or Kalverstraat, get to Dam Square to look around a bit, and then head back the other way in about an hour or so. Obviously you can stretch these walks out as long as you’d like, and this general loop is an excellent (and free) way to see several important parts of the city during a brief layover. If you’ve got a bit more time or if you aren’t much of a walking-tour person then here are some additional possibilities below.
The major attractions such as the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank House are not quick and easy to visit with only a few hours in Amsterdam. If you are determined to visit any one of those you might be able to pull it off with about 5 hours in the city.
But until the end of 2009 the Stedelijk (it means municipal, but it houses modern art) Museum is temporarily housed in a former postal building just outside Centraal Station and to the left. It costs €9 for adults to see the collection, and there is a bar and nightclub on the 11th floor of the building that has great views of the city.
Unfortunately, the area in front of Centraal Station is mostly filled with disappointing culinary destinations. Along the Damrak you’ve got a bunch of tourist-oriented places that are mostly quite mediocre. Since they don’t need too much repeat business to stay busy there is little incentive for them to offer high quality food or serve it cheaply. There are plenty of choices, just not a lot of great choices.
If you’ve got a few hours in Amsterdam and you want to include a nice meal you might want to check out either the Rembrandtplein area or (if you’ve got a bit more time) the Leidseplein area. There are excellent meals served in most of Amsterdam every night, but few of them are served near Centraal Station.
If your main goal is to have one unforgettable meal on your short Amsterdam layover visit you should think about trying out the locally famous Rijsttafel, which is a Dutch combination and interpretation of Indonesian food, served in sort of a personal buffet style. There are Indonesian restaurants throughout Amsterdam, and the easiest to reach from Centraal Station is Sarang Mas. It’s not the best in town, but it can be reached in about 10 minutes on an easy walk straight out the front door of Centraal Station. They are at 84 Rokin, which is what Damrak turns into as it continues south past Dam Square.
Your best bet for a quick bite is in the area just inside the Red Light District (there are no hookers in this part though). From Centraal Station look straight-ahead along Damrak and take a left over the second bridge you see (it’s maybe 150 meters out the front door of the station). Take the first right and then another right and you’ll find yourself with dozens of choices of pizza slices, French fries, Middle Eastern food, and more. None of it is ever going to earn a Michelin star, but these places are cheap and actually a good sampling of what the locals eat, especially the famous Vlaamse frites (French fries). For an unusual and fast meal you might consider FEBO, which is a local chain of automats and has a location in the Red Light District.
Bars and pubs
If you are thirsty or just want to get hammered you are in luck in this neighborhood. There are places all over that are easy to spot because they almost all have a Heineken sign out front. Across from Centraal Station and a bit to the right you’ll find a couple of touristy places that aren’t bad, but you are better off marching straight into the Red Light District. Again, look straight-ahead along Damrak and take a left over the second bridge you see (it’s maybe 150 meters out the front door of the station). Take the first right and another quick right onto Warmoesstraat. The world is now your drinking oyster.
Warmoesstraat is a long pedestrian-only street lined with pubs, clubs, coffeeshops, and fast food places. Most places here are quite small, and there are no hookers along this street so there’s no reason to feel strange here, but if you do want to see a few girls in the windows just head down Warmoesstraat a few blocks and turn left and you’ll see a few windows with the friendly girls behind them.
Okay, I put this at the end, but I know this is really what you were looking for the whole time. You can be sparking up some doobie in less than 10 minutes from walking out of Centraal Station if this is your primary goal. You can shop or see churches everywhere, but where else can you get baked legally while on a 3-hour airport layover? Welcome in Amsterdam!
You can get coffee at these places, but if that’s all you want just look around for a café and you’ll be set. The main attraction at Amsterdam “coffeeshops” is the marijuana or hash you can safely and cheaply buy from someone behind the counter, and then smoke it right there. For the specifics on exactly how this all works so you can visit a coffeeshop without feeling really weird about it check out the advice on the main Amsterdam Coffeeshop page.
Since this is such a popular topic among people with, say, a 4-hour layover, I’ve written specific instructions and information about the closest coffee shop to Amsterdam airport. It might not be the best choice for many people, but those in a rush might want to check it out since it’s right across (a very wide roadway) from the train station, and it’s easy to find.
Standing in front of Centraal Station there are about 40 coffeeshops within a 10-minute walk, and the closest 4 of those can be reached in just a few minutes. But don’t race off to the closest place unless you’ve got to be back on the train in 30 minutes.
Every coffeeshop in Amsterdam is a little different and you are going to be hanging out inside for at least 30 minutes or so. Walk past a few and then go inside one that feels like it has a nice vibe inside. Many of them have small rooms on the ground floor and then addition seating upstairs, so it’s not always easy to judge from the street, but you’ll find a place you like quickly even if you take a few minutes to choose. If you have not yet visited one of these places you might be interested in the Amsterdam coffee shops FAQ, which should answer every question about this whole phenomenon.
Your best bet to find a cool coffeshop fast is to follow the same instructions above regarding fast food or bars. You’ll soon be on Warmoesstraat (you’ll be walking directly away from Centraal Station) and there are about 8 coffeeshops mixed in with the various bars and other things of little interest to potheads before they get properly stoned.
My favorite places along here are Hill Street Blues (dumb name, but a cool place) a few blocks up on the right, and Baba (which plays trance music 16 hours a day every day), and is half a block past Hill Street Blues.
You probably know this part already, but REALLY make sure you are keeping track of time if you hit a coffeeshop on an airport layover. I don’t personally know anyone who’s had this problem, but I’m sure hundreds of stoners each year miss their flights because they lose track of time while chilling out in paradise. Some of them might even do it on purpose and I couldn’t blame them actually.
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