I am often amused by how my expectation of a place I intend to visit and the reality once I get there are often in stark opposition to each other. Planning our first trip to Amsterdam is an excellent example of this. In my head, from countless pictures I’d seen, I envisioned a calm, relaxed destination that we would enjoy at a leisurely pace. Wrong, so wrong, on so many levels.
Amsterdam, was not quite the calm place I played out in my head, and it was much bigger than I had anticipated. It is also a destination so rich in history and full of life, we found it impossible to see all we wanted to see in the two days we had set aside to visit it. Consisting of more than just the famous Canal Ring it’s known for, Amsterdam has ten neighbourhoods surrounding it worth exploring as well. It’s not hard to see why a tourist could be left feeling a little overwhelmed on arrival.
Left to our own devices, it’s easy to miss the most important spots of a destination. That’s why I’ve always been a big fan of guided and self-guided tours for travellers. I sought out the I amsterdam City Card upon our arrival in Amsterdam. Available in 24, 48, 72 and 96 hour increments, the I amsterdam card allows you to maximize your time in Amsterdam, no matter how long you have there.
We picked up our I amsterdam card in the IJ Hall at the Amsterdam Centraal Station. Cards are also available at Schipol Airport upon arrival. Unless you’re staying in Amsterdam though, odds are good that the start of your journey will begin at Amsterdam Centraal. Word to the wise: I would not recommend driving in Amsterdam unless you are a) an excellent parallel parker and b) a really confident driver.
Purchasing the I amsterdam City Card gives you access to museums, attractions and a free canal cruise. In addition, it also gives you free access to public transport around Amsterdam. If this is your first trip to Amsterdam, I would highly recommend taking advantage of the canal cruise first. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the city, and to highlight some places you may want to head back to on foot or by tram. There are four canal cruise companies available to choose from and embarkment is conveniently located directly across the street from Amsterdam Centraal. Trips run roughly every 20 minutes throughout the summer. We went with Lovers Canal Cruises and loved the convenient audio available in English that explained what we were seeing at every spot along the way.
Although there are 45 attractions and museums included with the I amsterdam City Card in the Canal Ring area alone, The Anne Frank House is not one of them. I can’t stress this enough, please buy your tickets online ahead of time. We bought ours a month before our trip and we’re so glad we did. The line up to enter the Anne Frank House stretched for two blocks. Thankfully we arrived at our scheduled time and were able to walk right in.
If you only have 24 or 48 hours to explore Amsterdam, you’ll find no reason to leave the Canal Ring area during your stay. Simply exploring the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum (conveniently located beside each other) can take hours out of a day. You’ll also not want to spend your time racing from attraction to attraction, or you’ll miss taking in the unique vibe of Amsterdam. Be sure to spend some time simply walking the streets along the canals, admiring the thousands of houseboats and the architecture of the buildings. Your I amsterdam card also includes discounts at a number of restaurants, so when you need to take a break you can take in your surroundings while enjoying a leisurely meal.
Of course, the question I’ve been asked a lot since we returned, is did we visit the Red Light District. This is where expectation and reality were again wildly different. The reality is that during the day, the Red Light District is rather tame. In fact, you might walk through it and not even realize where you were. In the evening, it definitely becomes a little more lively, but it’s not quite as scandalous as you think it is. We took our teen daughters through it and while they had many questions about the girls in the windows, and some of the more, um, unique gift stores, it opened up some great topics of discussion for us. When travelling with kids, explore this area based on where you are with these conversations with your kids. If you’re not ready to explain what sex toys are, what marijuana is, and why women are standing in windows in lingerie, you may want to avoid it. And before you ask, no, the I amsterdam card does not offer any discounts in the Red Light District.
They say the I amsterdam card is the card that “offers you more than you can visit, but you can try”, and I believe that’s true. There’s simply no way you could fit in all this amazing City Card offers, but you will have a lot of fun trying.