A weekend break in Amsterdam

A weekend break in Amsterdam
2nd August 2023 Stories

A weekend break in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is the capital and biggest city of The Netherlands, and one of the most alluring tourist destinations in Europe. Around 20 million people flock to visit this city every year, and once you’ve had an experience of its quaint cafes, picturesque architecture and beautiful canals, it’s easy to understand why. But with it’s walkable, or cycle-able, city centre, Amsterdam is a very popular tourist destination for city breaks. This is how I experienced Amsterdam earlier this year; a four-day break in the Easter holidays, to explore what the city has to offer. City breaks, or long weekends, differ from normal holidays primarily by their length and breadth. They’re typically between two and five days, (as opposed to the usual seven to fourteen days we associate with a holiday) and usually focus on only one city or region, instead of exploring a whole country, and taking day trips to different regions. Some people may say this isn’t worth the money of the flights, but for somewhere nearby and brimming with culture like Amsterdam, I think it’s the perfect city for a short break. I will explore other things you can do around Amsterdam for a longer stay, but I’ll mostly be reflecting on why my weekend break here was so much fun.

Getting there

Amsterdam has very good connections to the UK, with The Netherlands being just across the water. The Netherlands is a Schengen and EU country, meaning that they have freedom of movement. Although this doesn’t apply directly to UK citizens as it does to Schengen country’s citizens, it does mean travel between the UK and The Netherlands is visa free (for up to 90 days as a tourist) and easy. Most people will fly in, to Schiphol airport.

By plane: flights to Schiphol airport, Amsterdam’s main airport and 4th busiest airport in Europe, fly daily from most major UK airports including Edinburgh, Manchester, Heathrow and Luton.

By train: Amsterdam has great train connections, with train from The Hague, Rotterdam and various other locations in The Netherlands arriving daily. If you wish to get the train exclusively from the UK, you can get the Eurostar from London St Pancras to Brussels, Belgium, then change here for a train to Amsterdam.

By car: the easiest way to drive here is to drive to Newcastle, then get a ferry to Amsterdam. Although other UK locations offer ferries to The Netherlands, they’re often to Rotterdam which would require an extra train ride, so check before you book.

Travel tip: as of July 2023, cruise ships are to be banned from Amsterdam, so do not use this as a direct route. Although it is unlikely that this will affect car ferries, the Dutch government may, in the near future, make this decision. Therefore I’d recommend flying, if possible, especially just for a weekend trip.

Why visit Amsterdam?

Amsterdam is Europe’s 6th most visited city, with over 20 million visitors in an average year. Although, like everywhere, this took a dive during Covid, I found visiting this year in the post-Covid era we find ourselves in, this was only picking up. Amsterdam is, undeniably, a beautiful city, but the reasons I, and 20 million other people, visited go far beyond this. Amsterdam is a warm, friendly and safe city that offers something entirely different to the rest of Europe. I visited Amsterdam for a short break, as my first visit to The Netherlands, therefore for me Amsterdam acted as a gateway into this country, which was one of the things I found so alluring about it. For a capital city, Amsterdam seems relaxed, and it doesn’t feel like you should be stressed about anything on your holiday. This is especially great if you’re here on a weekend break, as it means you can get around the city, and see everything there is to see, in the time you have without feeling stressed.

Amsterdam is famous for its beautiful canals and picturesque thin buildings. Some people, like me, love to walk around the city and take in all this beauty. So here’s my list of the top five most beautiful places to go:

1. The Dancing Houses. These are a collection of houses in Damrak, near the city centre, that due to their crooked design look like they’re dancing. They are best observed on a canal tour, as they overlook the canal.
2. The Skinny Bridge. A historic draw bridge over the river Amsel, it is both one of the longest in Amsterdam, and one of the most photographed. Legend has it, two sisters that used to live on either side of this bridge would embrace each other on the bridge, which is where the name ‘skinny bridge’ comes from- as they were so thin, they could embrace each other without blocking the bridge. Furthermore, legend has it that any couple who kiss underneath the bridge will stay together forever. At night it is lit up and makes for a beautiful photograph.
3. The Canal Ring. This term refers to the canals of the city centre of Amsterdam, which form a semi-circle around the old city centre. These canals are a UNESCO world heritage site, and are lined with beautiful traditional Dutch buildings.
4. The Jordaan District. One of Amsterdam’s most beautiful districts, the Jordaan district is characterised by scenic canals, beautiful buildings, art galleries and boutiques. We stayed in the Jordaan district during our stay, and it’s definitely worth it for the beautiful views and vibrant feel.
5. Dam Square. The main square in the city centre of Amsterdam, this is just a short walk from the Amsterdam Centraal station. It’s home to the magnificent Royal Palace, as well as a whole host of beautiful buildings. There are often street vendors here and events take place here too, so it’s worth seeing if anything is on before going.

Just walking around and taking in the sights is always recommended during shorter stays. I find if you rush around too much trying to do everything, you just make yourself stressed and don’t get a feel for the city, so I advise taking it easy and having a walk (or cycle) around. That being said, Amsterdam is a city brimming with museums, galleries and attractions, so here’s my list of the top 10 attractions to see in Amsterdam:

My top ten attractions in Amsterdam:

  1. The Anne Frank House. The preserved house that Anne Frank, a Jewish girl and diarist hiding from the Nazis in the 1940s, and her family lived and hid in. Visitors can look around the house, and see the attached museum.
  2. The Van Gogh Museum. Containing many works of Van Gogh as well as other impressionist painters like Monet, Gauguin and Pissarro.
  3. The Rijksmuseum. Considered one of the most important museums in the world, this collection includes over 1 million items including the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer.
  4. Bodyworlds. A museum in Damrak that explores all things to do with the human body. It includes many preserved human bodies through a process called plastination. It explores the science of the human body, and how lifestyle factors affect it. Although it is family friendly, be warned some sections aren’t for the faint of heart!
  5. The Red-Light District. Perhaps Amsterdam’s most famous attraction, the red-light district is made up of two sections in the city centre. It is a hub of cafes, nightlife and adult entertainment. It is where the brothels and the majority of the coffeshops in Amsterdam are located, but is also home to lots of history. If you’re thinking of visiting the red-light District, please read the full travel guidance below in the section “Dutch Culture.”
  6. Canal Tour. These are great for getting to see most of the city at once, taking in the picturesque views and learning some interesting history. Our tour guide was informative and funny, and it’s a great way of seeing parts of the city you maybe otherwise wouldn’t.
  7. Vondelpark. Amsterdam’s main park, this large and scenic part of the city is perfect for leisurely walks or bike rides. There are also lovely cafés and music venues within as well.
  8. Rembrandt House. The preserved house and museum of the artist Rembrandt. *
  9. The Royal Palace. Located on Dam Square, this is the historic and operational home of the Dutch Royal Family. You can admire it from the outside in Dam Square, or you can pay to go inside and explore this historic building with its marble hall, grand council chamber and lavishly ornate royal apartments. *
  10. Eat at The Pancake Bakery. Pancakes, both sweet and savoury, are a huge part of Dutch culinary culture. Although there’s a wide selection of pancake houses all across the city for all budgets, I personally recommend The Pancake Bakery, located on the same street as the Anne Frank House. It’s considered to be the oldest pancake bakery in Amsterdam, and is housed in a beautiful old building dating back to 1627, when it was a warehouse for the Dutch East India Company.

Museums tip: keep in mind that for many of these attractions and museums, booking in advance is essential as they will very likely be booked out on the day. For the most popular ones, like the Van Gogh Museum, I recommend booking a few weeks in advance to avoid disappointment, as when we tried to book a week in advance it was booked out for the rest of the month. This applies for off-peak season, too.


Dutch Culture

The Netherlands is a diverse and exciting country, and Amsterdam really reflects this. Although often overlooked due to its position in Northern Europe, and its proximity to cultures such as Germany and Denmark, I believe the culture of The Netherlands is unique and exciting. This does mean that there may be some cultural differences however, outlined below:
Cannabis. Recreational cannabis is technically still illegal in The Netherlands; however they have what are called ‘Tolerance Laws’, which mean you can’t be criminalized for having it under certain circumstances. You are allowed to have up to 5 grams for personal use at home, or you can buy it from licensed coffeeshops. If you have up to 5 grams, this must be for personal use and must not exceed this amount. It can only be used in your house (not in the street or in parks) or hotel, but check with whoever runs where you’re staying that they allow this- not all hotels/ Airbnb’s will. In order to obtain a license to sell cannabis products, the coffeeshops cannot sell products containing cannabis to people under the age of 18, they cannot overtly advertise that they sell cannabis products outside the shop, they cannot sell hard drugs or give out large quantities, and they cannot create a nuisance for the city itself. These are the only two ways you can obtain cannabis in The Netherlands, and obtaining it from another source or in a larger quantity than stated can result in prosecution. It’s also worth noting that the police reserve the right to confiscate your cannabis, even if it is under 5 grams, should they deem this to be necessary. This often happens around the border. It is illegal to try and take cannabis or anything containing cannabis into any other country, so ensure you have disposed of any cannabis products purchased in The Netherlands before coming home.
Prostitution, brothels and the red-light district. In The Netherlands both prostitution (selling sex) and brothels are legal. Brothels in Amsterdam must be licensed and are regulated. This regulation includes safe working conditions for sex workers, ensuring the same workers’ rights other workers receive, and regular health checkups for sex workers. Although they don’t have to be, most brothels in Amsterdam are located in the red-light district, the aforementioned region of the city centre known for its cafes, nightlife and adult entertainment. The red-light district makes up much of the city centre of Amsterdam, and you shouldn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable passing through it, especially during the day. It’s divided into two sections, the area around Oudezijds Voorburgwal and the area around Oude Nieuwstraat. The area around Oudezijds Voorburgwal is the bigger of the two, and known for being more tourist friendly. I’d recommend going here, during the day, if you want a look around the red-light district as it’s less imposing and has more things to see. The area around Oude Nieuwstraat is smaller, and in my opinion less inviting, even during the day. It’s also known as the “gay red-light district”, as most of the LGBT friendly brothels and nightclubs are here. However, although this region is known for the adult entertainment industry, both areas are in the oldest part of Amsterdam and are filled with beautiful buildings and other, more family friendly attractions. If you do wish to use the services offered by a brothel in Amsterdam, ensure it is licensed first and remember to bring ID.
Driving- as with most of Europe, the Dutch drive on the right-hand side of the road. Driving is allowed, but limited, in the city centre of Amsterdam. Most Dutch people who live in Amsterdam, however, would much rather use a bike or boat to get around, so why not immerse yourself in the Amsterdam way of life and do this too! Amsterdam has a great public transport system, with trams and a metro, so if you need to travel further afield (such as to the arena) then these are a great option as they’re fast, reliable and easy.
Language- the official language of The Netherlands is Dutch. However, this country has one of the best English proficiencies in the non-English speaking world, with most signs in Amsterdam including English and most people who live and work here speak English. In Amsterdam, most people you meet will probably speak English, however this may not be true everywhere in The Netherlands, so if you go on a day trip anywhere more rural expect to need some Dutch. But despite this, why not learn some anyways? It will impress the locals, and this beautiful language will give you more of an insight into Dutch life.
Currency- The Netherlands uses the Euro. Most shops will not accept other currency. Most credit cards are accepted here, and there are plenty of currency converting services available in Schiphol Airport and Amsterdam city centre.

At a glance:


  • Is technically still illegal.
  • Can be obtained in small doses from licensed cafes.
  • These licensed cafes cannot and will not advertise they serve cannabis outside.
  • You can have up to 5 grams on you for personal use in your home and not on the street.
  • Can be confiscated, especially in areas close to the border.


  • Prostitution and brothels are legal, but regulated and brothels must be licensed.
  • Sex workers have the same rights as other workers in The Netherlands.
  • Illegal prostitution/ trafficking is illegal, and illegal to partake in. Always check for a license.
  • The red-light district is a perfectly safe place to be, both during the day and at night (although caution is advised).

It’s worth noting, although many people visit The Netherlands for these reasons, if like me you have no interest in them, they are very subtle- even within the red-light district- and will not encroach on your holiday. If you don’t like these aspects of Amsterdam, don’t worry about them, they do not affect the overall feel of the city.

Being safe around Amsterdam

Now that we’ve looked at the best places to go, and the best things to do, here are my top tips for being safe in these spaces:
Always watch your belongings. This applies everywhere but especially busy places like Dam Square or Centraal Station where there may be lots of pickpockets. Always keep valuables out of sight and in a zip pocket if possible. Don’t put your bag down and leave it anywhere, even just to take a picture.
Beware of people offering you help in places like train stations. Although it can be difficult with a different language and currency, and often with complicated machines to buy tickets, be aware of people offering you help for things like buying tickets. Although they may be genuine staff, or just a helpful passer-by, it can’t be ruled out that they’re a scammer who will take your money under the guise of ‘buying your ticket for you’, but not return it or buy a ticket. Similar scams include people offering help carrying bags onto trains, but either taking the bags or asking for money after they’ve helped you. If you need help, always ask an official member of staff at the help desk, and only give money to official staff.
Be safe around the canals. Most of the paths next to the canals don’t have any kind of railing, so beware falling in especially if it’s dark and/or you’ve been drinking. Please note that the canals are active waterways with countless boats using them every day, therefore you cannot swim in the canals.
Beware of trams and bikes. Amsterdam is famous for being a cycling city, and although the bikes have their own lanes, it’s often hard to differentiate these from the footpaths, especially when it’s busy. Trams too often blend into the background, so always look when you cross a road and watch your surroundings- I wouldn’t recommend using a phone too much as this is a major distraction.
Take care at night. Amsterdam is famous for its nightlife, especially for stag-dos and rowdy British tourists. Be extra vigilant at night, as there may be drunk and disorderly people on the street. If you want a nice nighttime stroll along the canals, I recommend sticking to the Jordaan district, which is generally quiet and has less nightclubs. Take extra care at night in the red-light district and Vondelpark, as they often attract unsavoury characters. If you’re travelling as a family, I would suggest that the red-light district is inappropriate for children in the evening and nighttime.
Use only licensed taxis with official signs and numbers. Unofficial ones may overcharge, or take you by a longer route.

Beyond Amsterdam

Amsterdam is an amazing city, and as I found there’s plenty to do for a short break. However, if you’re planning on staying here for longer, or think you can do all those things and will still have a spare day, there’s plenty of other attractions to do in The Netherlands- here’s my top five:
Zaanse Schans- this picturesque town and region of Holland is easily accessible from Amsterdam. It offers the best of the Dutch countryside, with rolling fields and traditional Dutch windmills and towns.
Delft- this picturesque city, not far from Rotterdam, is famous for its pottery. With gorgeous blue and white porcelain designs, they have shops and museums where you can experience this traditional craft, and even take some of it home.
Rotterdam- there are regular trains to Rotterdam, The Netherlands second biggest city. It’s famous for its impressive modern architecture, vibrant nightlife and fabulous shopping and culture. *
The Hague- there are regular trains to The Hague too, The Netherlands third city. This city is defined by its beautiful architecture and lovely beaches. It’s the seat of the Dutch government and the International Criminal Court, so is a great day out for someone interested in history or politics. If art is more your thing, there is the Mauritshuis, a museum home to some of the best Dutch painting from the Golden age, such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. *
Zandvoort- although the Netherlands isn’t famous for its beaches, and is often too cool for a swim, this beach resort is a rare exception. Most of The Netherlands’ coastline isn’t covered by sand, but this strip of sandy beaches contains more than 30 beaches, each with its own character. Furthermore, there is a famous racing track here that you can look around, or even watch a race when it’s on.
*You can also read the travel safety guides for both these cities here: www.safertravel.org/cities-around-the-world

Fun Amsterdam facts:

  1. The Dutch have a rich colonial history, once being one of the largest empires in the world, once controlling land on 6 of the 7 continents.
  2. It is, by many calculations, the 6th most visited city in Europe annually, and the 26th worldwide.
  3. There are more bikes than people in Amsterdam.
  4. Amsterdam has more canals than Venice.
  5. The oldest stock exchange in the world is located in Amsterdam.


One weekend- is that enough?

Amsterdam is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and it’s also one of the most densely packed with things to do. For its size, it’s easy to walk, and the canal system means it’s less congested with cars, which makes everything seem so much more leisurely here. Weekend breaks aren’t for everyone; they can often seem rushed, and leave you wondering if you missed out on anything. But for me I found this was the perfect amount of time to explore the city, as Amsterdam’s compact nature means you can see and do most things- just remember to book in advance so you don’t miss out on seeing everything you want! And besides, Amsterdam is a beautiful and alluring city, so even if you don’t feel like you’ve seen everything in your short break you can, like me, just look forward to when you’ll plan your next trip- because once you’ve been once, you’re sure to keep coming back.

Written by Jeremy Hodgson

Check Gov.uk’s Travel Advice for the most up-to-date information on Amsterdam, before you travel. This includes checking the local laws and customs, as well as entry requirements. For tips on staying safe and enjoying a night out in Amsterdam, please visit the Travel Aware campaign page.