Like others, I’d suggest down-shifting from the 3 locations and settling on two (Amsterdam and Brussels or Bruges). If pressed I’d argue for Amsterdam and Bruges to give you
a) a nice comparison of two countries / cultures
b) a comparison of the big (and at times brash) city, vs somewhere a little smaller / slower
We spent a long weekend in Brussels and I don’t think we needed more time there. Interesting enough but not somewhere we’ve ever thought about returning to.
Amsterdam is different and we’ve returned a number of times (it helps that there are direct flights from our local 3 gate airport). However over the years we’ve chosen to stay further outside the centre, as that appeals to us much more than the centre, which is to be experienced for sure, but can be rather too raw an experience. These days a long weekend might have us get the tram into the centre for a mere 2-3 hours, before heading back to the suburbs (We tend to go for the area immediately south of Vondelpark - Willemsparkweg / De Lairresestraat) and enjoying the more pleasant shopping area on PC Hoofstraat and around.
For a first trip you may prefer to stay centrally, but good if you can find time to see a suburb or two, as they give a very different perspective on the city, and beyond the museum quarter does indeed present a more relaxed (and IMO classier) view of the city. Be aware that in most accomodation (excepting modern hotels) stairs are exceptionally steep, as a result of the old tax that used to be applied according to frontage of houses - so they built them thin and tall!
Stuff in the very centre that I’d recommend
- Walking round on a sunday morning. It presents a very different vibe to the rest of the week and it’s a super time to wander around the canals
- Anne Frank’s house - it’s certainly a poignant aspect of this city
- Red Light district. I do recommend everyone to visit this area if they are in the city, if only once. It really does make you think about the attitudes towards prostitution, and their attempts to make it safe, secure and with medical etc. support vs. trying to hide it and what issues that can allow to prosper. If going, I’d recommend going in the evening, maybe between 8 and 10pm, and just stroll around as so many do. I do recall many years ago being there later, and feeling a distinct change in mood around midnight, as the crowds left and those that remained felt a lot more edgy. On that point, it’s much safer than you’d expect in the evening, but be very careful about having wallets, purses and any valuable tucked tightly away. Pickpockets have long been a problem there, in a way they aren’t in the rest of the city. In addition, despite the liberal attitudes to marijuana, at times the sellers of hard drugs have been noticeable and far from shy about selling their wares, including in times gone by pestering tourists. Although there was a big push to drive them out many years ago, I suspect it’s an ongoing battle to clear them out, so if you encounter it, just don’t reply, walk on by without making eye contact. Warning done, I’ll reiterate my encouragement to go there, even with teenage kids / spouse. It really is a socially important aspect of this city and seeing it for real helps you reassess your own views about whether legalisation or prosecution / forcing it into the shadows is the way to go.
- Coffee shops (i.e. the marijuana selling ones). This is less of a recommendation. I’ve been in 2-3 but I’m a non-smoker who’s never had an interest in this, and FWIW most were grungy.
- Albert Heijn supermarket worth a browse, for different stuff and assuming you can bring it home with you, find somewhere that sells dill and mustard sauce. A few countries do this, but there are some great examples in Holland.
- de Bijenkorf and Hema are the department stores, a concept that isn’t big in Holland.
- There are some good specialist shops such as Bier Koning, plus a good stamp shop. As with any big city, specialist interests are probably catered for. Hell we even found a water shop on one visit, selling nothing but a vast array of bottled waters. There are also some good chocolate shops dotted around the city.
Stuff a short walk from the centre
- The 9 streets (named after 9 animals) have some wonderful shops, including on our last trip a couple of interesting wine shops. Other places we’ve enjoyed shopping in include the wonderful (nay legendary) cheese shop Kaaskamer on Runstraat, a very good coffee roaster, the quirky toothbrush shop, antiques shops etc. etc. Take your time wandering these shops / streets at your leisure.
- Albert Cuypmarkt, Albert Cuypstraat is a very long street market. Not the best street market, but there is some good stuff amongst less interesting stalls and plenty of cheap places for a quick bite to eat / coffee along its route.
- Vondelpark, ideally on a weekend during the day, Sundays especially good. It’s a large park, easily walked to from the centre and easy to walk around. It’s vibrant and green, in a city where there isn’t a lot of greenery (the neon lighting in the red light district does NOT count)
Plenty of other stuff to do and see, including mainstream stuff I’ve not mentioned. I do definitely recommend getting some time out of the centre, if nothing else to allow the sensory overload to dissipate.
In terms of food, it really is an eclectic selection, covering many cuisines and varying from some very good and innovative restaurants, to some terrifying vending machines (people actually eat what comes out of them?!!!). Our favourite remains a modest Ethiopian place off Overtoom whose address we don’t know, but we’ve been able to remember the directions. Wonderful food and a nice vibe to it as well.