Touring Amsterdam Three Ways: Boat, Bike and Foot

Touring Amsterdam Three Ways: Boat, Bike and Foot

En route to a family wedding, my husband, cousin and I stayed in Amsterdam, the capital city of the Netherlands, for four beautiful days. As you’d expect when you travel in a group, each of us had a different idea of how best to make the most of our limited time in this bustling European centre of mercantilism and culture. And because we were only at the start of our 10-day tour, we decided not to debate - as we would throughout the rest of our travels - and try all three popular ways to see the city: a canal boat tour, a bike tour and a walking tour.

Walking Tours

I enjoy walking the cities I visit. I find you have more of an opportunity to stop where you want to stop and ask as many questions as you’d like along the way. In Amsterdam, as in most major cities, there are several companies offering free walking tours. We joined up with a SANDEMANs NEW Amsterdam Tours group right outside our Airbnb as it made its way through the Red Light District from its actual starting spot in Dam Square. 

Cost: Free (but a tip is expected at the end of the tour)

Pros:

  • It was a free way for us to get to acquainted with the city.
  • We didn’t have to book anything in advance.
  • We received a lot of information about both historical and modern-day Amsterdam.
  • There are plenty of opportunities to ask questions, take photos and wander into little boutiques, bakeries and attractions along the route. For example, we now know which "cafe" Snoop Dogg got so high in he had to cancel his show – and I’ll share it on my Instagram!
  • We visited many of the main attractions and our guide let us know which ones were worth paying to go in, when is the best time to go and how much everything costs. Attractions included: the Anne Frank House, Dutch East India Company, Red Light District, Homomonument, Begijnhof Convent, the Royal Palace, and the Jewish Quarter.

Cons:

  • We were asked to provide a modest tip at the end of the tour. As a former server, I believe you tip if someone gives you good service, whether it be a guide, server, maid or cab driver. I truly felt we received way more value from the walking tour than the cost of our tip.
  • Given how uneven, narrow and busy the cobblestone streets were, it would be difficult to navigate if you are mobility-impaired.
  • It got very hot, especially near the end of our two and half hour tour in the middle of the day.
  • We stayed exclusively in the Canal Ring. 

Worth it? Definitely!

Bike Tours

We wanted to make sure we saw more than just the touristy parts of the city so we decided to book a three hour bike tour with Mike’s Bike Tours Amsterdam, located a quick walk from our Airbnb in the Canal Ring. My husband and my cousin were pretty gung-ho about biking through Amsterdam, but I was hesitant. I’m not an avid biker, I'm nervous biking on the road in Ottawa and the walking tour was free so, in my mind, why would I pay to see the same sights with much less narration?

Cost: 28 € (but less for children, students and seniors)

Pros: 

  • We covered a significant distance – over 10 kilometers in under three hours, including the historic Canal Ring and neighbourhoods of Jordaan, Nieuwmarkt (de Waag) and De Pijp. 
  • We saw many of the main attractions, including Museumsplein (where the uber-touristy 'I AMSTERDAM' letters are), Vondelpark, Red Light District, Old Church, Anne Frank House, Albert Cuyp Markt and the Artis Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
  • We got a better sense of the cycling lifestyle Amsterdam is renown for.
  • We learn the rules of the road and social graces that we were able to apply for the rest of our stay.

Cons:

  • We received very little historical or cultural context and limited opportunities to ask questions.
  • It wasn’t a problem for us, although I thought it would be, but the traffic and crowds could be overwhelming to some people.
  • We had to stay with the group and our pace was set by the slowest member. 
  • You have to book the tour in advance online or in-person, and the latter is only permitted if they have spots left.

Worth it? Yes, but only because it got us outside the Canal Ring.

Canal Boat Tours

Evening canal cruise through the main arteries of the city... Love how the lights dance on the water. #Amsterdam #Europe

A post shared by Nicole Christy (@christynicoler) on

My cousin really wanted to take this tour so after dinner, just before sunset, we jumped on one of the many, nondescript boats – there are dozens of companies and they all do pretty much the same thing – and explored some of the 165 UNESCO protected canals carved into the heart of Amsterdam.

Cost: +/-25 € (depends on whether you do the basic tour, a candlelit tour or a dinner tour)

Pros:

  • We saw Amsterdam the way it was designed to be seen.
  • We had the opportunity to ask the captain some questions about Amsterdam’s canal system – rules, upkeep and how many bikes (+12,000) and people (+/-12) are fished out each year.
  • We could have ordered drinks or enjoyed a small cheese tray if we wanted to pay for it.
  • They had bed-like seating to lounge out on and relax.

Cons:

  • The drinks and munchies on the boat were incredibly expensive.
  • There wasn’t a formal ‘tour’. If you didn’t ask questions, it would just be a boat ride.
  • It was clear the captain and server (the only two staff members on the boat) weren’t experts, but they were very friendly and did the best they could
  • It was only 45 minutes long, so I personally didn’t feel it was great value.

Worth it? Not in my opinion. If you do take a boat tour, bring a water bottle full of some local beer or wine. The tour would be much better with some libations. 

As I`ve demonstrated, each tour clearly has its pro and cons, but in closing, I don't think you can truly see a major European city without some sort of structured tour. If not on a tour, how else would we have discovered the reason that many buildings on the canals angle forward and have a hook on the roof (answer: to hoist merchandise to the upper floors) or why it is mostly "young, British men" who get fished out of the canal "half naked" (they fall in while urinating into the canal drunk). Tours (and good tour guides!) give you a true insider perspective on the city and help you narrow down how to make the best use of your remaining time as a tourist. Warning to all friends and family reading this blog, if you travel with me we are definitely doing a walking tour - pack comforatable shoes!

I hope this is a helpful account of all the different ways tourists can see the city. We truly enjoyed our time in this beautiful city that seems to never sleep. After Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.