As the fourth busiest airport in Europe, you might find yourself with some time to kill at Amsterdam Schiphol. This is one of the world's more flier-friendly airports, designed for leisure and relaxation. But don’t totally dismiss the opportunity to spend a few hours strolling along Amsterdam’s picturesque canals. The efficient Dutch train system will put you in the city center in about 20 minutes.
Getting into Amsterdam
There's a train station located just below the passenger terminal at Schiphol. Trains into the city operate every 10 minutes and cost just €3.60 (about $4.75) each way. If you have change, you can purchase tickets at the machines, or you can pay with a card at the ticket counter. The airport is about 13 miles from the Amsterdam Central station, where the train drops you off.
Rent a Bicycle
If you want to cover the most ground with the most freedom to stop at your leisure, rent a bicycle. This is truly the best way to see the city, and arguably the most authentic (the locals generally commute this way). Rentals are available at the central station, for about €8/day (about $10.60). Spend a couple hours roaming the streets and canals on two wheels. Of course, you could check out major sights such as the recently re-opened Rijksmuseum or the Anne Frank House, or, veer slightly off the beaten path and stop at the recently opened Amsterdam Cheese Museum to sample some famous Dutch cheese (Prinsengracht 112; $1.33 admission; free samples).
While you might be tempted to stay in and around the area adjacent to the train station, there are many other neighborhoods beyond the old center and red light district that are worth visiting. Don’t be too ambitious, though: Focus on just one neighborhood and enjoy a meal, shop, and take a walk. One of my favorites is the Jordann neighborhood. It's popular with artists and young professionals and has many charming restaurants and boutiques such as Café van Zuylen, which has a great terrace for people watching, or Arendsnest, to sample a variety of Dutch beers.
Find the “Oldest” or the “Best” or the “Most Delicious”
One of the best ways to experience a city for a few hours is to give yourself a quest. Aim to grab a drink at the oldest bar in the city (Café In ‘t Aepjen from 1519) or try the best traditional apple pie in Amsterdam (often cited is the one at Café Papeneiland), or sample the most delicious traditional herring (at Karel de Boer).
Return to the Airport Early
Schiphol Airport is actually a pleasant place to spend a layover. Sample famous Amsterdam croquettes or take in a small selection from the city’s famous Rijksmuseum; the outpost includes examples of contemporary and classical art (admission is free). There's also a permanent airport library with over 1,200 books in a variety of languages plus free e-books and music to download, and comfortable areas for lounging and sleeping – some with mock fireplaces and pianos. If you’re looking for a peaceful spot, check out the Airport Park, where a nature-based soundtrack, faux foliage, and an outdoor platform will make you forget that you're in an airport.