The man sitting next to me on the plane looked a bit flustered. We were about to land at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol when he turned to me and muttered that he had a five-hour layover in Amsterdam and asked me if I was flying on to another destination as well. “No, I live here”, I replied. “What can I do on a long layover at Amsterdam Airport?”, he countered. I asked him if he’d been in Amsterdam before. The answer was negative, “no, just the airport many years ago”. It was a familiar answer. About 40% of all arriving passengers at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol are in transit to another destination. I didn’t hesitate for a moment: “This is your chance then to visit Amsterdam“. I gave him some tips, suggested what to do and see and traced a walking route on the map of Amsterdam in the inflight magazine.
Update: September 2020
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, additional requirements and guidelines have been introduced at Schiphol Airport. These include social distancing (1.5 meters), especially in a queue, and wearing a face mask. Depending on your country of origin, you may only enter the Netherlands under certain conditions such as a recent negative PCR test result. You may also be required to quarantine for up to five days. Please visit the airport’s website and the Dutch government checklist for travel to the Netherlands for more info.
Things to do on a layover at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
The conversation on the plane prompted me to write this post about things to do while on a layover at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. Millions of transit passengers travel through the airport every year without grabbing the opportunity to explore Amsterdam’s UNESCO World Heritage canals or any of the beautiful attractions or historic towns located within easy reach of the airport. I’ve listed below, depending on the length of your layover, things to do at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol; how to visit Amsterdam and things to see and do in a short time; and attractions and cities near Amsterdam Airport Schiphol:
1 – 2 hours
You’d better get moving to your next flight! Keep in mind that if you’re transiting between a long-haul or a non-Schengen European destination (such as the United Kingdom) and a Schengen destination in the European Union – or vice-versa – you will have to pass through passport/security controls. There are fast-track lanes if you have a tight connection.
2 – 4 hours
There are many things you can do at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to keep occupied:
Relax: If you don’t have access to an airline lounge, you can relax at one of the lounge chairs that are scattered throughout the airport or grab a shower. Or you can indulge yourself with a shiatsu massage in one of the Massage-o-Matic chairs or at the XpresSpa which offers a variety of spa treatments as well as waxing, manicures and pedicures. The Rituals boutiques also offer massage treatments and manicures/pedicures.
An alternative is to sit at any of the public lounges where you can check your emails or gaze out at the tarmac. Or you can do what many transit passengers do: sit around at one of the many bars and cafés, and mingle with fellow transit passengers or the bartender.
Active: If you enjoy shopping, you’ll love the variety of shops at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, from fashion to consumer electronics, to books and chocolates, toys, sports gear, accessories and jewellery. You can also visit a branch of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. This little museum has a modest collection but it’s worth visiting to while away your time.
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4 hours or longer
A layover of four hours or longer makes a quick visit into Amsterdam or a nearby town a real option, especially if your luggage has been checked through to your final destination and you have your boarding pass for the onward flight. Trains run directly from the airport (the station is a minute’s walk from any of the Arrival Halls) on a very frequent basis to Amsterdam and other towns. The journey to Amsterdam Centraal (Central Station) takes approximately 20 minutes. Alternatively, you can book a 3-hour transit city tour – your guide will meet you at the airport, show you the Amsterdam sights and bring you back to the airport.
Please note that, depending on your nationality, you may need a visa to enter The Netherlands. Find out here if you need a visa. Should you require a visa, you can apply for an online visa (iVisa.com).
Options for a quick visit to Amsterdam and surrounding attractions
Go it alone: Purchase a return ticket, then take the train to Amsterdam Centraal (make sure you only board a train that goes to Centraal). When you exit Amsterdam Centraal, you can either opt for a canal tour (boats leave from and return to the station’s doorstep) for a 1-1.5 hour tour along the canals. Read more about things to do in Amsterdam.
Walking routes in Amsterdam
You can also choose to stretch your legs – I’ve included suggested walking routes below which can be done in an hour or as long as several hours (depending on your pace or how much time you have). These routes take you past some of my favourite parts of Amsterdam including the Brouwersgracht (one of the most picturesque canals), the Jordaan neighbourhood, the Anne Frank House, the Nine Streets neighbourhood, the intersection of the Keizersgracht/Leidsegracht, the Begijnhof (or Nunnery) and the Groenburgwal (another impossibly picturesque canal) before leading you back to the station.
Join a tour from the airport: It’s also possible to book a tour at the airport either upon arrival or in advance. You can also book a private tour of Amsterdam in advance.
If you’re travelling in a group, you could opt to book your own customised group tour that shows you the sights of Amsterdam before dropping you and your group back at the airport.
Tulip fields and the Keukenhof flower gardens
In the spring months (late-March till May), you could hop on the Keukenhof shuttle bus from the airport that takes you in 20 minutes to the nearby tulip fields and the world-famous Keukenhof Gardens.
Overnight layovers in Amsterdam
If you have an overnight layover with an early-morning flight the next day, I recommend spending the night at one of the hotels at or near Schiphol Airport. If you have a bit more time, for instance, if your flight only leaves in the afternoon or evening the following day, then it’s worth booking an overnight stay in the Amsterdam city centre.
Discover historic towns near Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
If your layover is four hours or longer and you’re already familiar with Amsterdam, I recommend spending this time to visit one of the nearby historic towns:
Leiden (map) is a vibrant university city located southwest of Schiphol Airport. The city played an important role in the history of the Netherlands as well as globally in the scientific field (Leiden University has since its inception in 1575 spawned thirteen Nobel Prize winners!). Leiden is also the birthplace of Rembrandt. From Schiphol Airport station, frequent trains take you to Leiden in just 20 minutes, making it a great alternative to Amsterdam.
From Leiden Centraal (central station), stroll along the Steenstraat into the historic town centre (the country’s second-largest 17th century town centre after Amsterdam) with its canals and beautiful homes. Main attractions include the Museum of Antiquities, the Burcht (hilltop medieval fortress) and Pieterskerk (Peter Church). Americans will find this church particularly interesting: the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers of the United States, lived here before moving to the New World.
Delft (map) is a historic town situated roughly between The Hague and Rotterdam. Famous for its Delft Blue pottery and as the birthplace of Vermeer, Delft played an important role in the creation of The Netherlands in the 16th century. The Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in Delft is the the official burial place for the House of Orange (the Dutch royal family), a tradition that began in 1584.
These days, Delft is a charming town with many things to see such as the Nieuwe Kerk and Oude Kerk (Old Church) where the famous painter Vermeer is buried. If you’re a fan of Vermeer, don’t miss the Vermeer Museum (Vermeer Centrum). If you love Delft Blue, you have to visit Royal Delft, the original Delft Blue factory from the 17th century, where you can see craftspeople at work. In addition, on Saturdays in the spring/summer months, a big antique market opens up along Delft’s picturesque canals.
Delft is accessible by train from Schiphol Airport in just under 40 minutes, making it a real option if you have a layover longer than six hours. If you have time, sign up for a guided walking tour of this fascinating town.
The Hague (Den Haag)
The Hague (map) is the administrative capital of The Netherlands. All the government ministries are housed in this vibrant city which is just 30 minutes by train from Schiphol Airport. The Hague is a city of contrasts: from gleaming, futuristic-looking skyscrapers, to historic monuments such as the Binnenhof (one of the oldest Parliament buildings in the world that’s still in use) and the Peace Palace. The city also houses all embassies and important international organisations such as the International Court of Justice. The King of the Netherlands also has his official residence (Huis ten Bosch) and office (Noordeinde Palace in the city centre) in The Hague. Another important attraction in The Hague is the Mauritshuis Museum, which is home to a stunning collection of, among others, Vermeer and Rembrandt paintings.
Sign up for a walking tour of the historic city centre to see the most important sights.
From Schiphol Airport station, there are frequent trains to Den Haag Centraal (The Hague Central Station) which takes approximately 30 minutes.