Starting a vacation in The Netherlands is a beautiful way to begin an Amsterdam river cruise. It's a country built in harmony with the sea, rivers and water as over one third of it is below sea level. So if there's any cool place to start an adventure on the water it's there.
We embarked on an 8-day river cruise. It took us to several cities in The Netherlands and beautiful Belgium with Emerald Waterways. Our April tour culminated in the most beautiful way: with a visit to the famed Keukenhof Gardens filled with millions of tulips.
Our Amsterdam river cruise took us to:
- Amsterdam (Netherlands, or NL)
- Zaans Schans (NL)
- Rotterdam/Delft (NL)
- Veere (NL)
- Antwerp/Bruges (Belgium)
- Arnhem (NL)
- Back to Amsterdam, including Keukenhof Gardens (NL)
We'll take you through each port and what we did in each area. We hope it will help you decide if this, or something similar, is the best itinerary for you.
We want to take a minute to note how wonderful Emerald Waterways was. We can't stress enough that the right cruise line can make or break your trip and we felt like we were in good hands with the crew and staff on Emerald. There was so much to do on the ship and we loved that the cost was all inclusive of all meals, beer and wine for lunch/dinner, excursions and gratuities. We had a few simple options for upgrades in two cities in particular, which we mention below in regards to Delft and Bruges. This took any budgeting guesswork out of the equation, letting us focus our attention on enjoying the trip, not our wallets.
Emerald Waterways is the Goldilocks of cruise ships: it isn't the fanciest river cruise company but it's not the simplest either. For us it hits a sweet spot – it's just right.
The cost of cruising on Emerald Waterways also makes it affordable for a younger clientele. We weren't the oldest on the ship but we weren't the youngest either. We felt amongst good company in our mid-thirties and early forties and easily made friends and great conversation.
It's also important to note how easy it is to participate in the tours with Emerald. As we mentioned, a tour is included with your cruise nearly everyday. They have two “whispers” in each cabin you take with you that make hearing your tour guide a breeze. And if you took the ear piece out while on the tour, for instance, you wouldn't even know the people around you were on the tour!
The “Quiet Voxes” are a respectful and efficient way to keep those on the tour together and informed. It allows those not on the tour to remain undisturbed. (Quiet Voxes are the small, upright black and grey devices in the photo below in our cabin. The area in the photo also has a hub of outlets, which was useful in charging our phones and camera batteries.)
Starting and Ending the Trip in Amsterdam
Beginning and ending in Amsterdam was a dream. Amsterdam Schipol Airport (airport code AMS) is a major international airport. We easily flew in and out of there. We connected from RDU to BOS, then to AMS. (Our path was Raleigh > Boston > Amsterdam). We immediately found our Emerald Waterways representative at the airport after clearing customs.
A driver loaded our luggage into the trunk of a private van just outside the airport doors. Then he took us to the port of Amsterdam, which is right near the center of the city. We were able to drop off our luggage then have a bite to eat and a drink on the ship. Shortly thereafter, we headed out to explore Amsterdam at our leisure.
This was all before the official start to our cruise later that afternoon. We made the most of our arrival day!
There is so much to do in Amsterdam. We recommend extending your trip a few days before or after to really enjoy the city and its surrounding areas. (Day trips from Amsterdam are plentiful and incredibly easy to do on your own as well.)
Extending your trip may mean you forego the assistance of Emerald Waterways to get to or from the airport. (You have to take their transportation between the airport and port directly at the start or the precise end of your vacation to take advantage of the service. If you extend your trip you forfeit that.) But it's SO simple to get from Amsterdam city center to the airport. It'd be silly for that to deter you from a few days extension.
If you approach the port and don't see your ship it's likely because the river cruise ships are often stacked several boats deep. This is common amongst a lot of ports. Sometimes you may even need to walk through the lobbies of other ships to get to the shore.
We were docked overnight in Amsterdam after the first day. This was because the next day's destination was just a bus drive away.
This was one of the most fun stops because it was so iconically Dutch!
Zaans Schans was easily reached in the comfort of a modern, branded coach bus Emerald Waterways provided. It was about a 30-minute drive from the port of Amsterdam to get to the destination. The scenery on the way was worth getting a window seat for.
Windmills filled our view, and we enjoyed a clog-making demonstration. We had plenty of time to leisurely stroll the grounds after an informative tour with our Emerald Waterways guides. There is a recreated 18th-century village and beautiful green wooden houses there that are very photo-worthy. We loved getting up close and personal with the windmills and hopping into a giant clog for a photo opp.
Cheese is such an integral part of the Dutch culture. As an added bonus we visited a Henri Willig cheese farm on our way back to the ship, established in 1974.
It was cool to learn how the cheese is made and see it aging on shelves. Especially because Henri Willig shops are all over the Netherlands, yet you only get to see their production in select places.
The third day presented an opportunity to participate in the DiscoverMORE program with Emerald Waterways.
We wanted to see the artistry that went into the famous “Delft Blue” pottery. So, without hesitation, we signed up for the tour. At less than €60 extra per person, it was worth the investment. We furthered our understanding of Delft and the role it played in The Netherlands' history.
It was a highlight of our Amsterdam river cruise trip.
Alternatively, guests were able to take a tour an included of Rotterdam. It's a very interesting modern Dutch city, with great architecture. You could see the famous bridge from where the ship docked.
We didn't get an extended tour of Rotterdam because we chose to go to Delft instead. But we traveled to Delft on Emerald Waterways buses, which were conveniently steps away from the boat. So we got to view Rotterdam on an abbreviated bus tour and learn about some cool things there.
We embarked on a morning tour of the Royal Delft Pottery factory, one of the last remaining of its kind. It was fascinating to see a woman hand-painting a piece with black paint. We learned the black turns blue after a kiln firing.
After the tour, the bus took us to Delft's city center. Here, our guides took us on a short yet informative tour of the town. It was a wonderful overview of Delft's history.
We were then given free time to enjoy Delft's charming city center until it was time to go back to the boat.
One of the interesting things in Delft was the church steeple. It's actually leaning, which you can see it in our photo below. We also loved the grand facade of city hall that dominates the main square in Delft.
A town named “Veere” never came on our radar until we saw it on the itinerary for our Amsterdam river cruise. We Googled it and thought, “It looks like a cute town!” and we were excited to visit.
The great thing about Veere is the boat pulls right up to the charming village. The port is just a few hundred yards away from its town center. It is a small port that packs a lot of punch with picturesque scenery no matter where you turn.
We put on our earpieces for our “Quiet Vox” devices then walked over to our guide for an Emerald Waterways tour that morning.
Our tour included the town of Veere as well as an optional trip to Dutch Delta Works. It's a dam that's one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
We were free to roam the town of Veere in the afternoon. (We quickly realized we would want to return to have a been in their town center during our morning tour there. So that's exactly what we did after lunch on the ship.)
A note on Dutch Delta Works: we admit this isn't perhaps for everyone. It's a lot of engineering information and if you're not into that kind of thing you may want to skip it. However, we were glad we went because it gave us a much better understanding of The Netherlands and it's relationship to water.
The Netherlands has had to deal with living in harmony with the ocean and all that it provides in a unique way. This is because over 40% of the country is below sea level: from rivers overflowing to drastic rising and falling of tides, and more, for as long as they've been a nation.
Seeing Dutch Delta Works first–hand provided an understanding of this relationship in a much deeper way than if only looking it up online or reading in a book.
You can't imagine how vast the project is and how the dams, locks, and storm surge barriers work unless you see it with your own eyes. It was a true behind-the-scenes look at how The Netherlands has come up with innovation, science and technology to live with mother nature's strengths over the small nation.
Antwerp and Bruges
The day we docked in Antwerp was a bit unique because it was Easter Sunday.
We were well informed by the ship's Cruise Director a lot of things in Antwerp may be closed because of the holiday. Thus we signed up for DiscoverMORE and loaded the buses to Bruges. We'd have time to explore Antwerp a bit after we came back from Bruges.
We loaded buses and arrived in this historic Belgium city; Bruges was packed with tourists. We think all the tourists from any surrounding city or river cruise ship had the same idea that day!
But packed or not, you cannot deny the beauty of this beautiful town. Bruges is often referred to as the “Venice of the North.”
We enjoyed mussels and fries at a restaurant with new friends we made on the ship. Then we people watched and shopped in town before heading back to the bus to reach the ship.
We opted to take a very quick walk into Antwerp when we reached the Emerald Sky. We wanted to quickly roam the streets and see whatever we could in the two hours or so before the “all aboard” time at 5:45pm.
We've really grown to have a deep appreciation for those who fought in WWII. We're grateful for the sacrifices soldiers and civilians had to make during the war. (And the sacrifices soldiers continue to make every day for their countries.) We've learned this most closely through travel in Europe.
We had not been aware of what made Arnhem notable until the Amsterdam river cruise.
But that's part of what we love about cruising: the ports on each itinerary open us up to new places we wouldn't have otherwise thought to visit.
The ship docks right near the John Frost Bridge. It was made famous first by WWII and what happened at Arnhem, which you learn about at the museum you visit that morning. But secondly, by the film based on the series of events of the war in Arnhem, titled A Bridge Too Far. We had never seen the film – luckily we were informed it was on demand in our cabins. So we watched a bit of it that evening.
We docked in the morning just before lunch time. We left the ship at 2:00pm to head to the Hartenstein Airborne Museum.
This was followed by a visit to the Airborne Cemetery to pay our respects to more than 1,750 troops buried there.
After a thoughtful afternoon we arrived back at the ship to refresh. Always ones to explore, we headed back out just minutes later to see more of Arnhem.
The city was beautiful. Arnhem is a mix of old with modern – surely, partially a result of rebuilding after the war.
We loved spotting street art along the waterfront and at a few places within the city. (If you follow us on Instagram you know we love street art! We're especially sure to post about it on our Instagram Stories when we travel.)
It was interesting to see the juxtaposition between our activities that afternoon. Merely hours apart, yet in the same city, we were educated about the war in the 1940s and enjoyed street art from the 21st century.
Amsterdam's Keukenhof Gardens
The last full day of the cruise we returned to Amsterdam. We awoke already in port ready to board the buses for the 45-minute drive to get to our destination.
We were over-the-moon to be going to the famed Keukenhof Gardens, boasting over 79 acres of land filled with spring blooms.
Did you know that there are over 5,000 varieties of tulips? We didn't either! Tulips are surely the star of the show here. But there's a ton of other flowers to admire as well, including orchids and daffodils.
Due to the popularity of the gardens in previous years, Emerald Waterways was incredibly accommodating to two groups this day:
- Those who wanted to stay a few hours.
- Guests who wanted to stay even longer through lunch.
Thus, Emerald Waterways provided buses back to the port at two different times:
- 12:30pm, giving us three hours in the gardens.
- Or at 2:30pm for even more time at Keukenhof.
We ended up leaving on the first buses that went back to the cruise ship.
Three hours was plenty of time to roam the gorgeous space until lunch, when the gardens naturally get increasingly busier with more crowds arriving by the minute.
It's bound to be busy any time you visit Keukenhof. It's a Dutch sensation and is only open from mid-March to the beginning of May. Demand to visit is high in a small window of time during the year.
We enjoyed lunch onboard the ship for the last time during our trip and headed out to explore Amsterdam again. (Remember the port is very conveniently located by Central Station so it's really easy to walk to the main areas of central Amsterdam from there.)
The Last Morning
We awoke sad, with the knowledge we had to get off our Emerald Sky ship that day.
However, we were so thankful for the incredible 8-day cruise, experiences and people we met.
We had our favorite breakfast items before slowly saying goodbye to all our new friends. We took our luggage off the ship to transfer to our new hotel for two nights, just across the water.
Amsterdam River Cruise Thoughts
We cannot recommend this itinerary enough.
It may have been a once-in-a-lifetime trip: when else would we have a unique opportunity to see The Netherlands, particularly, in all her spring-blossom splendor?
The Name of This Itinerary with Emerald Waterways
The name of the itinerary has changed a little throughout the years as they slightly tweak it year-to-year.
- In 2019, our Emerald Waterways river cruise was called “The Netherlands and Beautiful Belgium.”
- 2020 brought the title, “Holland and Belgium in Bloom.”
- In 2021 it was named “Springtime Delights.”
Though the name may slightly change beyond 2020-2021, and perhaps even a port here or there, we hope they keep the port of embarkation and debarkation Amsterdam in April. This will allow guests to experience the tulips at their finest.
And if you're lucky like we were, ideal spring weather to boot with sunshine and 70 degrees greeting us each day!
It felt exclusive to be on board for this roundtrip Amsterdam river cruise itinerary. Emerald Waterways only does less than a handful of this sailing a year due to the short lifespan of tulips.
Yet the good news is anyone can sign up to go, as long as there is still availability. Be sure to book ASAP if you know this is the cruise for you because river cruise capacities are only around 200 guests, which means opportunity is scarce.
You need to claim a cabin and spot on the boat before someone else does! And the best time to book is now.
Please note: we thank Emerald Waterways for generously hosting us. All the opinions in the post are ours and we bring you genuine content with real facts, photos and thoughts. Always.
Heading to The Netherlands or sailing with Emerald Waterways? Also check out:
- 25 Things to Do Aboard Emerald Waterways River Cruise Ships
- 16 Memorable Things to Do in Amsterdam
- Traditional Dutch Foods and Drinks to Try in The Netherlands
- Amsterdam to Keukenhof: The Tulip Garden of Your Dreams