Amsterdam has long had a firm grip upon the world’s psyche. Its fascinating culture, home to historic canals, old churches, famous artists and, of course, the Red Light District, makes it such an inviting destination.
But as larger amounts of people travel to the city, they’re discovering that Amsterdam is so much more than what meets the eye. It is a city for walking and biking along the ancient streets, past buildings that date back 500 years.
When you aren’t gawking at the colorful canal houses, you’ll be exploring their history at one of the many fascinating local museums. To make the most of your experience, here are the best things to do in Amsterdam.
A diverse museum that offers an exceptional look into many eras of art and culture, exploring the Rijksmuseum (€20)is one of the best things to do in Amsterdam. Rijksmuseum opened their doors in 1798 and has gone on to house an extensive collection of artefacts and paintings that date as far back as the 13th century.
The ‘National Museum’ has over 200 rooms, which show off the impressive 8,000-strong collection of art. But it’s not just paintings that make the museum a must-visit. You’ll also find over 35,000 manuscripts and books plus exhibits that explain the development of artistry and culture in the Netherlands.
The museum has a variety of different tours on offer, in multiple languages. This is your best bet for a deep dive into the incredible Rijksmuseum. Better yet, opt to visit with a private tour guide (€200) to get a personalised look at the areas that interest you most.
In a city of amazing churches, you know Westerkerk has to be something special in order to be the city’s most popular. Construction of this church was completed in 1630 in breathtaking Renaissance-style architecture. But Westerkerk is unique in its own right, with several Gothic influences inside and out.
The church features a 280ft (85m) tower, known as Langer Jan or, simply, Tall John. The tower is the tallest in Amsterdam, allowing Westerkerk to stand out among the stunning skyline. Langer Jan’s tip is a replica of the Emperor’s crown. This was added to commemorate the Austrian Emperor Maximilian.
After gawking from the streets, head inside and explore the ancient organ that out-dates the church along with the marble columns added in the 20th century in celebration of Rembrandt. The famous artist was buried outside of the church over 300 years prior and later placed within the church walls.
Anne Frank Museum
Next to Westerkerk and along the Prinsengracht (an iconic inner-city canal), the Anne Frank Museum is a sobering but equally enlightening experience. Having departed Frankfurt some years prior, Anne Frank and her family hid in this very home for the majority of the Second World War.
The home remains closely aligned to how it was when Anne wrote her famous book. It helps to preserve not just her memory but all of those that passed during the Holocaust. Seeing her quarters where she was able to pen her words with such poise only serves to elevate the story even further.
The museum quickly became a phenomenon on its own with tickets and tours selling out well in advance. If you’re coming to Amsterdam and would like to see the Anne Frank Museum, then we suggest booking tickets as soon as possible. You can do so online.
For further historical insight, combine your Anne Frank Museum experience with an exceptionally well-reviewed guided walking tour that highlights the Netherland’s role in the war by exploring the Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam.
Visit the Royal Palace of Amsterdam
A nod to architecture found in ancient Rome, Amsterdam’s Royal Palace, is an amazing display of human engineering and took seven years to complete. Since 1655, the palace has been the center point for local society and is the King’s residence.
The Royal Palace may have a classical exterior, yet the inside layout is where the building really shines. With an array of high end and historic furniture along with sculptures, ornaments and a slew of ceiling painting from renowned artists, the palace is easy on the eyes.
You can explore the palace on your own two feet, with audio guides included with your admission ticket. However, the best way to see the Royal Palace and areas such as the Hall of Alderman, the marble fireplace in the Treasurer’s room plus the incredible Council Hall, is alongside an expert guide.
Roam the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam
Among the canals, history and arts, Amsterdam has a number of urban oases none more prominent than the Botanical Garden. The Hortus Botanicus is one of Europe’s original gardens having opened in 1638. What began as a simple herb garden for local apothecaries has grown into an international estate.
Hortus Botanicus houses exotic plants and rare flowers, with the on-site greenhouses able to replicate many tropical zones. The gardens feature over 6000 native and non-native plant species and trees. Many help the hundreds of butterflies that roam the Butterfly Greenhouse.
Other highlights of your time here will no doubt be the Persian Ironwood tree, the historic pavilion from the 17th century, the Orangery and the Palm House. The latter featuring a unique building design. To stick around longer, eat at the Orangery or the stunning De Plantage restaurant surrounded by old sycamore trees.
Van Gogh Museum
In a country where dozens of famous artistic luminaries were born, art has always played a role in local culture. The life and times of the country’s most famous artist, Vincent Van Gogh, is on full display at the exceptional museum. Since 1972, the Van Gogh Museum has been one of the top attractions in Amsterdam.
Much of the incredible collection, the largest of its kind on earth, was donated by his family, including his brother Theo. You can discover for yourself the turbulently spectacular life of Van Gogh thanks to 200 paintings, hundreds of etchings and 700 fascinating letters written by, and to, Van Gogh.
The museum is split into three sections that elaborate on prominent periods in his life, from his realistic pieces to the Impressionist era. But visitors will be most enthralled by the multimedia presentation called “Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience”. The amazing display traces his life in detail, allowing you to get wrapped up in the story.
Book your visit in advance (€19) in order to skip the lengthy queues.
Wander through Jordaan
One of the best parts of living and traveling through Amsterdam is the array of distinct neighborhoods. Jordaan is arguably the best of the lot, home to the Anne Frank Museum, Lindengracht and the De Negen Straatjes.
The De Negen Straatjes aka the Nine Streets is the place in Amsterdam to scratch your shopping itch. Along the rows of streets are designer boutiques, eclectic and vintage stores, plus several interesting antique shops. Also come here whenever you’re craving a delicious brunch! The Straatjes are all about personality, which extends to the dozens of delightful cafes that call Jordaan home.
Other prominent museums and attractions include Woonboots, which is dedicated to telling the story of Amsterdam’s houseboats. You can also come to Jordaan to explore the Amsterdam Cheese Museum.
For an iconically Dutch experience, jump aboard a 75-minute canal cruise (€15) through the Jordaan neighbourhood to explore it from the water.
People-Watch in Dam Square
Sometimes it’s good to just be a tourist, to kick back and enjoy locals doing their thing. One of the best places to people watch in Amsterdam is at Dam Square. Built in the 15th century, Dam Square has long been a popular gathering place and center for commerce.
Within the square are several famed sites, including the former home of the royal family at Koninklijk Palace and the National Memorial Statue. The spacious square is lined with leafy trees, many cafes and restaurants while offering a fantastic local atmosphere. This is elevated thanks to live music and street performers that dot Dam Square throughout the day.
Dam Square is also a great starting point to visit Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) and Madame Tussauds (€21.50 for a fast-track ticket).
Rembrandt House Museum
Born in 1606 in Leiden, Rembrandt later moved to a home within the Jewish Quarter on Jodenbreestraat. Rembrandt would go on to live here for 20 years alongside his wife, Saskia. The home played a major role in his works and the quarter offered religious insight. The many canals and local buildings can also be found within his most iconic work.
Today, the home (entrance of €15) has been restored into a museum honoring the famous artist. You can see it all for yourself, including how he painted, and the many works he placed around his home as decorations. The museum is a wonderful insight into not just his life, but Amsterdam in the 17th century.
To continue your Rembrandt experience, walk over to the South Church, which is two minutes away. The church is the burial location of three of Rembrandt’s children and was the first Protestant church built after Amsterdam’s Reformation. You can also see a statue of Rembrandt in the Rembrandt Square. Hop on a walking tour (€100) that combines all of these attractions and includes a skip-the-line ticket to Rembrandt House.
Tour the Canals
One of the highlights of anyone’s time in Amsterdam is always the iconic canals. There are some 160 canals in the city, with three main canals helping split up Amsterdam into different sections. With the help of bridges, you can walk between the 90 islands that exist within the city’s boundaries.
You can easily explore on foot or on two wheels (discussed below). Along the journey you’ll get lost along the colorful buildings, the many houseboats and cafes that line the canals. Walking and taking it all in is one of the best free things to do in Amsterdam.
But you can’t beat seeing the canals on a tour. Experience not just time on the water but different views, with the historic canal buildings rising up on either side. And there are so many options for canal cruises in Amsterdam!
Have a Picnic in Oosterpark
Among all the adventures, the museums and the cruising, why not take some time to really relax? Oosterpark is within the city center and Amsterdam’s first public park of significant size.
Many travelers flock to the popular Vondelpark, but for a different and more residential perspective of life in Amsterdam, then pack your picnic basket and enjoy an afternoon in the beautiful urban space.
There is public art on display among the sculptures, which includes the National Slavery Monument. Visitors can take time walking around the several ponds while the kids will love Oosterpark’s playgrounds.
Experience the Red Light District
One of the first things that comes to mind when citizens of the world think about Amsterdam is their iconic Red Light District. The district may be smoother around the edges these days thanks to a higher concentration of tourism, but it still provides a glimpse into an interesting sub-culture within the city.
During the day, you will discover a district that is quite different from what you may expect. This is because the Red Light District, or De Wallen, is the oldest neighborhood in Amsterdam. For this reason, when you’re strolling the Damrak Canal, you’ll spot historic monuments, ancient town squares and beautiful churches.
When the sun goes down the hedonism takes over. It may not be for everyone, but it sure is a unique experience. For many, the Red Light District is party central. A place of shows, dive bars and the iconic “cafes”. A Red Light District walking tour is €24, if you’d like to learn more about the history of this neighbourhood.
Speaking of Amsterdam’s oldest neighborhood, within De Wallen is Oude Kerk aka Old Church. With the historic title of the oldest building in Amsterdam, Oude Kerk has held a prominent role in local life since the beginning of the 14th century!
The stunning church was the centerpiece of Medieval Amsterdam. While the exterior has held its shape, the interior scars tell the tale of the Reformation. A period where the Dutch rejected the rule of Catholic Spain in favor of Protestantism and political freedom,
Much of the church’s original layout and exquisite details were lost in the bloody battle. However, you can still see ancient gravestones and the magnificent organ. After a near 6-decade renovation, Oude Church is now an art gallery and performance venue.
The Amsterdam Sex Museum
To round out the experience in the Red Light District, pay a visit to the Amsterdam Sex Museum. The less-than-subtle name leaves no surprises for guests who get to explore the history of human sexuality and the evolution of interaction in all forms.
You’ll find a variety of interesting exhibits that explore the sexual history and lifestyles of several famous people through history from Mata Hari to Marilyn Monroe. Each are separated into different halls and given an appropriate theme.
For something more edgy but following the same theme, head to an old warehouse now home to the Erotic Museum. Find sculptures, photographs and paintings that explore eroticism through the eras.
Ride a Bike like a Local
Just like Copenhagen to the northeast, bicycle riding in Amsterdam is a way of life. Any traveler searching for images of the city and its famous canals will discover streets and waterways lined with bikes.
So, for an authentic local experience, see the city the same way the locals do by hiring a bike for a day or for a week. Amsterdam is perfectly set up for cyclists with 302 miles (515km) of dedicated bike lanes and is behind only Copenhagen as the world’s most cyclist-friendly city.
Wake up early and join the nearly 2 million bikes that take to the streets for their morning commute. Keep in mind that Amsterdammers do this every day and ride at great speeds in unison. Take your time to get up to speed before exploring the city to your heart’s content.
Bike rentals cost €11 for a three-hour hire, or €15 for a full-day rental.
Visit the Amsterdam History Museum
After exploring the hundreds of miles of cycling trails, you would have gotten a great glimpse of the city’s historical buildings, streets and canals. One of the best things to do in Amsterdam is to round out the experience at the Amsterdam History Museum.
Offering an insightful look into the storied past of Amsterdam, you can discover the full picture of how it strengthened from early Spanish rule to become one of the most famed cities in the world. Regardless of whether you’re a history buff, you’ll love the hundreds of artifacts, paintings and old-time maps that show Amsterdam as it was through the ages. Add on some fascinating multi-media displays and you’ll leave with a different perspective.
Shop at the Waterlooplein Flea Market
While De Negen Straatjes is the place to go for high-end shopping, to take part in a little bit of history and find unique gifts, then head to the Waterlooplein Flea Market. Amsterdam’s oldest and biggest flea market which opened in 1885. The outdoor bazaar is the place to be on a beautiful spring day.
Visitors will discover over 300 stalls to peruse, so if you want you could spend all day wandering the stalls. Come here for second-hand clothing, vintage wear, smoking paraphernalia, antiques, and even some spare parts for your cranky bicycle. If you can think of it, the flea market will probably have it!
The market is open every day of the week, aside from Sunday, from 9.30am until 6pm.
Embark on a Food Tour
If you’re an adventure foodie or just like finding a reason to eat, then no time in Amsterdam would be complete without joining a food tour. Dutch cuisine is more than just cheese polished with a pint of beer. After all, it’s home to the stroopwafels, two thin waffles pieced together with caramel syrup.
Local dishes that can be found around Amsterdam include the stamppot, a popular hearty dish in winter which combines mashed potatoes, veggies and often smoked sausage. Raw herring has been eaten here for centuries, and may just surprise you. Finish it off with a dessert called oliebollen, a powdery Dutch donut.
Mix local cuisine and some history on this deliciously exciting walking food tour (€65) of Amsterdam.
Kick back at Vondelpark
Spread out over more than 100 acres, Vondelpark is the most popular green space in Amsterdam. The huge expanse features many beautiful ponds that invite singing birds. You can wander through Vondelpark along the several nature trails, one which will guide you to the resident rose garden. The garden comes with over 70 different types of roses.
As you wander around, you’ll spot plenty of play areas for the young ones to enjoy, plus sculptures and statues to admire. Under the shady trees, you can kick back and partake in some light reading or simply watch the world go by.
When the tummy starts to grumble, don’t stress. Vondelpark has multiple cafes offering anything from a light snack to a hearty afternoon meal. Stick around into the evening from May to September for theater and live music at the Vondelpark Open Air Theater.
National Maritime Museum
At one point in the age of colonialism, the Dutch had the biggest naval fleet in the world. Eventually the might of the British navy would surpass them, but not before the Dutch colonized parts of Africa, the Caribbean, South East Asia, and recorded the first European landing on the Australian continent.
To explore the length of Netherland’s history at sea, you must visit the National Maritime Museum. Housed within an old naval warehouse that was built in the 1600s, the museum presents an impressive collection of exhibits. See how a small country had such an enormous impact on the world with insights via model ships, maps, weaponry, and historical battles. Finish off by exploring the nation’s most famous vessel, the Amsterdam.
Once you’ve enjoyed two of Amsterdam’s biggest parks, it’s time for something a little different. Amsterdam is packed with “hofjes” which were the original social houses built for the vulnerable. Today, these buildings surround lush, hidden courtyards, providing a challenge for the urban explorer to discover.
However, if you aren’t up for finding these historic courtyards, there is one that’s easy to get to. The Begijnhof was the original home of the beguines. A community of religious women who didn’t take vows.
Today, Begijnhof is home to the last two remaining wood houses in Amsterdam, along with the hidden church. A beautiful and unique experience, the prominent courtyard is the perfect place to check out from the world.
Our Lord in the Attic
At one stage, Our Lord in the Attic was the best-kept secret in Amsterdam. The three story building, constructed in the 17th century (and still stands today) was a place of worship for Catholics after public worship was banned under the Reformation.
Incredibly well-preserved, the clandestine church operated for two centuries before Catholics could once again gather in the outside world. Now you can see the church, as it always was. With the downstairs shop allaying suspicion, along with bedrooms and a kitchen.
Vibrant and eclectic, Our Lord in the Attic features several exceptional pieces of art and a memorable look into local life after the rise of Protestantism.
Go Windmill Hopping
Windmills are synonymous with the Dutch countryside. Any time in Amsterdam should be complemented with a day among the clogs. There are eight historic windmills around the city’s edge, the majority of which are placed in Amsterdam West. De Gooyer is the closest and, importantly, features a brewery, so start or end your adventures here.
Amsterdam has wonderful public transport, so to get out of the city and among more windmills, find your way to Zaanse Schans. Climb the picturesque structures, learn their history and enjoy some cheese tastings.
Alternatively, jump on a small-group tour for €35 and spend the day exploring Zaanse Schans, Edam, and Marken
Enjoy the Heineken Experience
Home to a beer found all across the world, one of the best things to do in Amsterdam is to embark on the Heineken Experience (€21). Taking your typical brewery tour to the next level, the Heineken Experience brings you behind the scenes of one of the largest breweries in the world, where you can taste the pure alcohol that eventually makes its way into the famous green bottles. If you know you’re going to do both, combine it with a canal cruise for €35.
The highlight? The 3D ride that takes you on an exciting journey through the entire process. Finish up in the lounge area where you can create your own bottle and personalized label.
If you love your beer, consider jumping on a four-hour brewery tour of Amsterdam (€65) with a local beer enthusiast who’ll show you the best brewery in Amsterdam.
Beyond the inner city, a must-see neighborhood in Amsterdam is Westergasfabriek. Once a major gas complex is now a hub of culture and activity.
The old red-brick buildings are now national monuments, which have been converted into a series of bars, movie theaters and cozy cafes. If the Heineken Experience wasn’t enough, stop by the Troost Brewery for Dutch craft beer and live music. Outside of the buildings you will often find festivals and markets to enjoy.
Another interesting district is NDSM in Amsterdam North. Like Westgasfabriek, NDSM is found within an abandoned industrial district along the water. Now home to a thriving artist community, the neighborhood has an ample amount of charm among the old buildings.
The best way to get here is on the ferry from downtown. Upon your arrival, you’ll quickly fall in love with NDSM’s quirky side. Home to abandoned submarines, old stationary trams, the world’s largest graffiti museum and greenhouse cafes. Bask in the sun along the IJ River or hit up one of the many festivals held at NDSM throughout the year.
For two months during spring, one of the top attractions in Amsterdam is the Keukenhof Gardens. Over a million visitors make the one-hour journey from downtown to see 80 acres of gorgeous tulips among 1600 other types of flora.
Exploring the vibrant grounds is the top thing to do, but you’ll also find an array of interactive exhibits and displays. Later, grab yourself a bicycle and explore the beautiful fields that envelope the gardens. Skip-the-line entrance is just €5.
In Dam Square, Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) was created to house the worshippers who could no longer fit within the overflowing Oude Kerk. Despite its name, the church is still very old, having opened in the 15th century.
Since then, Nieuwe Kerk has survived the Reformation and received several major renovations thanks to a series of fires. Although no longer functioning as a church, Nieuwe Kerk still plays a major role in public life, such as weddings among the Dutch Royal Family.
Explore the beautiful church which harbors much history, including Roman artifacts, and presents temporary exhibits and events.
NEMO Science Museum
One of the best things to do in Amsterdam with kids is to explore the impressive NEMO Science Museum. The interesting building soars out of the city’s waterfront like a yacht resurfacing. But visitors will soon be drawn in by five floors of interactive exhibits and hands-on experiments.
Each floor is split into different sections, from areas focusing on the human body to the world of technology. NEMO also offers a sprawling playground, and a rooftop cafe when the older folks need a brief break.
Filled in the 19th century, Lindengracht is a former canal that has been transformed into one of the best markets in Amsterdam. Covering over half a mile in length, the historic market offers over 200 vendors selling anything from fresh produce, sweet treats and flowers, along with arts and crafts.
The market is slightly smaller than the Waterlooplein Flea Market but offers an amazing atmosphere befitting of its heritage. Around the market you’ll also be within walking distance of several amazing “hofjes” including the Lindenhofje (1616) and the Suykerhofje (1667).
One Final Note: Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
If you’ve read any other posts on Never Ending Footsteps, you’ll know that I’m a great believer in travelling with travel insurance. I’ve seen far too many GoFundMe campaigns from destitute backpackers that are unexpectedly stranded in a foreign country after a scooter accident/being attacked/breaking a leg with no way of getting home or paying for their healthcare. In short, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.
Travel insurance will cover you if your flight is cancelled and you need to book a new one, if your luggage gets lost and you need to replace your belongings, if you suddenly get struck down by appendicitis and have to be hospitalised, have your camera stolen and need to buy a replacement, or discover a family member has died while you’re overseas and now you need to get home immediately. If you fall seriously ill, your insurance will cover the costs to fly you home to receive medical treatment.
I’ve used World Nomads as my travel insurance provider since 2012 and have nothing but wonderful things to say about them.
I’ve made two claims with World Nomads (once when my partner broke his brand new phone in Thailand, and World Nomads paid for the repair cost, and once when crashing a rental car in New Zealand, when World Nomads paid out the full $1,500 to repair the front bumper with no excess or fees to pay from my end) so feel comfortable recommending them to you.
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