amsterdam travel guide
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Amsterdam is my home and my favourite city in the world. I may be biased but I consider it a true privilege to live in this remarkable city. I vividly remember the first time I visited Amsterdam more than twenty years ago. I walked down the Damrak, the main thoroughfare from the Central Station to the Dam Square, and the buzz I felt was almost tangible. It was clear to me, there and then, that this was a city like no other and I instantly felt the proverbial butterflies fluttering around in my stomach. My love affair with Amsterdam continues till today. There are countless things to do in Amsterdam and I’ve created this travel guide to help you explore and enjoy my city. This Amsterdam guide covers the main historic and cultural attractions, recommended restaurants, architectural highlights and local experiences. It’s not by all means exhaustive but I hope you find lots of good tips!

things to do in amsterdam
The beautiful Keizersgracht canal.

This Amsterdam travel guide contains links to three services I often use myself and can recommend: Booking.com (for hotel bookings), Rentalcars.com (for car hire) and GetYourGuide (for easy-to-book tours). If you make a booking via one of these services, I will receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). These commissions help me to maintain my blog and share more travel experiences with you.

Amsterdam travel guide

With its charming canals, bridges and beautiful houses, Amsterdam is easily one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. It also has a fascinating and colourful history that goes back centuries. During its Golden Age in the 17th century, the city was one of the wealthiest in the world and attracted merchants, noblemen and artists from across Europe. Rembrandt’s masterpieces that proudly adorn the walls of the Rijksmuseum capture this period in great detail.

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The Royal Palace at the Dam Square was built in the 17th century as the City Hall. At the time, it was one of the largest buildings in the world, a reflection of the city’s wealth and influence.

These days, the city is even more cosmopolitan, with a population of about 1 million comprising about 200 different nationalities. This cosmopolitan landscape combined with the city’s tolerant attitude have fostered a vibrant cultural and culinary scene that can easily vie with any big city….. and all this within an area that can be covered on foot. To me, Amsterdam is the only true ‘global village’!

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Aerial view of the Amsterdam city centre.

Sixteen things to do in Amsterdam

1. Explore the city on foot

Amsterdam is very compact, making it very easy to explore the city on foot. There are many things to see and visit such as national monuments like the Royal Palace on the Dam (a must visit in my book), the historic canals, the Flower Market, the world-famous Red Light district, street markets, quaint neighbourhoods like the Jordaan and the list goes on. I’ve included several walking routes below to get you started.

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Another gorgeous canal view in Amsterdam along the Oudezijds Voorburgwal looking towards the St. Nicholas Basilica.

Bring your camera and discover the most beautiful photo spots in Amsterdam. Before you start, I recommend getting the IAmsterdam City Card which includes public transportation (when you get tired from all that walking!), free admission to selected museums and attractions, a free canal cruise and lots of discounts.

A row of houses near the Amsterdam Central Station.
One of my favourite photo spots in Amsterdam is at the intersection of the Keizersgracht and Leidsegracht.

One of my favourite things to do in Amsterdam is stroll around the canals in the evenings when the daytrippers have left and the lights are on. It’s a simply magical experience! Read about an evening walk in Amsterdam.

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Canal houses along the Damrak at night.

Here are a few suggested walking routes:


View Quick walk around Amsterdam in a larger map

Another Amsterdam walking route I can recommend is along the Amstel River. Start at the Hermitage Museum (map) and continue walking southwards along the river past the Carré Theatre and Amstel Hotel (walk past the front of the hotel to continue on the route) till the Berlage bridge (map). There are many cafés along the way where you can stop for a refreshment or meal and enjoy the scenery.

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Amstel River, with the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge).
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Beautiful houses along the Amstel River.
 

2. See the city from the water

In my view, the best way to see Amsterdam is from the water. Amsterdam’s canals are famous the world over and I always recommend visitors to go on a canal cruise. An alternative is to hire a boat, pack a picnic and go on a leisurely boat ride around the canals, preferably on a balmy summer evening. It simply is a gorgeous experience! The IAmsterdam City Card includes a free canal cruise as well as discounts on boat hire. You can hire an electric boat at Mokum Boats or Boaty Rent-a-Boat.

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Hire an electric boat and explore the canals.

Here are some suggested canal routes if you opt to hire your own boat:


View Amsterdam canal routes in a larger map

3. Visit world-class museums

Amsterdam has an impressive array of world-class museums. The most famous are the Rijksmuseum (with its stunning collection of Rembrandts and works by other Dutch masters), the Van Gogh museum (a must-visit in my book) and the Anne Frank House. Some of my personal favourites include the Hermitage, the Maritime or Scheepvaart museum (I love the replica of one of the most famous Dutch ships), the Tropical Museum (that focuses on cultures in tropical countries) and the Stedelijk Museum (modern art) with its new bath-tub-like wing.

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A guide explaining the clever use of light in Rembrandt’s iconic piece: the Night Watch, at the Rijksmuseum.
The Scheepvaart or Maritime Museum.

Here’s a list of other special interest museums:

  • Het Grachtenhuis – Canal House Museum (Herengracht 386): Located in one of the most beautiful canal houses in Amsterdam, this museum provides visitors with wonderful insights to the 17th century canals of Amsterdam, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • Museum van Loon (Prinsengracht 672): A stunning museum, located in a magnificent canal mansion, that provides a unique peek into the lives of one of Amsterdam’s wealthiest families.
  • Rembrandt House (Jodenbreestraat 4): The house where Rembrandt lived now houses many of his etchings and you get to see the great master’s studio.
  • Our Lord in the Attic (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40): One of Amsterdam’s best-kept secrets!
  • Jewish Museum (Jonas Danielplein): this popular museum is dedicated to the history and culture of Jews in the Netherlands.
  • FOAM (Keizersgracht 609): eclectic photography museum.
  • Moco Museum (Honthorststraat 20): art museum with works by amongst others Banksy and Dalí.
  • Tassenmuseum – Museum of Bags and Purses (Herengracht 573): this museum houses an impressive collection of bags and purses throughout the ages. A great opportunity to gape at 3,000 bags and purses!
  • Pijpenkabinet – Pipe Museum (Prinsengracht 488): Situated in a beautiful canal house, the Pipe Museum has one of Europe’s largest collection of pipes.
  • Bril Museum – Museum of Spectacles (Gasthuismolensteeg 7): A unique museum that chronicles 700 years of the history of spectacles!
  • De Kattenkabinet – the Cat Cabinet (Herengracht 497): If you love cats, you’ll love this museum! It houses a grand collection of paintings, sculptures, books and posters featuring erm… cats from around the world.
  • Sex Museum (Damrak 18): Also called the Venus Temple, the Sex Museum houses pretty graphic displays of sex and related objects through the centuries from around the world.
  • Heineken Experience (Stadhouderskade 78): This museum traces the history of this world-famous beer brand. The highlight is the thrilling beer-ride!

There are often long queues at the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House. I recommend visiting these museums in the late-afternoon or purchasing a Skip-the-Line ticket.



Booking.com

4. Go shopping and browse the markets

Amsterdam is a great city for shopping. From the high street brands in the Kalverstraat and Nieuwendijk and swanky boutiques in the P.C. Hooftstraat, to quirky design and vintage shops in the Nine Streets neighbourhood and numerous flea and antique markets, there’s something for every kind of shopper. The premier department store is De Bijenkorf, with its flagship store at the Damrak, just off Dam Square. Some of the larger shopping malls worth checking out include Magna Plaza (behind the Royal Palace), Gelderlandplein (in the Buitenveldert suburb) and Amstelveen, south of the city.

For markets, I can recommend a stroll around the Waterlooplein and Ijhallen flea markets (Ijhallen, located in Amsterdam North, is Europe’s largest flea market), the Albert Cuyp market (don’t miss stepping into the stores behind the stalls), the Noordermarkt, and De Looier antique market (Jordaan neighbourhood).

Albert Cuyp market (image courtesy of Clayton Fidelis/Unsplash).

5. Have a unique foodie experience

With about 200 different nationalities living in the city, Amsterdam has a very diverse culinary scene. From Michelin star restaurants to seafood stalls, there’s something for everyone and for every budget. A visit to Amsterdam wouldn’t be complete without trying the local ‘frites’ (french fries); ‘haring’ (raw herring served with chopped onions) and kibbeling (chunks of deep-fried fish) at one of the seafood stores (‘visboer’); Dutch apple pie; pancakes; and rijsttafel (Indonesian fare – a remnant of the Dutch colonial past – that consists of steamed rice and up to 25 side dishes).

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Rijsttafel at Hotel Jakarta.

In my book, the best fries can be found at Fleminckx (Voetboogstraat 31) and the best apple pie (‘appelgebak’) at Café Winkel (at the Noordermarkt). For a true Amsterdam pancake experience, head for the Pannenkoekhuis (Grimburgwal 2). For some wonderfully spicy rijsttafel, I recommend Tempo Doeloe (Utrechtsestraat 75) and the stunning Hotel Jakarta.

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Dutch fries are right up there with the best!

Many first-time visitors always stop-and-stare whenever they pass a FEBO. This is a chain of Dutch fast-food joints where people quite literally eat out of a wall! The fare is typical fast-food such as burgers, deep-fried croquettes, chicken wings, etc… The FEBO is a perennial favourite for locals, especially after a night on the town. If you’re intrigued, I recommend the veal croquette (kalfsvlees kroket), frikandel or the spicy noodle croquette (bami kroket).

Eating out of a wall at the FEBO (image courtesy of Sacha)

Fine dining in Amsterdam

There’s also a plethora of fine-dining venues throughout the city, including a host of Michelin-starred restaurants. For a fabulous Michelin-starred meal with a view, I recommend MOS Amsterdam (one star; near the Central Station) which offers beautiful harbour views and Ciel Bleu (two stars; in the Okura Hotel).

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MOS Amsterdam: fine-dining with a harbour view.
An amuse at the MOS Amsterdam.
Ciel Bleu: two Michelin stars and a city view.
Dessert at Ciel Bleu.

Another fine-dining restaurant I can recommend is Moon, a revolving restaurant in North Amsterdam with unobstructed city and harbour views. Read about my stay at Sir Adam Hotel and meal at Moon.

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Moon restaurant
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Corvina with coconut, coriander and pink pepper at Moon.

Other fine-dining restaurants in Amsterdam I can recommend include Vinkeles (at The Dylan), Rijks (next to the Rijksmuseum), Bridges (at the Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam) and De Belhamel (Brouwersgracht 60).

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Bridges restaurant is located in the Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam hotel.
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Rijks restaurant.
De Belhamel restaurant has a gorgeous Art Deco interior and boasts stunning canal views.

 

6. Visit a theatre

Amsterdam has a vibrant cultural scene with world-renowned venues to match. There’s a plethora of cultural performances to choose from: from modern dance to classical ballet, operas and concerts. Check the schedules of the National Opera (operas and ballet), Concertgebouw (a world-class concert hall and philharmonic orchestra), International Theatre Amsterdam or Carré for current performances and tickets.

The Carré Theatre Amsterdam.
Inside the Concertgebouw.

One other theatre I can recommend for a visit is the Pathé Tuschinski (Reguliersbreestraat 26-34, near Rembrandtplein), arguably one of the most beautiful movie theatres anywhere around. The Art Nouveau interior in the main foyer and Hall 1 is simply stunning! Check at the bar for guided tours.

The Art Deco interior inside Hall 1 in Pathé Tuschinski.

7. Mingle with locals in a ‘bruin café’

‘Bruin’ or brown cafés are traditional Amsterdam pubs, some of them centuries old, where locals gather over a beer and talk about everything. They’re called brown cafés because of the heavy use of wood in the interior, nicotine-stained walls and dimmed lighting. A visit to one of the brown cafés is a great way to meet the locals and engage with them in an animated conversation, and try one of the many varieties of ‘jenever’ (Dutch gin).

Try Dutch gin or jenever at In de Olofspoort.

There are brown cafés scattered around the city – some of my favourites include Hoppe (Spuistraat); Café ‘t Smalle (Jordaan neighbourhood); De Pieper (Prinsengracht, near Leidseplein; and In de Olofspoort, Het Elfde Gebod (with a surreal religious theme) and In ‘t Aepjen in the Zeedijk area, near the Central Station.

8. Chill like a local

The Netherlands has a very strong and visible café culture that’s similar to many southern European countries. Cafés, that more often than not spill out onto the street, are an integral part of daily life in Amsterdam where people come to relax, meet friends or people-watch. It certainly is one of my favourite things to do in Amsterdam! Alfresco cafés with great drinks, food and vibes include Fonteyn (Nieuwmarkt), Flinck (Eerste van der Helststraat 51), the rooftop of the Doubletree by Hilton Central Station, PRIK (Spuistraat 109), Spanjer & van Twist (Leliegracht 60), THT (IjPromenade, Amsterdam North).

Chilling at Fonteyn at the Nieuwmarkt square.
The rooftop at the Doubletree by Hilton has great views of the city and harbour.

9. Stay in a houseboat

It’s a simply magical experience to stay in a houseboat on one of the canals or the Amstel River. There are various houseboat B&B’s to choose from but my favourite is the 2 Houseboat Suites (Booking.com) on the Prinsengracht canal. As the name says, there are just two suites, called Rembrandt and Van Gogh. In addition to the lovely hosts and a fantastic location in the historic city centre, this newly-built boat has large windows, a comfortable bed and all the amenities that will make your stay comfortable, such as an en-suite bathroom, heated floors, a Nespresso coffee-maker and mini-bar. I could just sit there all day and enjoy the gorgeous view!

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At the 2 Houseboat Suites, you can just lie in bed and take in the view!
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Me enjoying the view of the Prinsengracht canal with a glass of wine at 2 Houseboat Suites (Rembrandt Suite).

10. Hire a bike and head for the country

Many people say hiring a bike and exploring Amsterdam’s city centre is a must-do for visitors. It’s something I personally don’t recommend (especially if you’re not an experienced cyclist) because there are so many distractions when you cycle around the city and it can be dangerous. You have to look out for tram rails (cycling into a rail means a sure flip-over and an injury), trams, cars, pedestrians and Amsterdammers on bikes (who quite literally own the roads)!

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Amsterdam is a city of bicycles!

As an alternative, I recommend you rent a bike in Amsterdam and explore the nearby countryside. It’s a more leisurely experience and the scenery is beautiful. My two favourite routes are the path that winds along the western bank of the Amstel River from the heart of Amsterdam to the village of Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, and another path that runs from Amsterdam North to Durgerdam and along the Ijselmeer shore, passing centuries-old fishing villages. Another option is to join a bike tour. Various companies, like Yellow Bike and MacBike, offer a variety of guided bike tours in and around Amsterdam.

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Cycling through Durgerdam.
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Cycle along the Amstel river to the village of Oudekerk aan de Amstel.

Read about other recommended Amsterdam day trips.

11. Visit a local brewery

The home of Heineken is also the home of a multitude of smaller breweries, each with their own unique selection of brews. My favourites (which also make for a great visit) include Brouwerij ‘t Ij (brewery and bar in a windmill and produces some of my favourite local beers), De Bekeerde Suster, De Prael, De Eeuwige Jeugd (Eternal Youth) and Bierfabriek (Beer Factory).

The ‘t Ij brewery is housed in a windmill.
One of my favourite beers is Ijwit (a ‘white’ beer).
A blond beer from De Eeuwige Jeugd brewery. I love their labels!
Two beers from De Bekeerde Suster.

 

12. Venture outside the historic city centre

There’s a lot to see and do in the city centre but I recommend venturing into the surrounding neighbourhoods to get a more local perspective away from the masses of tourists.

De Pijp

One of the most popular neighbourhoods is De Pijp which is young, hip and constantly buzzing. Situated roughly between the Stadhouderskade and Jozef Israëlkade, De Pijp has a multitude of bars, restaurants, cafés and shops to check out as well as the famous Albert Cuyp Market. One of my favourite hangouts in this neighbourhood is Wijnbar Boelen, a wine bar with fabulous food (Eerste van der Helststraat 50).

Spring blossoms at the Jozef Israëlkade.
Colourful houses in De Pijp.

Amsterdam Oost (East)

In the east, explore the neighbourhoods east of the Oosterpark towards Dapperplein (home to the bustling Dapper market) and along the Eerste van Swindenstraat and Javastraat, with its distinct Middle Eastern/northern African atmosphere. You’ll find lots of eateries and Middle eastern shops, as well as one of my favourite cafés: Bar Botanique. At the Tigris & Eufraat supermarket (Javastraat 20), you’ll find some of the best falafel in Amsterdam!

Eerste van Swindenstraat in East.
Bar Botanique is a cheerful place to chill at.

Amsterdam Noord (North)

Take the free ferry across the harbour to Amsterdam North and explore this exciting part of the city. The ferries leave from the piers directly behind the Central Station and there are various lines. Take the ferry to Buiksloterweg to visit the EYE Film Museum and A’dam Tower. At the tower, you’ll find the Amsterdam Lookout (with panoramic views of the city and harbour), Moon revolving restaurant and the Sir Adam Hotel. Behind the tower is the cool This is Holland 5D flight experience.

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The A’DAM Tower in Amsterdam North.
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The Over The Edge swing at the A’DAM Lookout.

I also recommend taking the ferry to NDSM (map) to explore this up-and-coming area with its big warehouses (one of which houses the Ij Hallen flea market), hip cafés and restaurants such as Pllek, Noorderlicht, Ij Kantine, Brooklyn and Cannibale Royale du Nord.

The NDSM is the site of the old port area of Amsterdam. This old crane was turned into a boutique hotel!
Watch cruise ships pass by in Amsterdam North.

13. Admire unique contemporary architecture

For those interested in architecture, Amsterdam has an incredible array of unique architectural styles. The city is famous for its 17th century architecture but there are also many contemporary gems. For instance, stroll along the Haarlemmerstraat (map) and you’ll find beautiful Art Deco buildings.

The gorgeous Art Deco bar at De Belhamel restaurant (Browersgracht 60, just off the Haarlemmerstraat).
A beautiful Art Deco building in the Haarlemmerstraat.

Amsterdam is also the birthplace of the Amsterdam School movement, an architectural style that was prominent in the Netherlands in the first half of the 20th century. Read more about Amsterdam School architecture in Amsterdam.

An example of the Amsterdam School style of architecture in the Rivierenbuurt.
Doorways in De Pijp neighbourhood in the Amsterdam School style.

There are also many great examples of cutting-edge modern architecture in Amsterdam. Many of the newest buildings can be found in the Amsterdam Zuidas business district and the RAI exhibition halls (map).

The NHOW Hotel next to the RAI.
I love this building opposite the RAI.
These ‘flying saucers’ are the ramps into a parking garage adjacent to the RAI.

14. Catch one of the annual events

There’s always something going on in Amsterdam every day. From performing arts to musicals, concerts, cabaret shows and festivals, the locals are truly spoiled for choice 365 days a year! There are also annual events that the city celebrates with great gusto.

King’s Day is one such event. Taking place on April 27th, this is the only day of the year that anyone is allowed to open a street stall and sell anything they want (usually old junk but a lucky gentleman once picked up a small painting for several Euros, got it examined by experts and it turned out to be an original Rembrandt!). The streets of Amsterdam turn into a massive open-air flea market with many street parties just for this special day.

King’s Day flea market in Amsterdam.

Gay Pride (around the first weekend of August) is the other major annual event. The highlight is the Canal Parade when dozens of boats cruise along the entire length of the Prinsengracht canal, cheered on by hundreds of thousands of people!

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The highlight of the summer on the Amsterdam canals is the Gay Pride Canal Parade during the first Saturday of August.

Other annual events that I can highly recommend include the Holland Festival (a celebration of culture and arts) in June, the Open Garden Days (when privately-owned canal mansions open their doors to visitors) in June, Taste of Amsterdam (a culinary festival) in May/June, Amsterdam Light Festival in December/January, Amsterdam Dance Event (one of the world’s largest dance events), Milkshake (a summer dance and cultural festival) and the Grachtenfestival (a festival of jazz and classical music in unique locations) in August.

Every year, in December-January, artists from around the world present their light creations at the Amsterdam canals.

One bit of advice: if you plan to visit Amsterdam for one of these events or festivals, I recommend booking your trip and accommodation at least six months in advance.

15. Visit the flower auction in Aalsmeer

The world’s biggest flower auction is a spectacular sensory experience. Each day, more than 20 million flowers from around the world are auctioned in a building that ranks as one of the largest in the world. Located in Aalsmeer, a small town on the fringe of Amsterdam, it’s something I recommend to all visitors. You can go there on your own (get there early, around 7am) or join a guided tour.

Flower auction Aalsmeer (image courtesy of Rick Payette)

16. Go on a day trip

If you’re staying longer in Amsterdam, consider a day trip to the beach, the tulip fields (in spring) or one of the nearby historic towns. There’s lots to do and see within a one-hour drive or train ride from Amsterdam. Visit the train service website for schedules. Here’s a list of interesting places to visit:

Utrecht

Just 30 minutes from Amsterdam, Utrecht is one of the oldest cities in the country and an absolute delight to explore. Read more about things to see in Utrecht (including a walking route).

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Visitors can also kayak along the canals in Utrecht.

Alkmaar

Less than an hour away, Alkmaar is a historic town with charming canals and a world famous cheese market. Read more about things to see in Alkmaar (with a walking route).

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Beautiful gabled houses at the Mient (square) in Alkmaar.

Amersfoort

This charming medieval town is less than an hour from Amsterdam. Read about things to see in Amersfoort.

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The Koppelpoort in Amersfoort is a medieval land and a water gate.

Delft

The city of Vermeer is also famous for its Delft Blue ceramics and antique market. Read about things to see in Delft.

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Delft blue at the antique market.

Gouda

Gouda cheese is world famous but there’s a lot more to the town than cheese. Read more about things to see in Gouda.

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The Stadhuis (Town Hall) and behind it, the Waag (weighing house) at the Markt (market square) in Gouda.

Rotterdam

About an hour by away by train, Rotterdam is a vibrant port city with world class museums and beautiful modern architecture. Read about things to do in Rotterdam.

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The interior of the Markthal (or Market Hall) in Rotterdam with its colourful ceiling.

You can also hire a car and drive the Markermeer loop or visit the Hoge Veluwe National Park.

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Hoorn is one of the historic towns around the Markermeer.

Read more about day trips from Amsterdam.

There you go. My suggestions for things to do in Amsterdam! Believe me, it was a very tough challenge and I hope I did my home city some justice. There are so many more things that I can recommend but I guess the best is simply to come on over and experience Amsterdam yourself and you’ll see why this city is simply my favourite!

Read other Velvet Escape posts on Amsterdam or read about my luxury weekend in Amsterdam.

You can also find lots more information at iamsterdam.

Getting to and around Amsterdam

Amsterdam is one of the most well-connected cities in Europe. Amsterdam Schiphol Airport is a major European hub with frequent flights to all corners of the world. There are also international train connections from Amsterdam Centraal Station and Schiphol Airport to major European capitals. Frequent trains (at least one every 15 minutes) connect Schiphol Airport with Amsterdam Centraal Station and other peripheral stations.

Amsterdam Central Station.

I don’t recommend visiting Amsterdam by car as parking (especially in the city centre) is costly (up to €10/hour).

There are various public transport systems in the city. The metro connects the city centre with the outer suburbs. For visitors, the most relevant line is perhaps the North-South line which runs from Amsterdam North (Noord) and continues under the harbour and the historic city centre to Amsterdam South (Zuidas business district). To utilise public transport, you can purchase single tickets at the stations or in the trams/buses, or a debit card (at the stations). You can also opt to purchase the IAmsterdam City Card (which includes free admission to 60+ museums, a canal cruise, free public transport and many discounts).

The Rokin metro station (North-South line) showcases age-old items excavated during the construction of the station.

There are also numerous tram and bus lines which crisscross the city. For train, metro, tram and bus schedules, check OV9292 or your preferred map app (Google Maps/Maps). In addition, there are also taxi and Uber services.

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