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 grew as I explored more of the city and it continues till this very day.
What makes this city so special? 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. These days, the city is even more cosmopolitan, with about 200 different nationalities living and working here. 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’!
There really is so much to see and do in Amsterdam that it’s a big challenge to come up with a summarised list. My readers keep asking me for tips so I’ve accepted the challenge. Here are my ten recommendations for things to do and see in Amsterdam. Enjoy my fair city!
Ten 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’s just so much to see that it’s impossible to sum up. There are national monuments like the Palace on the Dam and the gorgeous canals, the Flower Market, the world-famous Red Light district, markets, quaint neighbourhoods like the Jordaan and the list goes on and on. Bring your camera and discover the city’s most photogenic spots. Before you start, I recommend getting the IAmsterdam City Card which provides free 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.
Here are a few suggested walking routes:
View Quick walk around Amsterdam in a larger map
2. Hire a boat – 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!
Here are some suggested canal routes if you opt to hire your own boat:
View Amsterdam canal routes in a larger map
3. Visit the 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 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 with its new bath-tub-like wing. 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.
- Tassenmuseum – Museum of Bags and Purses (Herengracht 573): A big hit with the ladies, 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 and Van Gogh Museum. I recommend visiting these museums in the late-afternoon or purchasing a Skip-the-Line ticket (which includes a canal cruise tour and entrance to these two museums).
4. 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 tour.
5. 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 don’t often 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! 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.
Read about other recommended Amsterdam day trips.
6. Mingle with the 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. Having a drink at one of the brown cafés is a great way to meet the locals and engage with them in an animated conversation. 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. Dating from the 17th century it’s one of the city’s oldest pubs) and In ‘t Aepjen (Zeedijk, near the Central Station).
7. SHOP! – Amsterdam is a true shoppers’ haven. From the high street brands in the Kalverstraat to swanky boutiques on the P.C. Hooftstraat, to quirky design shops in the Nine Streets neighbourhood and Rozengracht street, and the Waterlooplein flea market, there’s something for every kind of shopper. The Kalverstraat is the main shopping street (my go-to street for clothing and sneakers) and the Nine Streets neighbourhood is also a popular shopping area (many local designers have their retail outlets here). For markets, I can recommend a stroll around the Waterlooplein flea market, the Albert Cuyp market (don’t miss stepping into the stores behind the stalls), the Noordermarkt, and De Looier antique market in the Looiersgracht (Jordaan neighbourhood).
8. Go for a local 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 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). 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), and for some wonderfully spicy rijsttafel, I recommend Sama Sebo near the Rijksmuseum, and Tempo Doeloe (Utrechtsestraat).
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).
9. Catch one of the annual events – there’s always something going on in Amsterdam every day. From performing arts to musicals, concerts and cabaret shows, 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. Celebrating the King’s birthday 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 parties just for this special day.
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!
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, and the Grachtenfestival (a festival of jazz and classical music in unique locations) in August.
10. Stay in Amsterdam like a local, in a canal house or a houseboat – there is a huge variety of accommodation options in Amsterdam but I always recommend that visitors choose a canal house or houseboat rental. These are two authentic Amsterdam experiences that truly make your stay in Amsterdam a memorable one. There’s nothing better than a view of the canals or chatting with your neighbours over a cup of coffee. It just adds that special, local flavour which you wouldn’t normally experience at a hotel.
There you go. Ten things! 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!
You can also find lots more information at iamsterdam.