One of the most popular destinations in Europe, Amsterdam is a city with a bit of a reputation. But there is more to the city than the infamous coffee shops and Red Light District! In fact, it is a city full of world-class museums, stunning canals, unparalleled nightlife, and incredible culture. Amsterdam is a haven for cyclists. The garden of Europe and Venice of the north. Take a stroll through the parks and along the canals. Admire the Rembrandts and Vermeers and Van Goghs. Step back in history at the Anne Frank house. Smile at the tall and fair locals who bike past then indulge in a stroopwafel or two. There’s no shortage of things to see and do in this European hub.
I recently spent a quick weekend in Amsterdam to catch the end of tulip season at Keukenhof. It was my first time visiting the Dutch city, but I hope to return soon! Amsterdam surprised me by living up to how picturesque it seemed. I found a weekend sufficient to see the highlights, but I easily could have spent a full week exploring. Here are some of the best things to see and do while in Amsterdam!
Stroll the Canal District
The canals that encircle Amsterdam are as picturesque as you’d expect. Famously narrow buildings line the waterways while bicycles are chained to the bridges that intersect them. It’s easy to get lost when each street looks the same, but wandering your way through the canals is half the fun.
There are actually more than 100 km of canals and 1,500 bridges in Amsterdam. The three main canals are Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, and Herengracht. The canals date back to the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, where they were dug in concentric rings around the city. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – one for the bucket list, no doubt.
Take a Canal Cruise
Why explore the stunning canals once when you could do it twice? Take a loop around them again, this time from the water! It’s a great way to see more of the city than you probably would on foot, and from a new perspective. There are plenty of boat tours available for visitors – I recommend avoiding the large touristy ones and opting instead for a smaller boat! You can find plenty hour-long tours in the €15 range than even offer an open bar for the duration of the trip.
Visit the Anne Frank House
Perhaps the most moving experience you can have while in Amsterdam is visiting the Anne Frank House. The Anne Frank Foundation has preserved the secret annex where the Frank family, along with four others, hid to avoid Nazi persecution during WWII. There are no words to describe the experience of visiting the annex. Passing through the very bookcase that hid the entry way sent chills through me. We have all read the story, we all know her name – but nothing compares to actually standing there.
The museum is located on the PRinsengracht canal near Jordaan. Westerkerk, one of the most famous churches in the city which houses the tomb of Rembrandt, is also right next door
Rent a Bike
Some cities run on cars. Some on public transportation. Amsterdam runs on bikes. You’ll see parking lots storing bikes by the thousands near Central Station and wonder how anyone manages to find theirs again. Renting a bicycle is perhaps the most local thing you can do while you’re here! It’s a larger city than I expected, so biking is a great way to get around faster. And if you aren’t feeling brave enough to find your way around on your own, there are plenty of bike tours you can book.
Remember: before you cross a road in Amsterdam, look right. Look left, then look right again. Then left again. Look right one last time. Look left one last time. Cross the road. Still get hit by a bike. Walk it off.
Located in the Amsterdam-Zuid borough, Museumplein (Museum Square) is a public park lined by some of the most famous museums in the city, and perhaps the world. The Rijksmuseum, a national museum dedicated to Dutch art and history, is housed in a beautiful mansion. There are more than 8,000 objects on display in the museums 250 rooms, including the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer. There’s also a stunning library for all you book lovers!
On another side of the square is the Van Gogh Museum – the largest collection of the painter’s works with over 200 paintings and artifacts on display. The Stedelijk is a modern art museum, and at the opposite end of the square sits the Royal Concertgebouw (Concert Hall).
And of course, you’ll find the iconic ‘I Amsterdam’ sign here (although there are a few around, including one outside Schipol Airport). It is perhaps the most underwhelming tourist attraction I’ve come across yet. But alas, it’s apparently an Amsterdam ‘must’. I recommend heading there just after sunrise if you want a shot with no one around!
Taste the Heineken Experience
Although Heineken isn’t actually brewed here anymore, you can still visit the old Heineken Brewery in the De Pijp neighbourhood! The Heineken Museum is an interactive experience that takes you through the process of brewing one of the world’s most famous beers. It takes about an hour or two to wander through – you’ll pass through exhibits such as a 4D ride, horse stables, and endless photo opps before ending in the bar where you’ll be treated to two pints. Some say it’s too touristy, but I really enjoyed it! Definitely worth it if you’re looking to kill some time.
Visit the Red Light District
It wouldn’t be Amsterdam if we didn’t talk about the Red Light District. De Wallen is the largest such district in Amsterdam. Oudekerksplein (Old Church Square) lies at the heart. Here you’ll find the statue of Belle, who is said to look over the working girls of the district and asks for respect.
You can explore the Red Light District by day – it is full of great restaurants and cafes and yes, those infamous coffee shops. As it sits so central in the city near the train station, the Red Light District is actually one of the safest neighborhoods! If you do plan on visiting by night or are staying in the area, just don’t take any pictures for obvious reasons.
Stroll through Vondelpark
Vondelpark is the largest city park in Amsterdam and is offers stunning scenery on a clear day! Just a short walk from Museumplein, it’s the perfect place for a stroll or bike-ride. Or picnic and people-watch! Vondelpark opened in 1865 and was designed by the same architects who built the Keukenhof flower gardens.
Explore De Pijp
De Pijp is the local gem of Amsterdam. It’s a residential neighborhood tucked away south of the city centre. Here you’ll find hip cafes, trendy shops, and Insta-worth street art. The old Heineken Brewery lines the neighborhood, and the stalls of Albert Cuypmarkt tout everything from fresh flowers and produce to bespoke souvenirs. Be sure to check out the Wake Me Up When I’m Famous bench – a favorite spot for a snapshot… or nap?
Jordaan is another neighbourhood worth exploring, located in Amsterdam-Centruum amid the scenic canal district. Here you’ll find the Anne Frank House and some of the most famous canals in the city. It’s a quiet and picturesque area to wander through. You’ll happen across art galleries, shops full of bespoke jewelry and goods, and cozy cafes.
Visit Dam Square
Dam Square is the city’s central piazza, and it’s surrounded by world-class shopping, cafes, and more. Here you’ll find that National Monument – a 22 meter-tall obelisk built in remembrance of WWII. And casting its shadow over the square is the behemoth Royal Palace of Amsterdam. It was built in 1648 and is still the King of Holland’s official residence!
Ferry Across to Amsterdam Noord
Just across the IJ waterfront is a borough known as Amsterdam-Noord. There’s a free ferry that shuttles pedestrians and bikers across from the back of Central Station – it runs twenty-four hours a day and only takes a few minutes to cross! Noord is much more modern in feel than the central city, and you’ll find some trendy spots to hang out around here. NDSM is an old ship wharf that’s been transformed into a haven for artists, complete with flea markets, street art and more. Or visit the EYE Film Museum, then take a trip to the top of A’Dam Tower for a view of the city (and maybe even to swing off the side of a skyscraper)!
Eat Amazing Dutch Food
Dutch food is underestimated in the culinary world, IMHO. You’ll find some amazing treats while you’re in Amsterdam! My personal favorite are stroopwafels, which are basically two thin waffles glued together by caramel syrup. The Netherlands are also famous for Gouda cheese, which originates from the town of, well, Gouda. You’ll find shops all over the city selling wheels – pop in for a sample or five!
Some other local delicacies to try include raw herring (I passed on this one) and frites. Just like being back in Belgium! Bitterballen (breaded balls filled with meat) are a popular snack. For breakfast, indulge in some Dutch pancakes! Pannekoeken are large plate-sized cakes, while poffertjes are fluffy small buckwheat pancakes. Dig in!
The Dutch are famed for their fields of colorful tulips, and there’s nothing like seeing the city bloom in the spring. For nature lovers, be sure to check out the Bloemenmarkt, the world’s only floating flower market. Lining the canal banks on Singel in the south of the city, the market stalls sell everything from seeds and bulbs to bouquets and wooden tulips. If you can’t make it out to Keukenhof for tulip season, be sure to at least check out the market to get your fill of spring!
If you are visiting in the spring, be sure to check out Keukenhof Tulip Gardens! You can read more about visiting here.
What’s your favorite thing to do in A’Dam? Book your stay in Amsterdam here!