21 Can’t Miss Things to Do in Amsterdam

Shimmering canals, world-class museums, a potpourri of cultures, an eclectic shopping scene, and a raging nightlife are just a few of Amsterdam’s must-do experiences. Use your time wisely and you can experience it all. Or just roam freely, letting Amsterdam lead you through its 400-year-old grachtengordel (canal ring), lined with must-do experiences and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

6 Concertgebouwplein, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
What’s not to like about Museumplein? In summer, it’s as chill as Vondelpark, with picnickers playing instruments and getting high on the lawn. Add more grass and the field becomes stoners’ heaven as well as a magnet for art aficionados. The latter come for Amsterdam’s trio of world-class museums, all re-opened in 2013 after lengthy renovations—the stately Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, and the Van Gogh Museum. Tucked south of Leidseplein amidst upscale hotels and cafés, Museumplein is both a culture vulture’s paradise and an open space for those who want to escape the city buzz. In addition to repositories of priceless paintings, it’s home to the Concertgebouw at its southern end.
Gabriël Metsustraat 8, 1071 EA Amsterdam, Netherlands
It has been a decade since the major museums on the Museumplein—a grassy square connecting Amsterdam’s main art centers—have all been open at the same time. Here’s what to check out at the Van Gogh Museum. Sunflowers, The Bedroom, and The Potato Eaters are just a few of the masterpieces on display as part of the “Van Gogh at Work” exhibit.
Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Beyond tulips, windmills, and weed, Amsterdam’s global image is entwined with water. The Canal Ring (Grachtengordel) is made up of 165 fluid channels developed during the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age. In the ensuing years, the water network has supported maritime trade while evolving into a centerpiece of one of the world’s most recognizable urban landscapes. In 2013, on its 400th birthday, UNESCO added the Grachtengordel to its list of World Heritage sites. Today the Canal Ring is both a historic transportation system and a stunning backdrop for local festivals and celebrations. The canals, notably Prinsengracht, are packed with partygoers on annual festivals like King’s Day (formerly Queen’s Day), in April, as well as Gay Pride and Grachtenfestival in August. Canal cruises offer an excellent introduction to city sights and are a great way to see Amsterdam.
Singel, 1012 XG Amsterdam, Netherlands
Since 1862, fresh flowers and plants have arrived by barge from the Dutch countryside to Amsterdam. While this assemblage of flora still shows up daily, it comes by van, not boat, to the Bloemenmarkt, the world’s only floating flower market. Here, you can browse 15 fragrant stalls on houseboats permanently moored on the Singel. Now the best-known flower market in Holland, this colorful attraction is packed with tourists on sunny weekends. Still, it’s a great place to pick up Dutch tulip bulbs in a plethora of shades and varieties, as well as many other types of bulbs, seeds, cut blooms, and houseplants. Ship a bag of bulbs home, or grab a souvenir at one of several shops hawking T-shirts, mugs, clogs, Dutch cheese, and other fun and inexpensive gifts.
Herengracht 386, 1016 CJ Amsterdam, Netherlands
During Holland’s Golden Age, when spice trade with Asia and North Africa was booming, wealthy merchants built mansions along the expanding canal ring that became Amsterdam. Today the fashionable homes have been reincarnated as upscale offices, hotels and museums. With their striking gables and ornate gargoyles, the mansions create an odd, tilting landscape that was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2010. Since space was at a premium, the structures are long and narrow, with roof-high hooks that are still used to raise and lower furniture. Most have two entrances—one for the wealthy above ground, another for servants and tradespeople, who entered below—as well as beautiful rear gardens. The Canal House Museum (Het Grachtenhuis) reveals secrets of Holland in its heyday through displays showcasing the Canal Ring expansion. Other museums dedicated to preserving the heritage of 17th century canal-side living include Museum van Loon, once home to the co-founder of the Dutch East Indian Company, with a first floor piano and original coach house. There’s also Museum Geelvinck, owned by one of Amsterdam’s wealthiest families in the 17th century, featuring exhibits that reveal how other cultures touched Amsterdam. In addition, there are Sunday concerts at 16:45. To really experience canal-side living, book a room at the glam, antique-filled Canal House Hotel. Or stay at the acclaimed Pulitzer Hotel, an amalgam of 25 historic canal homes outfitted with modern amenities.
Museumstraat 1, 1071 XX Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam’s State Museum reopened in 2013 after a decade of renovations, and it is oh so worth a visit! Weave your way through the museum’s vast assemblage of historic art (there are over 8,000 pieces!) to check out works from Dutch masters such as Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Vermeer in person. The collection’s best-known and most prominently displayed piece is Rembrandt’s Night Watch, but visitors can find everything from sculptures to artifacts from both the Netherlands and Dutch-colonial territories around the world. Opt for the multimedia tour for a special surprise.
Westermarkt 20, 1016 GV Amsterdam, Netherlands
One powerful and emotional experience in Amsterdam that shouldn’t be missed is a visit to the Anne Frank House. This home, where Anne Frank wrote in her diary while she, her family, and four others hid from the Nazis during World War II, has been preserved as a historic site. Today it also features a museum with artifacts and exhibits about her diary and what happened to her—she and her loved ones were ultimately betrayed and captured—as well as the larger worldwide context in which her brief life took place.
Dam, 1012 JS Amsterdam, Netherlands
The central hub of downtown Amsterdam is Dam Square, and it’s been at the heart of the city’s history since the 13th century. Today, the open-air public space is ringed by shops and restaurants and packed with people, including street performers and tourists en route to nearby attractions like the Royal Palace, the National Monument, and the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), where you can catch a horse-drawn-carriage tour of the city.
1071 Amsterdam, Netherlands
Beloved by locals and popular with tourists, the Vondelpark is a 120-acre oasis of green in buzzing Amsterdam, southeast of the Leidseplein. Opened in 1865 as the Nieuwe Park, it was later renamed after 17th-century Dutch playwright Joost van den Vondel. In the 1960s, Vondelpark was a magnet for peace-loving “flower children.” In the ensuing half-century, it has evolved into a symbol for a place where everything is possible and (almost) everything is allowed. The park hums with activity in summer, when residents converge to enjoy Amsterdam‘s rare sunshine. Bring cheese, bread, wine, friends, and a few musical instruments to chill on the grass. Vondelpark is home to a skate-rental shop, an open-air theater, a playground, a bandstand, and a rose garden.
Oudezijds Achterburgwal, 1012 Amsterdam, Netherlands
It’s one of Amsterdam’s prettiest districts, where swans glide on tree-shrouded canals and gabled mansions recall Holland’s Golden Age: de Wallen, better known as the Red Light District (RLD). Since 2000, prostitutes have plied their trade here as legal taxpayers, drawing tourists who come to buy, gawk, giggle, and window-shop, Amsterdam-style. While the number of windows has declined since 2008, when the city launched an initiative to replace 50% of them with chic boutiques over the next decade, the area still draws packs of mates on holiday, couples strolling arm-in-arm, giggling hen groups and busloads of camera-toting Japanese tourists. Whoa to the shutterbug who snaps a pic of one of the ladies; it’s strictly verboten and could cost the clueless photographer a camera. In addition to seductive girls flaunting their natural assets in eye-popping, barely-there outfits, the RLD’s cobbled streets are lined with peep shows, adult toy shops, and naughty cinemas. Watch live sex onstage at Casa Rosso or Moulin Rouge, or opt for a budget version in booths offering two minutes of live erotica for €2. Other popular hangouts include the Drunken Sailor and Banana Bar, where half-naked girls indulge in such tricks as writing postcards without using their hands. However you enjoy your time in the RLD, watch your belongings. While the area is heavily patrolled by police, bodyguards, and mounted video cameras, pickpockets and hard-up junkies abound, waiting to catch you unaware.
39-A Oudezijds Achterburgwal
In a city that prides itself on its reputation as Europe’s Sodom and Gomorrah, Koningsdag (King’s Day) is the one day of the year when everyone gets f*cked-up. It’s when Dutchies honor their monarch by parading down canals in festooned boats, dancing in streets and getting smashed to techno-tunes blasting from disco stages. With King Willem’s 2013 coronation, Koningsdag will be celebrated on April 26, 2014—a day earlier than future years because the new king’s birthday falls on a Sunday. Koningsnacht (King’s Night) will be celebrated on April 25, 2014. Join party-goers on Warmoesstraat, gyrating to pulsating street bands. Belly up to the bar at Stones and admire the barristers over pints of Heineken. Don’t get too f*cked up if you want to get a jump start at the next morning’s Vrijmarkt (free market), when all of Amsterdam turns into a giant garage sale. Would you part with €1 to guess a fat lady’s weight? Or let a child serenade you in Vondelpark? Or throw an egg in a stranger’s face? Have a go on Koningsdag, when entrepreneurs of all ages trade old treasures and new talents for cash. Jostle for a spot on Prinsengracht to watch buff gays in skimpy attire and beer-swilling locals on decorated boats. On Rokin, breathe in the aroma of grilled kebobs and marijuana smoke. Hold on to your hat as you spin on an aerial swing at the Dam Square carnival. However you spend Koningsdag, it’s easy to friends wandering the streets, and poking into bars and coffeeshops until dawn.
1 IJpromenade
Step inside the Eye Film Institute to discover an homage to international cinema replete with interactive displays and perched like an ivory spaceship ready for launch on the northern bank of the IJ River. The striking facility, accessible via a free ferry from the main train station, houses four movie-screening rooms, a museum shop, and an exhibit space showcasing the works of masters like Fellini and Kubrick. Topping the contemporary structure is the eye-popping Eye Bar-Restaurant, where you can wash down a plate of bitterballen with beer on tap while musing about cinematography. On sunny days, a spacious terrace beckons.
Reguliersbreestraat 26-34, 1017 CN Amsterdam, Netherlands
With its flamboyant facade, art deco foyer, and main hall outfitted with love seats and private boxes, the Pathé Tuschinski Cinema makes going to the movies a romantic affair. Framed by ornate twin towers, the historic building between the Munttoren (mint tower) and Rembrandtplein was constructed by Polish immigrant Abraham Tuschinski, a Jewish tailor who capitalized on a new craze. The imposing 1,200-seat theater mixes art deco elements with Dutch Amsterdam School style, art nouveau, and Tuschinski’s own taste. Today, Hollywood blockbusters are screened in the theater, now operated by Pathé. In the main hall, snuggle up in love seats or order wine and a meal from a private box. On red-carpet-premiere nights, watch celebs arrive in stretch limos and preen for the paparazzi to the delight of local filmgoers.
Dam, 1012 JS Amsterdam, Netherlands
The central hub of downtown Amsterdam is Dam Square, and it’s been at the heart of the city’s history since the 13th century. Today, the open-air public space is ringed by shops and restaurants and packed with people, including street performers and tourists en route to nearby attractions like the Royal Palace, the National Monument, and the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), where you can catch a horse-drawn-carriage tour of the city.
De Wallen, Amsterdam, Netherlands
The red-light district in Amsterdam is a very busy place with an odd mix of life in one small neighborhood. In a peculiar way it’s very beautiful—there’s so much happening both visually and mentally it takes a bit to process it all as you wander through the rouge-colored alleys. It’s hard to look at the scene without thinking “What if…” And: “How do women end up here? Do they want to be here? In another life, could I be standing in their place?” There’s so much to think about while walking through this area. Even stranger perhaps is that this area is such a major tourist attraction. If you’re looking for seedy, scary alleys, you won’t find them here. But you will see tour groups, families, restaurants, and sex shops.
30 Begijnhof
Escape the bustle of the city by ducking into the quiet courtyard garden of Begijnhof. Located just a few minutes on foot from the Koningsplein and the Singel canal, this tranquil oasis dates back at least as far as the 14th century. Look among the row houses around the perimeter to find the city’s oldest home, the Houten Huys, built in 1420. And within the courtyard is the Engelse Kerk, or English Church, first constructed in 1390 and refurbished after a fire 100 years later.
Herengracht 573, 1017 CD Amsterdam, Netherlands
This collection of 5,000-plus bags, purses, and accessories—the largest in the world—spans more than 500 years, from a practical 16th-century goatskin money pouch to a whimsical shoe-shaped purse by contemporary Dutch footwear designer Jan Jansen. Displayed beautifully throughout a grand 17th-century canal house and arranged by time period, the collection includes rare French silk bridal bags from the 1800s, delicate art deco beaded purses, chic 1970s Lucite clutches, and contemporary handbags by luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Mulberry, Gucci, and Prada. Items owned by the rich and famous are here as well: a Versace evening bag Madonna carried at the Evita premiere; the cat-shaped “Socks” clutch that Judith Leiber designed for Hillary Clinton; and Margaret Thatcher’s iconic gray Asprey handbag, which she referred to as her “weapon.” Don’t miss the café’s renowned afternoon tea, with sweet and savory bites served in the museum’s period rooms.
Overhoeksplein 5, 1031 KS Amsterdam, Netherlands
One of the hippest neighborhoods in the city is Amsterdam-Noord, situated directly across the IJ River from the main train station. Here, an iconic 1970s office high-rise has been recently revamped and rebranded as A’DAM, an acronym for Amsterdam Dance and Music. Along with music-themed businesses, restaurants, and an underground nightclub, the tower boasts the rooftop Lookout, an open-air observation deck 20 stories up that offers panoramic views of the historic city center, the bustling port to the west, and the Dutch landscape beyond. Daredevils line up for Over the Edge, a huge metal contraption that lets you literally swing out over the edge of the building. Entrance to the Lookout is €12.50 (about $15) and a ride on the swing is €5 (about $6).
Jodenbreestraat 4, 1011 NK Amsterdam, Netherlands
Rembrandt purchased this sizable former merchant’s house in 1639, when he was at the peak of his fame as a portraitist of the city’s elite. He lived, painted, and taught in the multistory building for nearly 20 years, and on the topmost floor—the site of his studio and workshop—crafted what is considered his masterpiece, the Night Watch. The home’s interior is not original but rather a faithful re-creation, based upon a room-by-room inventory conducted after the artist declared bankruptcy in 1656 and was eventually forced to leave. Be sure to catch the free daily paint-preparation and etching demonstrations; the former is particularly interesting to understand how difficult—and expensive—it was to acquire and process paint in that era. Though there are no Rembrandt paintings at this museum, you will find a large number of his superb etchings on view in the ground-floor exhibition space.
17 Gravenstraat
At 600 years old, this is Amsterdam’s “new” church—the city’s Oude Kerk, or Old Church, dates back to the 1200s. Located next to the Royal Palace on Dam Square, this grand Gothic building is no longer a place of worship but a venue for temporary art, photography, history, and cultural exhibitions. It’s also the site for royal marriages and inaugurations. The richly decorated interior, fully restored after a devastating fire in 1645, features an ornate altar with a gleaming brass choir screen, stained-glass windows dating from the mid-17th century, and the largest pipe organ in the Netherlands.
Pazzanistraat 33, 1014 DB Amsterdam, Netherlands
This sprawling 19th-century former gasworks complex west of the Canal Ring was a polluted site for decades after its closing in the mid-1960s. It was cleaned up and reopened in 2003 as a park, and its architecturally significant red-brick buildings were turned into cultural venues, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and shops. The Gashouder, a massive circular structure measuring more than 27,000 square feet, hosts mainly techno parties, while the nearby North Sea Jazz Club is an intimate space for live jazz performances. You’ll also find TonTon Club, a restaurant and arcade with video games, air hockey, and table tennis; Pacific Parc, a café with live rock music and DJs; and a three-screen art-house cinema.
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