13 Must-Do Experiences 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
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. Opened in 1888, the regal music venue is renowned for acoustics showcased in some 650 annual concerts, many starring The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. If an evening program is beyond your means, opt for a free lunch concert, at noon on Wednesdays. It’s first come, first served, so arrive early to insure getting in. As the cultural hub of the city, Museumplein offers a plethora of attractions for art, music and theater lovers. For young visitors, there’s a skateboard park and wading pool that becomes an ice rink in winter. Fashionistas will want to stroll down nearby P.C. Hooftstraat, Pieter Cornelisz or Van Baerlestraat, where some of the world’s most chic couture houses proffer everything from diamonds to Valentino frocks and Gucci handbags. Don’t forget your plastic!
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.
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.
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.
Kerkstraat 52, 1017 GM Amsterdam, Netherlands
While Europe has many gay-friendly places, Amsterdam is, by many accounts, its most gay-friendly city. With dozens of LGBT bars, restaurants, shops, nightclubs and even a few saunas and hotels catering to gays, the Dutch capital is heaven for any non-heterosexual who’s ever lived in a repressive culture. In Amsterdam, Gay Pride is celebrated the first weekend in August with buff bods floating down the Prinsengracht on festooned watercraft, Drag Queen Olympics and a plethora of street parties. Any day of the year, you can walk down Reguliersdwarsstraat and see queens lunching al fresco or strolling arm-in-arm. Canals, windmills and coffeeshops bring some to the Dutch capital, but a bigger draw for others is the city’s tolerance for behaviors that don’t harm others. Like marrying your boyfriend. Or girlfriend. The Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize gay unions 12 years ago when mayor Job Cohen married the first same-sex couple on April 1, 2001. Four gay couples tied the knot that night; 382 followed that month. Find more information about Gay Amsterdam, including accommodations, restaurants, clubs, events and an interactive online map, at www.gayamsterdam.com.
Herengracht 427, 1017 BR Amsterdam, Netherlands
Exploring Amsterdam aboard a canal boat is an iconic way to see the sights, with myriad tours and cruises plying the 65 miles of waterways that lattice the city. From many spots you can join simple, hour-long cruises with narrators describing points of interest, as well as “hop on, hop off” cruises that make for a fun alternative to bikes or public transport. And in the evenings, a dinner or cocktail cruise can be a romantic way to take in the scenery.
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.
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