Unlike other major European capitals, Amsterdam does not blow away a visitor with monumental architecture and grand public places. Instead, it awes with its uniqueness of having been built on an expansive network of man-made canals and offers an intimate and peaceful atmosphere, supplemented by a wealth of museums and activities.
In addition to the summary below, you can also check out my Shoulda, Coulda, Wouldn’t essay on Amsterdam.
Exploring the central canal ring ♥♥♥ is something you would do whether I recommended it or not, no doubt. Prinsengracht is the outer boundary and one of the more picturesque of the water arteries, but Herengracht, Keizersgracht, Singel, or any number of smaller canals connecting them offer plenty of visual delights. You’d do well with a good tour book providing commentary for various buildings, but even without one, you can stroll pretty much aimlessly in any direction and be amazed at what you see.
One of my favorite activities in Amsterdam is renting a canal bike ♥♥♥ and pedaling around the canal ring. There are several canal-bike stations in different parts of the ring; the bike can be returned at any of them. If you are willing not to worry about returning it on time (you will pay a proportional overage from your security deposit), then you will be free to take any route along the canals and observe the marvelous architecture and delightful houseboats from an unparalleled vantage point.
Taking a cruise on the canals ♥ is generally a good idea. There are many companies that offer them, and I have a feeling that they all provide a similar experience. We cruised with a couple, departing from either in front of the Centraal Station or by the Westerkerk, and were reasonably happy with the quality of commentary and the boat itself. When there are multiple languages that need to be used for the audience, the order is likely to be Dutch, German, English, French, and the rest; you may actually be past the attraction by the time recognizable commentary rolls in; that could be a bit disorienting, but hardly something to negate the enjoyment. We also read somewhere that taking a cruise in the evening is especially enchanting, but that is in the eye of the beholder, as not every bridge is lighted, and few of the canal houses are either; a reasonably sunny day is better for appreciation.
Of the city squares, the central Dam ♥ square certainly aspires to be a grand public place but does not quite get there on the account of middling architecture that surrounds it. The Koninklijk Paleis ♥ is imposing if not exactly extraordinary; it offers an interesting audio tour that highlights the details of pre-royal management of the city; the spaces themselves are not as luxurious as one would expect from a royal palace.
Rembrandtplein ♥♥ is a lively oasis surrounded by cafés; its central square houses the monument to Rembrandt and an amazing representation of his famous Night Watch in statues.
There is a number of museums in the city that certainly warrant attention.
The expansive modern building of the Van Gogh Museum ♥♥ belies the compact chronological exhibition of the painter’s work, complemented by paintings of his contemporaries and a floor devoted to prints. The notes on many paintings go well beyond naming and dating them, providing an excellent narration of the master’s troubled life. This is probably the most impressive of all of Amsterdam’s museums; it is also pricey and can get crowded – advanced ticket purchase is highly recommended.
Rijksmuseum ♥♥ is a must for anyone appreciating classical painting, as it boasts a good collection of Dutch masters. It is also hopelessly overcrowded throughout the open hours in the section of the museum when one wants to linger the most; getting an unobstructed view of Rembrandt’s Night Watch is similar to viewing Mona Lisa in the Louvre – nigh impossible until the last few minutes before the closing. The rooms exhibiting Vermeer, van Ruisdael, and others are only marginally less crowded.
Rembrandtshuis ♥♥, where the dwelling of the great master has been meticulously recreated according to records and his own paintings, is a fascinating place to visit. Beyond a fine exhibition of etchings by Rembrandt and his pupils, there are not many of Rembrandt’s paintings on display, but that is hardly a shortcoming. The complimentary audioguide is very well composed.
Anne Frankhuis ♥ is obviously a somber place, and unfailingly moving, despite the fact that it is constructed literally around passages from the girl’s diary and contains very few actual exhibits of the hiding place (the absence of any furniture is a significant disappointment). Even the youngest visitors will be affected by the experience but expect a long line to get in – this is one of the most-visited places in Amsterdam. The number of people sharing spaces with you will also diminish your impression.
Other museums worth considering in Amsterdam are the National Maritime Museum, Stedelijk Museum (to be completely frank, I can only find time for modern art if there is absolutely nothing else for me to do, which is impossible in Amsterdam), Jewish History Museum, and Amsterdam City History Museum. The Portuguese Synagogue, like all Jewish temples anywhere, limits access according to holidays and weekends and remains a big miss in my itinerary.
To see a furnished canal house, head to Willet-Holthuysen Museum ♥. Its interiors date mainly from the 18th century, and you can imagine how a wealthy merchant family lived in that age. The main staircase, the dining room, and the bedroom are especially impressive, and the garden and the kitchen are perfectly delightful, although other rooms are also well presented. In addition, there is a large collection of porcelain and objets d’art on display.
Among smaller attractions is the Houseboat Museum ♥, which is simply a well-furnished houseboat, providing excellent insight into this unique Amsterdam phenomenon. You may have to wait for some time to get on – there is obviously a very limited space inside – but twenty minutes should be more than enough for viewing unless your child gets too much into coloring a houseboat picture in the kids’ corner. November through February the museum is open only on weekends.
There is also a cheese museum and a tulip museum (in the vicinity of Westerkerk), which could be mildly entertaining to some. In the former, the shop area offers over a dozen varieties of cheese for tasting ♥ – a free lunch if there ever was one.
The major churches of Amsterdam are mildly disappointing. They are relatively impressive on the exterior, but not too impressive once you step inside. The spaces are uplifting, as one would expect from any grand church, the main organs are huge, but the decorations are sparse, the stained glass windows are few and far between, and some an enlivened by slightly incongruous displays of modern art. Oude Kerk ♥ is just about worth the price of the ticket. Nieuwe Kerk offered a glimpse of its interior from the ticket lobby and I estimated that it was not worth proceeding further. Westerkerk is free to enter, but although it is the prettiest on the outside, it is probably the dullest on the inside. St Nicholas Church and a few others could help change that impression if explored.
You should make an effort, however, of climbing the Westerkerk Tower ♥♥. The narration given by your guide is not extensive but quite interesting, and the view from the high terrace is excellent. You have to be somewhat determined as well as lucky to get on. There are only six people allowed on each tour, once every half hour; advance reservations can be made on the same day in person – you will likely have to return later in the day for your allocated time.
Our Lord in the Attic ♥♥ is a different type of church. A relatively small place of worship contained within a couple of adjoining canal houses, it illustrates the period of history when Catholic and Protestant faiths were really at odds with each other. A good audio guide helps along an interesting visit.
Remarkable Bloemenmarkt ♥ is hard to miss and is worth a bit of perusing. The sheer variety of species of tulip bulbs on sale is astounding, but do not expect to see rows of blooming tulips – for that, you have to head out of the city.
The Red Light District ♥ is certainly another major attraction of the city. Especially late in the evening, there are huge crowds of hooting males on its streets (occasional female revelers are seemingly outnumbered 15-to-1). Sex shops and shows abound, with lingerie-clad prostitutes providing an obvious source of free amusement from their full-height windows. A significant portion of them appear visibly bored by the proceedings, which somewhat unexpectedly makes this “window-shopping” duller. If you are not interested in the activities available in this area, the stroll around the neighborhood can be viewed as an exhibition of the female form in its worldwide variety.
The largest park in the city, Vondelpark ♥♥, is a huge pleasant retreat, with meadows, ponds, biking, and walking paths, as well as a couple of restaurants and even a movie museum. There are children’s playgrounds and a fountain-like pool that little kids turn into a beach on hot days.
Bicycles are an essential part of the Dutch way of life, and no Amsterdam experience is complete without getting on a bike. There are several organized tours available, of which we used Mike’s Bike Tour ♥♥, which departs twice a day, 11 and 4, from in front of Rijksmuseum (the open-field side, not the canal-facing side). The 4-hour tour is not at all taxing, providing a good overview of the city and its environs, with stops at a cheese-making facility, a clog (wooden shoe) factory, a windmill, and a bar for drinks at the end.
You can also rent a bike ♥ and explore the city on your own. You do not need anything besides a credit card if you are renting from a central depot, such as Mike’s or Macbikes. There are many bike paths all over the city, and a cyclist always has a right of way over a motorist at unregulated intersections (I did not figure out how a pedestrian fits into the equation, but had to dodge bikers regularly while on foot). Still, regardless of how comfortable you are on a bicycle in general, the activity of biking in a busy city requires certain skills that you may not outright possess; I got into a few near-accidents with other bikers and did not get entirely comfortable the whole time.
Accommodation-wise, any location in Centrum will put you within walking distance of most of the points of interest. The extensive transport options make staying somewhere outside of the city center workable as well. Staying in a canal house or even a houseboat is certainly something to be considered for the uniqueness of the experience and the atmosphere.
In the “memorable stays” category, the “Close to Central Station” apartment (link) is a great choice for a couple or solo stay. The apartment is the owner’s home when not rented out and offers a full kitchen and all proper living amenities. The open-plan space is light and airy, all on the same level on the first floor (the first above ground, that is) accessible by a reasonable-width staircase. The bedroom area is in the back of the apartment, opening up to a balcony that overlooks a quiet courtyard. The location is at the edge of the central area, within walking distance of all main attractions and communication hubs. In a city that is as walkable – or bike-able if you’d like – as Amsterdam, one cannot ask for a better combination of being tucked away from the bustle and at the same time being close to everything than this apartment.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Amsterdam. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.
As a general note, it is possible to explore places within a reasonable radius of Amsterdam via bicycle. This pursuit requires not only a reasonable physical shape but also either a working GPS or a very detailed map. Although there are plenty of signposts directing cyclists, they are sometimes confusing and rarely point to specific sights. If you somehow end up navigating marker-to-marker, adopt the rule of not taking any turns unless you see a marker specifically instructing you to do so in order to continue to your destination.
A typical, if too tourist-oriented, Dutch village a dozen miles to the north of Amsterdam, Zaanse Schans ♥♥♥ gives you an excellent chance to explore working windmills. There are also several workshops and demonstrations (such as a quick primer on modern ways of making traditional wooden shoes called clogs) and a couple of small museums. You will rub shoulders with hundreds of tourists in some areas, but you will also discover peaceful and picturesque nooks to linger at.
The UNESCO World Heritage site Defence Line of Amsterdam consists of over 40 forts encircling the city. Unfortunately, practically all of them are either inaccessible to the public or open on a very limited schedule, which limits their appeal to the small group of hard-core WH chasers.
Thankfully, the towns of Muiden ♥ and Weesp ♥ – among the locations of these forts – are quite picturesque and may support a day trip composed around visiting them. In the former, you can spend a couple of hours at Muiderslot ♥♥, a well-preserved castle offering a couple of mildly curious self-guided routes as well as one fairly interesting 30-minute guided tour (narration is likely to be in Dutch only; there are English and other language booklets that give the same information, and my tour guide tried to engage me in English a few times; it’s a pity I could not understand her presentation in Dutch – she was very expressive). The grounds include a garden and a falconry.
The Netherlands is not a very big country. Using its excellent public transport links – or a car – you can visit practically all interesting locations in the country while being based in Amsterdam. A number of those destinations are covered in this article.