Beyond knowing that I would probably get lost at least once (or, who are we kidding…probably four times) among the canals and that there would be a vague marijuana odor occasionally, I really didn’t know what to expect from Amsterdam. And, in my experience, that’s when the best things happen. So, although I’d done my homework, I approached Amsterdam without any true expectations. What I found was a gorgeous city full of personality, history, and very good eats.
Here are 15 things to do in Amsterdam while getting lost among the canals.
Explore the Jordaan
This trendy neighborhood is filled with galleries, eclectic shops, restaurants, and bars making some of the best cocktails I’ve had in Europe. Get lost in the winding streets, explore some of the brown cafes, and don’t miss some of the city’s best courtyard gardens.
Visit the distinctive churches
Like most European cities, Amsterdam has its fair share of churches. But all the ones I saw on this visit came with a little bit of a twist.
There’s Oude Kerk (literally meaning “old church”), the original church of Medieval Amsterdam that was gutted by Protestants in the 16th century. As a result, there’s not too much to see inside, save a lovely organ, stained glass, and lots of gravestones in the floor–but there was a LGBT pride photography exhibit during my visit. Also, did I mention it’s in the middle of the Red Light district?
There’s also Nieuwe Kerk (“new church”), which was also stripped of most of its intricate furnishings in the 1500s. It is home to temporary exhibits as well. The in-depth exhibition I saw included sculpture and other artifacts from ancient Rome—a great way to repurpose the historic space in the heart of the city.
My favorite church by far was Our Lord in the Attic, a clandestine church that was quite literally hidden in the top three floors of a canal house. Dating from the 1660s, this Catholic church was more-or-less secret for 200 years. My visit here was one of my favorite things to do in Amsterdam, and Our Lord in the Attic is located just down the block from Oude Kerk.
Eat your way through the city
There are so many amazing things to eat in Amsterdam. There are more typical items like cheese and Dutch apple pie as well as unexpected treats like delicious silver-dollar-sized pancakes topped with butter, syrup, and powdered sugar.
If you like to dig into a place through its food, consider taking a food tour with a company like Eating Amsterdam. You’ll get to try a variety of delicious dishes while learning about the stories behind them and why they matter to the Dutch. No matter what, make room in your trip to stop for Indonesian food. The food of the former Dutch colony is popular and amazing. Try the rijsttafel (“rice table”)—a meal of 15+ small dishes of everything from eggrolls to satay.
Rent a bike
Amsterdam is a city of bikes. They’re everywhere. It’s easy to pick one up at any of the many rental locations around the city. Just know that many locals use their bikes for everything, so bike lanes can be crowded, and the riders—while courteous—zip around quite quickly.
Walk through the Red Light District
Amsterdam’s Red Light District is one of the most curious areas of the city. Prostitution is legal here. So, while the picture of scantily clad women beckoning customers from inside their storefronts may be unusual to visitors from other countries, it’s perfectly accepted and regulated here. A visit here is definitely one of the more atypical things to do in Amsterdam.
Visit the Royal Palace
Right on Dam Square stands the Royal Palace Amsterdam. Dating from the 1600s, it started out as the city’s town hall but became a royal place in 1806 when King Louis Napoleon moved in. Though it lacks the space and sprawling gardens of palaces like France’s Versailles and Vienna’s Schonbrunn, its interior is suitably marble-filled and adorned with art and tapestries.
Get local at a traditional tasting room
Stop into one of Amsterdam’s 300-year-old tasting rooms to try the traditional spirit of the Netherlands—genever. This clear spirit, flavored with juniper and spices, is a bit like gin but smoother. It’s traditionally drunk straight, so if that’s a bit strong for your taste, try one of the many liqueurs instead. Depending on which tasting room you choose, there may be a handful of seats, or it may be standing-room only. Either way, enjoy the atmosphere, chat with the locals, and think of all the history that’s happened there.
Wander the canals
Since it was practically inevitable for me thanks to my relatively, um, poor sense of direction, I definitely recommend wandering/getting lost among the canals as a favorite thing to do in Amsterdam. Criss-crossed by bridges, 165 canals encircle the city, providing a beautiful and unique landscape within Amsterdam. As you wander along the canals, you’ll find shops, galleries, museums, and 300-year-old cafés. Stop and watch the tourists and locals alike cruising around or just marvel at the unique houseboats parked against the banks.
Take a day trip
Like most places in Western Europe, Amsterdam not only has convenient public transportation within the city, but it’s easy to get out of the city for the day, too. Consider a 20-minute train ride to the nearby city of Haarlem to see its historic architecture and visit the market in the atmospheric town square. For something a little more windmill-filled, head to Zaanse Schans. A 40-minute bus ride will take you to this town/museum where you can climb windmills, have a cheese tasting, and learn about the history of the clog, among other (slightly touristy) things.
Browse the art museums
Amsterdam is home to two of the most renowned museums in Europe – the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. The recently-expanded Van Gogh Museum is home to over 700 of Van Gogh’s works as well as paintings by artists who influenced him, such as Monet and Gauguin. The Rijksmuseum, also recently renovated through a 10-year project, glorifies the works of hometown artist (and, um, Dutch Master) Rembrandt, along with other artists from the Dutch Golden Age. It is home to thousands of works of art and artifacts from the 15th to the present—the country’s largest collection.
But try the other museums, too
While the art museums are extremely popular, there are a number of other great museums in Amsterdam worth checking out. Most people will be familiar to some extent with the Anne Frank House. The unassuming canal house which once hid Anne’s family and four other Jews shows the confines in which the eight people lived for over two years as they hid from the Nazis during World War II. Lines can be long, but that’s because what’s inside is definitely worth seeing.
But not everything is quite so serious. The Museum of Bags and Purses provides a look at the history of bags over the last 500 years, featuring antique items, designer purses, and some unique items that are nearly unrecognizable as handbags. Plus, they serve a lovely tea. The House of Bols cocktail museum outlines the history of genever, the traditional spirit of the Netherlands. And like all good cocktail museums, the last stop is the bar, which features cocktails by their expert mixologists. Other unusual museums worth a visit include the Houseboat Museum and the tulip museum.
Take a canal cruise
A 75-minute canal cruise is a great way to see the feature that Amsterdam is most known for. It’s also the perfect way to give your feet a break after a day of sightseeing. A canal cruise is one of the quintessential things to do in Amsterdam.
Relax in Vondelpark
The largest green space in Amsterdam, the Vondelpark is the perfect place for a picnic, a stroll, and some people watching. Its fountains and sculptures make it picture perfect, and there’s almost always something going on there.
Take a photo at the Iamsterdam sign
Iamsterdam is the slogan of the Amsterdam visitor’s bureau, but it’s taken on a life of its own. The giant Iamsterdam sign just behind the Rijksmuseum is one of the most popular places in the city to take a photo. But it’s pretty crowded during most of the day, so you have to move quickly. There’s also a traveling version of the sign that moves around the city, which might be a little less crowded, depending on the location.
Fall in love with the markets
Visiting markets is always one of our favorite things to do in a city. Amsterdam’s most famous market is the Albert Cuypmarkt in the De Pijp neighborhood, which offers everything from food to fashion. In the Jordaan, the Noordermarkt is a farmer’s market on Saturdays and an antiques fair on Mondays. I also encountered the Waterlooplein flea market near the Rembrandt House, which features just about any kind of merchandise you could think of, including clothes weighed by the kilo. The city’s floating flower market, the Bloemenmarkt—actually in the Singel canal—is famous for both floating and being full of flowers.
My favorite surprise was finding the Museum Market, which happens near the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gosh museum on the third Sunday of the month. It features cool arts and crafts and some great food trucks, including a few converted VW buses in cars, which always make me smile.
For some of these activities, we were the guests of IAmsterdam and Eating Amsterdam. All opinions of the things to do in Amsterdam are our own. Note: Some links may be affiliate links, which means Travel Addicts may earn a few pennies if you buy something – all at no additional cost to you.