Amsterdam is a glorious city full of markets, museums, and great restaurants and bars. Its majestic canals are lined with 17th-century houses and buildings full of history. While the canal ring is home to some of the most popular attractions, new urban parks and developments outside the historic core mean there are fun, less-crowded places to explore, too. We’ve had the good fortune to visit several times and love uncovering some of the city’s best features. Here’s a look at some of our favorite things to do in Amsterdam.
- Visit Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum
- Relax in Vondelpark
- Explore the Jordaan neighborhood
- Visit Oude Kerk
- Try Dutch food
- Walk through the Red Light District
- Shop at the markets
- Visit MOCO Museum
- Rent a bike
- See the view from A’DAM Tower
- Eat at Foodhallen
- Find Begijnhof
- Try genever
- Shop in the Nine Streets
- Wander the canal ring
- See Our Lord in the Attic
- Visit Zaanse Schans
- Have a pint at IJ Brewery
- Visit Anne Frank House
- See the Royal Palace
- Take a canal cruise
- Have the Heineken Experience
- Explore Westergasfabriek
- Visit Hortus Botanicus
- Discover House of Bols
- Learn about history at the Dutch Resistance Museum
- Take the ferry to NDSM
- Visit Nieuwe Kerk
- Try Van Stapele cookies
- Explore Haarlem
- See the tulips of Keukenhof
Visit Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam is home to two of the most renowned museums in Europe that are both top things to see in Amsterdam–the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. The 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 glorifies the works of hometown artist (and 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.
Relax in Vondelpark
The largest green space in the city, the Vondelpark is where to go in Amsterdam for picnicking, strolling, and people watching when the weather is nice. Its fountains and sculptures make it picture perfect, and there’s almost always something going on there.
Explore the Jordaan neighborhood
The most well-known neighborhood in the city, the Jordaan is one of the top places to see in Amsterdam. Built in the 17th century, it was long the home of working class immigrants, and its buildings maintain much of their historic character thanks to careful renovation and preservation efforts.
In recent years, the Jordaan has become possibly the trendiest area of the city. It’s filled with galleries, eclectic shops, restaurants, and bars making some of the best cocktails I’ve had in Europe. Though many of the tenants have changed, you can still get a sense of Amsterdam’s history at places like Cafe Papeneiland, a brown cafe that dates from 1642 (and, incidentally, serves some killer Dutch apple pie).
Get lost in the winding streets of the Jordaan, marvel at the centuries-old buildings, and don’t miss some of the city’s best courtyard gardens.
Visit Oude Kerk
There are a few unexpected things about Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest building. First, the structure (which is literally called “old church”), is in the Red Light District. Second, despite its history and appearance, it’s no longer a church.
Oude Kerk was first consecrated around 1305. The original church of Medieval Amsterdam, it was gutted in a series of clashes following the Reformation in Amsterdam. As a result, much of the art and magnificence of the interior was lost, although there is still a remarkable organ, stained glass, and lots of gravestones covering the floor.
Oude Kerk underwent a 58-year renovation, reopening as an art venue. There is a continual rotation of exhibits such as photography collections and installations. There are also regular performances and workshops on a variety of different topics, all of which benefit from their inclusion in this unique space.
Try Dutch food
There are so many amazing things to eat in Amsterdam. There are more typical items like cheese and bitterballen 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. 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. Trying the rijsttafel (“rice table”)—a meal of 15+ small dishes of everything from eggrolls to satay–is a must do in Amsterdam.
Interested in trying different Dutch foods? Check out the delicious food tour options.
Walk through the Red Light District
The 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.
Shop at 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.
We 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 Gogh 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 and cars, which always make me smile.
Visit MOCO Museum
On a spot on Museumplein is the Modern Contemporary Museum known as the MOCO Museum. As the name indicates, the art showcased in this turn-of-the-century townhouse is modern, focusing on the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, and my personal favorites like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. Their work, which is part of the permanent collection, is on the museum’s top floor.
The rest of the space in MOCO is dedicated to temporary exhibits from a changing list of artists. Roy Lichtenstein’s bright, cartoon-like works have been shown here alongside large exhibits featuring the pieces (some chiseled from walls) of the renowned street artist and political activist Banksy. Nothing is off-limits with interactive pieces and unique installations, and we loved every minute of our visit.
Outside, you can see–and even climb on–a group of unusual sculptures. It’s an Instagrammer’s dream.
Like the nearby museums, MOCO is super popular. But, unlike them, it is fairly small, to it’s not unusual for there to be a wait. Consider reserving tickets online ahead of time if the MOCO is on your Amsterdam to do list. If you reserve, you even get a small discount.
Rent a bike
Like Copenhagen or Montreal, 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.
See the view from A’DAM Tower
The best view of Amsterdam is unquestionably from the top of A’DAM Tower, a 22-story building in the city’s northern section. The observation point offers a panoramic view over the brilliant canals, historic houses, and other gorgeous spots.
The main feature of A’DAM Tower is Over the Edge, Europe’s highest swing, which sends visitors soaring 325 feet above the ground. For people (like us) who aren’t quite as daring, one of the must do things in Amsterdam is to visit the Tower’s restaurants and skybar. At MA’DAM and the rotating Moon restaurant, you can take in the great view with a cocktail in hand and none of the anxiety of the swing.
Eat at Foodhallen
Foodhallen has 21 different stands where visitors can try anything from Dutch bitterballen to dim sum, sushi, or Basque pintxos. There are also four bars, so you’ll find your beverage of choice, whether it’s craft beer or a fancy gin & tonic (my choice for the evening). We enjoyed the live music and the local crowd–while everyone here speaks English, it doesn’t feel touristy.
The Netherlands is full of hidden courtyards surrounded by homes, and the Begijnhof in central Amsterdam is a unique example. These hofjes were most often almshouses where poor or elderly single women lived, and they served as a form of social security as far back at the Middle Ages. From Haarlem to Gouda, I’ve had the chance to peek inside several of them.
What sets the Begijnhof apart from other hofjes is that it’s easily accessible to the public (others are often closed), and it was originally built as a beguinage–a home for the religious community of the beguines. The beguines were religious women who did not take vows, so they weren’t nuns, but their communities feel similar to convents.
The buildings at the Begijnhof include typical town houses, many dating to the 16th century. There are also two churches that are open for visiting. I was lucky to catch an organ concert at one of them, so check the schedule for special events.
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 too 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.
Shop in the Nine Streets
An enclave in the western part of the Canal Ring, the Nine Streets (De Negen Straatjes) is one of the best places for shopping in Amsterdam. There are lots of designer boutiques, vintage and quirky shops, and antique stores with unique finds.
If you need a break from the shopping, check out the brunch items and crazy milkshakes at Ree7 or stop for coffee at Screaming Beans.
Wander the canal ring
Crisscrossed by bridges, 165 canals encircle the city. Together, they provide a beautiful and unique landscape to get lost in.
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 houseboats parked against the banks.
See Our Lord in the Attic
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.
Our Lord in the Attic was born out of necessity. Amsterdam had long been Roman Catholic, but the Reformation changed that, making it so that Catholics could no longer practice their religion openly. But a church that didn’t look like a church was just fine. The presence of a shop downstairs and typical bedrooms and kitchen helped keep up appearances.
Visitors can see the church as it was about 300 years ago, complete with its beautiful Baroque altar and unexpected color scheme. If you’re looking for something unique to see in Amsterdam, this is it.
Visit Zaanse Schans
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 trip to windmill-filled 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 things.
Have a pint at IJ Brewery
An early entrant to the craft brewery industry in the Netherlands, Brouwerij ‘t IJ (the IJ Brewery) started in 1985. At the time, most beer came from larger producers like Heineken and Amstel, so musician Kasper Peterson felt Amsterdam needed something different. He set up his Belgian-style brewery next to the De Gooyer windmill.
Brouwerij ‘t IJ brews a selection of about a dozen beers with rotating specials and seasonal features. All of their beer is certified organic. You can join in on one of their guided tours and tastings or grab a spot inside or on their terrace to enjoy a cold one.
Visit Anne Frank House
Anne Frank’s story is probably the most familiar personal tale to result from the horrors of the Holocaust. Just 13 years old when her family went into hiding above her father’s office, her diary shows a young girl living through unimaginable circumstances.
In this canal house now turned into the Anne Frank House museum, Anne lived for two years with seven others all hoping to escape capture by the Nazis during World War II. Exhibits take visitors through the trajectory of the war and the circumstances of the Franks and those who helped hide them until the annex was ultimately discovered and its residents were deported to Auschwitz. There is also an in-depth discussion of how Anne’s writing has influenced the world in the decades since her death.
Lines can be long, but that’s because what’s inside is definitely worth seeing.
See the Royal Palace
Right on Dam Square stands the Royal Palace Amsterdam. Dating from the 1600s, it was the city’s town hall for 150 years but became a royal palace in 1806 when King Louis Napoleon moved in.
Though it lacks the space and sprawling gardens of other European palaces like France’s Versailles and Vienna’s Schonbrunn, the interior of the Royal Palace is suitably marble-filled and adorned with art and tapestries. Don’t miss the central hall with its giant world maps on the floor and Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders.
The Palace is still used for formal events like receiving heads of state and awards ceremonies but is otherwise open to the public and often has special exhibits. A free audio guide is included in admission.
Take a canal cruise
The canals themselves are some of the best attractions in Amsterdam. A 75-minute canal cruise is a great way to see the features that the city is most known for. It’s also the perfect way to give your feet a break after a day of sightseeing. The cruises leave from a few select points in the city, so find the nearest one and hop on.
Have the Heineken Experience
Heineken has been a part of Amsterdam for nearly 160 years. Founded in 1864, it is one of the top three breweries worldwide. Its former 19th-century brewery facility welcomes beer lovers to learn about its history—and taste its famous pilsner—at the Heineken Experience.
Across four floors, visitors learn about the history of Heineken and how it is made and marketed through engaging, multimedia exhibits. The visit ends with a visit to the Best ’Dam Bar and a lesson in how to properly taste the beer.
One of the interesting places to visit in Amsterdam outside the city center is Westergasfabriek. Located in Amsterdam West, Westergasfabriek is a culture park in what was once the city’s gasworks complex.
The beautiful red brick buildings of the 19th-century gasworks company are designated as national monuments. But instead of merely taking up space as historic buildings of a defunct company, they have been converted into bars, cafes, movie theaters, and other places for people to enjoy. In the space around the buildings, there are regular festivals and outdoor markets.
On our visit, we stopped into Troost brewery, which has enough space in Westergasfabriek (their other location is in De Pijp) to brew their own beer on-site and to host regular live music nights. We also stopped into the wine bar and the unique Ketelhuis Cinema. The movie theater–run largely by volunteers–focuses on Dutch cinema as well as international art house films. With the full restaurant and bar, it’s the perfect place to spend an evening.
Visit Hortus Botanicus
In the Plantage district, the Hortus Botanicus is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. It was founded in 1638 for practical purposes, serving as a herb garden for doctors and pharmacies. But, now, its greenhouses and plants are a source of enjoyment for the thousands of visitors who come each year.
The Hortus Botanicus has over 6,000 tropical and indigenous trees and plants around the grounds, and you can see hundreds of butterflies in the Butterfly Greenhouse. Enjoy lunch at the cafe in The Orangery or head to the De Plantage restaurant a block away like we did. The glass-enclosed conservatory surrounded by old sycamore trees makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a garden.
Discover House of Bols
In 1575, Lucas Bols founded his eponymous distilled spirits brand. This interactive cocktail museum traces the history of the Bols company and educates visitors about genever, the traditional spirit of the Netherlands.
The self-guided tour at the House of Bols will walk you through all the ingredients and the distillation process. You can also try to identify all the flavors that go into the 42 products Bols makes. And like all good cocktail and beer museums, the last stop is the bar, which features cocktails by the expert mixologists.
Learn about history at the Dutch Resistance Museum
Near the Hortus Botanicus, the Dutch Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum) offers a look at how regular Dutch citizens responded to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Throughout the museum, there are questions that make visitors ask themselves what they would do under similar circumstances.
Through photos, documents, and film clips, visitors see how the resistance movement formed and learn stories of those who took subversive action and tried to protect their Jewish neighbors.
Take the ferry to NDSM
NDSM is one of the most unusual areas in the city. A neighborhood in Amsterdam North, it’s an arts community with a lot of unexpected features like an abandoned submarine, rusting trams, cafes made from greenhouses, and the world’s largest street art/graffiti museum.
The land was previously owned by a shipping building company, which explains its industrial nature, and a lot of visitors see that as part of its charm. We were drawn in by the chance to hang out on the beach right on the banks of the IJ River.
NDSM has a handful of restaurants, including Pllek and Kantine IJ. There are also unusual hotels like the BOTEL (you guessed it—it’s in a boat) and the Crane Hotel Faralda (yes, it’s actually in a crane).
There’s lots of room to hang out here, sprawl on the beach, and explore the area. It’s frequently the site of festivals and performances and is a curious place to walk around for a few hours.
Visit Nieuwe Kerk
On Dam Square, Nieuwe Kerk (literally “new church”) was built to accommodate the group of local worshipers which had become too large for everyone to attend Oude Kerk.
In its long history, this 15th-century church has survived the ravages of the Reformation, numerous fires, and lots of renovations. While it stills plays an important role for the Dutch royal family as the site of investitures and weddings, it no longer functions as a church.
Like Oude Kerk, Nieuwe Kerk is home to temporary exhibits, performances, and cultural events. The in-depth exhibition we saw included sculptures and other artifacts from ancient Rome—a great way to re-purpose the historic space in the heart of the city.
Try Van Stapele cookies
I’m a little bit of a chocoholic, which is why I had to make a beeline for the famous cookie at Van Stapele Koekmakerij. The bakery only makes one kind of cookie–Valrhona chocolate cookie dough with a white chocolate filling–but they do it to perfection. If you time it just right, you may even catch them warm straight from the oven.
The Van Stapele chocolate cookies are so popular that they sell out long before the close of business. To guarantee you get one, head to the bakery at Heisteeg 4 (near Spui) early, or call ahead to reserve some. It’s worth it.
We absolutely love Amsterdam, but it’s a really popular place to visit, which means it can get crowded, especially in high season. Haarlem is an equally beautiful–but somewhat less visited–city only 20 minutes away, making it a great place for a day trip from Amsterdam.
Haarlem is full of striking architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries, fascinating art and natural history museums, and even a gorgeous 600-year-old cathedral where Mozart played. Our favorite spot is DeDAKKAS, a rooftop bar with great views over the city.
See the tulips of Keukenhof
Less than an hour from Amsterdam, you’ll find one of the area’s top attractions–Keukenhof gardens. For eight weeks every spring, over 1 million visitors flock here to see the gorgeous tulips and other flowers that the Netherlands is famous for.
Across the 80 acres of Keukenhof, you’ll find 1600 varieties of flowers. There are displays, sculptures, hands-on exhibits, and lots and lots of brightly-colored flowers. The grounds are expertly managed so there are flowers and trees to see whether spring comes early or late. After you visit the gardens, rent a bicycle in the parking lot and explore the nearby fields.
Where to Stay
NH Collection Doelen — Five-star accommodations in a 17th-century building with a restaurant, bar, and on-site valet parking.
The Dylan — Boutique hotel on the Keizersgracht canal with a fitness center, massage service, and a garden with a terrace. The on-site restaurant has a Michelin star.
The Old Lady — Bed and breakfast in a canal house near the train station.
XO Hotel Couture — Comfortable, budget-friendly hotel offering the best mix of price and amenities that we’ve found.
Canal View B&B — Top-rated bed and breakfast on the Singel canal. Guests love the location, comfortable beds, and friendly service.
For some of these activities, we were the guests of IAmsterdam and Eating Amsterdam. All opinions are our own.