Beyond knowing that I would probably get lost at least once among the canals (or, who are we kidding…probably four times) 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. There are lots of fun things to do in Amsterdam, and I fit in as many as possible in my time there both in the city center and beyond.
Things to do in Amsterdam
Explore the Jordaan
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 Amsterdam. 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 Het 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.
See the city’s oldest building
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. For hundreds of years, it functioned as a Roman Catholic and then a Calvinist church. 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 and one of the top Amsterdam sites for lovers of culture. 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.
Eat your way through Amsterdam
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.
Walk through the Red Light District
The Red Light District is one of the most curious areas of the city and one of the top Amsterdam attractions. 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.
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 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.
Experience the uniqueness of MOCO
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 I loved every minute of my 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.
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.
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.
Visit the Museum of Bags and Purses
The Museum of Bags and Purses provides a look at the history of bags over the last 500 years. With more than 5000 items in its collection, it’s hard to imagine there’s anything the museum doesn’t have.
A walk through the museum traces the history of design and shows how something as simple as the handbag has changed along with people’s needs over time. There’s everything from a men’s 16th-century handbag to a purse that’s actually a working phone. Featuring antique items, designer purses, and some pieces that are nearly unrecognizable as handbags, the collection is a look at the highly functional and the fashion-forward.
Set in a canal house that dates from 1666, the Museum of Bags and Purses makes the most of its location by incorporating a tea room on the upper floor. Finishing your visit with a warm scone, finger sandwiches, and a glass of bubbly while overlooking the canal makes a visit here one of the must do things in Amsterdam.
Sample the options at Foodhallen
From Bordeaux to Rotterdam, I love visiting food halls. They’re a great way to sample local ingredients and to visit lots of restaurants under one roof. That’s why visiting Foodhallen was on my list of top 10 things to do in Amsterdam.
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). I enjoyed the live music and the local crowd–while everyone here speaks English, it doesn’t feel touristy.
Find the hidden courtyard
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 and makes it one of the interesting sites to see in Amsterdam 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 Amsterdam 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.
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 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.
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. 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 houseboats parked against the banks. It’s all free to see and one of the highlights of Amsterdam sightseeing.
See a hidden church
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.
Have a pint at the windmill 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.
See the Dutch art masterpieces
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, recently renovated through a 10-year project, 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.
Visit 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.
Explore the culture of Westergasfabriek
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 denfunct 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 my visit, I 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. I 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 a 400-year-old garden
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 I did. The glass-enclosed conservatory surrounded by old sycamore trees make you feel like you’re in the middle of a garden.
Discover the 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 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.
Pay tribute at the 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 in Amsterdam 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.
Take the ferry to NDSM
NDSM is one of the most unusual areas in Amsterdam. A neighborhood in Amsterdam North, it’s an edgy arts community with a lot of unexpected features features like an abandoned submarine, rusting trams, cafes made from greenhouses, and the world’s largest street art/graffiti museum, which is currently under construction.
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. I was drawn 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, where I had dinner. There are also unusual hotels like the BOTEL (you guessed it—it’s in a boat) and the Faralda NDSM Crane Hotel (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.
See what’s on at Nieuwe Kerk
On Dam Square, this 15th-century church (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, Nieuwe Kerk 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 I 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 Amsterdam’s most famous cookie
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 on my Amsterdam trip. 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.
Day Trips From Amsterdam
Head to Haarlem
I 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 from central Amsterdam, making it a great place for a day trip.
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. My favorite spot was DeDAKKAS, a rooftop bar with great views over the city.
Chase windmills in 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.
Wander through the flower fields
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 in Amsterdam
NH Collection Amsterdam Doelen — Five-star accommodations in the heart of the city. This luxury hotel in a 17th-century building has a restaurant and bar and on-site valet parking. Guests rave about the breakfast.
The Dylan — Boutique hotel with unparalleled service right on the Keizersgracht canal. The Dylan has 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 beautiful canal house near the train station. Guests love the comfortable beds and welcoming hosts.
XO Hotel Couture — Comfortable, budget-friendly hotel on the tram line 15 minutes from the center, which passes most of the major sites in Amsterdam. Staff is helpful, and the XO offers 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 of the things to do in Amsterdam are our own. Note: Some links may be affiliate links, which means Travel Addicts may earn a small commission if you buy something–-all at no additional cost to you.