Things to Do in Amsterdam
Most famous for its streetside brothels, Amsterdam's Red Light District (De Wallen) also houses scenic canals, bustling restaurants, bars, and plenty of shopping. While this controversial neighborhood may not be for everyone, its winding cobblestone streets and narrow alleys evoke Amsterdam’s rich history and laid-back culture.
The bestselling book “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl” brought to life one of the greatest horrors of the 20th century in a compelling, personal way. In the true story, a young Jewish girl, her family, and some friends are forced into hiding in Amsterdam to escape the Nazis during World War II. The house that served as the Frank family’s hiding place for two years survived the war and is now a moving museum, with the primary site being the achterhuis (rear house), also known as the secret annex. Here the Franks sat in silence during the day and ate food that was secretly brought to them before being mysteriously betrayed and sent to Nazi concentration camps. Otto Frank, the only Frank who survived the war, published Anne’s now-famous diary in 1947.
Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is the largest and most visited art museum in the Netherlands. Its collection, which ranks among the world’s finest, includes nearly 8,000 pieces spread over 80 galleries. Some of the Rijksmuseum’s most revered works are 15th- to 19th-century paintings by Flemish and Dutch masters, including Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Frans Hals. In addition to the astounding eight centuries of Dutch art and history, the museum has extensive outdoor gardens and a Michelin-starred restaurant.
The Amstel is the great river that runs through Amsterdam and whose water was diverted into the city’s famous canals. The city was first built around the river, giving it the name Amstel Dam, and today the waterway is flows past modern buildings and charming houseboats before winding its way into the Dutch countryside.
Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of works by the legendary Dutch artist, is a must-see for art and art history lovers. The museum boasts a collection of Vincent van Gogh’s personal effects, plus 200 paintings and 500 drawings by the master and his contemporaries—including Gauguin, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Bernard—plus Van Gogh’s famous works “The Potato Eaters” and “Wheatfield with Crows.”
Once a working-class neighborhood, Jordaan in central Amsterdam has become an upscale enclave favored by artists and designers. Grand 17th-century houses, art galleries, speciality shops, music venues, cafes, and restaurants line the leafy canals in this quintessential Amsterdam neighborhood, which attracts tourists and locals alike.
Micropia is a unique museum in Amsterdam dedicated to microbes and microorganisms. These microscopic organisms make up two thirds of all living matter. As soon as you enter the museum, you'll start to learn about the invisible organisms living all around us. An animation in the first elevator tells you about the mites that live on your eyelashes and the bacteria and viruses that live on those mites. Other exhibits include a body scanner that tells you what type of microbes live on your body and a Kiss-o-meter that counts the number of microbes transferred during a kiss. There are Petri dishes with bacteria in them that show you what lives on everyday household objects.
Another exhibit shows a collection of animal feces and a preserved human digestive system. There are also films showing different animals decomposing. In a real-life working laboratory, visitors can view technicians preparing the exhibits through a window. Other displays teach visitors about bacteria, viruses, fungi, and algae. This museum will also teach you how microbes are essential for life, from supplements to food and more.
Amsterdam’s Skinny Bridge (Magere Brug) crosses the River Amstel in the city center. The wooden drawbridge features low arches and nighttime illumination. The bridge’s history reaches as far back as 1691, when the original structure was completed in a classic Dutch style that also influenced later renovations.
Dam Square is the main city square in Amsterdam and is one of the most well-known locations in all of the Netherlands. Located in the historical center of the city and just 750 meters south of Amsterdam Centraal Station, Dam Square is home to an array of notable buildings and frequently hosts events of national importance.
The square sits over the original location of the dam in the Amstel River and has been surrounded by land on all sides since the mouth of the river was filled in the 19th century. On the west end of the square you will see the Royal Palace, which was the city hall from 1655 until its conversion to a royal residence in 1808. Next to the palace are the Gothic Nieuwe Kirk (New Church) and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. On the east end of the square is the National Monument, a stone pillar erected in 1956 to memorialize the Dutch victims of World War II.
Dam Square is also home to the Amsterdam Diamond center, the NH Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky and thupscale department store De Bijenkorf, which has stood on the square since 1914. Behind the De Bijenkorf building is the Beurs van Berlage, the old Stock Exchange building that is now used as a concert hall and exhibition space.
Amsterdam’s 17th-century Westerkerk (Western Church) is as known for its architecture, including a spire that measures some 280 feet (85 meters), as it is for its history. Rembrandt was buried here, and in her diaries Anne Frank wrote about the church’s clock chime—one of the few outside-world experiences she had while hiding from the Nazis.
More Things to Do in Amsterdam
With 7 million flower bulbs planted every year across 79 acres (32 hectares), Keukenhof Gardens is a colorful sea of 800 varieties of tulips and other spring flowers, attracting visitors from around the globe who want to see the Netherlands' iconic tulip fields. More than 9 miles (15 km) of footpaths provide space to stroll around the park, take photos of flowers in bloom, and enjoy this favorite Holland tradition.
Located on the outskirts of Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District, the Venustempel Sex Museum is the world’s oldest sex museum, dating back to 1985. Housed in a striking 17th-century building, it chronicles the evolution of human sexuality throughout the ages through an extensive collection of items relating to sex and eroticism.
Amsterdam Central Station (Amsterdam Centraal Station) is the largest railway station in the Netherlands, as well as the country’s most visited national heritage site. Serving up to 250,000 passengers every day, it’s the city’s most important transport hub, offering both national and international train services.
The scenic Dutch village of Zaanse Schans is most famous for its windmills, once used to power everything from paint-making to paper production. Today, the Zaanse Schans is set up like an open-air museum, with five working windmills open to visitors. Wander the village, view the preserved architecture, and watch the locals at work—in their traditional wooden shoes and Dutch garb, naturally. Green wooden houses, a historic shipyard, and a pewter factory are among the village’s top attractions.
The second of Amsterdam’s three major waterways, the Emperor’s Canal (Keizersgracht) is the widest in the city. Its quiet waters wind through otherwise bustling neighborhoods, and it is lined with picturesque old houses—some of which have had famous residents. A boat trip along the canal lends itself to some wonderful photo opportunities.
An outpost of St. Petersburg’s famous Hermitage Museum, the Hermitage Amsterdam showcases revolving exhibitions of painting and historical artifacts, often with a Russian theme. The sprawling Amstelhof building dates back to the 17th century, stretches along the Amstel riverfront, and features an inner garden courtyard.
Amsterdam’s Canal Ring (Grachtengordel), the city’s charming 17th-century district and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is probably best known for the picturesque canals cutting through it. The area is comprised of three rings of semicircular waterways that are bisected by smaller canals radiating from the middle—like spokes on a very Dutch bicycle wheel. Hundreds of bridges cross the Canal Ring’s channels, connecting the 90 islands that were created during the Dutch Golden Age.
Located in a former 16th-century warehouse, Foam (Photography Museum Amsterdam) has been displaying emerging artists alongside internationally recognized names since it opened in the early 2000s. Spend a few hours browsing the collection of contemporary and traditional artwork, or attend one of the museum’s workshops or talks.
In the center of Amsterdam, the Royal Palace (Koninklijk Paleis) is the official state palace of King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands. It is used for state visits and gala dinners and is often open to the public for tours of its lavish rooms.
Take a break from urban Amsterdam and discover Vondelpark, an English-style green spacegetaway in the heart of the city in Vondelpark. Opened in 1865, the 111-acre (45-hectare) park boasts an open-air theatre, a film museum, a lake, and a riding school. Several cafés, restaurants, and museums make the park a year-round attraction.
Housed in a humungous former arsenal built in 1656, the National Maritime Museum(Het Scheepvaartmuseum) reopened in 2011 after extensive reworking and is dedicated to showcasing the importance of Amsterdam’s maritime history. During the 17th-century Golden Age, The Netherlands was one of the richest powers in the world, thanks to its trading wealth and an empire that stretched across the globe. It was a time of great progress in Amsterdam, when the Canal Ring was built and the middle classes grew rich. All this is reflected in interactive and audio-visual displays of model ships, maritime oil paintings, charts, silverware and weaponry; the growth of the fabulously successful Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) is charted and visitors are whisked on a simulated journey through Amsterdam as a piece of cargo. Two now controversial issues that are dealt with sensitively through thoughtful exhibits are the European slave trade and the whaling industry.
For kids, the highlight of a visit to the National Maritime Museum is undoubtedly the full-size replica of the merchant ship Amsterdam, which foundered in 1749 on a voyage to the East Indies (the present-day Indonesia). The craft is ‘crewed’ by actors who fire cannons, sing sea shanties, tie ropes and even stage a burial at sea.
Originally built in the 14th century as a sanctuary for beguines, a community of Catholic women who lived like nuns, the Begijnhof is a secluded courtyard surrounded by some of the oldest buildings in Amsterdam. Today, single women still occupy the homes in the Begijnhof, and visitors can tour the grounds and the site’s two churches.
Located among the picturesque canal houses of central Amsterdam, the Rembrandt House Museum (Museum Het Rembrandthuis) pays tribute to the Dutch artist famous for such works asThe Night Watch andThe Storm**on the Sea of Galilee. Today, Rembrandt’s former home is a museum dedicated to his life and works and features a nearly complete collection of his etchings.
Established in 1612, the Lord’s Canal (Herengracht) is one of three major canals in the center of Amsterdam. With its beautiful Golden Bend section, stately mansions, and inner gardens, it has long been one of the snazziest places to live in the city. To this day many of the Dutch capital’s fanciest abodes are located along this canal.
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