Amsterdam is one of Europe’s greatest cultural centers; a trove of museums, galleries and clubs set on a maze of canals. The list of places to see and things to do is immense, but it’s easy to avoid being overwhelmed by planning a little before the trip. Visitors might find that many of the places they plan to go are in the same area, as Amsterdam has quite concentrated districts for industries like art and nightlife. Book an apartment close by and enjoy it all on your doorstep!
Art and About
Amsterdam is undoubtedly one of the great art capitals of the world. It may be referred to as ‘The Venice of the North’ for the canals, but with a Renaissance of its own (the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century) and dozens of excellent art museums, comparisons to Florence might be more appropriate. Many of the museums are based in the Oud-Zoud district, with hip commercial galleries nearby in The Jordaan.
- The Van Gogh Museum on the Museumplein is a modern, light filled gallery dedicated to the great modernist painter. Split between the original 1970s building by revered Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld and more contemporary wing by Kishio Kurokawa, the space has a lightness and grace not often felt in the art museums of Western Europe. The exhibitions detail Van Gogh’s tumultuous and tragically short life, and his progression from realism to a uniquely expressive brand of impressionism.
Top Tip – On Fridays, the museum stays open until 10pm and attracts the cool crowd with a selection of DJ’s, art talks, workshops and films loosely inspired by Van Gogh’s work and art practice. For a party held in a museum, it’s surprisingly high energy!
- The Stedelijk Museum, premier modern art centre of The Netherlands, houses an enviable collection of works from the early 20th century to now. Cezanne, Picasso and of course Vincent Van Gogh are among the hundreds of 20th century artists represented. As the first western European museum to collect modern photography as art, it also has a large collection of avant-garde photography works by artists such as Man Ray, as well as seminal video works from the 1970s onwards.
- After 10 years of renovations, the colossal Rijksmuseum finally reopened in 2013 to much fanfare. The national museum of Dutch art and history has been revamped by Spanish architects Cruz and Ortiz, who have restored the majesty of the original 19th century building, as well as opening up new central courtyards accessible to the general public every day. Visitors can now expect a more enriching, chronological viewing of Dutch art history, in state of the art exhibition spaces.
Don’t miss – Rembrandt van Rijn’s masterpiece, – ‘The Nightwatch’. It’s the most loved work in the collection and is so precious to the Dutch state, the museum has specifically constructed a secret escape chute for it in case of fire or a break in!
- For a decidedly more contemporary art scene, head to the Jordaan District just west of the city centre. Here Amsterdam’s premier commercial art galleries such as Gerhard Hofland and KochxBos Gallery showcase the best of international contemporary art. Wander further around the Jordaan and Oud-West district and discover hip student-run spaces with edgy new digital works.
Hit the Streets
Central Amsterdam and the surrounding ‘Grachtengordel’, or Canal Ring, has a unique landscape not seen anywhere else in the world. Designed to expand the old centre in the 16th century and strengthen Amsterdam’s standing as a port city, the creation of a network of canals in this marshy area was a true feat of engineering and construction. Homes along the canal were prized, and as homeowners were taxed based on the width of their buildings, a vernacular architecture of narrow, gabled terraces developed. Though there are many attractions in Amsterdam, the real star is the inner city itself, best seen from street (or canal) level.
- Amsterdam is the most bike-friendly city in the world, and one of the first things most visitors notice are the thousands of bikes parked on every street in neat rows. With few hills in the city and a well organised network of paths, it’s easy to join the locals in riding everywhere. Hire a bike for the duration of your stay and explore the city in style.
Top tip-One of the most popular bike hire companies in Amsterdam is also one of the most conveniently located. Star Bikes, who can be found right behind the main Centraal Station, specialise in the rental of the lovely traditional Dutch ‘granny bikes’ for a fair price. If that wasn’t enough – they also serve tasty paninis and coffee at their cafe upstairs! Look for them on the De Ruyterkade 143.
- Spend an afternoon in the Vondelpark, a vast haven of pretty ponds and flowery fields where locals can be found relaxing year-round. Take tea at The Blauwe Theehuis (Blue Tea House), a 1930’s Dutch Bauhaus cafe, or watch an orchestra or ballet company perform in the friendly open theatre.
- Shop ‘The Nine Streets’, a grid of lanes between the Prinsengracht Canal and the Singel Canal in the Grachtengordel district. From vintage watches to silk underwear; avant-garde pottery to coffee-table books; ‘The Nine Streets’ are a joy to wander through, though they may leave your pockets considerably lighter.
- Explore the Grachtengordel on foot. To get the most out of a short visit, it’s often a great idea to start with a walking tour around the city. Exploring inner Amsterdam on foot for a few hours on the first morning is easy and not only is it possible to see most of the main sights within an hour’s walk, but you get a real feel for each neighbourhood.
Amsterdam has long been the capital of the Netherlands, and though it’s now very multicultural, Dutch tradition and culture filters through everyday life, from the progressive attitudes of locals to the proliferation of street stalls selling Poffertjes (little pancakes) and herring sandwiches. No trip to Amsterdam is complete without a truly local experience!
- Walk through the Amsterdam Floating Flower Market on the Singelcanal, and admire the array of bright tulips on display. Since Turkish traders introduced the tulip to Amsterdam in the 16th century they have been a firm favourite and are now more closely associated with the Netherlands than their countries of origin. In the early days, the upper classes were so enamoured by them that the sale of tulip bulbs exploded and eventually lead to one of the first known financial bubbles – the ‘Tulip Mania’. Prices eventually collapsed, but not before some single bulbs were selling for 10 times a craftsman’s annual salary. The mood at the markets today is more subdued, but the Dutch passion for beautiful tulips hasn’t waned! To see the biggest and brightest display of tulips in the world, head to Keukenhof, an hour outside of Amsterdam, where incredible fields of tulips are displayed in Spring every year.
- Dam Square is the spiritual heart of the nation, and centrally located in the old part of Amsterdam. A number of national treasures are located here, including the opulent Royal Palace, the Nieuwekerk church, and the towering National Monument to those killed in the Great Wars. Though the church is no longer a house of worship, it has been restored lovingly and now hosts world-class exhibitions in its vaulted hall.
- Take a break at one of the city’s many distinctive brown cafes. Not to be mistaken with the decidedly more hallucinogenic ‘coffee houses’ frequented by many tourists, brown cafes are more like the local pub, and some here have been around since the 17th century. Sip a Dutch beer and sample delicious fried snacks such as Bitterballen in one of these typically wood-panelled, cosy little rooms.
- Speaking of Dutch beers – the old Heineken Brewery in the De Pijp district has been transformed into a museum detailing the story of the famous Dutch pilsner. They’ve reinvented the brewery tour, with a heavy focus on interactive exhibits and jawdropping displays of technology that make the experience more like a theme park. It’s learning at its most fun, especially with all the beer being served throughout!
- The Red Light District epitomises the Dutch attitude of tolerance towards prostitution and soft drugs. Located in the De Wallen district near the city centre, its little lanes are both a pretty step back in time, and the entry-point to the debaucherous underbelly of Amsterdam by night.
Amsterdam has a rich history. From its early days as a fishing village, to Golden-Age powerhouse, then occupied war territory and finally, a forward-thinking European leader. Though most famous for the art that was produced here during the ‘Golden Age’, Amsterdam has seen much and contributed heavily to all aspects of modern western culture. There are several institutions here dedicated to keeping Dutch history alive and relevant for future generations.
- The Anne Frank House is a remarkable museum and memorial located in the Amsterdam warehouse where the Jewish teenage diarist and her family hid from the Nazi occupiers of the city. Though the building was slated for demolition in the 1970s, it was saved by the newly formed Anne Frank Foundation, who developed the museum and preserved the hidden chamber where the Frank family and others hid. The museum exhibits are considered and moving, exploring the story of the Frank family and other victims of the Second World War, as well as discrimination more broadly.
- For a mind-bending experience the kids will love, head to the Science Center NEMO. From the outside, the huge, Renzo Piano-designed centre has the appearance of a vast cargo ship, a nod to Amsterdam’s heritage as a port city. Inside, large-scale displays illustrate core concepts of science in an interactive and thrilling way.
Top tip – For one of the best views in Amsterdam, go up to the outdoor deck on the roof. A family-friendly cafe serves up hot lunches, and there’s plenty of tiered seating on the roof from which to admire the city’s hundreds of beautiful canals.
- Step back in time at the Rembrandt House Museum on the Jodenbreestraat. The celebrated Golden Age painter bought the townhouse with his considerable earnings in the mid-17th century and lived there for a decade before he was bankrupted and forced to sell the property. Today the 17th century interior of the house has been restored and visitors can get a real sense of what life during the Dutch Golden Age was like, and how Rembrandt worked.
Have you been to Amsterdam? If you have any tips for great places to go, let us know!