As the capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam is one of the most popular cities in Europe attracting millions of travelers yearly. Well-known for its historic past, sophisticated canal system, diverse art scene and impossibly narrow architecture, Amsterdam is more than just the novelty of coffeeshops and Red Light district.
Having been to Amsterdam a dozen times over the last decade, this city never disappoints and offers me something new each time (like these Freak Shakes!). What brings me back to Amsterdam is the feeling of gezellig, I get every time I’m there. Impossible to translate directly into English, gezellig( pronounced: huh-zell-ickh), loosely stands for feelings of coziness, comfort and social conviviality and truly encompasses the heart of Dutch culture. It basically makes you equally social and zen at the same time!
I try to spend at least two nights here and usually bookend the stay at the end so that I finish my vacation in the most relaxed way possible. With so much to do in Amsterdam, I’ve created a list of my top nine things to experience.
Explore The City Center By Foot
Amsterdam is built for three things: boating, biking and walking – more on the first two later). The majority of the top tourist attractions are located within walking distance in Amsterdam’s Centrum borough (stands for “the centre” in Dutch), which is made up of four main areas: The Old Centre, the Jewish Quarter, Canal Belt and the Jordaan. Walking around will allow you to immerse yourself in the exquisite architecture of the impossibly narrow houses that line Amsterdam’s canals, admire the views from one of the many bridges and truthfully, understand how their pedestrian/cyclist system – and yes, cyclists have the right of way.
In reality, Amsterdam isn’t very big, and a ½ day self walking tour will let you see the life-size Night Watch Statues in Rembrandtplein, Oude Kerk and the Royal Palace in Medieval Amsterdam, the I Amsterdam Sign and palatial Rijksmuseum in Museumplein. It will take you to the Begijnhof ( a medieval inner courtyard where women of the Catholic faith lived), down the crowded alleyways of the Red Light District and to the grand homes found on the Canal Belt. If you’re thirsty you can taste Dutch gin at the Bols House near the Van Gogh Museum, or venture outside of the center to the Heineken Museum for a tour and a few pints of Amsterdam’s famous beer. And if you’re really looking at your surroundings, you’ll find some impossibly narrow houses … in which people live.
Spend Some Time On The Water
With 50 KM of canals and 128 bridges, a trip to Amsterdam isn’t complete without partaking in the Dutch past-time of boating. Seeing Amsterdam from the water is possibly the best way to truly soak in the inexplicable charm and feeling of comfort that Amsterdam exudes. You can do this a few ways but I highly recommend booking through Airbnb Experiences or finding companies like Free Boat Tours Amsterdam who operate on a choose-what-you-pay system ( aka tipping your captain) for a more authentic experience. If you’re planning on getting a city pass to cover many attractions, both the I Amsterdam City Card and Amsterdam Pass include canal cruises.
Lounge Around in Vondelpark
At 47 acres in size, Vondelpark is Amsterdam’s largest public park, and Holland’s most famous. It’s a place for locals and tourists alike to ride bikes (or walk!) down tree-lined lanes, admire art ( Picasso’s FISH live here), enjoy food and views at one of three waterside restaurants, or simply stroll through the 19th-century urban park. Personally, I enjoy lounging on the side of the water and alternately gazing at the old estate homes that dot the perimeter and dog watching.
Visit The Anne Frank House
Former war-time hide-out turned biographical museum, the Anne Frank House is dedicated to WWII diarist, Anne Frank, and one of the most popular attractions in Amsterdam. And it is truly worth it. A word of caution: visiting the Anne Frank House is emotional. Plan something lighthearted and easy after, like exploring the rest of the Jordaan.
Located in the Jordaan on Prinsengracht Canal near to the Westerkerk (the church Anne mentions in her diary whose bells chime during the day), the house itself is so nondescript that you would likely miss it but for the masses of tourists taking pictures and lining up outside.
The original Secret Annex is a part of the museum to this day and can be accessed by the infamous staircase hidden behind a hinged bookcase. The museum has done a remarkable job of creating an authentic feeling by painting a picture of what life was living in the Secret Annex through videos, photo’s, quotes and a series of objects belonging to the inhabitants of the house. The experience left me feeling humbled at what life was like for the families living in hiding and angered at the injustices that transpired over the course of WWII.
Plan in advance to see this. 80% of tickets are released online 2 months ahead of time, with the remainder 20% available starting 9 a.m day of the visit.
Explore the Jordaan
Once home to Rembrandt van Rijn, the Jordaan district is considered Amsterdam’s bohemian quarter. Originally built as a working-class neighborhood, it’s charming narrow streets form a tight grid peppered with vintage shops, boutiques, cafe’s, restaurants and art galleries. Amsterdam’s trendiest shopping area, De 9 Straatjes ( or the 9 Little Streets), can be found here as well as the infamous Anne Frank House. For something a little different, try finding one of the Jordaan’s hofjes; originally built by rich men for older women as a gesture of charity and protection, these hidden courtyards encompass peaceful gardens and little houses.
Bike Under the Rijksmuseum
Because biking in Amsterdam is a way of life, and the sheer bike traffic is daunting at first, practice your cycling somewhere a bit calmer before trying to take on the very busy Rijks. As you can imagine, there are bike rental shops nearly at every corner in Amsterdam, and there are a ton around Vondelpark. Take a few practices runs around Vondelpark and then head over to the Rijksmuseum, it’s about a 5-minute ride away. The Rijksmuseum underpass was originally used for horse traffic and designed to allow for a tram stop; now it serves as one of the most unique experiences in Amsterdam, and generally has musical performances by local busters due to the amazing acoustics. The underpass can be reached by crossing Stadhouderskade on Museumstraat, or coming through Museumplein and passing the I Amsterdam Sign.
Spend Some Time With Van Gogh
Arguably one of the busiest places to visit in Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum carries the largest collection of van Gogh artwork in the world. The permanent collection can be found in the Main Building, with the Exhibition Wing featuring temporary exhibits. Well-known paintings like Sunflowers, Irises and Almond Blossoms are kept here full time, as are his famous Self- Portrait and Wheatfield with Crows. With over 4000 artworks, plan to spend some at least two hours here. You can shorten it down if you have time constraints, but make sure to plan ahead of time. Pre-purchase your tickets online as each entrance requires a start time, and you then won’t have to wait in long line ups. If you have purchased an Amsterdam city pass that gives you access to the Van Gogh Museum, you still have to reserve a time, so make sure you check your details on how to do that.
Grab a Pint by a Canal
Have I mentioned the 50KM of canals and 128 bridges that make up Amsterdam? And dotting these canals are hole-in-the-wall pubs, cafes and restaurants, many of which feature outdoor canal-side seating. With over 300 breweries countrywide, the Dutch know beer. At whatever point in your exploring, stop for a few minutes or a few hours, pull up a chair, grab a glass ( or two) of a local brew and bask in the feeling of “Gezellig”. If you truly want an authentic watering hole, search for Brown Cafes, the really good ones have been around for over 25 years and have a loyal local client base.
Stroopwafel, To Go
What is Stroopwafel, you ask? It’s a traditional Dutch wafer dessert made out of two thin layers of baked dough with a rich caramel syrup filling. It’s basically caramel heaven for your taste buds. Although normally served fresh, store-bought stroopwafels are quite popular ( and still delicious). You can find them at most tourist shops, convenience stores and grocery stores. Check out van Woderen for its fresh, diverse selection of lip licking stroopwafels – oh yeah, they’re insta-worthy too. Consider this Dutch fast food – grab a few (or a really big one) to go, and head to a picturesque spot.