Amsterdam: Things to do
Northern Europe’s famed canal city fulfills all the clichés, then transcends them with enough surprises to keep visitors exploring for weeks. You might not have weeks, but here are the top sights you won’t want to miss.
1. A Canal Cruise
Its small land area may be chock full of fascinating attractions, but nothing embodies the spirit of Amsterdam more than a cruise around its famous canal ring. In Amsterdam, it seems anything can take place on the water, from dining, to living, all the way up to the city’s famous Pride parade! While your cruise won’t be quite so colourful, it will take you through historic neighbourhoods like the Jordaan, spend some time out on Amsterdam’s historic harbor, explain the locks that keep the city high and dry and the canals clean, and even poke some fun at the local culture.
2. Van Gogh Museum
Unless you have an oddly specific aversion to Van Gogh, this popular museum is worth at least an hour of your time. His genius wasn’t exactly appreciated when he was alive, but this museum finally gives Van Gogh the recognition he deserves, putting many of his most impressive works in proper context in a gorgeous modern building. Located on the Museumplein. Prebook to avoid queues.
3. Anne Frank Huis
Speaking of queues, you’ll want to book at least a month ahead (two in high season) to skip an hour or two queuing for the tiny Anne Frank House and its adjacent museum. This is an Amsterdam must-visit, and can understandably be sobering for many. It’s worth re-reading Anne’s diary before you visit, as the fresh memory will bring an eerie gravity to wandering these once hidden rooms. No photos are allowed inside.
4. De Wallen
We know, we know. You would never consider spending an evening in the red light district! We also know you’re lying. Everyone ends up here at least once, so leave prudishness at home and wander this essential corner of Amsterdam’s culture, where the country’s nonchalant approach to adult entertainment is very evident. There is even a monument to the city’s prostitutes. It’s best to go in the early evening, before the ‘weekend warriors’ arrive. Just remember, no photos! More than one nosey tourist has lost a camera or smartphone to the canals that way.
How often do you get to wander the private home and studio of one of the great masters? Rembrandt’s house has been reverently preserved, creating a small museum that demonstrates some of his techniques and the materials used. You’ll learn about his inspirations and those who carried on his legacy, but just walking through the space is an enriching experience.
From admiring Rembrandt’s home to admiring his masterpiece, The Night Watch is indeed on display in The Netherlands’ largest art museum, where the emphasis is on Dutch art and the Middle Ages. The building’s not so bad to look at either. For an extra 5 EUR, you can book a private small group tour for expert commentary, and queue-skipping. Located on the Museumplein.
The city’s favourite open air space is a must-visit in summer. If you haven’t already rented a bike, pick one up and pedal into Vondelpark. The easily navigable bike tracks are a cyclist’s delight, and there are even free performances five days a week from June until August. There’s simply no better place to see Amsterdam at play.
8. Amsterdam Museum
It’s easy to forget just how much of an influence Amsterdam has had on world culture over the centuries. This museum gives you a terrific overview of the city and its contributions. Housed in a former orphanage, it showcases progressive Amsterdam’s many achievements based on core values of entrepreneurship, free thought, citizenship, and creativity.
Unless you’re big into flowers, you can zip through the famous Blumenmarkt in about 15 minutes. But given how essential tulips are to the country’s identity, and its attractive location right on the canal rings, this local flower market is an easy and colourful stop in season.
10. Stedelijik Museum
Though not as visited as the Rijksmuseum or Van Gogh, the neighbouring Stedelijik Museum is all about modern art in all its forms. Painting, sculpture, design, photography, film, interactive and performing art… You never know quite what you’ll find here, making it a great alternative to its more traditional kin for adventurous art lovers. Located on the Museumplein.
SHORT AMSTERDAM VACATION IDEAS
BUDGET AND CURRENCY
The Netherlands uses the Euro, and credit cards are accepted pretty much everywhere. Expect to pay around 15 EUR for an inexpensive meal, 70 EUR for a mid-range, 3-course dinner for two, and about 4-5 EUR for a local beer. Many of the best attractions, including the Anne Frank Huis and Vondelpark are free, while the larger museums typically charge 15 to 20 EUR. Lodging will be your biggest expense, particularly on the canal rings. But don’t settle for a generic hotel on the outskirts just to save money. The canal rings are an essential part of the city, and there’s nothing like staying in the heart of them for the real Amsterdam experience.
LOCAL LAWS AND ETIQUETTE
To address the elephant in the room, yes, you can take your kids to Amsterdam! In fact, one of the fastest ways to annoy someone from The Netherlands is to view Amsterdam as some kind of free-for-all when it comes to sex and drugs. The country’s famously liberal laws and regulations are about keeping those industries safe and accountable for workers and participants, all while allowing strong individual freedoms. In Amsterdam, there’s a time and place for everything, and outside the red light district and coffeeshops, you’re unlikely to notice much indulgence. In public parks, people tend to keep their recreational habits discrete, away from family groups.
One important thing to remember when navigating Amsterdam’s streets is, the bicycle is king. Do not obstruct a bike lane, and try to be conscious of locals trying to navigate the flood of tourists while going about their daily lives. The Dutch are generally very polite, but also frank and forthcoming. If you’re in the way, they won’t be shy about letting you know!
Pretty much everyone in The Netherlands speaks English, though of course, your best attempt at Dutch will always be appreciated. The two languages are closely related. Many basic Dutch phrases and greetings are very similar to their English equivalents, so learn them, and see what doors they can open for you.
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