Top Things To See and Do When In Amsterdam

Awesome Amsterdam offers a variety of things to see and do, something for virtually everyone. With its slender, Golden Age architecture standing proud along its captivating, concentric canals, which there are more of than in Venice, along with its many cozy house boats and canal-side al fresco dining, so many world-class museums there’s a Museum Square, the world’s only floating flower market, a tradition since 1852, its atmosphere of freedom and tolerance with its renowned coffee shop culture and one of the world’s most famous red light districts, right in the center of town, and a bike culture that’s so strong, you’ll marvel at the force of more than one million bicycles here (and hopefully not get hit by one)!

The canals are one of the top things to do when in Amsterdam

Top Things To Do When In Amsterdam

Explore The Canals

A canal cruise is a definite must, one of the top things to do when in Amsterdam. The canals are the heart of this city, dating back to the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century when this city was a powerful center of trade. And on a sunny day, the canals are full of smiling, happy people out in boats, enjoying the city’s winding waterways.

The most famous are the concentric canal ‘rings’ curving around the city in a half moon shape, the Prinsegracht, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Singel, although there are actually over 165 canals, criss-crossed with many bridges. In fact, you can travel over 60 miles (100km) on canals here!

The architecture is enchanting, with its rows of narrow and tall buildings, based on a historical width-based tax law. Exactly which is the narrowest, or smallest, is up for debate, but the narrowest facade can be seen at Het Sengel 7, at just over 1 meter wide.

Canal-side cafes are one of the top things to do when in Amsterdam
Canal-side Cafe

Of course you’ll also want to walk along the canals, and bicycle around them, as the lifestyle here is fascinating. And when you do, you must try to find a table near the canal edge on a sunny day. Seemingly, every square inch is taken up by tables and chairs full of locals and tourists.

Magere Brug, or Skinny Bridge

There are over 1,200 bridges in Amsterdam, yet its most famous one is the little wooden bridge, Magere Brug, which means skinny bridge, spanning the river Amstel, the river that gave Amsterdam its name. This bridge is also famous for its appearance in the 007 movie Diamonds Are Forever.

Try to see it by night, as it’s magical, lit by over a thousand bulbs.

Magere Brug is one of the top things to do when in Amsterdam
Magere Brug

Amsterdam Old Town

Amsterdam’s Old Town, its historic core, is charming, with several interesting sites to explore.

Visit Oude Kerk

Visit Amsterdam’s oldest building, founded in 1213, right in the center of Old Town and in the heart of the Red Light District. Ironically, it’s a church. Oude Kerk means Old Church, and this one is not only the oldest, it’s also one of the few places not renovated since walked by Rembrandt, who frequented here. His children were also baptized here. Today, this monument is a museum, displaying art exhibits. Check the website above before visiting to see what is on display as feedback varies on visiting its interior.

Royal Palace

This former 17th century city hall at Dam Square, now serves as King Willem-Alexander’s official reception palace. The Royal Palace Amsterdam is open to the public for tours when not in use.

Negen Straatjes (De 9 Straatjes, or 9 Little Streets)

This area, called Negen Straatjes, is composed of 3 streets crossed by 3 canals, making 9 little streets. It’s a picturesque shopping area in Grachtengordel, just behind the Royal Palace, full of galleries, boutique shops for fashion and home decor, and many terrace cafes.

Vondelpark

Located outside of the canal rings, this lush park is full of trees and lakes, perfect for an afternoon stroll or picnic. And the perfect place to spot the anomaly of the green parakeets that thrive in Amsterdam in the thousands. No one knows for sure how there became so many, as they usually live in tropical climates, but they think they are the many descendants of some domestic parakeets that escaped years ago.

The park is just a 10-15 minute walk from Museum Square.

Leidsplein

Leidesplien, or Leiden Square, is close to the main entrance of Vondelpark, at the southern end of the central canal ring. This lively square is well-known for its nightlife. In summer months it’s well-known for terrace bars and cafes, and street performers. It’s located at the Leidsplein tram stop.

Bloemenmarkt, or Flower Market

The world’s only floating flower market, Bloemenmarkt, is in Singel canal between the Koningsplein and the Muntplein. This market has been a tradition since 1852. Market days are Monday to Saturday. If you want to buy bulbs here, make sure to research the latest rules and limits for your country.

Munttoren

The Munttoren (or Munt Tower), at the corner of the Singel canal and the Amstel river (just east of Bloemenmarkt) is remnant of the medieval city wall. It’s name comes from the coins minted here in the 17th century (munt means coin).

Prinsengracht

Amsterdam’s Red Light District, De Wallen, or De Rosse Buurt

There are actually multiple red light districts in Amsterdam, but the one in central Old Town, is the most well-known, full of brothels, sex shops, strip clubs, and sex theaters. There are also eclectic shops, cafes, coffee shops and the Red Light Secrets Museum.

Amsterdam prides itself on being open and tolerant and decriminalized prostitution in 2000. It’s not legal on the street, so set up in private rooms, with street-facing windows where workers provocatively lure in customers. In fact, the area gets its name from the red neon lights highlighting the hundreds of windows the women sit, and flirt behind.

Despite many red light districts in the world, this area is monitored and protected, so considered friendly and safe, although it can get boisterous. Of course, like any busy touristy area, always be aware of your surroundings. For example, pickpocketing is especially prevalent here. Also, beware that anything sold by street vendors here is probably illegal.

This area gets busiest late at night, generally 10 PM to 2 or 3 AM. If you are curious and want to avoid the crowds, it’s better to visit earlier.

If you do visit the Red Light District, be respectful of the people working and living here. Don’t take photos, out of respect for the workers and their privacy, and alcohol is forbidden in public spaces. It’s also disrespectful to gawk, or block the view of the women in the windows (by standing there), as it limits thier ability to attract customers.

A final note on this, Amsterdam is discussing moving the Red Light District out of the city center in an effort to reduce sex tourism, trafficking, and exploitation of the women that work here. Always read up on the latest rules and developments before visiting.

Amsterdam’s Coffee Shops

The coffee shops of Amsterdam are a bit like cannabis ’dispensaries’, and there are over 150 of them, mostly in the Red Light District. Another aspect of Amsterdam’s open-stance on tolerance and openness.

Technically, marijuana is illegal here, but coffeeshops have a legal loophole that allows them to sell small amounts for personal consumption there. Alcohol, and other soft drugs cannot be sold, and you cannot smoke cigarettes. To fully understand the rules and intricacies of the law, see the Amsterdam Coffeeshop Guide.

Many cities in the Netherlands dislike the drug tourism these coffee shops encourage so require a ”weedpass” to enter (which is only available to residents). Amsterdam, however, does not currently require them. The rules, however, are always hotly debated and sometimes change, so read up on the latest if this is your plan.

Top Museums In Amsterdam

Amsterdam boasts the highest concentration of museums per square meter of all the cities in the world, with over 50 (a lot for such a small city), attracting millions annually. The big three are Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh, and the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, with their famous masterworks.

Rijksmuseum

This must-visit museum has 8 centuries of Dutch and International artists, but is most famous for its 17th century Dutch artists like Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals.

Rijksmuseum is one of the top things to do when in Amsterdam
Rijksmuseum

One of its most famous paintings is Rembrandt’s The Night Watch from 1642. This is not only Rembrant’s most famous painting, but the most famous painting of the Dutch Golden Age. This recently restored painting shows the 17th century Militia Company of District II in larger-than-life scale. Other famous paintings include Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid and a self portrait of Vincent Van Gogh.

The Night Watch

The Rijksmuseum is located in Museum Square, near the Rijksmuseum tram stop.

Van Gogh Museum

An entire museum devoted to Van Gogh! I just get goofy thinking about this (needless to say, it was my favorite museum here). Some of his more famous works here include Sunflowers, The Potato Eaters, Almond Blossom, and The Bedroom. There are also personal letters like those to and from his brother and friends that provide fascinating insights into his life.

The Van Gogh Museum is about a 5-minute walk southwest of the Rijksmuseum in Museum Square.

Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art

This is the largest Dutch museum of contemporary art, modern art and design. See famous works by Cézanne, Chagall, Kandinsky, De Kooning, Matisse Mondrian, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, and many more.

The Stedelijk Museum is just a 1-minute walk southwest of the Van Gogh Museum in Museum Square.

Moco Museum 

Moco features modern and contemporary art from both contemporary artists and rising stars. See the Moco Museum website for the latest exhibitions. This museum is also in Museum Square, just next to the Rijksmuseum.

Rembrandt House Museum

You can also visit Rembrandt’s former home-turned museum. His painting studio is on the upper floor and a space for his apprentices to paint is on the very top floor.

He paid 15,000 guilders for it, when the average annual income for a laborer was 300 guilders a year. After his wife died, Rembrandt reportedly went into a downward spiral, overspent, went into bankruptcy, and was forced to sell the home to pay off his debts. Ironically, the detailed list of his possessions created due to the bankruptcy is how they were able to set the house up exactly as it was when he lived here.

Rembrandt’s home is one of the top things to do when in Amsterdam
Rembrandt’s House/Museum

Anne Frank House

This is the house Anne Frank’s family hid in during German occupation. She was 15 when she died. We all know the story, but seeing the space where they hid, examples of her diary, and video of her father (and friends) that survived the war, takes this horrible part of history to another level. It’s also interesting to learn facts like her father was the one that published her diary, although it took him many years to do so after finding it.

Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague

If there are not enough museums for you in Amsterdam, visit the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague. Some of the famous works here include The Girl With the Pearl Earring, The Goldfinch, and some more paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer. The Hague is about an hour southwest of Amsterdam and easily reachable by train.

The Girl With A Pearl Earring

Amsterdam’s Tulips

April is when the tulips peak in Amsterdam, drawing many tourists. In fact, the entire month of April is known as the Tulip Festival, with thousands of tulips throughout the city. You can visit famous Keukenhof Gardens, one of the world’s largest flower gardens, with a focus on tulips and other spring beauties.

Or, you can drive, or bicycle by the tulips fields, over 12 miles (20 km) of them. This flower strip is known as Bollenstreek, which is in bloom from The end of March to the end of May, usually peaking in mid-April.

Want More Of The Netherlands?

To learn more about the Netherlands, an overview of its top sites, how to get around, safety, scams, important money matters, and more, see my Netherlands Travel Guide.

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

2 Comments

  • Maria

    What a surprise….I love to see where you end up each time you move to your next stop!! You’re right, the Netherlands looks great. Your photos match your comments…everyone does seem like they’re enjoying the warm weather!

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