When you don’t have all the time in the world – which is what you’d need in order to squeeze in the huge range of museums, galleries, canals, historic and contemporary architecture and many other attractions Amsterdam has to offer – it’s handy to have a guide detailing the city’s must-see choices.
The Canal Belt
Embodying the spirit of Amsterdam, the four 17th-century canals that weave around the city centre are a joy to wander around and tour by boat. Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the area retains many photogenic buildings from Amsterdam’s Golden Age. You can also watch the world go by at one of the many canal-side bars and cafes.
No doubt Amsterdam’s favourite green space, Vondelpark – which separates the city’s Oud-West and Oud-Zuid neighbourhoods – is ideal for a stroll, bike ride or picnic. As well as its restful lawns, ponds and winding paths, there are cafes, playgrounds and an open-air theatre. It’s also an outdoor art gallery, with 69 sculptures dotting its grounds, including one designed by Picasso.
You could spend many days visiting the 80 galleries at the Rijksmuseum, arguably the most popular and prominent museum in the Netherlands. The huge collection contains many masterpieces, including works by Dutch masters Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh, but also everything from ship models and swords to Delftware and dollhouses. The museum is also home to a free sculpture garden and a Michelin-star restaurant, RIJKS.
De Oude Kerk
The Oude Kerk (Old Church), built in 1306, is Amsterdam’s oldest building. Boasting the city’s oldest bell (1450), some cheeky carvings in the church stalls and not one but four organs, it’s a feast for the eyes. There are magnificent features at every turn, including glorious stained-glass windows, brocaded pillars and a gilded ceiling. The church hosts regular art exhibitions, talks, concerts and services.
Located opposite Centraal Station over the IJ waterfront just a short free ferry ride away, this modernist architectural gem is awash with all things film, including cinemas, vintage posters, exhibitions and artefacts, and a great bar-restaurant with a large terrace. It’s a great starting point for discovering Amsterdam Noord.
ARTIS Amsterdam Royal Zoo
Known locally as Natura Artis Magistra, ARTIS is mainland Europe’s oldest zoo and contains more than 900 animal species. It houses a microbe “museum”, Micropia (see below), as well as an aquarium, planetarium and more. The attractive landscaped grounds are also a pleasure to stroll through.
Van Gogh Museum
The Van Gogh Museum has more than 200 paintings and 500 drawings by the artist, making it the largest collection of Van Gogh artworks in the world. They span from his early, gloomier works from the Netherlands, to the brighter French pieces he created later in life. In 2015, an extension enlarged the exhibition space, which is on four levels. There are also works by friends and contemporaries, including Gauguin, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. The museum gets particularly busy in the middle of the day, so it’s a good idea to book tickets online.
Anne Frank Huis
Visiting the place where Anne and her family hid – in a secret apartment in de Jordaan – from the Nazis before being sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp is a powerful experience. At this poignant museum, you will see her bedroom (with photos of Hollywood stars and her diary), documents and other possessions, as well as newsreels and interactive exhibits. Tickets are always very much in demand.
When you leave the bustling Spui Square and walk into this beautiful, quiet courtyard with its two churches and pretty little houses, it is hard to believe there’s such a tranquil space in central Amsterdam. The 14th-century Begijnhof was a kind of convent for Beguines, an order of unmarried or widowed Catholic women. As well as the Begijnhof chapel, there’s the English Church and one of the oldest wooden houses in the country, dating to around 1528.
House of Bols
The House of Bols, a jenever (or Dutch gin) museum, allows you to feel, taste, smell and discover every aspect of this Dutch spirit. The one-hour interactive tour explains how Lucas Bols created and shipped his jenever around the world during the Golden Age, the distillery process and the different scents and flavours that make up the concoction. The tour ends with a cocktail in the Mirror Bar.
In 1919, influential Dutch architect Michel de Klerk designed a new, low-income residential complex in the west of Amsterdam. Known as The Ship because of the finished look of the expressionist building, it is now an icon of the Amsterdamse School architecture movement. Part of the complex is now the Amsterdamse School Museum, and there are daily guided tours of the building.
De Hortus Botanicus
Opening in 1638, De Hortus Botanicus is one of the world’s oldest botanical gardens. The structures – including the greenhouses, conservatories, glass-domed palm house and colonial-era seed house – contain more than 4,000 species and are an attraction in and of themselves. Children will particularly like the butterfly house, and there are even plant-themed art shows, too.
Installed in 1987, the Homomonument was the world’s first memorial dedicated to LGBTQ victims of oppression. Comprising three 10-metre (33-feet) pink-granite triangles, it calls to mind the triangular pink patch which gay men were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps. Commemorative and celebratory events take place here throughout the year.
When completed in 1675, this classically styled building was Europe’s largest synagogue – built for the thousands of Jews who fled to Amsterdam escaping religious persecution on the Iberian Peninsula. Situated in the attractive Jewish Quarter and inspired by the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, it has no electric lighting, and its wooden barrel-vaulted ceilings and beautiful interior are instead illuminated by more than 1,000 candles and the light from 72 windows.
This ever-busy central square contains Amsterdam’s Royal Palace, the National Monument and the Nieuwe Kerk. With origins going back to the 13th century, Dam Square historically held a thriving marketplace, and today, Amsterdammers and tourists alike flock to its shops, cafes, bars and sights.
Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder
Within the Red Light District is this splendidly restored 17th-century canal house. You can explore living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens preserved from the Dutch Golden Age before climbing the stairs to reveal a marvel – a whole church in the attic, known as Ons’ Heer Lieve op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic). The church was constructed after the Reformation, when the Dutch government outlawed Catholicism, and many Catholics were forced to practise their faith in secret.
In 2016, the former offices of the Royal Dutch Shell oil company in Amsterdam’s up-and-coming Noord district were transformed into this impressive multi-use tower, with one nightclub in the basement (Shelter, open 24 hours) and another (MA’DAM) up on the 20th floor, home to Amsterdam’s highest dance floor. There is also a revolving restaurant on the 19th floor, as well as an interactive exhibition about Amsterdam’s history and Europe’s highest swing.
The Heineken Experience
Heineken’s historic brewery (which closed in 1988) now houses an interactive museum, taking visitors on a journey from the history of the Heineken family through to the brewing and bottling processes, as well as including a stop at the stables and copper beer tanks. Guests will also get to view Heineken commercials from around the world.
The Train Lodge
Located in the trendy Changiweg district, just a five-minute train ride from the centre of Amsterdam, The Train Lodge is an eccentric alternative to Amsterdam’s offering of budget hotels. The spray-painted train carriages that make up this colourful lodge were originally part of the Zürich-to-Rome night train, providing travellers with a comfortable place to sleep on their travels. Today, the compartments have found a permanent location and give comfort to travellers while they have a break from the road. Choose between private and shared carriages on your stay, with a dining cart available to all guests, serving an offering of food and drink, with alcoholic beverages served in the evening.
The Electric Ladyland
A tiny, eccentric museum, Electric Ladyland holds a permanent exhibition of fluorescent art, with fluorescent minerals, fluorescent artwork from the 1950s and other glowing artefacts. Visitors to this unusual attraction in Amsterdam can also create their own sculptural piece of illuminated art. Booking online isn’t available at this museum and the exhibition runs a first come first served system. Open Monday to Saturday, between 1pm and 6pm.
The only floating animal shelter in the world, De Poezenboot roughly translates to “The Cat Boat” and is home to hundreds of cats and kittens waiting for adoption. The story of this unusual attraction goes back to 1966, when a local Amsterdam woman named Mrs Weelde began taking in stray cats and kittens. Over time, her menagerie became so well known that the people of Amsterdam started taking all the city’s stray cats to her. When Weeldes’s home became too small to house the number of animals, Weelde decided to take to the canals and open the De Poezenboot houseboat for cats. Today, the boat is a not-for-profit organisation offering visitor tours and existing solely from donations from its visitors. No matter whether you’re looking to adopt a furry friend, or you’re just a cat person looking to meet some animals, an afternoon in the famous boat is a very worthy place to spend both your time and your money.
Moored in the trendy NDSM-wherf neighbourhood, the Pancake Boat does exactly what its name suggests, taking tourists on a voyage through the city’s docklands while serving delicious Dutch pancakes. Heading out on tours throughout the day, this is the perfect way to see the city, while filling up on one of its most popular cuisines.
Opening a museum for something that is too small to see with the naked eye might not seem like the most obvious business model, however Micropia, a museum of microorganisms, has proven to be a popular attraction. This scientific exhibit in Amsterdam contains interactive, educational and fascinating features. You’ll leave knowing more than you ever thought possible about the word of microorganisms and have hundreds of interesting facts to share with your nearest and dearest.
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