Things to Do in Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s Red Light District (aka De Wallen) has been a familiar haunt for pleasure seekers since the 14th century. Though certainly not an area for everyone, the Red Light District has more to offer than just sex and liquor. For underneath its promiscuous façade, the area contains some of Amsterdam's prettiest canals, excellent bars and restaurants, and shops of all kinds. It also consists of windows with sexy girls, dressed in eye-popping underwear.
The best places for window-watching are along Oudezijds Achterburgwal and in the alleys around the Oude Kerk (Old Church), particularly to the south. The atmosphere throughout is much more laid-back than in other red-light districts. Families, lawyers, young couples, senior citizens - all types of locals live and socialize here, in stride with the surrounding commerce. You’ll probably find yourself on Warmoesstraat and Zeedijk at some point, both commercial thoroughfares chock-a-block with shops and restaurants.
The Rijksmuseum, or National Museum, is the premier art museum of the Netherlands, and no self-respecting visitor to Amsterdam can afford to miss it. Though most of the building is closed for renovations until 2013, key paintings from the museum’s permanent collection can be viewed in the Philips Wing.
The collection includes some 5,000 paintings, most importantly those by Dutch and Flemish masters from the 15th to 19th centuries. The emphasis, naturally, is on the Golden Age. Pride of place is taken by Rembrandt's Nightwatch (1650), showing the militia led by Frans Banning Cocq. Other 17th century Dutch masters include Jan Vermeer (The Milkmaid, and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter), Frans Hals (The Merry Drinker) and Jan Steen (The Merry Family).
Other sections include Sculpture and Applied Art (delftware, dolls' houses, porcelain, furniture), Dutch History and Asiatic Art, including the famous 12th century Dancing Shiva.
It is one of the 20th century's most compelling stories: a young Jewish girl forced into hiding with her family and their friends to escape deportation by the Nazis. The house Otto Frank used as a hideaway for his family kept them safe until close to the end of World War II.
The focus of the Anne Frank House museum is the achterhuis, also known as the secret annex. It was in this dark, airless space that the Franks observed complete silence during the day, before being mysteriously betrayed and sent to their deaths.
The Anne Frank House is pretty much intact, so as you walk through the building, it's easy to imagine Anne’s experience growing up here as she wrote her famous diary describing how restrictions were gradually imposed on Dutch Jews.
Amsterdam might be most famous for its winding canals and pretty locks, but it’s the Amstel River that the city was first built around, even deriving its name from its early settlement at the ‘Amstel Dam’.
Today the river runs through the center of the city, lined with landmark buildings, stately mansions and colorful houseboats. A walk along the riverside pathway takes in a number of key sights: the regal Carré theatre, still a popular performance house; the post-modernist Stopera city hall and opera house, with its contemporary glass facade; and the neo-baroque domes of the St Nicolas church, all face the river front. A number of landmark bridges also cross the river, the most famous of which is the Magere Brug, or the ‘Skinny Bridge’, a white painted bascule bridge, rebuilt in the early 1900s. Don’t miss out on renowned tourist attractions like the Hermitage Museum, the Amsterdam Museum and Waterlooplein, either – all lie along the shores of the Amstel.
Conveniently located right in central Amsterdam, Jordaan is one of the city's most important, and most interesting districts. Never short of things to do, it is the location of the famous Anne Frank house, where renowned holocaust victim Anne Frank hid from the Nazis during WWII.
Currently, the district is bustling with life, with tons of opportunities to visit one of its many specialty shops, soak in Dutch culture at an art gallery, or try some of the local delicacies at its street markets.
Prideful of its early 20th-century music culture, this central district also features wonderful music festivals and has scattered statues throughout, commemorating the likes of local hero and Dutch patriot Johnny Jordaan. Not dead, you can go check out Jordaan's lively modern music scene at many of its bars and club venues, these days mainly featuring alternative, punk and grunge music.
Micropia is a unique museum in Amsterdam dedicated to microbes and microorganisms. These microscopic organisms make up two thirds of all living matter. As soon as you enter the museum, you'll start to learn about the invisible organisms living all around us. An animation in the first elevator tells you about the mites that live on your eyelashes and the bacteria and viruses that live on those mites. Other exhibits include a body scanner that tells you what type of microbes live on your body and a Kiss-o-meter that counts the number of microbes transferred during a kiss. There are Petri dishes with bacteria in them that show you what lives on everyday household objects.
Another exhibit shows a collection of animal feces and a preserved human digestive system. There are also films showing different animals decomposing. In a real-life working laboratory, visitors can view technicians preparing the exhibits through a window.
The Venustempel Sex Museum in Amsterdam is the world’s first sex museum. Housed in a 17-thcentury building in the very heart of the city, it features an extensive collection of erotic paintings, statues, recordings, photographs, and other items relating to sex and eroticism. All of the exhibits were personally curated by the owners and remain on permanent display. The main theme is the evolution of human sexuality throughout the ages.
Venustempel began in 1985 with just a small display of erotic artifacts from the 19th century. Due to its huge popularity with the general public, its collection was later expanded upon, and the museum now sees more than 500,000 visitors through its doors each and every year.
Magere Brug is a bridge in Amsterdam that crosses the Amstel River. Its name translates as “skinny bridge” and comes from the original bridge that was so skinny, it was difficult for two people to pass each other while walking across it at the same time. Legend also has it that the bridge was built by the Mager sisters to make it easier to visit each other since they lived on opposite sides of the river. Though it is still called the Skinny Bridge, today it is no longer so skinny. The bridge was replaced with a wider one in 1871, and now pedestrians and bicycles can cross with greater ease.
The bridge is a wooden drawbridge that is raised frequently throughout the day to allow boats to pass through. At night it is lit up by over 1,000 light bulbs. Day or night, the Skinny Bridge is a charming place to visit and enjoy views of the river and the city.
Dam Square is the main city square in Amsterdam and is one of the most well-known locations in all of the Netherlands. Located in the historical center of the city and just 750 meters south of Amsterdam Centraal Station, Dam Square is home to an array of notable buildings and frequently hosts events of national importance.
The square sits over the original location of the dam in the Amstel River and has been surrounded by land on all sides since the mouth of the river was filled in the 19th century. On the west end of the square you will see the Royal Palace, which was the city hall from 1655 until its conversion to a royal residence in 1808. Next to the palace are the Gothic Nieuwe Kirk (New Church) and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. On the east end of the square is the National Monument, a stone pillar erected in 1956 to memorialize the Dutch victims of World War II.
More Things to Do in Amsterdam
Built on the banks of Prinsengracht Canal in the 17th century, Amsterdam’s Westerkerk is famous for three things: sky-high views of Amsterdam from the top of its spire, Rembrandt's grave, and Anne Frank's ties to the church. Designed by star architect Hendrick de Keyser in the Dutch Renaissance style, the Protestant church's spire reaches 85 meters, making it the highest structure in Amsterdam's old city. From the viewing platform halfway up the tower, you'll get panoramic views right across town. And from outside the church, look up at the bell tower to see the blue imperial crown of Habsburg emperor Maximilian I at its top — it was bestowed on the city as a coat of arms in 1489.
Rembrandt’s paintings may fetch tens of millions today, but he died bankrupt in 1669 and was buried in an unmarked grave, typical for the very poor, at Westerkerk, so that no one quite knows this exact location of his final resting place where he lies buried along with his wife and son.
Located in the center of the city, Amsterdam Central Station is the largest railway station in the Netherlands, as well as the most visited national heritage site in the country. Used by more than a quarter of a million passengers every day, it is a hub for both national and international train services. It has also been continuously under construction for more than a decade due to the development of the North-South Metro line, which should finally open fully in 2017.
Built upon three artificial islands, the station was designed by the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, who also designed the famous Rijksmuseum. The similarity is apparent in the Gothic/Renaissance Revival façade of the station, which features two turrets and a variety of ornamental details. First opened in 1889, the station is within walking distance of many popular tourist sights, including the Royal Palace, the Anne Frank House and the Red Light District.
Covering some 79 acres (32 hectares), the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens is the world’s largest flower garden. Come springtime, the meandering, wooded gardens are visited by some 800,000 flower-lovers, who come to soak up the blaze of color that envelops the park, its greenhouses, brooks and shady ponds and winding paths. It’s truly a memorable sight.
At Keukenhof Tulip Gardens, nature’s talents are combined with artificial precision to create a wonder of landscaping, where millions of tulips, along with narcissi and daffodils, hyacinths, bluebells, and many others blossom perfectly in place and exactly on time. And if the temperatures have been wilting, don’t worry: fresh blooms are planted by helping hands for the duration of the season. Special exhibits are held in the pavilions around the site, and there are cafes and refreshment stands throughout.
Recognized as the widest canal in the city, Keirzersgracht is part of a picturesque network of waterways that wind through Amsterdam city neighborhoods, lending a quiet charm to otherwise bustling streets.
Travelers looking for a taste of old world Amsterdam can experience the past with a little new world charm, too, while on a visit to Keirzersgracht. From the historic Greeland Warehouses—once used to store whale blubber, but now luxury apartments—to the Rode Hoed, which served as a secret Catholic church but is now home to a television recording studio—the canal is filled with character and history that is not to be missed.
Transformed from a complex for the elderly to a department of Saint Petersburg’s famous Hermitage Museum in 2009, a visit to the Hermitage Amsterdam starts with marveling its the impressive exterior. The sprawling Amstelhof building, designed by architect Hans Van Petersom, dates back to the 17th-century and stretches 105m along the Amstel riverfront, featuring a central courtyard garden shaded by chestnut trees.
Hermitage Amsterdam is now one of the largest museums in the country and features some of the country’s most captivating temporary exhibitions. The collections, rotated each 6 months, feature selections imported from the Russian museum’s enormous treasury of artifacts, including its famously expansive collection of French 19th and 20th century paintings. Past exhibitions have included Modernist and expressionist artworks; sizable exhibits on ‘Peter the Great (1672–1725), the modernizer of Russia’ and ‘The Immortal Alexander the Great’.
The first image one conjures up when thinking of Amsterdam is its tranquil canals. Three rings of canals, lined by elaborately decorated merchants' residences and warehouses built in the 17th century, the Dutch "Golden Age", give the city its iconic and easygoing image. In fact, 90 islands were created when the canals were built, and they’re all connected by hundreds of charming bridges. The best-known canals form the central Grachtengordel (Canal Belt). To the wandering visitor, they’re like lifelines because the subtle turns in the center can throw your inner compass out of whack. The semicircular canals form a huge ring, cut by canals radiating from the middle like spokes on a wheel. Starting from the core, the major semicircular canals are the Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. From east to west, the major radial canals are Brouwersgracht, Leidsegracht, and Reguliersgracht.
Designed by Jacob van Campen, the impressive Romanesque construction is fashioned around over 13,500 woolen piles sunk into the ground and is best known for its iconic rooftop statue of Greek titan Atlas, straining beneath the weight of the world on his back. First built as a city hall, the building was transformed into a Royal Palace back in 1808, under reign of Louis I, King of Holland and is still used frequently for state visits by today’s monarchs.
Famously described as ‘the eighth world wonder’ by local poet Contantijn Huygens, the Royal Palace does its best to live up to its opulent reputation with glistening marble floors, lavish décor and a slightly ostentatious theme of Amsterdam’s power and prestige. The grand interiors, open to the public, provide the principal attractions, furnished with a spectacular collection of antiques and decorated with ornate carvings and Rembrandt-inspired paintings.
As vital to Amsterdam as Rembrandt, canals, and coffee shops, on a sunny day there’s not place better than Vondelpark. As people from all walks of life descend on this sprawling English-style park - beautifully appointed with ponds, lawns, thickets, and winding footpaths - a party atmosphere ensues.
Some kick back by reading a book, others hook up with friends to cradle a beer at one of the cafes, while others trade songs on beat-up guitars. Still others jog, cruise on inline skates, ride bikes, and fly kites. Let us not forget families with prams, couples in love, teenagers playing soccer, and children chasing ducks - Vondelpark encourages visitors to enjoy and explore its bucolic surroundings. On a summer day, a great place to follow the action is the upper terrace of Café Vertigo. Also check out the open-air theater and the lovely ponds and rose gardens.
On a visit to the Begijnhof, an enclosed former 14th-century convent, you’ll discover a surreal oasis of peace, with tiny houses and postage-stamp gardens around a well-kept courtyard.
Contained within the hof is the charming Begijnhofkapel, a "clandestine" chapel where the Beguines were forced to worship after their Gothic church was taken away by the Calvinists. Go through the dog-leg entrance to find marble columns, wooden pews, paintings and stained-glass windows commemorating the Miracle of Amsterdam.
The other church in the Begijnhof is known as the Engelse Kerk (English Church), built around 1392. It was eventually rented out to the local community of English and Scottish Presbyterian refugees, and still serves as the city's Presbyterian church. Also note the house at No. 34; it dates from around 1425, making it the oldest preserved wooden house in the country.
Ever wondered what life was like in 17th and 18th century Netherlands? The Zaanse Schans, 15km north of Amsterdam, is the kind of museum that shows rather than tells and it’s the perfect place to immerse yourself in all things traditionally Dutch. The conserved area is still inhabited, but set up like an open-air museum where visitors can wander the village, explore the preserved buildings and watch local craftsmen at work.
Green wooden houses, a historic shipyard, traditional grocery store and a pewter factory are among the village’s visitor attractions but the Zaanse Schans is most famous for its windmills, once used for everything from paint-making to paper production. 250 years ago around 600 windmills stood in the area but today, 5, including a sawmill and an oil mill, are open to visitors, who can explore the working mills and marvel at the landscape of colorful wind sails.
Situated in the former home of the renowned Dutch painter and etcher, Rembrandt Van Rijn, the Rembrandt House Museum, boasts an illustrious history with world famous paintings like the ‘Night Watch’ created between its walls.
The building in Jodenbreestraat, Amsterdam, was purchased by the man himself back in 1639 and he lived there with his wife Saskia and son Titus for 20 years, before being declared bankrupt in 1656. Today, the rooms have been reconstructed to their original condition and form part of the museum.
A tour of the Rembrandt House showcases an almost complete collection of artworks (over 250 graphic prints), alongside exhibits on the life and times of the iconic artist and his renowned painting techniques. The printing studio, where a fully working traditional printing press demonstrates how Rembrandt made his famous etchings, is one of the most interesting rooms, but the kitchen, showrooms and bedrooms are all also open for exploration.
Housed in a humungous former arsenal built in 1656, the National Maritime Museum reopened in 2011 after extensive reworking and is dedicated to showcasing the importance of Amsterdam’s maritime history. During the 17th-century Golden Age, The Netherlands was one of the richest powers in the world, thanks to its trading wealth and an empire that stretched across the globe. It was a time of great progress in Amsterdam, when the Canal Ring was built and the middle classes grew rich. All this is reflected in interactive and audio-visual displays of model ships, maritime oil paintings, charts, silverware and weaponry; the growth of the fabulously successful Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) is charted and visitors are whisked on a simulated journey through Amsterdam as a piece of cargo. Two now controversial issues that are dealt with sensitively through thoughtful exhibits are the European slave trade and the whaling industry.
Recognized as one of the most exclusive addresses in the city, Herengracht has been home to Amsterdam elite since the early 17th century. And while this famous canal is still the ideal spot to brush elbows with the well-to-do, it’s also an incredible place to explore the history and culture of this famous city.
Travelers who venture to this charming neighborhood can check out the original home of the Dutch West India Company, located in Herenmarkt, a charming town square, or visit the well-known merchant’s house called Three Hills, which has been designated as a historical monument. Perhaps the most-famous merchant’s home, the Bartolotti House, is located along the right side of the canal and once served as a residence for one of the most successful silk merchants.
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