Things to Do in Amsterdam
Renowned as being Europe’s biggest outdoor market, the Albert Cuyp Market, named after the 17th-century painter of the same name, has been trading since the late 19th-century. Starting out as a collection of street traders, the market was taken over by the city council in 1905 and has since become a tourist favorite, offering a fascinating glimpse into local life.
Located on Albert Cuypstraat in the city’s characterful De Pijp district, the market is open every day except Monday and is an easy tram ride from the city center. Here, around 260 market stalls offer just about everything imaginable. Share some jovial banter with the notoriously chatty stallholders as you bargain over books, clothing and electronics, then fill your shopping basket with fresh fruit, vegetables and fish, all at very reasonable prices.
Topping off the western side of Amsterdam’s plush Canal Ring and crossing into the bohemian enclave of the Jordaan, Brouwersgracht is an enticing canal lined with narrow, gabled townhouses and former warehouses with façades that tilt precariously forwards. Connecting the canals of Singel and Singelgracht, it has been voted the prettiest street in the city and its length is home to hundreds of houseboats moored chaotically along the bank. In the 17th century known for its tanners and brewers, the canal has lost little of its tranquil atmosphere even though many of its houses have been converted into luxurious apartments and boutique hotels. It also has some architectural highlights: Brouwersgracht 2 has one of the best examples of 16th-century step gables in the city; the row at Brouwersgracht 188–194 were formerly warehouses storing leather, coffee and spices, and sport a series of identical spout gables dating from the 17th century.
With its ring of canals extending over 62 miles (100 km) and featuring an incredible 1,500 bridges, it's no surprise that Amsterdam’s canal ring has earned itself the nickname ‘the Venice of the North’. The 17th-century canals, including the most famous waterways of Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Jordaan, achieved UNESCO World Heritage status back in 2010, and remain key landmarks for visiting tourists.
The Prisengracht, or Prince’s Canal, is the longest of Amsterdam’s four main canals, measuring around two miles, and one of the liveliest in the city. Here, colorful houseboats float by the riverbanks and the surrounding streets are crammed with cafés, shopping boutiques and landmark buildings.
Few people know that Amsterdam has played an important role as a diamond center for more than four centuries, mostly because of the Dutch colonization in South Africa back in the 1800s. Since 2007, the Diamond Museum Amsterdam has helped visitors understand how diamonds are formed from a geological standpoint, through a process taking billions of years and beginning 200 kilometers underneath the earth’s surface. The museum’s permanent collection includes several world-famous pieces, such as the Katana, the Rembrandt Diamond, and The Ape Skul. Visitors can also witness diamond cutters and goldsmiths at work, turning stones into valuable and beautiful pieces of jewelry. The beam behind the museum has worked on the restoration of some of the most precious jewels in the world, including the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom and the Saxon dynasty's Dresden Green Diamond.
A far cry from its origins as a butter and dairy market, Rembrandtplein is now one of Amsterdam’s busiest and liveliest squares, sandwiched between the Mint Tower and the Amstel River. Named after the city’s most famous baroque painter and printmaker, Rembrandt van Rijn, a cast-iron statue of its namesake, sculpted by Royer, has stood proud in the heart of the square since 1876.
With both the plaza and its surrounding streets crammed with cafés, music clubs and bars, Rembrandtplein comes alive in the evening hours, as locals and tourists cram onto the rooftop terraces to admire the glittering skyline and party into the early hours. Club rain and Escape are two of the square’s most popular institutions, while De Duivel is the go-to venue for hip-hop and the nearby Reguliersdwarsstraat is the central hub of the city’s renowned gay scene. Dutch café culture is alive and well here too, with many opening their stages in the evening hours to local folk singers.
Dedicated to the preservation and history of Dutch and foreign films, the EYE Film Institute is an archive museum located in Amsterdam. It houses over 37,000 film titles, 60,000 posters, 700,000 photographs and 20,000 books, with some of the earliest materials dating back to 1895 when the movie industry was just starting in the capital. The permanent collection offers a fascinating glimpse into Dutch and world history. EYE is a vast complex that includes a cinematography museum (previously known as the Dutch Historical Film Archive), an auditorium, a souvenir shop filled with memorabilia, four movie theaters, as well as a waterfront restaurant and café. Many specialists refer to the EYE as the best cinema museum in the world. The acclaimed, futuristic building was unveiled by Queen Beatrix in 2012 and was designed by Viennese firm Delugan Meissl Associated Architects, which specializes in über-modern buildings that appear to be in motion.
One of Amsterdam’s most striking churches, situated on the central Dam Square next door to the Royal Palace, the Nieuwe Kerk, or New Church, maintains its status as the Netherlands’ most prestigious church. Since 1814 the church has hosted the inauguration of Dutch monarchs including the reigning Queen Beatrix, who also chose the church for her heir’s 2002 marriage ceremony. The church also houses the Royal Crypt, and a burial site for Dutch naval heroes, including the famous Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter and Commodore Jan Van Galen.
First built at the turn of the 15th century, the original building was burnt to ashes in the 17th century before being faithfully reconstructed in its original early Renaissance and Gothic style, including its magnificent bell tower. Today, the church is one of the city’s most beloved monuments and, although no longer used for public services, is a popular exhibition space, hosting a number of temporary art and history events.
More Things to Do in Amsterdam
As the name might suggest, the Homomonument, located in the center of Amsterdam, pays homage to the struggles of gay men and women fighting for equity and freedom. The memorial, which includes three large pink granite triangles, was opened in 1987 and is the first in the world to honor gays and lesbians who lost their lives at the hands of Nazis. In 2011, another such monument was erected in Barcelona that was modeled after the famous Homomonument.
Travelers looking to explore the history and culture of Amsterdam may want to include a visit to this iconic destination en route to the Anne Frank museum. Travelers say that while it’s easy to miss, the pink triangle monument recognizing some 600,000 who died during the Holocaust.
Located in a terrace of sprawling 17th-century mansions along Herengracht in Amsterdam’s UNESCO-listed Canal Ring, the Willet-Holthuysen Museum forms the elegant backdrop to a wonderful collection of fine paintings, antique furnishings and decorative pieces. Owned in the 19th century by the wealthy Willet family of avid art collectors, the house and its contents were later donated to the city. Today it forms the best example of 19th-century style and decoration in the city.
The carefully restored interior, decorated in rich blues, gold and greens, is typical of the indulgent lifestyle of Amsterdam’s prosperous merchant classes. Above stairs there’s a ballroom, library, dining room, salons and a bedroom complete with an ornately carved four-poster bed; they are all kitted out with silverware, silk wallpaper, gold-embellished Meissen porcelain, hand-embroidered curtains and beautifully crafted furniture.
Amsterdam is known for its canals and bridges – the city boats 165 canals and more than 1,200 bridges. One of the most popular bridges is known as the Bridge of 15 Bridges, named as such because it is the only place in Amsterdam where you can see as many as 15 of the city’s bridges. While it is a great spot any time of day, it is particularly impressive at night when the bridges are illuminated. It is also considered one of the most romantic spots in Amsterdam.
To spot all 15 bridges, make your way to Thorbeckeplein, which is adjacent to Rembrandtplein. Walk south to Herengracht and, at the intersection of Reguliersgracht and Herengracht, stand on the odd-numbered side of the street. With your back to Thorbeckeplein, you can see six bridges across the Reguliersgracht and gazing down the Herengracht to your left, you can see another six bridges. Two more bridges are visible to your right and the 15th bridge is the one you are standing on.
The Oude Kerk (or Old Church) is the city's oldest surviving building, consecrated in 1306. Yet the location of this triple-nave, late-Gothic church embodies a huge moral contradiction: it's in full view of the Red Light District, with passers-by getting chatted up a stones throw from the church walls.
Still, this Gothic-style church rewards visitors with one of the finest carillons in the country, the city's oldest church bell (1450), and a stunning Christian Müller organ that’s still used for recitals. Check out the lively 15th century carvings on the choir stalls, some of which are downright rude.
The floor of the church consists entirely of gravestones, as the church itself was built on a cemetery. There are 2,500 graves in the Oude Kerk, under which are buried 10,000 Amsterdam citizens, including Rembrandt's first wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Rembrandt himself visited the Oude Kerk often, and his children were all christened here.
Since opening its doors back in 1864, the Tropenmuseum, or ‘Museum of the Tropics’, has amassed 175,000 objects from Dutch colonies around the world, making it one of the largest museums in Amsterdam.
Split into eight sizable permanent exhibitions, the items showcase the daily life and possessions of Dutch overseas residents and provide a fascinating glimpse into the diverse cultures and traditions of inhabitants around the globe. Each exhibit focuses on a different geographical region, with Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, all getting a nod. Other key attractions include a vast collection of over 150,000 photographs dating from 1855–1940; a theatrical exhibition featuring masks, puppets and musical instruments from around the world; and a Junior sub-museum, with a series of interactive exhibitions and events, including dance, art and cooking, aimed at children.
The Museum Van Loon is located in a fine mansion overlooking the Keizersgracht canal; it was designed by Adriaen Dortsman in 1672 and the house’s first tenant was Ferdinand Bol, a pupil of Rembrandt. Between 1884 and 1945 it was home to the Van Loon family, who founded the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) and were one of the wealthiest families in Amsterdam. Today this is one of the few 17th-century canal-side townhouses in Amsterdam to have retained its original integrity and the elegant double-fronted mansion still stands with its vast proportions intact. It certainly reflected the Van Loon family’s elevated social standing by its sheer size, with grand apartments stuffed with Louis XV furniture, fine porcelain and precious silverware leading on to a procession of yet more ornate rooms.
Michel de Klerk was the leading architect of the early 20th-century Amsterdam School movement, and his legacy is the foremost example of the style in the city. Greatly influenced by the works of Hendrik Berlage, the designer of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange (Beurs van Berlage), De Klerk’s Het Schip is found just north of the Westerpark and was completed in 1921. It was to be his swansong, a vast apartment building intended to provide social housing for more than 100 families of railway employees to combat a severe housing crises in the city. Beautifully formed in the shape of an ocean liner and constructed from red brick, Het Schip is adorned with elaborate masonry, spiky towers, spires, ornate glass and wrought-iron grid-work. When it was completed, the complex also incorporated a school, meeting hall and a post office; the latter is today a museum of Amsterdam School architecture featuring a typical working-class apartment of the 1920s.
Designed by architect Adolf Leonard van Gendt, the 19th-century building, located right in front of the Rijksmuseum, was inspired by the famous 18th-century Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig. Fashioned mostly in a Dutch Neo-Renaissance style, the impressive building includes a classic monumental facade and a gilded lyre atop its roof.
To fully experience the Concertgebouw’s spectacular interiors and acoustic prowess, attend one of the 445 annual concerts held in the main hall. Why not take an evening Theatre Tour to learn more about the intricate architecture before experiencing a live performance. Those on a budget can get a taster of events to come by attending the free 30-minute rehearsal slots held at midday, each Wednesday between September and June.
The old heart of Amsterdam runs from the throbbing Dam Square – home of the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace) – south down to the great cobbled public square of Nieuwmarkt. Once bordering a canal that was filled in around 1601, Nieuwmarkt is today packed with bars and cafés and is the gateway to both Chinatown and the Red Light District, which lies a couple of streets west between the parallel canals of Oudezijds Voorburgwaal and Oudezijds Achterburgwaal. The central focus of Nieuwmarkt is the city’s last surviving fortified gate; constructed around 1425, the spiky-spired De Waag sits in the middle of the plaza and was originally one of three entrance gates into the city through the fortified walls.
Currently under renovation (penned to finish before summer 2015), the upper stories of De Waag are only occasionally open for special exhibitions but its lower floors are occupied by the Restaurant-Café in de Waag, which serves drink and food all day long
The miniscule but informative Tulip Museum is just across Prinsengracht canal from the Anne Frank House and has recently has a major revamp. The all-new displays take a colourful and cheery look at Amsterdam’s obsession with tulips in the 17th century, when the bulbs were imported from the Himalayas and sold on the open market in The Netherlands. For years they were more highly prized than gold and prices became so over-inflated that the country nearly went bankrupt when trade in the bulbs collapsed in 1637. This sorry tale of national folly is related in a series of basement exhibitions alongside cleverly designed woodcuts showing the journey of tulips from the Far East into Europe. Today’s multi-million-euro Dutch bulb industry is also showcased against the stunning backdrop of vast photos of tulips in glorious technicolor that adorn the walls. On the ground level of the museum is one of Amsterdam’s classier souvenir stores.
Amsterdam is a city crammed with museums and galleries, but for the definitive history of the city itself, head to the Historisch Museum, or the Amsterdam Historical Museum, located just off Kalverstraat shopping street.
From its origins as a tiny, riverside settlement to the modern sprawling metropolis, the museum’s permanent exhibitions trace the city’s evolution. Exhibits feature everything from Dutch trading to bicycle use in the city, with special rooms focusing on WWII, gay rights and the city’s famously liberal drug policies. Interactive displays, a series of paintings by the Dutch Old Masters and a 17th-century style reconstructed café liven things up.
The Historical Museum is housed in a 17th century building, formerly home to the City Orphanage, and its classical facade is still adorned with the Amsterdam Coat of Arms above its entrance. Inside, rooms are circled around a central courtyard and the David & Goliath restaurant.
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