1. Visit Dam Square: Holland’s heart
Dam square (or “de Dam”) marks the city centre, with the red light district practically behind it on the east side (read more about that below). The name Amsterdam literally stands for: “The dam on Amstel River”. The city was built around Dam Square. As the city grew, canals were built around it.
The Dam is the heart of the city, and to most Dutch, it is also the symbolic heart of the country. If there’s an important national demonstration or gathering, it will happen either here or in The Hague, which is the country’s political centre.
On the side of the Dam you will see a concrete pillar, which is a World War II Monument. This is also the starting point of a great free walking tour. A good way to start your visit. Book in advance here or come early.
2. Take a Canal Boar Tour
No, this is not just something your grandma would do. With 165 canals, Amsterdam has more canals than Venice, so calling Amsterdam “Venice of the North” would be an understatement. Skip the “Hop on, Hop off” bus for once. If you want to experience this city to the fullest, then a canal tour is an absolute must, even if you’ve already done a walking tour. Take any of the companies near central station, or even cooler (and more affordable) is the open boat tour, where you go on an small sloop. [website]
3. Visit the Rijksmuseum
One of world’s most famous museums offers many Dutch masters like Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer. You’ll probably recognize some of them. The museums masterpiece is Rembrandt’s: The Night’s Watch. Take a look at the Rijksmuseum building too. It was built in 1885 and in 2013 the tunnel was reopened for cyclists.
4 …and the Van Gogh Museum
There’s not much to say here, is there? The Van Gogh Museum has the largest collection of the famous painter, including the Sunflowers and the Potato Eaters. Like most museums, be sure to buy your tickets in advance if you’re not a fan of waiting.
5. The Anne Frank house?
Have you read Anne Frank’s diary? Anne Frank was a Jewish girl who had to hide in Amsterdam from the Nazi occupation during second world war. Eventually she was deported and killed in Germany.
If you’re in Amsterdam during peak season, then either book 2 months in advance or reconsider going here at all. Many tourists see this as a highlight but the Anne Frank house is small, and there are always very long queues, so unless you’re a huge fan of the book, avoid it. There are so much other things you could to in this city during those waiting hours. A good alternative is the Jewish History Museum (Grote Synagoge), which covers life during wartime even better.
6. Visit the Scheepvaartmuseum (Shipping Museum)
The Scheepvaartmuseum (Shipping museum) is quite a sight with it’s magnificent ship to remind us of the golden age when Holland was the world’s greatest trade nation. The museum covers info about the Dutch trade routes and discoveries like New York (New Amsterdam), South Africa, Indonesia and Australia.
7. Like beer? Visit one of Amsterdam’s many breweries and taste some quality beers!
However, if Heineken is not your cup of beer (and we won’t blame you), check out some of the smaller craft breweries inside the bars:
Not too far from that Scheepvaartmuseum mentioned above, you will find “Brouwerij ‘t IJ” . It’s a brewery inside a mill where they make their own craft beers. It has a really nice terrace. If you want to visit another brewery, more inside the city centre, there is “De Prael” brewery near central station and “De Bekeerde Suster” , which only brews once a week at the Nieuwmarkt square.
Away from the tourist area, north of the IJ river, you will find Oedipus Brewery at Gedempt Hamerkanaal 85. Their terrace is open at friday and saturday, but be sure to visit their facebook-page for parties and special events.
Want to taste them all? Visit the Arendsnest bar at Herengracht 90.They serve more than 50 Dutch beers
7.2 Don’t like beer? Try some Dutch Gin
Did you know Gin is originally a Dutch invention? Gin is actually an English attempt to replicate the popular Dutch Jenever, or Genever of which the word Gin was an abbreviation before it became its own thing. Taste a wide range of Dutch jenevers at Tasting Tavern Wynand Fockink , just behind Dam square. They make and sell some of the best.
8. Rent a bicycle or do a bike tour
Amsterdammers will be proud to tell you that the city has more bicycles than inhabitants. Do as the Dutch do, because bicycles are their main form of transportation. Here, going by bike is not a workout. It’s the perfect way to get from point A to point B.
You can rent a bike near Central Station. Ask your accommodation for a good offer.
10. So what about the sex and legal drugs?
There is only one kind of drugs legal in Amsterdam, and it’s not marijuana. Cannabis is illegal in Amsterdam, but tolerated. You can buy it at a “Coffee shop” (actual coffee can be found at a Café ;)). It’s allowed to have weed or hashish (up to 5 grams in a public area, 30 grams in a private area). You can only smoke it at home or in designated areas (Coffee shops).
Then there is a legal psychedelic drug called Magic Truffles. The truffle is the fruiting body of a Magic Mushroom, grown to stay underground until harvested.
If you’re interested in magic truffles. Go to what Amsterdam calls a “Smartshop” or a “Headshop”. There are a couple of them in the Warmoesstraat between central station and the Red Light district. The strongest species is the Psilocybe Hollandia.
However, if you take this drug be prepared for an intense, overwhelming experience. If you have never taken mushrooms or LSD in the past, start with half a portion. If you’re not satisfied after 2 hours, take the second half. Results vary because no body and no magic truffle is exactly the same.
Make sure you are comfortable before using them, a trip can take upto 6 hrs. Most people dislike the taste; it’s like sour walnuts, so get something like chocolate to eat with it. Be aware that any positive or negative feelings or struggles in life you may have, might come out during the trip, whether you are aware of them or not. Be prepared! Set and setting is everything. Do not take these in a crowded environment, but take them in a park or in your room. Be sure to have a friend looking after you.
Then there’s that other major tourist attraction: The Red Light District . It may scare you off but actually, this is the safest area in town. There’s a lot of police watching and making sure no laws are broken. This is no sleazy neighbourhood, but the heart of the city. Luckily, most of the hostels can be found in this area.
Eating and Nightlife
If you like shopping and street food. Then visit the largest street food market in Holland: The Albert Cuypmarkt . Immerge youself in some good Gouda cheese, eat a herring, a kebab and a stroopwaffle.
In summer, a good place to eat is “Hanneke’s Boom” near central station. It has a very hippyesque atmosphere (if that’s a word) and not too many tourists go there. It’s on the side of the IJ river, so you can watch boats while enjoying your meal.
Time for beer and a good snack? Visit cafe Gollem . They have great fresh meat platters, croquettes, burgers, and a wide selection of craft beers.
They offer a wide variety of great sauces, Belgian style.
If you are 26-30+, A great club I recommend is Club NL . It has a very easy-going, relaxed atmosphere. The music is very basic (deep house, techno), but this is a great place to actually meet some people.
Vondelpark In the city centre is a beautiful public park with a great lake, an open-air theatre and a playground.
Blijburg Beach is a 15-minute tram-ride (nr 20) from central station. There are usually bands here playing live music. If you are done relaxing, there are some nice bars here that will keep you active until the late hours.
Did you know?..
It’s easy to fall in love with this city, so someone made a fact-sheet of all its insane quirks and awesomeness, check out the 25 insane facts about Amsterdam.
Hidden gems worth mentioning
Have more time? Go off the beaten track for some unique parts of Amsterdam:
Electric Ladyland A psychedelic museum of fluorescent art. It’s run by a cool hippie from New Jersey. He loves to talk about his stones and art. He will tell you passionately about the geography of the stones, the science, the history, everything. A very unique experience!
Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (“Our Dear Lord in the Attic”) is a former catholic clandestine church based in a 17th century canal house. Catholic dissenters prayed here when Amsterdam was under protestant rule. They were not allowed to worship their faith in public.
De Grote Synagoge is a former synagogue which houses the Jewish History museum tells the history of the Jewish community in Amsterdam, especially during World War II. Opened in 1671 it’s one of the oldest and largest synagogues in Western Europe. The prominent placement in the city center is typical for Dutch tolerance.
The Rembrandhuis museum has a nice collection of Rembrands etches. Rembrandt lived here for 19 years. Here you can learn everything about how he worked, and what kind of person he was. If you’re not a huge fan, the museum isn’t too interesting. For me, the old wooden building and the decorations made it worth my time.
The Grachtenhuis museum explains how Amsterdam was built on stilts because the city was literally built on top of the river. This construction caused many houses to sink in the river. Learn how the canal district was formed in this awesome interactive museum.
Tropenmuseum If you aren’t done learning about the (former) Dutch colonies after visiting the Scheepvaartmuseum (6), visit the Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics), which was originally opened in 1864 to showcase Dutch overseas possessions in South America, Southeast Asia and South Africa. Today it’s criticising colonialism and more about immersing yourself into foreign cultures to understand the multicultural world we all live in. The cafe here is excellent.
The Hermitage is a branch museum of the Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg, and therefore the only museum outside of Russia that’s allowed to display Russia-owned art. The permanent exhibitions describe the Netherlands-Russia relations and the building’s history. See if the temporary exhibitions are worth your time before planning a visit.
Marineterrein Just behind the Scheepvaartmuseum, you will find the old naval grounds where ships used to dock. In January 2016, the area has been opened for public for the first time. It’s a peaceful place, and you can take some nice photo’s of the city and the harbour.
If you want to go out of the city for a day, consider the beautiful city of Utrecht, which is a nice old student-city with a Cathedral, about 15 minutes by train. Leiden is another smaller student city, about the same distance.
Came to holland to check out some mills? Go to the Zaanse Schans. It’s a collection of old working mills in an open air museum setting. Expect a lot of tourists there.
The town next to it (Zaandam) has a good shopping centre and interesting architecture next to the main station. Ask your ho(s)tel for directions and information. They should know all about these places.
Amsterdam Central Station
Are you into cultural artistic districts like Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, Doel in Belgium and Užupis in Vilnius?
If so, be sure to visit Amsterdam’s Ruigoord district. It’s a cozy place where people come together to have fun in an hippiesque atmosphere. Concerts are often held inside the former church where some good beers are served.
Ruigoord is a tolerant place, full of graffiti and artists, where differences are celebrated.