Things to Do in Amsterdam
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.
Visitors to Amsterdam, feel the fear. Just how many ways were there to die in the old city? Find out at the Amsterdam Dungeon as you experience the city’s horrible past – you’ll encounter plague victims, suffer tortured screams as the Spanish Inquisition comes to town and hear the dying groans of scurvy-ridden sailors as their ship Batavia sails into the Doldrums. Drop through the darkness into the bowels of the earth on simulator rides and despair as you lose your way in the Labyrinth of the Lost. New among the 11 terrifying actor-led interactive shows at the Dungeon in ‘Murder on the Zeedijk’ – just when will the moaning spirit of lonely Helena ambush you?
If you like your horror with a modicum of kitsch and humor, then this is the place for you. But be warned, while most teenagers will love the Amsterdam Dungeon, it’s probably not the place for young kids.
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’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.
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.
Built in the late 17th century, the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam is one of the most significant legacies of Jewish history in the entire city. During the 16th and 17th, century when the Jewish community was facing persecution in Spain and Portugal, many fled to Amsterdam and the concept of building the biggest synagogue in the world began.
Building of the Portuguese Synagogue began in 1671 and was complete in 1675. Restorations have been made over the years but overall it stands today as it did over 300 years ago. Still in use by the Jewish community in Amsterdam, it also attracts swathes of visitors who come to marvel at its ancient architecture and beguiling interior.
The synagogue is located in a complex that also houses a number of other buildings, including the rabbinate, a mortuary, and the Ets Haim (Tree of Life) library, which is home to a valuable collection of Sephardic Jewish manuscripts.
Get a look at Amsterdam from a different vantage point at the A'DAM Tower's observation deck, known as the A’dam Lookout. Twenty-two floors up, visitors are treated to an unrivaled view of one of the world's most iconic cities, including its historic center, vibrant port and polder landscape, which was reclaimed from below-sea level by the rerouting of water through Amsterdam's famous canals.
A'DAM Tower boasts a 360-degree sky deck and an indoor panorama deck, allowing travelers to view the city from all angles no matter the weather conditions. Inside the tower is a selection of bars, restaurants and even a nightclub and a hotel, plus an interactive exhibition covering Amsterdam's history and culture. Although the tower may look new, it first opened in 1971 before undergoing a complete refurbishment in 2016, with the addition of a massive swing that sends thrill-seekers careening back and forth over the top edge (thankfully, in a full-body harness).
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.
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
More Things to Do in Amsterdam
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.
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.
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.
Amsterdam is known for its wide streets, classic museums, and colorful canals. It is also known for its coffeehouse culture and open-minded approach to cannabis and prostitution. Visitors flock to see the city’s Red Light District, where prostitution is legal and very much out in the open. Red Light Secrets, located in the heart of the area, is the world’s only museum dedicated to prostitution — offering an eye-opening glimpse into the profession and its history in Amsterdam.
Housed in a traditional 17th-century canal house, the small museum aims to educate curious visitors without entering a brothel. Full scale replicas of luxury brothel suites, wardrobe displays, interviews with prostitutes about their daily lives, and even the chance to step into a florescent, red-lit window all seek to grant insight. The building itself was once home to an operating brothel, facilitating an authentic experience.
Running from Amsterdam Central railway station to Dam Square, The Damrak is often called the "Red Carpet" of Amsterdam. For it is the first site, in all its bustling glory, that visitors see when they exit the train.
The Damrak, as the center of the city, is a bustling thoroughfare, filled with souvenir shops, hotels, and restaurants. Two famous buildings also make their home here: the Beurs van Berlage (the former stock exchange) and the famous mall, the Bijenkorf. From the station, the street ends at Dam Square, site of events and demonstrations of all kinds.
The Damrak is the original mouth of the Amstel River - rak being a reach, or straight stretch of water. In the 19th century, the canal was filled in, except for the canal-boat docks on the east side. Before you reach the Stock Exchange you’ll see a body of water. This is all that remains of the erstwhile harbor. The gabled houses backing onto the water are among the town’s most picturesque.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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