Take a Canal Tour
No visitor should miss out on a waterborne tour of the splendid canals of Amsterdam. The canals were declared a UNESCO monument in 2010. They aren't just a picturesque attraction—they were essential to defense and transport in the 17th century. Hundreds of canals were filled in nationwide to accommodate the new mode of transport when the automobile arrived, but Amsterdam has retained 165 of its historic canals, more than any other Dutch city.
A canal tour makes for a wonderful first impression because the tour boats take in much of the monumental architecture that lines the Canal Belt, four concentric semicircles that loop around the the historic Center. Although any canal tour will be an experience to remember, the options are plentiful: hop aboard an open-top boat from the St. Nicolaas Boat Club, or charter a private boat or a special themed or catered tour.
Amsterdam's Historic Canals
Explore Dutch Art From the Old Masters to Mondriaan
Dozens of Amsterdam museums are devoted to the fine arts, which the Netherlands has pioneered for centuries. Rembrandt, a household name, has his own dedicated museum, the Rembrandt House Museum (Museum het Rembrandthuis). Its restored interior reproduces the atmosphere of the artist's former residence, but his classic De Nachtwacht resides at the Rijksmuseum, one of Amsterdam's top museums, next to thousands of invaluable masterworks across the scope of Dutch art history.
Amsterdam promises just as much for lovers of modern art: Its most visited museum, the Van Gogh Museum, is a tribute to the post-impressionist painter whose inventive technique and sympathetic subject matter have earned him countless admirers. The Stedelijk Museum has reopened for another temporary exhibit despite its renovation and is another can't-miss destination for modern art enthusiasts. Its Erezaal (Hall of Honor) is bedecked with classic canvases from Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Yves Klein and other celebrated artists.
More Amsterdam Art Museums
Remember Anne Frank and the Dutch World War II Experience
The Netherlands didn't escape the horrors of World War II. Memorials like the Dutch National Monument, the Homomonument and others commemorate the victims of this war, and three spectacular museums are devoted in whole or in part to this period.
The Anne Frank House is one such museum. Visitors can explore the secret annex where Anne hid for years with her parents, sister and three others as she composed her famous diary. Even the Gestapo soldiers who found them could scarcely believe the cramped existence these people lived out in the clandestine rooms. Brave individuals like the couple who harbored the Franks were part of the Dutch Resistance movement, and a museum is also dedicated to them: the Verzetsmuseum. It documents the tireless attempts of the resistance members to thwart the Nazis and has been voted the best historical museum in the Netherlands. The Jewish Historical Museum retells how the Holocaust devastated Jewish communities in the Netherlands and how these communities have rebuilt themselves in its wake. Few visitors are left unmoved by the powerful exhibits at these museums.
- Amsterdam Museum
Stop and Smell the Flowers
Tulips and other bulb flowers are the pride of the Netherlands, and nowhere is this more evident than at Keukenhof. The world famous bulb flower park in Lisse is 35 to 40 minutes by bus from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. Stroll past rows upon rows of vibrantly hued tulips in this outdoor wonderland. Flower lovers come from far and wide to admire the seasonal blooms.
If you can't make it for tulip season, don't despair—there are other flowers year-round. The Amsterdam Tulip Museum is a temple to the Netherlands' favorite flower with exhibits that show off its manifold breeds. It revisits the cultural history of the tulip from "tulipmania" to the present. The Bloemenmarkt (Flower Market) is a complex of stalls that float atop a canal for an utterly unique experience. Specially-packed tulip and other bulbs are available for international tourists to take safely back to their home countries. There's also the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam, whose flower and plant exhibits are sure to please any botanically-inclined visitor.
Explore De Wallen
Take a stroll in De Wallen, Amsterdam's red light district, to see what all the fuss is about ... and learn that there's more to this fabled district than the sex tourism it attracts. The red-lit windows where sex workers primp are often attached to historic townhouses, and monumental architecture abounds in this sliver of the city. The Oude Kerk (Old Church) was established in 1306 and presides over its own square. Museum Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic) is a former clandestine church sequestered in a townhouse attic. It testifies to a time when Catholic worship was forbidden—before the Netherlands became known worldwide as a beacon of tolerance. De Wallen is also home to a number of fine restaurants, and it's just a stone's throw from the diverse eateries of Amsterdam Chinatown.
And then, of course, there's the adult entertainment. The live sex shows at Casa Rosso and Bananenbar are popular with couples as well as bachelor and bachelorette parties and others, but performance reviews are ambivalent. Prostitution isn't limited to "windows." There are also brothels and escort services that cater to more discreet clients. Be aware that prostitution in Amsterdam is not without its problems behind the scenes. Some sex workers are still coerced into the trade. Look for the "Pimp-Free Zone" stickers on window brothels for responsible fun. Take an informative tour of De Wallen with a former sex worker for a behind-the-scenes look at Dutch prostitution.
Hop on a Bicycle
Just about everyone cycles in Amsterdam and not just for fun. Fifty percent of locals use their bikes daily, and rush hour bike lanes teem with office workers in suits, students headed to class, and parents with tots piled into children's seats. Join the locals for a taste of this daily ritual and discover the city on its favorite means of transport.
Rental bikes are available all over town, from inconspicuous Dutch omafietsen (also known as "Dutch bikes") to ones that clearly hail from a rental company—an effective way of warning locals that a possibly inexperienced cyclist is at the handlebars. Specialized bike maps like the Amsterdam op de fiets map ("Amsterdam by Bicycle," available for EUR 4 at the VVV tourist information center) are an indispensable resource for first-time cyclists in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam Bike Safety
Taste Traditional Dutch Cuisine and That of its Former Colonies
Traditional Dutch cuisine typically consists of comfort food to warm one's insides in the cold season, which can feel eternal some years, but favorites like erwtensoep (split pea soup) and stamppot boerenkool (mashed potatoes streaked with curly kale) are eaten all year. Pancakes are treated like pizza, loaded with extras like ham and bacon. Wheels of artisanal Gouda stare out at window shoppers from the best cheese vendors, and French fries are consumed in abundance.
Sometimes it's nice to dip into more exotic fare. This is where two of the Netherlands' former colonies—vastly distant countries—come in: Indonesia and Suriname. The rijsttafel, a Dutch colonial invention that assembles dishes from all over Indonesia, is a veritable attraction in itself. Dozens of tapas-sized portions allow diners to sample a variety of Indonesian recipes.
Surinamese is a South American cuisine spiked with Afro-Caribbean, South Asian, Indonesian and Chinese flavors, courtesy of its intensely multicultural population. Surinamese eateries are typically casual affairs that dole out impossible portions for moderate prices. Both cuisines are rare outside their home countries, so the opportunity to experience them is one that shouldn't be missed.
Tastes of Amsterdam
Get Out of Town
I once met a woman who'd come to visit a relative in a city 40 minutes south of Amsterdam. She didn't realize until the final day of her two-week trip how effortless it is to travel between cities and towns in the Netherlands. The most populous cities are concentrated in the central west, the so-called "Randstad." Train travel to these cities—Haarlem, Delft, Leiden and others—is a cinch. Most cities in the Randstad are less than an hour from Amsterdam by train, and hardly any city in the Netherlands is farther away than three hours. This makes the capital a convenient hub for day-trippers to anywhere in the country.
But where to start? A day trip I like to recommend to first-time visitors is Zaanse Schans, a town that's chock-full of traditional Dutch crafts and architecture. It offers six windmills, a wooden shoe workshop, a cheese farm and more. Ceramics lovers shouldn't miss the historic center of Delft where the beloved "Delft blue" porcelain is produced. The list of wonderful cities and towns to see in the Randstad alone is endless, so read up in advance to find your ideal day trip from Amsterdam.
Day Trip Resources
Experience the Cannabis Coffeeshop Culture
Amsterdam is one of those rare places where you can purchase reputable quality weed and/or hash in a public transaction and not be branded a criminal. Almost half a million travelers come to Amsterdam each year expressly because of its cannabis coffee shops, and a quarter of all visitors step into a coffee shop at least once on their trip.
These establishments haven't turned the city into a den of depravity—far from it. For cannabis smokers, coffee shops are simply a laid-back alternative to cafes. You can relax with a joint and a cup of coffee, share a "space cake" with friends, or even have a full post-smoke meal. I find that individual coffee shops can even be attractions in themselves, not unlike small-scale museums with a focus on an alternative culture and its self-expression. Each has its own unique atmosphere and scene, and a few are veritable institutions. See my list of the top three coffee shops in Amsterdam to learn more about these industry leaders.
Amsterdam for Cannabis Smokers
Buy Yourself Happy at Amsterdam's Retail Hot Spots
Amsterdam is often overshadowed as a fashion capital by the nearby sartorial stars of Paris and Antwerp, but it sure is a fun place to shop. Retail outlets line the P.C. Hooftstraat—think Prada, Gucci and Versace. Unique, independent boutiques fill the Nine Streets area. Amsterdam administers retail therapy to shoppers of all stripes.
It also has an abundant share of specialty shops from toiletries to interior decor, and my favorite: culinary delicacies. Stroll down Nieuwendijk and Haarlemmerstraat, both just minutes from Central Station, for a sample of the fine specialty food stores in town, from cheese, oil and salt specialists to international importers.
Some locals will claim that there's no better place to drop a few euros than the beloved outdoor markets of Amsterdam. From fashion and art and antiques to food, there's a market for it. Most are open year-round, but April to September is peak season thanks to the abundance of sunny days.
Amsterdam for Shoppers