The Best-Visited Attractions in One of Europe's Top Destinations
Each year, the Dutch tourist board (NBTC) releases the latest statistics on Netherlands tourism, and it's not just for industry insiders: the report lists the latest tourist hotspots in the Netherlands (Dutch only) in the form of two top-50 lists, one for international and one for domestic (Dutch) tourists.
In 2015, there were 12 attractions that drew a million international visitors or more - down from 14 in the previous year, but the country did hit other tourism milestones: the tourist board reports that, for the first time, the number of American visitors surpassed one million. The rise in American tourists in recent years is likely due to the rise of the dollar vis-à-vis the euro. Furthermore, Euromonitor International reported this year that Amsterdam is one of the top 10 European cities for international visitors - behind metropolises such as London and Paris, but ahead of Venice at #10. (So perhaps Amsterdam is less the "Venice of the North" than Venice is the "Amsterdam of the South" ...)
The domestic and international lists overlap considerably; domestic tourists, however, put in more visits to theme parks, zoos, and athletic centers - that is, facilities that aren't particularly unique to the Netherlands. (Some of the countries theme parks and zoos, however - like the fantastic Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam, #5 on the domestic list - are star destinations, especially for visitors with kids.)
Below, find a round-up of the top five attractions for international tourists in the Netherlands, each with well over a million visitors in 2015.
Zaanse Schans (1.6 million visitors in 2015)
The most visited attractions for international tourists, hands-down, is Zaanse Schans - a bastion of old-world Dutch traditions just a half-hour's commute from cosmopolitan Amsterdam.
Zaanse Schans isn't technically an open-air museum, but it sure feels like one; rather, it's an enclave within the city of Zaandam (population ca. 75,000) where, from the mid-20th century on, a small town's worth of historic architecture - from houses to windmills - has been relocated for preservation purposes.
Now, much of the restored architecture doubles as museums of Dutch industry and crafts. The site's classic Dutch windmills are open to the public in tourist season. Several of the attractions are dedicated to food and drink: a cheese farm that produces the country's famous Gouda cheese; a bakery museum in a typical 17th-century house that churns out the local specialty of duivenkater, a sweet white bread; a distillery museum where visitors can sample artisanal liqueurs; and even a replica of the first location of the country's most famous supermarket, Albert Heijn. There's also a wooden shoe factory, a pewter foundry and a coopery, all traditional Dutch crafts.
How to Reach Zaanse Schans
From Amsterdam Central Station (CS), take the Alkmaar-bound Sprinter train to Koog-Zaandijk; Zaanse Schans is a 20-minute walk east of the station, on the other side of the Zaan River. Travel time is about 30 minutes. Another option is to take bus 391 from the north side (IJzijde) of Amsterdam CS directly to Zaanse Schans (no walk required); this takes 45 minutes.
Van Gogh Museum (1.6 million visitors in 2015)
Few artists have captured the hearts of the public like Vincent van Gogh, and the numbers prove it: the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is one of the most visited art museums in the world. In 2015, this shrine to the Dutch post-Impressionist painter boasted nearly a half-million more visitors than the Rijksmuseum, whose expansive collection represents the pinnacles of Dutch art history. (Savvy readers will note that the museums' places were reversed in 2014 when the Rijksmuseum re-opened after an extensive ten-year renovation.)
Van Gogh was born in the province of Noord-Brabant, where he learned to paint as a schoolchild in the southern city of Tilburg. Despite his close association with southern France, he spent most of his life in Brabant; he lived only briefly in Amsterdam, where he studied to become a pastor. Visitors interested in the artist's life in the Netherlands can look at this list of sites that commemorated the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh's birth in 2015.
Van Gogh Museum Visitor Information
Museumplein 6, 1017 DJ Amsterdam
Open daily, mid-March to mid-July and October, 9 am to 6 pm (Fridays until 10 pm); mid-July to September, 9 am to 7 pm (Fridays until 10 pm, Saturday until 9 pm); all other times of the year, 9 am to 9 pm (Fridays until 10 pm).
Admission: Adults, € 17. Free entry for visitors under 18. Free with the I amsterdam City Card and Museumkaart; for more information, see Amsterdam Tourist Discount Cards.
Directions: Take tram 2 or 5 to Van Baerlestraat, tram 12 to Museumplein, or bus 170 or 172 to Rijksmuseum or Museumplein.
Canal Company Boat Tours (1.2 million visitors in 2015)
A boat tour of some of the world's most celebrated canals is a must for any visitor to Amsterdam, and no canal tour operator is more popular than Canal Company. Founded in 1984, Canal Company has offered consistently solid service to visitors, with a convenient departure point just steps from Amsterdam Central Station, and round-the-clock tours every day of the week. Their #1 Canal Cruise traces a classic, one-hour itinerary of the city's must-see landmarks, while catered tours offer a more leisurely route on the city's canals.
However, the Canal Company is far from the only canal-tour operator in Amsterdam, and I'd dare say that if all the others were considered, "canal tours" as a whole would top this list of most-visited attractions. Visitors can find a more personalized, and unique, canal-tour experience with some of the city's less conventional tour operators: Those Dam Boat Guys entertain with ribald commentary and a convivial atmosphere; Plastic Whale tours let visitors pitch in to eliminate plastic waste from the city's canals; KINboat's skippers narrate their tours ex tempore as their electric boats ply the waters; and Leemster Canal Cruises sail the waters on classic boats. Learn more about these and other canal-tour operators on Amsterdam Travel.
Anne Frank Huis (1.2 million visitors in 2015)
Everyone knows Anne Frank, the German Jewish writer whose diary is an incredible story of one Jewish family's will to survive in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam; it's little wonder that the "secret annex" where the family hid for two years, today known as the Anne Frank Huis, has become one of the city's most cherished attractions. The Frank family moved from Germany to Amsterdam in order to avoid Nazi persecution; when the Nazis took control of Amsterdam in 1940, the family had little recourse but to conceal themselves in these cramped quarters, their entrance hidden behind a bookcase in the office where Anne's father, Otto Frank, worked.
But the family was exposed; the Nazis discovered them and sent them to concentration camps in Germany, where all perished except for Otto. Upon his release after the war, he returned to the secret annex to find that one of the people who had helped hide the Frank family, Miep Gies, had saved Anne's diary.
Published as The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank's diary made her a household name - and in 2015, 1.2 million international visitors came to pay tribute to the writer's memory.
Anne Frank Huis Visitor Information
Prinsengracht 263-267, 1016 GV Amsterdam
Open daily, April to October from 9am to 10pm; November to March, 9am to 7pm (Saturdays until 9pm).
Admission: Adults, € 9. Visitors 10 to 17, € 4.50. Free entry for visitors 9 and under.
Directions: Take tram 13, 14 or 17 or bus 170, 172 or 174 to the Westermarkt stop.
Rijksmuseum (1.1 million visitors in 2015)
The Rijksmuseum has always enjoyed the popularity of one of Amsterdam's most visited attractions; even amid its recent ten-year renovation, when only a sliver of its vast collection was on view, visitors flocked unabated to this temple of Dutch art history. Since the newly renovated museum was unveiled in April 2013, however, the museum's popularity soared and even briefly eclipsed the Van Gogh Museum in visitor numbers.
The museum's collection totals about a million pieces, of which - even post-renovation - it can display only a fraction at a time; nonetheless, visitors are treated to a retrospective of some of the finest moments in Dutch art history. The museum is perhaps best known for its unrivaled collection of Dutch Masters, from Rembrandt to Jan Vermeer, but all periods of Dutch art are represented in the collection, from 15th-century ecclesiastical sculpture from Breda to the folk art-inspired CoBrA movement of the 20th century. The museum's other renowned collections comprise furniture, fashion, applied arts, weapons and armor, prints and Asian art. The museum also hosts temporary exhibits that feature both historic and contemporary artists and movements.
Tip: Spend a day at the Museumplein and see all of the city's most important museums back-to-back. Check out these recommendations for restaurants near the Museumplein for lunch and dinner, or click here to learn more about the vicinity of the Museum Quarter and the broader Oud Zuid (Old South).
Rijksmuseum Visitor Information
Museumstraat 1, 1071 XX Amsterdam
Open daily, 9 am to 5 pm.
Admission: € 17.50. Free entry for visitors under 18 and Museumkaart holders (note that the i amsterdam card is not valid for the Rijksmuseum!); for more information, see Amsterdam Tourist Discount Cards.
Directions: Take tram 2, 5 or 12 to the Rijksmuseum stop.