As we know, Amsterdam is a City that portrays the “anything goes” image – from prostitution that is tolerated openly and the use of cannabis in fashionable coffee shops. Amsterdam is also a seductive City, often referred to as the Venice of the North because of its canals and bridges. It is popular for its fairy-tale landscape which offers so much to see and experience from windmills, gingerbread houses and museums to marijuana, cheese and tulips. It makes a perfect destination for an amazing European City Break.
With only a weekend ahead of us, it was a little overwhelming to figure out what experiences that should not be missed and how to fit all of these into the time frame we had. Our weekend started on a Friday. We travelled from London to Amsterdam onboard the Eurostar, arriving at the Central Station. From here, we opted for a taxi to our hotel, which was just 10 minutes ride. This may sound silly, but travel can be hard work sometimes, with the planning and the must-see list etc. So, after a long week at work, we decided to “take it easy” on this trip although this is our first time in Amsterdam. We were fully aware that excitement can take over when one is visiting a City such as Amsterdam for the first time, but we decided not to have a “do-list” as such, where we must see all the touristic places. We decided to be flexible, be kind to ourselves, enjoy our 5-star hotel and make-up the visits as we go with the few ideas we already had. Whatever we could not visit this time, we will do so on our next.
In retrospect, our visit to Amsterdam on the ‘slow-side’ was an incredible experience. There are still places which we could have experienced but we are contented with all that we did without any stress or pressure of time. Listed here are 18 experiences which we hope that will help you plan your visit to Amsterdam.
Amsterdam, the capital of Netherlands originated from its growth as a city around a dam in the river Amstel. It is a progressive City which boasts an elaborate canal system that extends over 100 kilometres, 90 islands and has 1500 bridges. The are three main canals here which are Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht that forms a concentric belt around the city, known as the Amsterdam Canal Ring – for the locals, it is known as the grachtengordel. The Canal Ring is basically an intersection of waterways which were dug during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. There are 1550 monumental buildings alongside the main canals. The City is unique in that it offers a beautiful sight of gabled houses which line the streets on both sides of the canal and a unique experience (depends how you look at it) of witnessing little red neon lights, emanating from the infamous ‘Red Light District’ when the sun sets down. The City also has a rich artistic history and is home to the Van Gogh Museum, works by Rembrandt and Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum. The modern art is displayed at the Stedelijk. Outside of these, there are museums about cats, collection of handbags and photography, as well as archaeology. Amsterdam has dedicated cycle paths as cycling is key to the City’s character. We learnt that the number of bicycles in the City, of approximately one million outnumber the City’s approximately 750,000 residents, which seems incredible for a City that is quite small. Alongside all of these, the City’s long tradition of beer is being revolutionised by craft brewers, tulips flood the market streets and the Dutch cheese shops appear at every corner of the City.
The City Centre itself is small and it is easy to walk to many of the attractions if you do not want to hop onto the trams or buses. However, it is worthwhile purchasing The I Amsterdam Card for the duration of your stay, for example for 24, 48 or 72 hours. The Card offers you unlimited rides on all public transport within the City and free entry to almost all the museums. We purchased ours from the hotel, ready to explore the delightful City of Amsterdam, without a list!
- Dam Square
The Dam Square is the heart of Amsterdam City and it should be everyone’s first stop because it is from here that you can get to many places around the City. It is located at the original Amstel River Dam which was built in 1270. The Dam Square connects the Kalverstraat and the Nieuwendijk, which is a pedestrian-only street. It is one of the oldest streets in Amsterdam and is the main shopping street of the City. There are shops lined on both sides with major labels and chain stores. (Running parallel to Nieuwendijk is Damrak, which is the north-south route from the Dam Square to the Central Station). From this Square, you can access the Royal Palace which became the royal residence in 1808 but the building itself was built in 1655 as City Hall. You can also access the Nieuwe Kerk, (New Church) which was built in the 15th century. The National Monument was constructed in 1956 to honour the victims of WWII. You could also access Madame Tussauds from here and for those of you who want a little luxury shopping, head over to De Bijenkorf which is opened till late.
- The Oude Kerk – This is the Old Church that was built around 1213 and it is the oldest building in Amsterdam. It is huge, magnificent and boasts a gothic architecture which features characteristics of Catholic cathedrals.
It is ironic that this spiritual building dominates the Red-Light District! We stood at the church’s main entry and in-front of it, across the canal, we could see windows with sex workers in it.
- The Red Light District – It was our first experience to step into a Red-Light District. Personally, I did not know what to expect. I was a little apprehensive because Red Light areas are often associated with shady businesses like sex trafficking, drugs and gangs, where premises are often disguised as bars, massage parlours or clubs. So, yes, I was a little afraid of pimps even though I had my Knight with me 😊
Well, on both sides of the canal, we saw that there were plenty of sex shops, with prostitutes sitting in glass cubicles, like shop windows, and these were lit with red neon lights. There were also plenty of peep shows, brothels, an elaborate condom shop, a sex museum and live sex shows. Nothing was hidden. Everything was transparent and straight forward. As evening fell, the crowds started to build-up and soon was bustling with visitors and tourists. There were families, couples, groups and some seedier characters too, so you need to be careful of pickpockets etc when you are visiting here. As darkness fell, the ‘shop windows’ were beginning to fill, the long queues for the live sex shows were getting longer and the streets were getting more “neon-red” as darkness fell. So, too the increased scent of potent cannabis floating in the air. Although we did not witness any incidents and there was a heavy police presence with 24-hour video security surveillance, we would highly recommend travelling in pairs because of the sheer crowd that this area attracts. One thing to remember though, is that photographing the prostitutes are forbidden and this rule is strictly enforced. The Red Light District is not for everyone, and this is one place we will not be re-visiting.
- The Rembrandt Square – Here, you will find the statues reflecting Rembrandt’s famous work, “The Night Watch” and it is well-worth a visit. The Square is also significant as it is the centre for some of Amsterdam’s best restaurants and the many ‘trendy’ coffee shops which you could visit.
- Amsterdam coffee shops – offer a range of cannabis in small quantities to adults over the age of 18. It is perfectly legal for tourists to buy and enjoy weed, hash and marijuana in a safe environment. If you like the smell of weed, then you may think that the environment is pleasant, but I beg to differ, unfortunately.
- The Flower Market – in Amsterdam is a unique market that has existed since 1862. It is the most colourful and most fragrant part of the City. There are all sorts of tulips in all sorts of colours, which comes prepacked, singular or in bouquets. You can get them in bulbs too. There are also narcissus, geraniums and many other types of flowers that adds to the vibrant colours of the tulips.
- Albert Cuypstraat Market – If you want to experience a little of the local lifestyle, then head over to the Albert Cuyp Market because this is where the locals go! This market has been trading since 1904 and over 300 stalls line both sides of the street. You can find basically anything and everything here, from fridge magnets, keychains, souvenir clogs to chocolates laced with cannabis, fruits, spices and cheeses.
- Canal boat tour – When in Amsterdam, a canal boat tour is a Must as it offers visitors a unique window on the history of the City and the lifestyle of the people of Amsterdam. The canals are lined with pretty, gabled houses as well as 17th and 18th century mansions and many canal cafes. A canal cruise is an easy way to get acquainted with the City and learn its history.
There are many canal cruise-stops along any of the canals. Regardless of the season, you can do either a 1.5 hours or 2 hours tour. There are boat tours throughout the day with large boats that has plenty of seating and covered tops and there are smaller boats that take fewer visitors but with open tops.
The Canal bus is the hop-on, hop-off canal bus, which you may wish to consider as it stops at strategic places around the City Centre.
There was a canal cruise-stop right in front of the hotel we were staying at. We opted for a sunset tour of the canals, a smaller open top boat which included snacks and drinks for the duration of the one-and-a-half hour, journey plus a good narration of Amsterdam’s history. The evening cruise was very pleasant and mesmerising as the sun began to settle-down. The City looks different in the dark.
- The Jordaan Neighbourhood – This is a popular part of Amsterdam because it had undergone transformation in the 1970s. In the 17th century it was an area for the working class community but post 1970s, it has attracted the young professionals and the upper-middle class families. You will find trendy cafes, bars and galleries.
- The National Holocaust Memorial – Although we did not have a list of places to visit, we definitely wanted to visit the National Holocaust Memorial, at The Plantage, Amsterdam.
Our visit to the Holocaust Memorial was a sombre moment. It was heart-breaking to see the courtyard with messages attached to tulips placed on the wall. The courtyard was formerly, a luxurious theatre, in an affluent Jewish neighbourhood. Today it stands as a permanent reminder to the atrocities committed by the Nazis during WWII here. There is an exhibition on the first floor and an eternal-flame on the ground floor to honour the memories of those who had lost their lives. The Museum and the Memorial is supported through donations. If you are visiting Amsterdam and if you can, please visit this war memorial. It humbles you.
- The Westerkerk – In the most western part of Central Amsterdam, next to the Jordaan and the Canal Belt, you will find the Westerkerk – The Western Church. It was built between 1620 and 1631, in the Dutch Renaissance style, designed by Hendrick de Keyser (1565-1621). The Westerkerk is the largest and the most important Protestant Church in Amsterdam.
The Westerkerk has a tower which was built in 1638, known as the Westerkerk Tower. It stands at 85 metres (275ft) high and dominates Amsterdam’s Old City. It is regarded as the City’s symbol and a pride of Amsterdam.
- The De Gooyer Windmill – The De Gooyer Windmill stands at 26.6 metres high and is the tallest windmill in Amsterdam. This large wooden, octagonal shaped windmill was originally built as a flour mill in 1725. The mill was moved to its current location at Funenkade in 1814, and it sits on a stone foundation which is part of a water mill that was destroyed in 1812.
Although it no longer serves its original purpose, it remains a distinctive feature of Amsterdam and is listed as a National Monument. It is one of the last of the 26 corn mills remaining in the Netherlands.
- Food & Drink Experiences – Heineken ~ When in Amsterdam, having the locally brewed Heineken is an essential experience. Even though Heineken is available in 192 countries but experiencing it here, in Amsterdam, makes it a somewhat different experience.
In addition to Heineken, you must also try the local craft beer by Brouwerij’t IJ
- Food & Drink Experiences – Craft Beer ~ The IJ Brewery which is famous for its craft beer is located next to the De Gooyer windmill. The brewery was opened in 1985, and offers a nice selection of beers, organic and dark. The brewery offers guided tours and tastings. What impressed us was the large outdoor terrace, but as it is popular, finding a place all to yourself will be a problem.
- Food & Drink Experiences – Seafood and Cocktails ~ It is always interesting to try the different cuisines of the City you are visiting. In Amsterdam, what stood out for us were the oysters!
Beautifully presented and fresh from the seas 😊
- Food & Drink Experiences – Stroop waffles or Pancakes or both?
We tried both!
The Pancakes were tastier, crispier and freshly made – we tried this at the Old Dutch Pancake House in Amsterdam Centrum. It was quiet inside when we visited, because opted to sit out in the sunshine. Service was quick and we enjoyed a quiet time, no rush at all.
- Food & Drink Experiences – Cheese
Amsterdam is famous for its cheese! There was a cheese store on every street, every corner and within a few hundred feet of each other! Our favourite was the Henri Willig.
The Henri Willig offers an extensive range of their cheese products and dips. We found their range of herb cheeses rather unique and they had a new one with chillies, rather unusual. When you are here, Henri Willig is worth exploring.
- Just watch out …. For bikes! In a City where the bicycles outnumber the local population, you may want to look both ways when crossing.
As an experience though, it is amazing to find how effortlessly people take on to riding their bicycles, with their shopping and bags, without a fuss or discomfort. With dedicated bicycle lanes, it is one of their primary mode of transport.
Anne Frank’s House – If you are planning a visit to Amsterdam and you wish to visit Anne Frank’s House, then I would suggest that you pre-book your visit as tickets for a tour of Anne Frank’s House usually sells out months in advance. Although a handful of tickets are released each morning, there is always a long waiting list and the chances are slim to get one of these tickets. So, if you want it, pre-book it!