Things to Do in Amsterdam
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.
The Venustempel Sex Museum in Amsterdam is the world’s first sex museum. Housed in a 17-thcentury building in the very heart of the city, it features an extensive collection of erotic paintings, statues, recordings, photographs, and other items relating to sex and eroticism. All of the exhibits were personally curated by the owners and remain on permanent display. The main theme is the evolution of human sexuality throughout the ages.
Venustempel began in 1985 with just a small display of erotic artifacts from the 19th century. Due to its huge popularity with the general public, its collection was later expanded upon, and the museum now sees more than 500,000 visitors through its doors each and every year.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Amsterdam
Located in the center of the city, Amsterdam Central Station is the largest railway station in the Netherlands, as well as the most visited national heritage site in the country. Used by more than a quarter of a million passengers every day, it is a hub for both national and international train services. It has also been continuously under construction for more than a decade due to the development of the North-South Metro line, which should finally open fully in 2017.
Built upon three artificial islands, the station was designed by the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, who also designed the famous Rijksmuseum. The similarity is apparent in the Gothic/Renaissance Revival façade of the station, which features two turrets and a variety of ornamental details. First opened in 1889, the station is within walking distance of many popular tourist sights, including the Royal Palace, the Anne Frank House and the Red Light District.
As vital to Amsterdam as Rembrandt, canals, and coffee shops, on a sunny day there’s not place better than Vondelpark. As people from all walks of life descend on this sprawling English-style park - beautifully appointed with ponds, lawns, thickets, and winding footpaths - a party atmosphere ensues.
Some kick back by reading a book, others hook up with friends to cradle a beer at one of the cafes, while others trade songs on beat-up guitars. Still others jog, cruise on inline skates, ride bikes, and fly kites. Let us not forget families with prams, couples in love, teenagers playing soccer, and children chasing ducks - Vondelpark encourages visitors to enjoy and explore its bucolic surroundings. On a summer day, a great place to follow the action is the upper terrace of Café Vertigo. Also check out the open-air theater and the lovely ponds and rose gardens.
Reopened at the end of 2012 after a major revamp, the Stedelijk Museum now boasts a new wing designed by architects Benthem Crouwel – a structure as bold and striking as the artworks it harbors. The modernist façade – a shimmering white design aptly nicknamed ‘the bath tub’ - serves as a provocative declaration of the museum’s artistic sensibilities – equally inspiring and polarizing.
Home to one of the Netherlands’ most celebrated collections of modern and contemporary art and design, walking the halls of the Stedelijk whisks you on a journey through the world’s most innovative art movements. Iconic Andy Warhol prints, memorable impressionist works by Matisse and Cezanne and extraordinary Rodin sculptures catch the eye, part of a vast and eclectic collection that includes pieces by Van Gogh, Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
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.
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.
Conveniently located right in central Amsterdam, Jordaan is one of the city's most important, and most interesting districts. Never short of things to do, it is the location of the famous Anne Frank house, where renowned holocaust victim Anne Frank hid from the Nazis during WWII.
Currently, the district is bustling with life, with tons of opportunities to visit one of its many specialty shops, soak in Dutch culture at an art gallery, or try some of the local delicacies at its street markets.
Prideful of its early 20th-century music culture, this central district also features wonderful music festivals and has scattered statues throughout, commemorating the likes of local hero and Dutch patriot Johnny Jordaan. Not dead, you can go check out Jordaan's lively modern music scene at many of its bars and club venues, these days mainly featuring alternative, punk and grunge music.
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.
Situated in the former home of the renowned Dutch painter and etcher, Rembrandt Van Rijn, the Rembrandt House Museum, boasts an illustrious history with world famous paintings like the ‘Night Watch’ created between its walls.
The building in Jodenbreestraat, Amsterdam, was purchased by the man himself back in 1639 and he lived there with his wife Saskia and son Titus for 20 years, before being declared bankrupt in 1656. Today, the rooms have been reconstructed to their original condition and form part of the museum.
A tour of the Rembrandt House showcases an almost complete collection of artworks (over 250 graphic prints), alongside exhibits on the life and times of the iconic artist and his renowned painting techniques. The printing studio, where a fully working traditional printing press demonstrates how Rembrandt made his famous etchings, is one of the most interesting rooms, but the kitchen, showrooms and bedrooms are all also open for exploration.
Housed in a humungous former arsenal built in 1656, the National Maritime Museum reopened in 2011 after extensive reworking and is dedicated to showcasing the importance of Amsterdam’s maritime history. During the 17th-century Golden Age, The Netherlands was one of the richest powers in the world, thanks to its trading wealth and an empire that stretched across the globe. It was a time of great progress in Amsterdam, when the Canal Ring was built and the middle classes grew rich. All this is reflected in interactive and audio-visual displays of model ships, maritime oil paintings, charts, silverware and weaponry; the growth of the fabulously successful Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) is charted and visitors are whisked on a simulated journey through Amsterdam as a piece of cargo. Two now controversial issues that are dealt with sensitively through thoughtful exhibits are the European slave trade and the whaling industry.
Recognized as one of the most exclusive addresses in the city, Herengracht has been home to Amsterdam elite since the early 17th century. And while this famous canal is still the ideal spot to brush elbows with the well-to-do, it’s also an incredible place to explore the history and culture of this famous city.
Travelers who venture to this charming neighborhood can check out the original home of the Dutch West India Company, located in Herenmarkt, a charming town square, or visit the well-known merchant’s house called Three Hills, which has been designated as a historical monument. Perhaps the most-famous merchant’s home, the Bartolotti House, is located along the right side of the canal and once served as a residence for one of the most successful silk merchants.
Transformed from a complex for the elderly to a department of Saint Petersburg’s famous Hermitage Museum in 2009, a visit to the Hermitage Amsterdam starts with marveling its the impressive exterior. The sprawling Amstelhof building, designed by architect Hans Van Petersom, dates back to the 17th-century and stretches 105m along the Amstel riverfront, featuring a central courtyard garden shaded by chestnut trees.
Hermitage Amsterdam is now one of the largest museums in the country and features some of the country’s most captivating temporary exhibitions. The collections, rotated each 6 months, feature selections imported from the Russian museum’s enormous treasury of artifacts, including its famously expansive collection of French 19th and 20th century paintings. Past exhibitions have included Modernist and expressionist artworks; sizable exhibits on ‘Peter the Great (1672–1725), the modernizer of Russia’ and ‘The Immortal Alexander the Great’.
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