What to do in Amsterdam? Well, I have lived in Amsterdam for more than twenty years and I think it’s one of the nicest European cities except when it’s raining which unfortunately it does a lot. Amsterdam is lively and cosmopolitan and it has a lot to offer to suit all tastes.
The houses look like doll houses, there are lots of great museums and it’s green. You know those cities where you don’t see a patch of green for miles, well in Amsterdam you’ve got parks and grass. No, not only this grass!!
On the other hand it’s small enough to be compact and it has kind of a village atmosphere. There are “only” around 770 000 inhabitants so it’s no Paris or Rome. Talking of cosmopolitan: there are 179 different nationalities in Amsterdam!!
The Vondelpark, named after the writer, is located in the centre and the hustle and bustle of things. It has a few nice cafés but the nicest is to prepare your own picnic and relax on the grass with a glass of wine watching the locals walk or bike by. In the summer months you also have a small open-air concert venue in the Park which is really nice.
Looking for more peace and quiet? Go to the Sarphatipark, named after a well know Jewish physician. It’s tiny but cosy and very romantic in kind of an old fashioned way with a pound and statues. The Sarphatipark is best combined with a stroll on the Albert Cuyp Market (and a glass of fresh and healthy juice at Frood in between the two!)
The Westerpark is also worth mentioning and appreciated by the young (eeeh 30-ish) and hip Amsterdam population. It’s a big park, around 35 acres. It is more of a cultural park then the others with a movie theater, art expositions and the large cultural venue Westergasfabriek. It often hosts events and other cultural stuff.
There are many very beautiful museums in Amsterdam. Of course you should not miss the Van Gogh museum. Buy your tickets online or at the tourist office if you want to avoid long long long queues. The museum will unfortunately close for a few months for renovation work from September 2012. Part of the collection, around 70 or 75 paintings will be on display in the Hermitage museum while the Van Gogh closes. (N.B oct/2012: The Stedelijk Museum just reopened and I just can say one thing: go! go! go!)
The Rijksmuseum is next to the Van Gogh. It’s been in renovation for years and should reopen in 2013. Meanwhile a small section of the museum remained open for public with a small but very beautiful collection, featuring the highlights of the collections of the Rijksmuseum including the famous Nightwatch by Rembrandt and the Kitchen Maid by Vermeer.
Another very interesting museum in Amsterdam is the Hermitage. It has opened in the summer of 2009 in a beautiful building that used to be a home for the elderly. The current exhibition is stunning, it features some impressive work of Flemish painters from the art collection of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It’s on until mid june 2012. The Hermitage is not close to the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum so it’s best to visit it on another day and combine the visit with a walk on the flee market Waterlooplein, the Rembrandthuis (the house Rembrandt lived in from 1639 to 1658) and the Jewish historical museum.
If you are more into photography get over to Foam, a photography museum with interesting exhibitions worth visiting.
The ‘alternative’ museums
There are about fifty museums in Amsterdam including a few very special ones. If you are planning on a walk through the red light district, you should visit the funny erotic museum. While in that neighborhood you might as well visit another unique museum: the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum, where you can learn a thing or two.
Watch the horrific Dutch history in the Amsterdam Dungeon. The dungeon is kind of a mixture of a museum and live shows with a team of actors. It’s a special experience.
Don’t miss out on the Anne Frank museum where you can visit the secret room where Anne hid for years with her family as she wrote her famous diary. Another impressive museum is the Verzetsmuseum (Resistance Museum) which documents the Dutch resistance to Nazi occupation during the World War II.
The outdoor markets
If you happen to be in Amsterdam on a saturday, go for a stroll on the Noordermarkt. There is an organic farmers market from 10h till 17h. On monday mornings there is a 2nd hand market with great vintage clothes and other stuff on the Noordermarkt. It’s really nice.
You can also visit the flee market “Waterlooplein”, not great but ok for a short walk and while there anyway have a stroll in the Nieuwmarkt district where you can see the beautiful 15th century building de Waag and the buddhist temple Fo Guang Shan He Hua. Notice the street name signs here are in both Dutch and Chinese, you’re in Chinatown!
In a whole different district of Amsterdam you will find the daily market Albert Cuyp (except sundays). On this lively market you will find a mix of food and clothing and souvenirs and so on. Have a soused harreng at the stall of the Vlaardingse Haring Handel, while you’re there!
Very touristy but a must see anyway is the flower market. It’s tiny but nice. For the cliché tulip fields you had in mind when thinking of the Netherlands you’ll have to get out of town and go to the Keukenhof in Lisse, about 40 minutes from Amsterdam.
The beer and smokes
Have one of the 215 different kind of beers at the beer tasting bar In de Wildeman. If you’re not that into beer, have a drink in minus 10 degrees Celsius at the Xtracold ice bar, which is more for the fun experience then for the drink.
Have a look or a try at a coffeeshop. If you want to try a joint don’t buy it from some weird guy on some street corner but buy it in a good coffeeshop. A few nice ones would be: de Rokerij, de Tweede Kamer and the Greenhouse.
What do you want to buy? If you’re into the expensive couture, get your butt over to the PC Hooftstraat where you will find Armani, Chanel, Cartier, etc…
If your budget doesn’t reach that high you can go to the shopping street Kalverstraat with brands like H&M, Vero Moda and the Dutch Hema. Hema is like the greatest shop in the world! Really, just go have a look and eat a Dutch Hema sausage (rookworst) there as well.
If you are looking for more original shops go have a walk in the Negen Straatjes, which means the nine streets. Those nine little streets are part of a really nice neighborhood, called the Jordaan.
There is lots of live music in Amsterdam. Grab a concert in the concert halls Paradiso or Melkweg. Paradiso is located in a former church. It’s a small venue that has seen the biggest artists of the world (David Bowie, Nirvana, Rolling Stones, etc etc etc). It’s nice cause it’s kind of intimate and casual. The Melkweg is also worth going to. They are both close to each other and the Leidseplein.
In the same neighborhood you will find a tiny cafe called Alto. It has some of the best live jazz in the Netherlands. Worth having a drink there for sure.
Depending on when you are visiting there are different festivals. Always check what’s on. Some worth mentioning are Festival over het ij, Prinsengracht concert, Queensday (not actually a festival, more of a great National party), Amsterdam Rootsfestival and The Parade but there are many many more. Also check out De Tolhuistuin, an art and culture venue in Amsterdam-Noord. It is opening this year and looks very promising.
On the Leidseplein there is the Amsterdams Uitburo where you can find the programs of all the events, shows, festivals and buy tickets as well.
Take a canal tour. Ok, I know, it’s corny but it’s a great way to see Amsterdam from the water which is absolutely a must. If you really can’t stand that kind of tours the alternative will make you sweat but it will be fun: rent a waterbike!
The Jordaan area should absolutely be explored, it’s the typical Amsterdam as you see it on the postcards. Walk along the canals, watch the houseboats. Amsterdam still has 165 of it’s historic canals. The canal district have been included on the Unesco list of World Heritage Sites in 2010. Amsterdam is centered around four semi-circles around the historic center, these semi circles form the canal belt.
Rent a bike but please mind the traffic, tourists are often not used to the trams (and taxi’s on the tram tracks). You can also grab a bike taxi which is not the same but well…why not?
Not really the first thing you would think of visiting when you arrive in Amsterdam: churches. But there are a few very beautiful ones. The two churches in the Begijnhof are not extremely pretty but the charm here is the collection of 14th century houses around the oldest inner courtyard of Amsterdam. The courtyard is actually private property but it can be visited.
De Krijtberg is, I think, one of the most beautiful churches in the world. It has such a nice colored interior. It’s a Roman Catholic church from 1883.
Last but not least visit the neo classicist church de Duif on the Prinsengracht.
If you’re visiting Amsterdam with children, have a look at the tips for children by my 10 year old daughter.