The best things to do in Amsterdam

By Eloise Barker

Photography by Scott Mcquaide / EyeEm

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Updated December 2018

Slip down the canals by boat, join the peloton of cyclists or jolt along merrily in a tram. One of the most charming qualities of Amsterdam is that your journeys through it can be as eye-opening as where you end up. Enjoy a historical city in motion with no shortage of highbrow and lowbrow distractions.

1. Head to the Rijkmuseum

Amsterdam has the highest density of museums in the world. One of the biggest, the recently remodeled Rijkmuseum, is very accessible. It includes Rembrandt’s famous The Night Watch as well as face to face encounters with his moody portraits. Seek out Vermeer’s stunning intimate scenes of everyday life, still emotional hundreds of years later.

Chill out at Amsterdam’s Ice Bar

2. Marvel at the Van Gogh Museum

If Impressionism stirs your soul, then visit the Van Gogh museum. Though the artist only sold one painting in his lifetime and was dogged by anguish and depression, his swirling artworks have brought light to millions of viewers. Don’t miss the Sunflowers.

3. Visit the Anne Frank House

Anne Frank house and the Jewish museum both attempt to piece together the persecution millions faced in thirties and forties Europe. Be prepared for crowds in Anne’s hideaway. There are plenty of smaller museums too, though you might tire of people sniggering at the Sex Museum. On the way back from Anne Frank pop in to the Tulip Museum. These sculptural flowers once crashed an entire economy. Wall Street would be proud.

The Light Festival on the canals sees the water lit with a series of beautiful installations.

  • Visitors view famous 17th Century painting by Rembrandt 'The Night Watch' at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Holland. Photo credit: Tim Graham / Alamy Stock Photo.

4. Have coffee in De Wallen

The Red Light district of Amsterdam is famous for putting its dwindling numbers of sex workers in window displays, much to the amusement, bemusement or alarm of passing tourists. But the area, known a De Wallen, is also full of trendy cafes and bars. Visit before tourism and new permits start to thin the crop of hidden gems.

5. Raise a glass at the Heineken factory tour

Amsterdam is famous for its lagers – the giant brewer Heineken owns Amstel among its many beer brands. Whilst its factory is no longer in the city, you can still tour the former brewery, pull your own pint or bottle your own lager. But perhaps you prefer your beer a little craftier. Brouwerij ’t IJ is next to one of Amsterdam’s surviving inner city windmills and makes artisanal pints.

6. Try some local cuisine

If you’re looking for food, try at least one Stroopwaffle, don’t miss delicious apple pie from Winkel 43 and visit the Dutch pancake houses. For a main meal the Bazar Amsterdam serves world cuisine from a stunning converted synagogue. Elsewhere, jazz clubs like the old Cafe Casablanca paint the town blue with the sound of soulful saxophone.

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  • Restaurant Bazar. Photo credit: Directphoto Collection / Alamy Stock Photo.

    World food

    Little Amsterdam is replete with a huge range of world cuisine, including Restaurant Bazar. It serves colourful mezze in kaleidoscopic surroundings; the restaurant is set in a converted synagogue.

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  • Sunflowers. Arles, January 1889 Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890). Oil on canvas, 95 cm x 73 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

    Sunny side up

    Van Gogh painted four sunflower paintings in 1888 intending them as a gift to his friend, the artist Paul Gauguin. Later that year the pair fell out and never saw each other again.

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  • George and the Dragon rollercoaster © Efteling 2016.

    Did you know?

    The Dutch artist Anton Pieck helped design the magical Efteling Theme Park Resort, which is based on fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm (The Little Mermaid), Charles Perrault (Sleeping Beauty) and Hans Christian Andersen (Snow White).

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7. Cross to Amsterdam Noord

When you want to escape the haze of the cafes, Amsterdam’s outdoor spaces are there for you to enjoy. First up should be the recently regenerated Amsterdam Noord district, so hop on the ferry. The former manufacturing quarters have had an industrial facelift and there’s now plenty of event spaces and the A’DAM tower. This tower has Europe’s highest swing. Whether you choose to strap into the ride or not, you’ll still get excellent views of the city from the top.

8. Relax in the parks

Visit the Vondelpark, a big, beautiful park with an open-air theatre. See if you don’t wander in on a free music concert, or get roped into a salsa class. On a sunny day, stroll along the canal to Westerpark, where the premises of a gas factory merge with a park, creating an edgy space to explore.

9. Rent a bike

Some hotels will let you rent a bicycle to see the city. The Netherlands has a bigger population of bicycles than it has people, so it’s easy to equip yourself with a pair of wheels. You’ll find yourself freewheeling over hundreds of bridges – including the pretty Magere Brug, a slender white drawbridge. And don’t let winter blues keep you indoors around Christmas – the Light Festival on the canals sees the water lit with a series of beautiful installations.

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  • Bright rows of tulips, Keukenhof. Photo credit: fokaszara.

10. Go shopping in De Pijp

If you want to bring back some treasures from your trip, they don’t have to be blue and white Delft tulip holders. Like many European cities, Amsterdam has its share of luxury shopping, exciting continental designers and concept stores, as well as the obligatory pottery.

Vogue has labelled De Pijp Amsterdam’s coolest neighbourhood. Whilst it competes with Nine Streets and Rozengracht for this title, it certainly has the largest open-air market: Albert Cuypmarkt is ideal if your idea of shopping involves edible free samples of Edam.

11. Find fashion in Nine Streets

If you like ducking in and out of trendy boutiques, Nine Streets has enough of them to fill your suitcase, and plenty of Scandi modern furnishings have filtered into the shops: RAINS, the specialist Danish mac manufacturers, somehow make anoraks look trendy. No guarantees if your dad puts one on, though. Dutch brands include kings of couture Victor & Rolf, and recently revived Scotch & Soda. Revive yourself with a coffee at Screaming Beans.

12. View tulips at Keukenhof

Exploring beyond Amsterdam is easy. Whilst Americans and Parisians will be catching the trains to France, you don’t need to look so far afield for a change of scene. The Netherlands have plenty of other treasures. Waterland, Efteling and Keukenhof exude rustic charm – whether waterways, fairy tales or tulips. Not satisfied with seeing Dutch still lifes in the Rijkmusum? Hire a car and head south to the Keukenhof gardens to see the real thing: thousands of tulips blooming to create amazing patterns, stretching towards the horizon.

13. Find fairies in Efteling

Heading beyond the city with children necessitates an overnight stop at Efteling. This, Holland’s biggest theme park, isn’t brash or commercial. Instead, its full of quirky fairy tales, winding paths and the fast rides for thrill seekers. Even the recycling bins are wide-mouthed characters who cry until you recycle your empty cartons. How Holland has managed to keep this magic secret from the rest of us for so long is extraordinary. It’s just an hour and a half drive away from Amsterdam.

14. Head to the coast

Alternatively, head to the coast via Zaanse Schan, seeing the historic windmills at the waterside before you meet the greater waters of the North Sea. The beaches are wild, beautiful and a great extension to your city break.

Where to stay


The Pulitzer is one street beyond Nine Streets. It’s made from ten joined up historic townhouses, and very luxurious. The dining room is in a converted apothecary, and it’s only a short walk from other great restaurants, too.

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W Hotel

The W Hotel, right next to Dam square. It only opened a couple of years ago and has a raised lobby bar with great views, the perfect vantage point for planning your evening out. Its chic, grey rooms with primary colour accents feel modern, not moody.

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Efteling Hotel & Theme Park

The Efteling Hotel & Theme Park is shaped like a castle, gives you early park access and is exceptionally child-friendly. Kids have their own check in and playground, and fairy tale characters visit the hotel for daily photo ops.

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