An Amsterdam vacation introduces you to more than canals, windmills, and cheese. It is one of Europe’s most unique cities offering the visitor everything from culture to cafes.
Amsterdam is a very special and unique city with a character all of its own. Capital of the Netherlands, it is a very walkable city and I highly recommend, if on a first visit, starting off with going for a stroll. What will immediately be obvious is that there are a large number of canals crisscrossing the heart of the city. I believe an awful lot of Amsterdam’s charm is due to a combination of these quaint and colourful canals and the architectural style of the picturesque canal houses that line them. Try the area for your starting point around the 4 major canals which are Singel, Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, and Herengracht – all of which run parallel and are shaped in a kind of semi-circle. You will find interesting distractions as you walk along, such as small cafes, interesting boutiques selling everything from clothes to wine and cheese, small private art galleries, as well as private homes. There is an interesting hotel in this district which is the deluxe Pulitzer on the Prinsengracht, made up of a series of connecting canal houses.
Another way of exploring the city on your Amsterdam vacation is by renting a bike. This is a city totally dedicated to the bike rider as there are bike lanes everywhere. It is unusual to find an Amsterdamer who doesn’t possess a bicycle. A word of warning to both pedestrian and bike riding visitors – if walking, watch out for cyclists as they often expect you to watch out for them. If cycling, watch out for pedestrians who, if a visitor, are watching out for cars when crossing a road even though they are not actually that numerous in Amsterdam. Should you wish to join a group of cyclists, there are a number of companies offering bike tours.
I highly recommend a canal cruise which can be joined in many different places along the canals, including just outside the Central Railway Station. You will see Amsterdam from a totally different perspective. One of the things you will notice on your Amsterdam vacation, which might well escape you while on land, is the colourful house boats where locals live peacefully on the water.
As I said, Amsterdam is more than just canals, so now let’s look at some special places to consider visiting. It is a well-known fact that Amsterdam has a selection of excellent art galleries and museums. Whichever venue you decide to visit, I suggest you book your entrance ticket in advance, preferably online, as this, especially during busy tourist seasons, helps you to avoid very long line ups. The best known and most popular art gallery is the Rijksmuseum, with its collection of Dutch Masters’ paintings which include Vermeer, Van Dyke, Rembrandt, etc. It also houses an exceptional collection of antique objects, prints, drawings, and photographs.
Another special art gallery is the Van Gogh Museum, which is around the corner from the Rijksmuseum and is dedicated to works naturally by Van Gogh, plus a few of his contemporaries. For modern and contemporary art, just down the street is the Stedelijk Museum which includes works by Chagall, Pollock, Warhol, and Matisse among many others.
Not an art gallery as such but worth visiting, is the Rembrandt House Museum where this famous painter lived and worked. The interior is still furnished and designed in that same era in which Rembrandt lived. There are reproductions of some of his paintings as well as some of his original etchings.
A very famous museum is the Anne Frank House, where Anne Frank and her family lived and where she wrote her diary during the Second World War. The museum, which is a converted canal house on the Prinsengracht, has several floors and tells the story of her long incarceration. It also shows you exactly where she and her family hid from the Germans.
Another cultural site to discover on your Amsterdam vacation is the Concertgebouw. This concert hall, built as far back as 1886, is absolutely stunning inside and is designed in the neoclassic style. It is said the acoustics here are as perfect as is possible. The Concertgebouw hosts concerts both in the classical vein and the popular. My last suggested cultural site is the Bimhuis, a concert hall dedicated to jazz. It is a very contemporary building overlooking the river which separates the centre of the city from the northern suburbs.
One more point of interest to consider visiting is the Heineken Experience. Here you can learn about the history of the company and the brewing process while enjoying samples of two different Heineken beers.
Check Out the Neighbourhoods
I always feel that to really get to know a city, you have to visit the neighbourhoods. Amsterdam has several interesting ones. The Red Light District, I realize, is not for everyone, but I do suggest a stroll through it in the daytime. It is an old historic area and one of the most beautiful parts of the city, with narrow winding cobblestone streets and lots of character. Although perhaps somewhat seamy in the evening, you will find a number of cafes, bars, and small shops which are all quite respectable. I suggest looking out for the Oude Kerk (Old Church) in the heart of the Red Light District. It is the oldest building in Amsterdam built around 1300 AD. No longer an active church, it is now a museum housing an art institution.
Just off the Prinsengracht canal is a neighbourhood called Jordaan. Once a working class district, it is now a fashionable and trendy place. As you meander around the narrow maze of streets, you will come across small boutiques, cafes, and a number of excellent restaurants. There are some unusual kinds of museums which include the Pianola Museum and the Houseboat Museum. On Monday mornings, there is a flea market and every Saturday, a farmers market.
For nightlife, the Leidseplein is the area to head to. You will see street performers doing their thing as you sit at one of the many open-air bars and cafes. There is a good selection of restaurants here offering every kind of international cuisine, and you can find a number of small night clubs.
De Pijp is a neighbourhood that is a little out of the central core of Amsterdam, but I highly recommend taking the time to go there. It is known as Amsterdam’s Latin Quarter and is a cosmopolitan and vibrant area which many students and young people call home. There is no lack of restaurants, cafes, bars, and pubs. During the daytime, you can stroll through the Albert Cuypmarkt, a colourful street market with scores of stalls offering a variety of merchandise which includes clothes, souvenirs, electronics, and food.
A favourite place of mine is Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s principal “green lung.” This is a beautiful public park located just south of the Leidesplein. The pathways which run around the perimeter are always full of runners, walkers, and cyclists enjoying the fresh air. The inner area, with its English-style gardens, lawns, and winding footpaths, includes a sports field, a children’s playground, and an open-air theatre – the latter operating in the summer months. I can’t think of a nicer place to relax, stroll, or perhaps have a beverage at one of the cafes.
A little oasis in the centre of Amsterdam is the Begijnhof. It is highly unlikely that you would come across it if you didn’t know of its whereabouts. It is hidden behind a gate off a busy street but once inside, you step into a quiet and serene inner courtyard that contains a number of historic houses, mostly private dwellings. The Begijnhof was originally a sanctuary for Catholic women.
My final suggestion for your Amsterdam vacation is to head to Central Station and go to the very back and take the 5 minute ferry ride across the river to North Amsterdam. Before doing so, note the literally thousands of bicycles parked around the station. It is a simply amazing sight. North Amsterdam is mainly a residential neighbourhood but does hold interest for visitors. The first building you will notice is the Eye Film Institute, an architecturally striking building which contains a museum and a number of art movie houses. Elsewhere in North Amsterdam are markets, restaurants, and a few minor museums.
By the way, because The Netherlands is such a compact country, you can easily visit a number of interesting Dutch destinations on a half or full day’s excursion. If you find yourself at Central Station and in need of a drink, snack or meal, here is a tip – don’t look for them on the main floor but instead, head to the upper floor. Here you will find a good selection of pleasant eateries.
I know you will find much more to do in this amazing city if time allows on an Amsterdam tour. The above kept me busy enough over several visits, and many places draw me back for a second visit.