One of Europe’s most popular destinations, Amsterdam, located in the western part of the Netherlands, is widely known for its party atmosphere, cannabis practice and red light district. But there is so much more to this city.
Amsterdam started out as a small fishing village in the late 12th century and became one of the most important ports in the world during the Dutch Golden Age. This was as a result of its innovative developments in trade.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, before World War I, the city began to expand with new neighbourhoods and suburbs being planned and built.
In World War II Amsterdam saw the deportation of approximately 60,000 Dutch Jews to Nazi concentration camps including one of its most well know residents Anne Frank and her family.
Near the end of the War, communication with the rest of the Netherlands broke down, and basic supplies such as food and fuel were hard to come by. Citizens travelled to the countryside to forage for whatever they could find to help them survive. Most of the trees in Amsterdam were cut down for fuel and all the wood was taken from the apartments of deported Jews. The entire city was in disrepair by the end of the War.
Amsterdam began making its comeback.
Soon after the end of the war, politicians and other influential figures began making plans to redesign the city. It didn’t take long before there were new parks and districts sprouting up all over the city. Over time office buildings, widened streets and a metro were all incorporated into the city.
Today Amsterdam is the economic capital of the country and considered one of the top financial centres in Europe. The visitors it attracts will find world class museums, beautiful canals, historical buildings, famous attractions and lovely green spaces.
This sprawling city with many districts and elaborate canal system is a heaven for people who love exploring cities. Whether your walking, riding or cruising around the city, it’s not a hard place to relax and enjoy.
For food lovers will find a diversity of restaurants due to the cities multicultural population. Or try local specialties such as Dutch cheese, Ossenworst sausage and bitterballen (fried meatball). Couple this with a vibrant nightlife of traditional pubs, breweries, and nightclubs, there is no shortage of entertainment to suit everyone.
I have to admit that I wasn’t completely taken by Amsterdam and I’m not sure why. I loved the canals and amazing museums but that’s where it stopped for me. Considering it is such as popular city I would like to give it another go some day and hope that it captures me like it does most of its visitors.
My Top 5 Sights
Amsterdam’s famous canals are the perfect place to start your time in the city.
The canals began being built in the 17th century for the purpose of transport, defence and water management. Over the years, several canals have been filled in, becoming streets or squares.
These days they consist of three main canals, Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht that form concentric belts around the city. There are over 100 km of canals, about 1,500 bridges and alongside the main canals are around 1,550 monumental buildings.
There are a number of ways to explore the canals or use a combination of all three suggestions below to maximise your canal viewing.
Boat – There are a half dozen or so tour operators running canal tours in Amsterdam as well as the option to hire your own boat for a small group. Check with you accommodation for their recommended operator as I have heard that each operator runs basically the same tour for competitive prices.
Bicycle – One of the top three things that comes to my mind when I think Amsterdam is bicycles. They are everywhere throughout the city and probably the main mode of transport for locals these days. Hiring a bike and riding around the canals for a half day is a great way to see more in a short space of time. Hiring a bike is easy with locations all over the city or your accommodation may also have some you can borrow.
Walking – Amsterdam is a very flat city so it is ideal for walking. You could spend days walking around its canals exploring if you wanted.
I’m cheating a little bit here and giving you more than my top five sights because Amsterdam has such a great collection of museums and galleries that I had to share five of the best.
The Rijksmuseum – The largest and most prestigious museum for art and history in the Netherlands. It’s large collection of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age include works by Vermeer and Rembrandt.
Van Gogh Museum – This museum houses some 200 paintings and 550 sketches showing Van Gogh in all his moods. Combining hundreds of letters by Van Gogh and select works by his contemporaries and friends, this is the biggest collection in the world.
Rembrandt House Museum – This restored interior reproduces the atmosphere of the artist’s former residence.
Stedelijk Museum – Comparable to some of the greatest museums in the world, the Stedelijk Museum is dedicated to modern and contemporary art and design. Highlights include works from Malevich, Edward Kienholz, Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol.
NEMO Science Centre – Packed with fun and useful knowledge about science and technology. A great place for curious minds. Its worth a look even just for the building itself.
Anne Frank House
While technically a museum which I could have included above, I felt so much emotion visiting Anne Frank House that I thought it deserved its own entry.
Anne Frank House is where Anne Frank lived in hiding with her family for over two years during World War II. The house has now been converted into a museum which contains a sobering exhibition about the persecution of the Jews during the war, as well as discrimination in general.
The door to the annex was concealed behind a specially constructed moveable bookcase. On August, 4 1944, the families hiding place was discovered by the Nazis and all the people in hiding were deported to various concentration camps. The only survivor was Anne’s father, Otto Frank.
The rooms in the Anne Frank House still portray the atmosphere of the time spent in hiding. On display in the annex are historical documents, photographs, film images and original objects that belonged to those in hiding as well as Anne’s original diary and other notebooks
(Queues to get in can be massive so try to book ahead here.)
The Oude Kerk (Old Church) is the oldest church and the oldest building in Amsterdam. Dating back to about 1250, it is surprisingly located in the red light district.
The church has been renovated and expanded multiple times over its lifetime. Luckily some original and early features still remain such as its hand-painted wooden roof and some stained glass windows that date back to the 16th century.
Red Light District
Most of you have probably heard about Amsterdam’s Red Light District before. And no visit to Amsterdam would be complete without a curious walk through it.
Leaving nothing to the imagination, most of the stereotypes about this area you have heard are true: there are plenty of sex shops, peep shows, brothels, a sex museum and prostitutes in red-lit windows.
But things are changing. The Amsterdam municipal council’s 1012 project aims to discourage crime and corruption in the city centre by reducing the types of businesses that are conducive to crime and by permitting prostitution in just two areas. Together with local residents, business proprietors and investors, the municipal council is working to strengthen the area’s unique character and stimulate an economic upgrade.
The area is always full of tourists but it is best to travel in pairs due some of the seedier characters the area attracts. And a word of warning, don’t try to take photos of the prostitutes in the windows or the burly looking bouncers on the street wont be happy.
Other Notable Sights
Vondelpark – The largest green space in Amsterdam. Great spot for a picnic, bike ride or relax.
Heineken Experience – Exhibition on Heineken beer. Find out about the brewing process, the history or the company and taste the product.
Westerkerk – This beautiful Protestant church is the largest of its kind in the Netherlands.
Singel Flower Market – Floating flower market and the perfect place to see the Netherlands famous tulips.
Just like most major European cities you will find all of the big international chain hotels in Amsterdam along with a range of smaller hotels, pensions, boutiques and hostels. It is one of the more expensive cities in Europe in terms of accommodation rates so be prepared to pay a little more than usual.
Usually this is where I would recommend the place that I stayed in the city but in this instance my experience was a negative one. I don’t want these profiles to contain negative reviews so I won’t elaborate.
What I do recommend, as I would for finding accommodation anywhere in the world, is do your research. Use websites such as Hostelworld, Tripadvisor, Expedia etc. or any other resource you like best, to find the right style of accommodation for you at a price that is in your budget.
Air: Schiphol Airport is the major international airport servicing Amsterdam with close to 100 different airlines arriving here on a regular basis and is one of the top five airport hubs in Europe. Getting to/from the airport is made super easy with the high speed Fyra train getting you to Amsterdam’s Central Station in under 15 minutes for just 3,90 Euro. A taxi will take you double the time and 10 times the cost.
Train: If arriving/departing by train it will most likely be at Amsterdam Central Station which is located just north of the main part of town. You will find trains arriving/departing for destinations all over Europe. There are a number of other smaller stations located around Amsterdam that may be more convenient for you based on your accommodation. Check with your accommodation provider if your unsure. All stations are well connected to the cities public transport system.
Bus: Eurolines connect the city with all major European capitals. Buses arrive at Amstelstation, south of the centre and is will connected to the cities public transport system.
The main parts of Amsterdam are relatively compact and best seen on foot or by bicycle. Public transport in the city is a mix of tram, bus, metro and ferry. The most useful option for visitors is the trams. To find costs, travel times and more information on using public transport in Amsterdam you can use this excellent Journey Planner.
Over to You
I would love to hear about your experiences and sightseeing/accommodation recommendations in Amsterdam so I can add and improve this page. Find out how you can contribute to this page and our other Destination’s of the Week by clicking here.
For more pictures of Amsterdam check out my Pinterest board.
All prices and information above are current at the time of publishing this post.