Top 5 things to do when visiting Amsterdam (part 1)

The iconic I amsterdam sign in front of The Rijksmuseum. Nikolai Karaneschev CC BY 3.0 

Amsterdam is a magical city of history, museums, culture, food, and beauty. With origins as a twelfth century fishing village, Amsterdam grew to international prominence in the seventeenth century as the port city became a global center for finance and the diamond trade. Today Amsterdam is the national and cultural capital of the Netherlands. Many international companies call the city home and the city has developed a reputation for innovation and technology to go along with it’s deep history. To add to this, the city is known as one of the most multicultural in the world.

With such a rich culture and history, it is little surprise that Amsterdam has become a popular destination for tourism. People flock to this gem in the province of North Holland for its museums, nightlife, flowers, markets, parks, and extensive canal system which give it its nickname of “Venice of the North.” With so much to see and do in Amsterdam, there truly is something here for everyone. Below I’ll walk through the top 5 (plus a few extra) things to do for every type of trip to the city. (Pro tip: most of these sites and activities have broad appeal to people looking for all types of experiences. Read through all of the below categories to make sure you don’t miss anything!)

Top 5 things to do if you have just a few days in Amsterdam (Hint: these are the can’t miss items for every type of visitor)

If you are just in Amsterdam for a long weekend or otherwise have just a few days, you’ll want to make sure you hit these can’t miss experiences. When planning your short trip to Amsterdam,  these are the top few things that everyone will tell you you simply must do in the city.

1. See the museums

The Van Gogh Museum
The Van Gogh Museum

Amsterdam has become known for it’s great museums. The three biggest and most popular of these, The Van Gogh Museum, The Rijksmuseum and The Stedelijk Museum surround the Museumplein, or Museum Square, a beautiful public space and home to the iconic “I amsterdam” sign. The Van Gogh Museum will give you a deep dive into the life and works of the famous Dutch painter and his contemporaries. The Rijksmuseum (“National Museum” in English), offers an opportunity to learn about the art, history, and culture of the Netherlands. The Stedelijk, or Municipal Museum of Amsterdam is dedicated to Modern and contemporary art and design. Outside of these heavy hitters, there are numerous smaller and niche museums throughout the city which have something for everyone.

If you are planning to visit a few museums, consider buying a Holland Pass. These passes will pay for themselves with free entry to many attractions, including the Van Gogh Museum and The Rijksmuseum. They also allow you to skip the queues and score big discounts at attractions across the city.

2. Take a cruise along Amsterdam’s beautiful canal system

Cruising the canals. Spaceman117 CC BY 3.0 

Amsterdam is known as the “Venice of the North” due to it’s beautiful canals, dug in the seventeenth century during the Dutch Golden Age. The Canal ring flows along many historic and monumental buildings and neighborhoods and a cruise will give you a great view and guided tour of some of the most beautiful sites in the city. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also rent a four-seated pedal boat to explore the canals yourself.

You truly can’t go wrong with any of the many canal cruises offered by numerous companies in the city, though our favorite is the evening cruise offered by our friends at Get Your Guide. The canals are always beautiful, but seeing the lights come on as the city’s nightlife comes alive is a magical experience. Not sold? Try one of the other great options:

3. Explore the city on bike

Biking in Amsterdam
Biking in Amsterdam. Alfredo Borba CC BY-SA 4.0 

Amsterdam is perhaps one of the world’s most bikeable cities. There are bike lanes everywhere and the city is known for its great bike culture. Especially if you have just a few days, renting a bike can be one of the quickest, not to mention most fun ways to explore all the sites you’d like to see. If you’re going to be in the city for a bit longer, you may consider buying a used bike from one of the many vendors who sell these. They’ll buy it back from you at the end of your trip!

4. Stroll Amsterdam’s floating flower market

Vibrant tulips at Bloemenmarkt. jimderda CC BY 2.0 

Amsterdam is well known for its vibrant and colorful tulips. You can see these and many more beautiful flowers while walking around the Bloemenmarkt, the world’s only floating flower market, established in 1862.

5. Take a walk in Vondelpark

Vondelpark on a sunny day. David from Amsterdam CC BY 2.0 

In a city without many green spaces, the lush Vondelpark in the heart of the city center stands out as the best place to go to unwind. The park is a favorite of locals and tourists alike, and is home to a great rose garden, plenty of ponds and waterscapes, as well as wildlife including many birds, squirrels and some domesticated animals. Grab a bite at one of the charming cafés in the park or take in one of the free concerts hosted here.

Top 5 Free things to do in Amsterdam

As with most cities that thrive on tourism, seeing the all of the sights can quickly become very expensive. With that being said, Amsterdam also has a wealth of experiences that can be enjoyed without spending a dime! If you’re visiting Amsterdam on a budget, enjoy these great activities to get the most out of the city without breaking the bank.

1. Take in a free concert

The Royal Concertgebouw
The Royal Concertgebouw. Nikolai Karaneschev CC BY 3.0 

A number of venues offer free concerts on different days of the week throughout the city. Schedules may vary, so be sure to check the websites before turning up!

  • The Dutch National Opera and Ballet puts on free lunchtime concerts on Tuesdays at 12:30 throughout the Fall, Winter and Spring.
  • Check out Amsterdam’s influential Jazz scene during Tuesday night jam sessions at Bimhuis
  • The beautiful Royal Concertgebouw offers free concerts on Wednesdays at 12:30
  • Many churches around the city host free organ concerts on various days of the week

2. Sandeman’s New Amsterdam Tours

Amsterdam National Monument
The National Monument At Dam Square, Starting point for Sandeman’s free walking tours. Guilhem Vellut CC BY 2.0 

While not technically free, the young Amsterdammers who provide these tours work on a tip-only basis. This makes these three hour tours one of the most economical ways to see the highlights of the city. Departure is at 11:15am and 1:15 pm from the National Monument at Dam Square, check the website for more details.

3. Take time to smell the roses (or tulips) at Bloemenmarkt

Bloemenmarkt's floating flower stalls
Bloemenmarkt’s floating flower stalls. Bo&Ko CC BY-SA 2.0

Perhaps one of Amsterdam’s most well known sites, this floating flower market is the main source for central Amsterdam’s beautiful tulips and other flowers. The market now also includes stalls featuring various traditional crafts and souvenirs as well. There is no charge to walk through and enjoy the sights of this bustling market, and whether you are looking to spend any money or not, this stop is not to be missed.

4. Visit the Civic Guard Gallery in the Amsterdam Museum

The Arrival of Napoleon at Amsterdam
The Arrival of Napoleon at Amsterdam by Mattheus Ignatius van Bree

While the Amsterdam Museum has an entrance fee, the Schuttersgalerij, or Civic Guard Gallery is free to the public. Appreciate historic portraits of the cities most influential residents and visitors against the backdrop of renovated seventeenth-century architecture that makes up the museum.

5. Relax and take in the views at the Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam

Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam
The beautiful Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam. Jorge Royan. CC BY-SA 3.0

The OBA, Amsterdam’s public library, offers not only an impressive collection of books, but also impressive and unique architecture and stunning views of the city from the top floor. You may even get lucky enough to catch some live piano music.

Bonus: Take a free ferry across the IJ

Graffiti art at NDSM-werf
Graffiti art at NDSM-werf. Epicantus CC BY 2.0 

Free ferries depart regularly from Centraal Station to cross the IJ river. Take a stroll or bike through the leafy neighborhoods of Amsterdam Noord. Don’t miss Nieuwendammerdijk and Schellingwouderdijk, two streets that were originally constructed as dikes. Alternatively, take the ferry to visit the unique sculptures and graffiti art of NDSM-werf, an old shipyard turned arts community.

Bonus: Explore Zeeburg

Waterfront buildings of Zeeburg

Undergoing a major renovation starting in the early 1990’s, this once derelect area of the city has become one of the Amsterdam’s fastest growing. Explore Zeeburg’s artificial islands connected by bridges on foot or by bike for a breathtaking mix of historic dock structures and modern landmark buildings.

Top 5 things to do in Amsterdam for young adults

While Amsterdam is not short on activities that are both fun and wholesome, many travelers, especially young people visit the city for more “edgy” sites and experiences that the city is also known for. While these activities may not be child friendly, open minded adult travelers will find these to be a fun, safe, and legal way to experience Amsterdam.

1. See the Red Light District

Red Light District
The red light district

The Rossebuurt, or Red Light District, is best known for erotic shops and brothels, underscoring the fact that prostitution is legal in Amsterdam. While most tourists will choose not to partake in all of the activities featured here, the neighborhood is definitely worth a visit. One of the oldest areas of the city, visitors can see 14th century streets and canals lined with the red-lit windows the neighborhood is named for. This area has been cleaned up substantially more recently, with many brothels being converted to show-rooms for some of the city’s most talented fashion designers! There’s also a wide range of sex shops, some of which are very tasteful, catering to the tourists who frequent the area. Of course this would not be an area to bring children, and remember, taking pictures of the women dancing in the windows is expressly forbidden!

2. Learn about the manufacture and history of some amazing beverages

Heineken Brewery
The Heineken brewery, home of the Heineken Experience. Mariordo CC BY-SA 4.0 

There is so much more than just a factory tour at the Heineken Experience. With impressive and interactive exhibits, this tour will take you from the origins of the famous beer in Amsterdam to what’s next for the iconic brand. The Amsterdam-based tour guides are also always happy to tell you all about their favorite spots elsewhere in the city. Buy tickets online for a discount and to skip the queue.

For a tour that is a bit less well-known, but no less central to the Amsterdam experience, visit the House of Bols and learn about the history of genever, the national liquor of the Netherlands and ancestor of gin. The one hour tour concludes with a cocktail at the beautiful Mirror bar. This is another good one to buy tickets online in advance.

3. Have a toke at one of the city’s “Coffeeshops”

Amsterdam Coffeeshop
A Typical Coffeeshop

Amsterdam is well known for its “Coffeeshops” which legally serve marijuana to patrons in various preparations from joints to edibles. Look out for a green and white license sticker on the window, distinguishing these cannabis sellers from other cafes and restaurants. To ensure that you are following the proper etiquette, feel free to ask your server any questions about the menu or how you should enjoy any of its items. You can also visit the Cannabis College, a non-profit center which educates visitors on the history and etiquette surrounding the city’s favorite herb.

4. Tuck into a local bar

Amsterdam bar
Grabbing a drink with the locals. jimmyweee CC BY 2.0 

While alcohol cannot be served at the aforementioned coffeeshops, Amsterdam does have a thriving bar scene. Check into one of the city’s many bars and try a Kopstoot. The cocktail’s name translates to “headbutt” in English, and you may understand why the morning after trying this fun and local concoction consisting of genever and beer.

For a totally unique experience, try the Xtracold Icebar. Visitors will be lent a heavy coat and gloves upon entering this frozen bar where everything is made out of ice. Remember, the temperature is kept around -10 degrees Celsius, so you’ll want to avoid wearing shorts, dresses, or open toed shoes.

5. Take in an Ajax game

Johan Cruijff Arena
Johan Cruijff Arena. Pmk58 CC BY-SA 4.0 

To experience the true passion of the locals, try to get to a game to watch Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax (AFC Ajax) defend their home pitch at Johan Cruijff Arena. The football team is one of the most consistently successful in the Netherlands, playing in the Eredivisie, the top Dutch division for the sport. Join over 50,000 other fans rooting on the team at their home in the Zuidoost district of the city.

No time for a whole game? Check out this awesome stadium tour offered by our partners at Get Your Guide. You’ll get a chance to walk through the player dressing room (when not in use of course!) and dugout before visiting the “holy pitch” itself.

Top 5 things to do in Amsterdam for night owls

Amsterdam is a mix of history, art, culture and beautiful sites during the day, but the city truly comes alive at night time. If you’re planning the type of trip that really gets going once the sun goes down, make sure to give these items a try!

1. Catch a concert

The Ziggo Dome
The Ziggo Dome at night. Shirley de Jong CC BY-SA 3.0 

Amsterdam plays host to both international and local music acts across the city, but some of the biggest acts come through the Johan Cruijff Arena, AFAS Live and the Ziggo Dome, three (relatively) larger venues in the Zuidoost or South East neighborhood. Music is a major part of Amsterdam’s culture, and these venues have become classic stopping points when visiting the city.

2. Go out in Leidseplein and Rembrantsplein

A night out in Leidseplein. Mike_fleming CC BY-SA 2.0 

Leidseplein (Leiden Square) and Rembrandtsplein (Rembrandt Square) are two of the most popular neighborhoods for Amsterdam nightlife. In either of these neighborhoods you’ll find a great mix of night clubs, bars, and more casual clubs. You’ll also find a variety of smaller live music venues in Leidseplein. While Amsterdam boasts a strong nightlife culture across the city, these two neighborhoods are essentials for night owls visiting the city. Cover charges are common, especially at the many dance clubs. Save money on your trip by buying an Amsterdam Nightlife Ticket which will give you access to more than 20 participating venues for just €10 or €20 for 2 days or 7 days, respectively.

3. Crank the EDM at the Amsterdam Dance Event and other festivals

Festival in Amsterdam
One of Amsterdam’s many festival shows. High Profile CC BY-SA 2.5

Growing out of the city’s famous club scene, Amsterdam has developed a reputation for some of the world’s greatest festivals and dance music events. The largest of these occurs in October with the Amsterdam Dance Event, a four day festival that features parties, club nights, and concerts at various venues across the city. ADE has become world renowned and should be on the bucket list of any serious electronic music fan.

4. Test your skills at the Ton Ton Club

For a silly good time, visit the Ton Ton Club, a combination bar and arcade with locations in both the Central and West neighborhoods. Enjoy delicious burgers, fun drinks, and show your competitive side with all the classic arcade favorites. This is a great stop to pregame a night out on the town.

5. Class it up with a fancy Cocktail

fun cocktail.
Can’t go wrong with a fun and unique cocktail. Will Shenton CC BY-SA 3.0 

The city has dozens of charming cocktail spots. There’s an atmosphere for every taste, from hidden speakeasies to more traditional bars. Gin (and genever) drinks are perhaps the most popular among the locals, though it’s not hard to find bars whose skilled mixoligists can fix you a classic cocktail or something with a more modern twist across the whole spectrum of spirits.

What do you think? Have you visited any of these spots? Did we miss any? Let us know below!

Check back soon for our second article in this series, continuing with the Top 5 things to do for couples, families, foodies, history buffs, and for winter visitors to Amsterdam.

1 thought on “Top 5 things to do when visiting Amsterdam (part 1)

  1. Great, simple, and informative article! I’m planning a trip to Amsterdam, and now my itinerary has grown. Hopefully the spring weather allows for all of the wonderful outdoor activities you suggest!

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