Amsterdam is such a popular destination that interestingly the type of official tourist marketing which normally exists to bring the visitors in just doesn’t exist here. Simply put, there is no need and it is fairly obvious why. The inner city is made up of concentric arcs of picturesque canals lined with highly photogenic historic buildings–many dating from the 16th century; the whole is made stroll-friendly thanks to endless pretty-as-a-picture bridges. Such a design means that away from the main hubs the traffic is minimal making for a peaceful atmosphere rarely found in any city let alone a capital. Throw into these scenes of loveliness almost endless options for museums and galleries, a palace and a set of lovely parks along with charming pavement cafes and restaurants ranging from the hip to the high-end and it might start to become very obvious why Amsterdam doesn’t need to sell itself. One essential element that makes this UNESCO World Heritage city especially tourist-friendly is its compact size which means exploration on foot is both enjoyable and straightforward. Despite its relatively small size quick-to-charm Amsterdam is crammed to bursting with fun, exciting and interesting things to see and do which means you will need to plan carefully to make the most of it in one day. Here are some suggestions to help you do just that
A Morning in Amsterdam
Vondelpark –who most agree is Amsterdam’s’ loveliest park –offers a tranquil start to your day’s exploration. Vast and beloved by the city locals, Vondelpark is 45 hectares of natural greenery sculpted around a series of islands. The whole is interspersed with ponds and lakes, lawns, romantic arched bridges,rose-bushes, mature trees, sculptures and an historic feature or two.
Vondelpark, with its permanent natural soundtrack of bird song, has been offering an oasis in the city since it opened in 1865 and today receives around 10 million visitors every year. Among its principal features are a beautiful terraced pavilion building dating from the late 19th century complete with a restaurant, an open-air theater which stages free performances in the summer and a small 1870s bandstand on its own island which is covered in tulips in spring.
The park has three sculptures to check out –the large 1867 bronze statue of the poet Vondel, a 1965 Picasso abstract and another bronze known as ‘Mama Baranka’ which is a 1980s piece by Amsterdam’s Nelson Carillho.
One of Vondel park’s claims to fame is its 2009 entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the staging of the largest picnic ever recorded.While simply strolling is favored by many you can hire a bike or take a bike tour if you want to see every tucked away corner of this special place.
Botanical Gardens Alternative
Another morning start option for all those interested in tranquil green spaces and horticulture is the botanical gardens –Hortus Botanicus. Once nothing grander than a herb garden for apothecaries, the gardens date from 1638 making it one of the most ancient botanical gardens to be found in the world. Today this relatively little-visited Amsterdam gem is home to thousands of plants and trees including some true rarities such as a 2000 year old agave (the plant from which tequila is made) and several tropical species inside the glass house.
The Little Woodcutter
On leaving Vondel park if you head along Stadhouderskade towards the Leidseplein bridge you can hunt down a tiny treasure which few who come to Amsterdam ever know about. Across the canal from the famous American Hotel, hidden in plain sight in one of the trees of Leidsebosje’s parkland, is a 50 cm bronze statue of a woodcutter busily sawing away at a tree branch. The identity of the sculptor has remained a mystery since the little figure first appeared in 1989.
Morning Coffee Options in Amsterdam
As one of the few who can lay claim to having seen the tiny woodcutter you will have earned your coffee break and you are surrounded by choice here in this vicinity. If you are enjoying the outdoors and want to make things easy you can simply nip back to the Blue Tea house (Blauwe Theehuis) in Vondelpark. The huge terrace here is ideal for views over the park and this 1930s establishment has a large array of hot and cold drinks as well as pastries and craft cakes.
However, if you are a little more discerning with your coffee and tea choices head to Jan Pieter Heijestraat -around 500 meters from the hidden woodcutter –where you will find Trakteren Koffie. Consistently raved out by those in the know, this small set-up which includes a terrace is considered by many to be the best coffee found in Amsterdam. While it may make no difference to the taste the artwork you will find in the steamed milk of the lattes here –everything from elephants to dragons -is nothing short of astonishing.
Another short stroll choice for the coffee connoisseur is the female duo run Back to Black on Weteringstraat which is also a concept store selling art. This wooden-floored bright space with canal views is a popular spot with locals and comes with heaps of charm. Back to Black have their own roasting set up in the basement and also make all the home-made sweets and savories found here to compliment your drink of choice. If you tend more towards tea than coffee you will also love the extensive choices.
Museums – Amsterdam’s Top 3
Once you have satisfied any caffeine needs and morning snack cravings you will need to decide which of Amsterdam’s top museum options to head for. For the culturally curious Amsterdam has an astonishing number of museums to pick from –more than 40 in fact. However, the top 3 are generally considered to be the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijks museum and the Anne Frank House. All are within walking distance of each other –the first two practically side by side–so you could in theory do all of them although most visitors prefer to thoroughly explore just one.
The Van Gogh Museum
The stunningly modern-design Van Gogh Museum with its 1.5 million visitors annually is not just a leading light of the Amsterdam attractions but is generally considered to be one of the most important art galleries in the world. Unsurprisingly, nowhere else has such an extensive collection of this 19th century artist’s work; as well as 200 paintings the museum also exhibits 500 drawings and hundreds of letters.
A wander through the sequence of galleries here tells a chronological story of Van Gogh’s artistic development from the creative beginnings until the end of his life. Although Van Gogh’s works are the main draw the museum also houses pieces by other greats -Gaugin, Monet and Seurat.For those who want a more in-depth commentary of what they are looking at both audio guides and guide apps are available.
The Rijks Museum
Claiming the title of the country’s most visited museum, the Rijks museum comes on a mammoth scale. There is no possibility that day visitors can cover even a fraction of its 250 rooms but the whole is well organized which means you can pick what appeals most and focus your attention there. For those who simply can’t decide there are a variety of guided tours available which will ensure you don’t miss any of the most important features.
Like the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijk museum doesn’t just hold significance on a national level but is deemed to be one of the world’s most important museums. Its collection consists of millions of art works and antique treasures including 5,000 important paintings, a library of rare books and manuscripts as well as exhibits of traditional handicrafts and medieval sculpture. While famous names and masterpiece works are too numerous to list in detail they include Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Vermmer and other famous names from the Flemish School.
Even if you decide to skip the Rijks museum it is worth passing by to gaze upon the beautiful building which has been awarded national heritage site status since 1970. The museum was itself founded in 1809 but after a couple of relocations settled in its current home in 1885.
On exiting either the Van Gogh Museum or the Rijks museum be sure to check out the ‘I Amsterdam’ sign in the Museumplein which has been a city landmark since it was installed in 2005.
The Anne Frank House
For a totally different experience, the Prinsengracht-located Anne Frank House is the third of Amsterdam’s most popular museum choices. There are few who are not familiar with the highly emotive story of the 13-year-old Jewish girl who hid along with her family in the concealed rooms of a building for 2 years during World War II before being discovered by the Gestapo and moved to a concentration camp.
The diary that Anne kept during this time became a global bestseller once it was turned into a book and the story has been made into countless films and plays. Today the actual house where she wrote it and sought secret refuge has become a poignant museum.
The hidden section –where Anne’s room has been reconstructed -is reached by way of several stairs. Tours end with screenings of actual footage from concentration camps –including the one where Anne died aged 15 -and the whole, although sensitively done, can be something of an overwhelming emotional experience for many.
Alternative Museum Choices
If you prefer you museums rather more intimate or less mainstream you have a huge choice of alternatives. Modern art lovers can head to the 1895-founded Stedelijk, considered to be among Europe’s most impressive collections,while science fans will love the NEMO Science Museum.Of the hidden gem type of museums one of the choices is Our Lord in the Attic which,having been a museum since 1888,lays claim to being the second oldest in Amsterdam. Dating from the 17th century, this canal house hides a stunning church which takes up three floors and is an example of a ‘clandestine church (schuilkerk)’ where persecuted Catholics worshipped in secret. Servicesare still held here today.
For lovers of the slightly off-beat there are any number of choices such as the Torture Museum, the Museum of Prostitution, the Vrolik which houses an anatomical collection of human mutations and Electric Ladyland which is perhaps the only museum in the world dedicated to fluorescent art.
Depending on how much time you have spent exploring the fascinating museums and galleries you may just have enough time to take a peek at the early 1600s church where Rembrandt is buried known as Westerkerk. The crown-topped tower and spire(Westertoren)of this renaissance church is the city’s tallest at a height of 85 meters. The church, which was the royal venue for the wedding of Queen Beatrix in the 1960s, also has a multitude of remarkable gothic features while the 17th century organ is especially noteworthy. The exact location of the Rembrandt grave unfortunately is not known –its identification number has been lost somewhere in the mists of time since his burial in 1669.
Located close to the Anne Frank Museum, the Westertoren makes an entry several times in Anne’s diary. She wrote that the chiming of the tower’s clock was a source of comfort to her.
Lunch in Amsterdam
After a morning of perhaps covering the multiple galleries of the Rijks museum you may be ready for a substantial lunch. If so make your way to the Seafood Bar close to Vondel park and a short stroll from each of the main museums which may have figured in your morning itinerary.
Relaxingly pretension-free, this well-respected modern restaurant which serves dishes crafted from fresh, locally-sourced seafood is popular with both tourists and locals. The local oysters are a must. For something a little lighter head to Goodies on Negen Straatjes with its bright print and photograph-lined walls and simple wooden tables. Here you will find oversized organic sandwich choices or salads of both the more traditional or refreshingly different kind. There are also a great choice of cakes and puddings too or for another sweet choice and something decidedly Dutch head out to the street kiosks to get your dessert of fresh stroopwafel.
An Afternoon in Amsterdam
While a one day itinerary is far from being enough to take in everything Amsterdam has to offer the city center’s compact size and a carefully planned route make all the difference. The following takes you on a trail which will mean you can cram as many of the must-see sights in as possible -and even a couple of hidden gems -without too much walking.
To ease yourself gently into your Amsterdam afternoon after a lazy lunch you can visit one example of something which is easily missed by the Amsterdam tourist –the hidden hofjes. Rarely suggesting anything of interest to a casual passerby and dating from the Middle Ages, a hofje is a closed courtyard which originally sprung into existence as a community for women known as beguines. With certain similarities to convents, the women of the hofjes were devout Catholics who took vows of chastity but unlike nuns were free to leave and marry at any point if they so wished. In this way they were more akin to almshouses.
Amsterdam’s last beguine died in the 1970s and today there around 30 of these hidden courtyards in Amsterdam. One of the largest and oldest is Begijnhof which, although certainly is at least 600 years old, may have actually been founded as early as the 12th century. Most of the tall, typical Amsterdam houses surrounding the central lawn of Begijnhof are now private homes but there are also two churches and at No. 34 the 16th century Het Houten Huys -one of the cities few surviving examples of wooden houses. Both of the churches have historical significance –the 15th century English reformed Church (the Engelse Kerk) used by the 17th century Pilgrims before crossing to America on the Mayflower and the Catholic church which dates from the 1600s. This latter is an example of one of the city’s clandestine or hidden churches and has some lovely stained glass windows. Free to enter, Begijnhof has two easily missed entrances –one on the Spui and one on the Gedempte Begijnensloot. As Amsterdam’s most well-known hofje, there is little chance you will have Begijnhof all to yourself. If you want something offering greater tranquility head to one of the hofjes of the Jordaan area such as Claes Claeszhofje or St. Andrieshofje.
A Wander Through Dam Square
Just a 10 minute stroll from Begijnhof can be found Amsterdam’s principal square –Dam Square -which is where the Royal Palace is located. Visiting the city without at least passing by this magnificent 17th century classical building is unthinkable even if you don’t have time to explore its opulent interior of marble sculptures and ceiling frescoes and which also houses one of the world’s finest antique collection of furniture. As one of the official royal residences the palace is only open to visitors when the king or family are not home.
Right next to the Royal Palace can be found the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk) which, despite its somewhat misleading name, dates from the 15th century. Representing the present day official coronation church, New Church features a wealth of notable features. These include the elaborate baroque style wooden pulpit, carved detail choir stalls, an especially beautiful bronze choir screen and magnificent stained glass windows, the oldest of which is more than 350 years old.
Before you leave Dam Square be sure to check out the National Monument although at 22 meters in height this impressive obelisk is hard to miss. Decorated with sculptures representing ‘war’, ‘peace’ and ‘resistance’, the 20th century memorial is dedicated to all those who fell in WWII and contains urns with earth from each of the Netherlands’ provinces as well as from the cemetery of honor in Indonesia.
The Old Church (De Oude Kerk)
Claiming the title of Amsterdam’s oldest building, the Old Church dates from 1306 which explains why the New Church dating from the 1400s is so named. Contained within the 16th century tower is a 17th century carillon which is generally accepted as being one of the finest nationwide. If you have the energy for the 164-step climb it is possible to ascend the church’s tower;some stunning and far-reaching views are your reward.
Be sure to take a look inside the church too, even if only to checkout the wonderful carved choir stalls. Each represents a sobering proverb in bas relief and several –such as the young lady being seemingly whipped on her bare backside, a man excreting coins and a figure with a human head and birds’wings -are a little whimsical.
Another interesting element of this church is its location. Situated bang-smack in the center of the Red Light District in Oudekerksplein the Old Church is perhaps one of the few places in the world where a functioning religious building and brothels stand shoulder to shoulder.
Oersoep – Beurspassage
On Damrak, just a stone’s throw from the Old Church, can be found another of Amsterdam’s gems which can easily be missed if you don’t know where to look. Once just a city passageway like any other, this relatively new Amsterdam treasure was transformed into something else entirely in 2016 and is today a dazzling feast for the eyes. The Oersoep, which means primordial soup, is essentially a tribute to Amsterdam’s inextricable links with the sea and more generally humankind’s relationship with water. In reality this incredible creative makeover is a conglomeration of hundreds of thousands of glass mosaics, Art Deco decorations and glittering chandeliers which hang from an elegant barrel-vaulted ceiling. These latter, on closer inspection, are actually made up of bicycle parts such as wheels, cogs, frame sections and bicycle lights. The Italian Terrazzo walkway is an artwork all of its own, patterned to resemble floor mosaics more generally found at archaeological digs.
Thanks to the multitude of green-hued mosaics, walking through the passageway truly feels like talking a stroll through an underwater tunnel; an illusion which is enhanced with a variety of additions such as bubbles, swimming fish and other floating objects.
The Jordaan Neighborhood
While your afternoon so far has been something of a whistle-stop tour of some major tourist highlights, the next part will allow you a more thorough exploration of one of Amsterdam’s most collectively charming and vibrant neighborhoods –the historic Jordaan. Rather than having specific points of interest, visiting the place where Rembrandt lived in his latter years is more about simply strolling the labyrinthine streets, soaking up the authentic Dutch atmosphere and enjoying lovely canal views.
The whole is punctuated with bars and cafés of the quirky and quaint variety, several hidden hofjes, small galleries and a range of independent shops which are great for souvenirs of the less mainstream variety. It is also home to several markets –including an eco-market and flea markets -which set up on different days of the week.
An Alternative Afternoon of Canal Cruising and Shopping
If you like the idea of taking in several sights but don’t relish the walking an alternative is to take a canal cruise. Unsurprisingly for a city which is known for its multitude of canals there are a vast number of companies offering inexpensive cruises which typically last around one to two hours. Quite what you will get depends upon your choice but possibilities include open, closed or semi-open boats, basic or luxury, pre-recorded commentaries or live guides and a variety of routes. Although a cruise allows you to take in many of the city’s highlights as you pass it can be a little frustrating if you see something which piques your interest and you would like to explore further. In this case one of the hop on hop off cruises is an ideal choice. Such an option removes all the hassle of independent planning and all the walking effort while allowing you complete freedom to get a closer look at some iconic attractions. Once you have spent as much time as you choose you can simply hop on-board another of the network’s boats with your 24 hour valid ticket to continue your Amsterdam adventure.
For those who like to choose their own route entirely there is also the option of hiring a boat for private use by the hour or there is the fun option of hiring a pedalo.
Either during a hop on hop off cruise or after a set schedule one all those who feel in need of some retail therapy will find themselves with a huge number of choices. Anyone who favors the big brands chain store experience should head to Kalverstraat but if you are on the lookout for rather more unusual products, gifts or souvenirs a great starting point is the charming cobbled street area known as the Nine Streets (De Negen Straatjes). Here you can take your pick of specialty stores, small boutiques and independent establishments offering one-off type items, vintage shopping and a fair helping of the decidedly quirky.
The Jordaan area also has plenty in the way of more independent style shops and is especially good if you are looking for small boutique fashion-wares.
Also in plentiful supply are outdoor markets,perhaps the most famous of which –and certainly the most photogenic -is the fixed-barge floating flower-market known as Bloemenmarkt on the Singel Canal. The riot of blooms and colors on the glasshouse-topped barges is a lovely sight even if you have no intention of buying anything. If you are a keen gardener though the vendors do a roaring tourist trade here selling customs-friendly packages of Dutch bulbs, particularly the famous species of tulip.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Amsterdam
Although Amsterdam is bursting at the seams with choices for pre-dinner cocktails or aperitifs it would be hard to beat the choices which combine the experience with canal cruising. Even if you have decided to cruise the canals during the day the whole thing is worth doing all over again once dusk descends and the city’s canals, bridges and canal-side buildings are lit up. The whole has a decidedly magical air and if romantic drinks and dining are your aim this is probably as good as it gets.
There are choices for a 90 minute cocktail cruise or a 2 hour night cheese and wine cruise or you can go the whole hog and enjoy an elegant champagne dinner cruise on-board a luxury canal boat.If you prefer to go for a dry land dining spot Restaurant Jansz on Hartenstraat –just a short stroll from the Jordaan neighborhood –is one of the venues frequented by discerning Amsterdam foodies dining out. Simply but elegantly decorated and with a great canal view, Jansz offers dishes ranging from the hearty (classic cheeseburger) to the refined (truffle orecchiette).
An Evening in Amsterdam
If you have chosen to go down the canal boat dinner cruise route that is more or less you whole evening taken care of. Should you have opted instead for a dinner on dry land an evening canal tour is still an especially lovely way to spend your after dark Amsterdam hours once you have finished dining.
The majority of Amsterdam tourists are happy to wander the wonderfully lit canals as their evening entertainment or enjoy the hospitality of the quintessentially Dutch brown cafes (bruin cafes) which are a type of traditional pub found in their many hundreds here. If you would prefer something rather more laid-on for your entertainment then head to the Vondel park for a free open-air concert or theater performance.
It is also worth mentioning that the Anne Frank House is open until 10 pm every day. In very high season the lines for entry here during the day are long whereas it is often possible to simply stroll straight in when things are quieter in the evenings.