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Visit Amsterdam and you won’t be alone. Last year an estimated 19 million people came to explore the Netherlands’ largest city, 17 times the number who make it their permanent home. The city authorities have taken drastic steps to manage tourism. The iconic “I Amsterdam” letters were removed from a prominent spot in front of the Rijksmuseum amid concerns the slogan reduced the city to a mere bit player in a marketing story.
But neither action implies travellers won’t be welcome: the city is renowned for being diverse, tolerant and liberal. Branching out from the city’s major attractions to spread the love – and the revenue – is positively encouraged. Whether you choose to explore on two feet or two wheels, there’s plenty to keep you entertained; here’s a roundup of 12 things you must do when visiting Amsterdam.
Hop on a canal cruise
Amsterdam has over 60 miles of canals; the three largest were dug in the city’s Golden Age and form concentric rings known locally as Grachtengordel. A tour of the canals by boat is a must for any visitor – whether you chug along in comfort or opt to hire a pedal boat and travel under your own steam. But Rederij Lampedusa offer something a little more unusual – a crew with roots in Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Egypt and the Netherlands, a couple of boats that were seized by the Italian authorities and a tour that’s focused on the crucial role migrants have played in the development of the city.
Admire the Rijksmuseum’s fine collection
Amsterdam’s most famous museum is the Rijksmuseum with its extensive collection of treasures representing every aspect of Dutch history and art. Works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Van Gogh take pride of place beside archaeological finds, Delftware, vintage clothing and exhibits reflecting the country’s rich maritime heritage. Outside, the serene garden is the ideal setting for an outdoor sculpture gallery.
Take refuge amid the tranquil confines of the Begijnhof
Escape the crowds through a wooden door that leads to a secret passageway with a vaulted ceiling. At the other end you’ll find the Begijnhof; in the 12th century, this was a place where women cared for the sick. Fast forward a couple of centuries and it was the site of a nunnery whose residents were known as “beguines”. Today half the square is open to visitors, the rest reserved for those who have the privilege and good fortune to live here. Don’t miss Houten Huys at #34, the oldest timber house in Amsterdam, built in 1425.
Explore the realities of wartime at the Dutch Resistance Museum
Despite its neutral status, Hitler’s forces invaded the Netherlands in May 1940 and it remained an occupied territory until the end of World War Two. The Dutch found many ways to resist: some went on strike, others forged documents or published underground newspapers. Many took great risks, offering refuge to those needing a safe hiding place or carrying out acts of espionage. This museum tells their horrifying yet compelling stories.
Discover Anne Frank’s hiding place
Anne Frank and her family went into hiding in July 1942. For just over two years they managed to evade capture, out of sight in a secret annexe of a 17th century townhouse on the Prinsengracht canal. During that time, Anne kept a diary. When the place was raided in 1944, like so many other Jews, Anne and her family were sent to the notorious concentration camps. After the war, her father Otto, the family’s only survivor, published her words. Today, visitors queue to set foot inside the house, a poignant, sobering but essential stop on any Amsterdam itinerary.
Wander the area known as De Negen Straatjes
De Negen Straatjes – the Nine Streets – is a charming, gentrified area bisected by canals from the Singel to the Prinsengracht. Its buildings are home to designer boutiques, quirky gift stores, art galleries and cosy cafés. Uber-quaint, this is no place to come with a plan. Instead, allow yourself the luxury of wandering aimlessly, stopping off wherever takes your fancy.
Learn how bulbs became a commodity at the Amsterdam Tulip Museum
On the opposite side of the canal, a little further down the street, you’ll find the Amsterdam Tulip Museum. It’s a surprise for many to learn that this Dutch icon is actually an immigrant, first grown in Asia and introduced to the Netherlands in the 16th century by the Ottomans. Fashionable and highly sought after, speculators quickly took advantage. In an overheated market, some bulbs changed hands for 20 times the average Amsterdam resident’s salary. Fortunately, for today’s buyers, the market went bust and prices are now far more reasonable.
Eat your way through the Albert Cuypmarkt
This vibrant street market in the heart of the De Pijp neighbourhood has been around since 1905. Known to locals as “the Cuyp”, one of the delights of a visit is to sample typically Dutch foods, like warm stroopwafels, locally made cheese or fresh herrings. With around 260 stalls stretching the length of Albert Cuypstraat, you’ll have no problem walking off your purchases.
Call in at Het HEM
What do you do with a redundant munitions factory? If you’re Amsterdam, you turn it into the city’s newest hub for contemporary culture, that’s what. Opened in June 2019, the programme inside this magnificent space changes four times a year, mirroring the seasons. Behind the striking architecture of the building’s façade, multi-disciplinary art exhibits blend the visual arts, dance, music, light and sound. That’s not all: there’s also a library, café, bar and restaurant to keep visitors entertained.
Experience what it’s like to live like a king at the Royal Palace
Construction began on the Royal Palace in 1648, the height of Amsterdam’s Golden Age, though the building was originally designed as the city’s town hall. It was later converted into a palace and is now used by King Willem-Alexander to host state visits, banquets and other such occasions. Except when there’s a function, wide-eyed visitors can tour its grand interiors, with their glittering chandeliers, sumptuous furnishings and marble-clad walls.
Meet the horses of the Hollandsche Manege
The oldest riding school in the Netherlands, the Hollandsche Manege, has been around since 1744. The current building dates from 1882, when the original was demolished to make way for the Singelgracht canal, and is a national monument. Its architect also designed the central railway station. Lessons and training sessions are held regularly, and you’ll also see the horses being exercised on the Koeienweide meadow in nearby Vondelpark.
Swing out at A’DAM LOOKOUT
Survey the whole of Amsterdam and all that surrounds it from the A’DAM Tower observation deck. By day, you’ll have a 360° view of the canals, polder landscape and the port as well as the city’s historic districts. After dark, the city lights shine brightly, making this a magical spot to end the day. If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, take a seat on “Over the Edge”, Europe’s highest swing, located a stomach-churning 100 metres off the ground. Will you be brave enough to keep your eyes open?
About the Author: Julia Hammond
Enthusiastic advocate for independent travel and passionate geographer, travel writer Julia considers herself privileged to earn a living doing something she loves. When not roaming the globe, you’ll find her windswept but smiling, chatting away to her two dogs as they wander the Essex marshes.