The top 10 things to do in Amsterdam when you visit the city for the first time? The Dutch capital is packed with the best attractions: from world-class museums to special experiences and from typical Amsterdam canal houses to cool hotspots in an abandoned shipyard. As Dutchies, we have visited the city dozens of times and Sebastiaan even lived there for a while. So it takes little effort for us to list our favorite sights in Amsterdam. Read in this blog about the 10 best things to do in Amsterdam according to locals.
Budget tip: use a discount pass
If you want to get the most out of your visit, a discount card for Amsterdam is highly recommended. The tickets for the Amsterdam attractions can add up to a considerable amount. Think in advance about the places you want to visit in Amsterdam, add up the ticket prices and see whether you can get a better deal with a pass.
Which discount passes we can recommend for Amsterdam?
- The Dutch Museum card has been a personal favorite for many years, as it gives unlimited access to most museums in the Netherlands for a year. Three to four museum visits is enough to make this card a budget-proof decision. Because it is such a great money saver, is set up in a way that makes it difficult for tourists to use this card. You can buy the card online and have it sent to your Dutch home address. If you don’t have a Dutch address, you can buy the card in a museum. But you’ll only receive a temporary card in the museum that is valid for 5 visits in a maximum of 31 days. You still need to register that card online to receive the actual card at your Dutch address.
- The Go City Amsterdam Pass is the easier option for visitors from outside the Netherlands. It offers access to many attractions in Amsterdam and you will save on attractions when doing multiple. It’s not just for museums, but also for Amsterdam highlights like the Heineken Experience, a canal boat tour and the Amsterdam Lookout. It even includes some attractions near Amsterdam, like Muiderslot Castle and the Zaanse Schans. Go City Pass can save you up to 55% on buying the pass directly from each attraction.
Top 10 things to do in Amsterdam
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is the most well-known museum in the Netherlands. The immense museum was reopened in 2013 after decades of renovation. From the Hall of Fame to the Asian Pavilion, from the old masters to modern art and the beautiful historic building to the modern entrance hall. The result of the extensive renovation can easily entertain you for several days, so we have visited the museum many times to be able to visit the Rijksmuseum highlights.
Things not to miss during your visit? The Hall of Fame is the most well-known gallery of the museum. During the renovation, this hall was specially designed to showcase the famous canvases of the museum at their best. The most famous of all is the enormous Night Watch by Rembrandt at the end of the gallery, but the gallery also includes work such as Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride, The Threatened Swan or the Woman Reading A Letter and Vermeer’s Milkmaid. Don’t forget to check out the beautiful ceiling, as the architecture of the hall itself is absolutely beautiful. Other places to admire the architecture of the Rijks? Be sure to visit the historical library, designed by Cuypers in 1885, and the Voorhal with an inlaid mosaic floor, a vaulted ceiling like a cathedral, stained glass windows and huge murals in Biblical themes.
Other highlights in the Rijksmuseum are the two winter landscapes of Hendrick Avercamp, Petronella’s huge dollhouse made famous by the book The Miniaturist, the self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh and the temple guards in the Asian pavilion.
#2 The Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam is world-famous for its unique canals in the Old Town. The canals are even on the UNESCO World Heritage List. We highly recommend you to take a cruise through the canals and visit at least one canal house inside to enjoy the iconic waterways to the fullest.
The Amsterdam canals were created in the seventeenth century, so during the Golden Age of Amsterdam. It was designed to create a defense system of the city, drain the water in this swampy area, transport of goods in the important trading city and create more living space for the growing population. The excavation of the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht was started in 1613. Later in the seventeenth century, the canals were connected to the Amstel and the Gouden Bocht in the Herengracht was also built at that time.
Amsterdam now has 165 canals. The main canal is the Singel, which encloses the old city center. The three canals beyond the Singel are the famous Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. Together they are the so-called Grachtengordel (translated: the ring of canals) of Amsterdam. The Grachtengordel was a prestigious place to live for the wealthy Amsterdam people. The richest inhabitants had their city palaces built on the canals, creating the beautiful canal houses that are now iconic for Amsterdam.
A canal cruise is one of the top things to do in Amsterdam. There are different types of tours, but a classic open boat tour with information from a guide is the best way to learn more about the city. There are several pick-up points throughout the city.
Another great way to learn more about the Amsterdam canals is to visit one or more canal house. The Grachtenmuseum Amsterdam learns its visitors about the history of Amsterdam and the canals in particular in a unique multimedia presentation. Other canal houses – Museum Van Loon, Huis Willet Holthuysen and the Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis – are now opened as museums and show visitors how the wealthiest people lived during the Golden Age in their city palaces.
#3 Heineken Experience
One of the best export products in the Netherlands? The world-famous Heineken beer! During our travels we have come across the Dutch beer in the most remote and unexpected locations. Heineken is a worldwide concept. A visit to the Heineken Experience is therefore one of the best things to do in Amsterdam!
The Heineken Experience is housed in Heineken’s very first brewery. The building from 1867 is inextricably linked to the history of the beer brand and therefore also the best place to learn more about it. In the old brewery, you will learn about the history of the beer brand, how a new beer recipe became a worldwide hit and you can also taste the beer at the end of your visit. The Heineken Experience is a kind of museum, or maybe it’s better described as an interactive multimedia tour. Minors are also welcome at the Heineken Experience, but of course they are not allowed to taste the beer at the end.
Tickets for the Heineken Experience are a bit pricey, so if you want to visit the old brewery, it’s worth checking out the option of a city pass for Amsterdam. The Heineken Experience is included in the Go City Pass, as are dozens of other sights in Amsterdam.
#4 Van Gogh Museum
As one of the most famous Dutch painters, Van Gogh has his own museum in Amsterdam. The Museumplein – translated: Museum Square – already has a beautiful self-portrait on display at the Rijksmuseum. But if you really want to enjoy his artwork, you should go to the Van Gogh Museum nearby. It is the museum with the most Van Gogh paintings in the world, including some iconic works.
Van Gogh may be one of the most famous painters in the world today, but that was much different during his time. He only sold about two paintings during his life and his brother Theo had to support him financially. It was only after his death that the painter became well-known to collectors and eventually became one of the most famous painters in the world. His family sold its Van Gogh collection to the Dutch state in the 1960s. This collection of over two hundred paintings and many more drawings, as well as the letters between Vincent and Theo, became the basis of the Van Gogh Museum. The best-known works in the museum are The Potato Eaters from the artist’s early period and the iconic Sunflowers, Almond Blossom, Wheat Field Under Threatening Skies and The Bedroom.
It can get quite busy in the museum and you’ll have to book a ticket with an entrance time in advance, even if you have a discount card that gives you free access. Once in the museum, you can stay as long as you want. Due to the popularity of the museum, the earliest timeslots and those at the end of the afternoon are the quietest, but the Van Gogh will always be busy.
Tip: would you like to see more works by Van Gogh? The second largest collection of his works can be found in the Kröller-Müller Museum on the Veluwe.
#5 Amsterdam Lookout
The Amsterdam Lookout is a fairly new attraction in Amsterdam, but already one of the most popular sights in the city. You can find the Amsterdam Lookout at the top of the A’DAM Tower, located on the other side of the IJ, so you should take a (free) ferry from the city center to get there.
The A’DAM Tower also houses one of the most trendy and creative hotels in Amsterdam: Sir Adam Hotel. Sir Adam is very well designed from its public space via the disco or karaoke elevators all the way to the rooms and suites. Music is one of the leading themes in the hotel design, as you might have guessed from the funky elevators. The rooms are decorated with a guitar and recorded sleeves and all of them have a record player. Many of the rooms have a phenomenal view of the city.
But you’ll have even better views from the observation platform at the top of the tower. The Amsterdam Lookout is about 100 meters high. A special elevator with sound and light effects brings you to the top in 20 seconds. The views from the top over the city are phenomenal. And how about the famous Lookout Swing? As the highest swing in Europe, this attraction is of course a must when you are visiting the observation platform. The swing goes over the edge, so this is only for the daredevils.
#6 Anne Frank House
The Jewish girl Anne Frank became world famous with her diaries from the Second World War. She has become a symbol for the persecuted Jews during the war. In memory of Anne Frank, her hiding place at 20 Westermarkt is now a museum. It is one of the most popular sights in Amsterdam and a must when visiting the city.
Anne Frank’s diaries have brought the Jewish girl to fame all over the world. She wrote her diaries about her daily life during the Second World War, when the young girl was hiding in the secret Annex of her father’s office. The girl eventually died in a German concentration camp with her sister. Immediately after the war, her father had the diaries published and the Jewish victims were given a face. Anne’s diary was an instant bestseller, even abroad. The Annex, where she was hiding with her family and some family friends, was already turned into a museum in the 1950s. The neighboring properties were bought to create more space for the museum telling the story of Anne and the other people in hiding here.
During a visit to the Anne Frank House, Anne’s story comes to life even more than when reading the books. Both the office where Anne’s father’s company was located, and the Annex, have been fully preserved in their original condition. Visitors walk through the rooms in which the people in hiding lived together for years, including Anne’s room. It is a unique experience that you shouldn’t miss during your visit to Amsterdam.
#7 Moco Museum
The Museumplein (translated: Museum Square) in Amsterdam is home to many museums, including world-class museums like the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. One of the newest additions is the Moco Museum. The museum from 2016 focuses on modern and contemporary art, as the name already suggests.
Ths self-proclaimed ’boutique museum’ on the Museumplein has changing exhibitions with modern and contemporary art and a permanent exhibition with Banksy art. The aim of the museum is to show accessible art, attracting visitors that would normally not visit a museum. With works by famous artists such as Banksy, Arsham and Warhol and unique colorful installations and iconic paintings, this private museum has been a major crowd puller since its opening.
The museum is located in Villa Alsberg, a beautiful mansion on the Museumplein. It is a design by the well-known architect Cuijpers who also designed the Rijksmuseum and Amsterdam Central Station. The historic design is a lovely combination with modern art. When you visit the Moco Museum, don’t forget to take a look at the garden with it’s unique sculptures.
#8 The Amsterdam Royal Palace
Do you remember the abdication of (then) Queen Beatrix? Or The Kiss at the wedding of Máxima and Willem-Alexander? The Royal Palace in Amsterdam has been the setting for many historical events. When the palace on Dam Square is not used by the royal family for state visits or other official events, it is open to visitors as a museum.
Although the Royal Palace on Dam Square is one of the most important palaces in the Netherlands, it seems almost hidden in Amsterdam. But in plain sight. It is monumentally located on the central Dam Square, but the sober facade does not attract attention. It lacks a monumental entrance and when compared to other opulent palaces in Europe it is a somewhat dull building. But the interior is much different!
The palace – which was not originally intended as a palace, but as a town hall – dates from the Golden Age, when the Netherlands and Amsterdam in particular were very wealthy. So Amsterdam needed a large town hall to reflect that wealth. You’ll clearly see this in the central hall of the Royal Palace. It is an impressive ensemble of marble, sculptures and chandeliers. Almost all details symbolize Amsterdam, its major role in European trade during the Golden Age or other Dutch values.
The old town hall only became a palace after the French emperor Napoleon occupied the present Netherlands. He named his younger brother Lodewijk Napoleon the first king of the Netherlands and he took up residence in the city palace. When you visit the palace, you will still see a lot of furniture that Louis Napoleon and his wife Hortense brought to the Netherlands from Paris. The building remained a palace after the French were gone, being used by the Dutch royal family as their Royal Palace.
It is still in use by the royal family. The former queen signed her abdication documents here and King Willem-Alexander welcomes his royal guests and foreign leaders at the palace. The rest of the year, the Royal Palace is open to visitors. Marvel at the impressive architecture and let the audio tour update you on the history of Amsterdam and the royal family.
#9 Secret Church in the Attic
Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder is one of our favorite museums and one of the best things to do in Amsterdam. During the time when it was not allowed in the Protestant Netherlands to practice the Catholic faith in public, secret churches were built in the Amsterdam canal houses. Many of these have disappeared with the arrival of real Catholic churches, but this hidden church in the Red Light District was preserved as a museum.
The building at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40 looks like any other beautiful canal house in Amsterdam. But behind that seventeenth-century facade with four windows hides one of the most special places in Amsterdam. A Roman Catholic church has been built over the full depth of the attic of the house. Visitors could access the church through a hidden entrance in the alley next to the house.
When two centuries later a large Catholic church was built nearby, the hidden church in the attic was no longer used as a church. It was decided to preserve it as a museum, creating the oldest museum in Amsterdam after the Rijksmuseum. The museum not only shows the special church in the attic of the canal house, but also gives an insight into daily life in the Golden Age.
#10 Take the ferry to the NDSM wharf
Amsterdam Noord is one of the hidden gems of the Dutch capital. We can’t call it an upcoming neighborhood anymore, because it has been a hip hotspot for locals for many years now. A visit to Noord is one of the best and more original things to do in Amsterdam!
In addition to the man-made canals, Amsterdam also has a natural body of water, the IJ. Cross the IJ with a (free!) ferry from the Old Town and you’ll arrive at the coolest area of Amsterdam. On the waterfront you will find the old NDSM wharf, where the NDSM once had one of the largest shipyards in the world. The abandoned shipyard has a new destination and is now popular among locals because of the colorful street art, great festivals, views over the IJ and the many hip restaurants.
Our tips for the NDSM wharf? We love to go to IJver for drinks on the terrace or in the industrial building. Pllek has a delicious menu and a prime location right on the IJ, making this the best place to have a drink on summer days. Straat Museum, the street art museum of Amsterdam, is a must for those who love graffiti art, creative murals and unique street art as much as we do.
You can also book a special hotel night in Amsterdam in Noord! The NDSM wharf offers one of the most unique places to stay with its Crane Hotel Faralda with great views of the city.
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This blog post was created in collaboration with Go City.