Best things to do in Amsterdam
What is it? Recently refurbished as part of a drive to regenerate Noord, this 22-storey tower now looms over the waterfront across the River IJ from Centraal. Formerly the HQ of Shell, it’s now home to a number of young music, advertising, and events companies alongside a number of bars and restaurants (and even a hotel).
Why go? Sip a signature cocktail in the Skybar, eat in one of the two gourmet restaurants on the top floors (one of which revolves), and if you’re really brave, head to the observation deck to Over The Edge, Europe’s highest swing, and enjoy the views as you rock back and forth, 100 metres up.
What is it? Amsterdam doesn’t lack for grand, classical museums and galleries, but Rijksmuseum is the daddy of them all. Recently reopened after a 10-year, €375 million refurbishment, this magnificent Gothic and Renaissance building is home to the work of numerous Dutch masters from the Golden Age alongside a small Asian collection.
Why go? The informative guided tours – accessed through the museum’s app – are second to none, and there’s also a library and world-class restaurant on site. For a few hours of culture, it doesn’t get much better than this.
What is it? If you’re after a unique dinner experience, nothing comes close to Vuurtoreneiland. A special boat takes you to this small, rugged island in the IJmeer that’s home to a single lighthouse, an old abandoned fort, and a large greenhouse dining room.
Why go? The ethos here is ‘eating in and of nature’ – a five-course set menu of the freshest regional produce, lovingly prepared and cooked entirely on open flames. The food is incredible, as is the glorious setting – the island is a unique piece of nature which includes rare flora, sweeping coastlines and stray animals. But be warned: since this is a once-in-a-lifetime treat, booking is essential.
What is it? Small but beautifully formed, Amsterdam’s zoo – one of the oldest in Europe – works hard to make the most of its canalside site in Oost. There’s the usual collection of animals – big cats, elephants, giraffes, apes – but there’s also an impressive aquarium, a planetarium, and Micropia, the only microbe museum in the world.
Why go? It’s a great place for a family day out, and during the summer, the zoo opens late on Saturdays for music, special tours and special performances – you can even order a picnic or barbecue in advance.
What is it? The lungs of the city, Vondelpark was, until recently, the only public park in the world where one could legally barbecue, smoke joints, and have sex. The latter has since been outlawed (again), but there’s still a relaxed vibe to the vast open spaces and wooded trails of this green giant.
Why go? Locals come here to run, cycle around, play sports, or just chill, and there are plenty of amenities for those looking to make a day of it. Don’t miss the beautiful rose garden and if you’re lucky, you might catch a performance in the famous open-air theatre.
What is it? One of Amsterdams must-do activities, which although many may think of as a cliché, is still the best way to explore the city. Sure, Amsterdam's bikes are iconic, but a canal tour requires zero physical effort, so you can finally relax. There are a plethora of tour operators with boats, most of which depart from around Centraal, so you'll be enjoying the serene sights in no time.
Why go? While there’s not much to choose between the various operators, it’s worth doing a longer tour that also heads out onto the IJ (the best ones are around 75 minutes). If you want to take it up a notch, there are also sorts of dinner and cocktail cruises in the evenings too, and even one with a live jazz band on board. Classy.
What is it? With a rich history as a trading nation, the Dutch have a love of bargaining and value for money. Albert Cuyp Markt, nestled in the heart of De Pijp, is the place to go to watch locals at play, bartering and shopping.
Why go? The street-length market has an incredible range of food, clothes, knick-knacks, and souvenirs – for fresh fish, chicken, meat, and vegetables, it’s pretty hard to beat. It’s also a great place to simply wander around, soak up the atmosphere, and mingle with genuine Amsterdammers.
What is it? Right in the middle of the canal belt in Jordaan, this micro-neighbourhood of quaint and quirky streets is big on personality and full of cosy cafes, independent boutiques, vintage shops, and artisanal stores.
Why go? Best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, there are plenty of Instagram-ready spots here – this is old Amsterdam at its best – and places to just sit and watch the world go by. Eat at Ree7 or Libertine Café, shop at Zipper and Catwalk Junkie, and grab a coffee at Screaming Beans.
What is it? A former shipyard on the northern banks of the IJ, this area – reached by a free ferry from the back of Centraal – has recently blossomed into a cultural hotspot with a rich mix of artistic events, bars, and restaurants.
Why go? Enjoy beach-front food and drink, Europe’s largest flea market (once a month, on weekends), and numerous festivals, exhibitions, and goings-on. The city plans to build over 2000 houses here, turning it into a ‘district for urban pioneers’, and the artistic community and creative vibe make this a refreshing escape from the usual tourist hotspots.
icnic.What is it? If you’re based in Oost, this giant park is the place to head if you fancy a relaxing walk, cycle, or just some space and fresh air. There are huge grassy areas for lounging and several running trails for the more energetic types.
Why go? Flevobad, the city’s only outdoor swimming pool, is here, or you can go wild swimming in the Nieuwe Diep. There’s also a tennis club, and when you’re done with exercising head to the microbrewery Distillery ‘t Nieuwe Diep, grab a spot on the terrace and try some of their craft beers and ales. Otherwise, grab something from to nibble on (we see you, Marqt) and lay down a blanket for the ultimate picnic.
What is it? This seventeenth-century canal house where Anne Frank, her family, and four others hid from the Nazis for two years before their betrayal and discovery is now a museum and educational centre. There’s a permanent exhibition on the life and times of Anne, and of course, you can visit the cramped ‘secret annexe’ they called home.
Why go? One of the essential historical sites anywhere in the world, it’s a chilling, sombre reminder of the horrors of World War Two, but at the same time, a testament to the optimism and the indefatigable human spirit that so many exhibited, something we’d all do well to remember.
What is it? You've heard of kidulting right? it's totally a thing. And now, you can kidult to the max at this ball pool.
Why go? There are few better ways to please your inner child than mucking about with your mates playing Super Mario Kart, Mortal Combat, pool, and various other games from years gone by. Add in excellent food and tasty craft beers to the mix, and let's be honest: you might be here a while.
What is it? Dedicated to the works of Vincent van Gogh and his contemporaries, this Gerrit Rietveld-designed building houses the largest collection of the artist’s work in the world. It’s a stone's throw from the Rijksmuseum, and forms part of Amsterdam’s Holy Trinity of culture along with the Stedelijk Museum next door.
Why go? The post-impressionist painter is one of the most influential figures in the history of Western art, and his use of bold colours and broad, expressive brushstrokes remain as captivating today as they were in the nineteenth century. In fact, viewing his works side-by-side showcases his unparalleled genius and unique talent - something that casts awe amongst even the least artistically inclined.
What is it? One of Amsterdam’s modern icons, this striking building, situated next to the A’dam Toren (the impressive tower behind central station), is so much more than just a cinema; it also houses a film museum, a great café and restaurant, temporary exhibitions, and a number of educational experiences for kids.
Why go? Love film? Then you won’t want to miss this place. The shop has an amazing range of quirky gifts and memorabilia for film buffs, and their programming is second to none – cult classics, 70mm prints, rare documentaries, and the best independent cinema are all on show, seven days a week.
What is it? A super trendy (and tasty) part of Amsterdam, where you'll encounter the citys thriving food scene. What began life as an old tram depot is now Oud-Wests very own quirky culinary corner, with over thirty food stalls and bars. Seriously, if you can’t find something you want to eat here, there is no hope.
Why go? Feeling peckish? Take your pick from dim sum to top-notch tacos, gourmet doughnuts and kick-ass smoky barbecue. If the sun's come out, then park yourself on a bench outside - where the sizeable terrace can fit all of your best buds too. Plus, while the food is great, you'll find other goodies at Foodhallen too. We're mainly talking off-beat boutiques, so bring a bag and get ready to furnish your apartment to the aesthetic standard of an Amsterdam insta-blogger.
What is it? This tiny little storefront in Jordaan bills itself as the first (and only) museum dedicated to fluorescent art in the world, and is a scientific and educational shrine to minerals, stones, and art that glows under ultraviolet light.
Why go? Way more fascinating that you’d think, it’s a unique experience that never ceases to amaze first-time visitors. Plus, you can even take part in some ‘participatory art’ when you yourself become part of the piece; wacky, but fun. Visits are by appointment only, so make sure to book ahead.
What is it? Although it somewhat lives in the shadows of Vondelpark, Westergasfabriek is a prime Amsterdam destination in its own right. Normally less crowded than Vondelpark, a wander here way more chilled than strolling through the city centre.
Why go? This complex of former industrial buildings on the edge of Westerpark, one of the city’s three main parks, has been turned into a colourful cultural hub featuring an art-house cinema, coffee roaster, a microbrewery, exhibition spaces, and an excellent gin and mussels joint. Plus, if you fancy some nostalgic, throwback fun, there's the vibrant ‘Arcade Paradise’ where you can test your skill on euphonious games machines.
What is it? Amsterdam doesn’t suffer from a lack of music venues, but OT301, a legal squat, is the best place to catch underground, leftfield, and up and coming talent. It’s also home to De Peper, a pay-what-you-can vegan restaurant staffed entirely by volunteers.
Why go? The nightly gigs are just part of OT301’s charm. Daytime is taken up with community classes and artistic workshops, and there’s a table tennis bar in the back room and a radio station lurking in the basement. With a mantra of diversity and inclusion, they’re also doing their bit to make the world a better place.
What is it? The original – and still one of the best – microbrewery, housed in a working windmill. They’ve been serving up amazing blonde beers, pilsners, and I.P.A’s since 1985, and a recent refurbishment – which added a new bar, way more tables, and an upstairs function space – means it looks better than ever.
Why go? The beer, stupid. It is stupendous. Beers are served in small enough glasses that working your way through their selection is possible, but be careful – some of the brews are nine per cent or above. There’s a great terrace for the summer and a range of traditional Dutch bar snacks like boiled eggs and raw sausage.
What is it? An oasis of calm just a few metres from the shopping madness of Kalverstraat, this secluded garden and courtyard sits in the middle of houses built for the Beguines, a group of unmarried religious women who lived in a closed community under vows of chastity.
Why go? This, quaint, medieval nook is a surreal – and restorative – experience. It’s incredibly tranquil and contemplative, as well as an insight into an oft-overlooked part of Amsterdam’s religious heritage. You can also marvel at the city’s oldest wooden house, which has stood here unchanged since 1425.
What is it? Amsterdam suffers from a lack of swimming options (there’s only one open air pool), but it does have a city beach. Located on the artificial island of IJburg, it’s just a short tram ride and walk from the centre, perfect for long, summer days.
Why go? When the weather’s great, there’s no better spot for some swimming and sunbathing. The water is clean, and the atmosphere is fun and relaxing (and very family friendly). Several great cafes and restaurants mean it’s easy to spend an entire day here splashing around and working on your tan.
More of the best of Amsterdam
Amsterdam's hotel scene excellently runs the gamut in terms of style and offerings.
Remember: cafés and coffeeshops in Amsterdam are two very separate entities. Since the official local legalization of coffeeshops back in 1980, the European city has slowly grown into the capital of cannabis culture all around the world.
The beauty of shopping in Amsterdam is that, with unique boutiques, eateries, coffee shops (the kind that deal in flat whites rather than green buds) and galleries in most cosy neighbourhoods, there's no need for ugly scenes when it comes to deciding where to flash the cash.