Amsterdam is one of Europe’s prettiest cities, not just because it’s relatively compact and has a history, but because the city is full of surprises.
From the magical atmosphere of the UNESCO World Heritage canals, to the famous Pink Point LGBT memorial, the brownstone cafes and the romantic parks and walkways that crisscross the city, Amsterdam is full of culture and history. And like most European cities, the best way to discover it is to let yourself try something new.
That’s why so many people visit Amsterdam for the first time—for that taste of something new and different, maybe illegal or taboo back home.
Explore Amsterdam on Foot
Before visiting some of Amsterdam’s many museums (there are over 40 at last count), spend time walking around. It’s not just the canals that make this city special, but perhaps surprisingly Amsterdam is also home to some of the best collections of street art in Europe. You’ll find it in the style of hip-hop graffiti but also more elaborate paste-ups. There are stencils all over the place, often providing ironic and funny messages to make you smile as you walk past.
For more established art and culture, try out the city’s famous museums. One of the most important Amsterdam museums is the Rijksmuseum, which includes several famous masterpieces by Vermeer and Rembrandt.
If you’re passionate about Rembrandt, be sure to visit the interesting Rembrandthaus. The former house of the painter is now open as a little museum. The Van Gogh Museum, only some steps away from the Rijksmuseum, has an impressive collection of works and a lot of information about Van Gogh’s life. It’s worth visiting for at least two hours.
But perhaps Amsterdam’s most famous museum is the Anne Frank House where she and her family lived before being captured by Nazi officials, and where Frank wrote her famous diary. The museum on the first floor also includes an exhibition on tolerance and respect—still very important to learn about today.
Visit the Homomonument & Gay Amsterdam
Amsterdam has its own memorial dedicated to LGBT people who were killed during the Nazi times.
Located in Westermarkt, close to the city center, the Homomonument is a celebration of sexual freedom. Many tourists miss it because they don’t look where they step. It’s a combination of large pink triangles extending out into the canal that invites us to reflect about the past and the future.
Every year, the legendary Amsterdam gay pride takes place in the canals, with large street parties throughout the city—including the square with this historic pink triangle.
Most of gay Amsterdam’s nightlife is pretty well focused on a single street in the city center: Reguliersdwarsstraat. Sex shops and some other gay bars are located in and around the Red Light District, mostly on Warmoesstraat—just look for the rainbow flags. There are also tons of gay parties happening in Amsterdam all the time (and of course the super-fun and very-queer Milkshake Festival).
Taste the Cultural Freedom
Amsterdam’s intense admiration for sexual freedom is sometimes controversial. While some people are opposed to the Red Light District (with sex workers offering themselves in glass cabinets), others believe that this is exactly the type of freedom that we need to achieve.
People come to this area to gawk at the girls, but there are also customers from the world over who actually visit the premises.
Indeed, Amsterdam is a city with a close relationship to pleasure. From sexual freedoms to cannabis consumption, the streets are always crowded with people enjoying themselves and having a blast—more so in the Red Light District.
It’s a bit surprising at first, and personally it’s a bit of a turn-off. But that free-spirited pleasure-seeking is a sight worth seeing.
Let the Food Seduce You
You don’t need drugs or sex to enjoy Amsterdam because the amazing food (although expensive) and the cultural life are always there, seducing you in many ways. Just talk a walk through the picturesque Jordaan neighborhood and you’ll discover a different side to the city.
In the summertime, Amsterdam comes to life with canal-side bars and restaurants where you can taste local craft beers alongside Dutch food classics. My favorite: bitterballen! Like a croquette, it’s a snack food popular in the bars with a mixture of beef or veal with broth and other ingredients, formed into a ball and fried.
Explore Amsterdam’s Neighborhoods
Amsterdam’s city center offers enough excitement but to make your visit complete and to get a sense of how the locals experience the city, make sure you know your way around through some of the more alternative, edgy and interesting neighborhoods beyond the tourist center.
Originally founded as a working class area, today the Jordaan offers a walk through time. Seventeenth-century working class houses that are completely renovated, old brown pubs that are now trendy coffee bars (not to be confused with the good old Dutch Coffeeshop where you’ll find drugs) and trendy pubs where you can get a nice glass of champagne.
Amsterdam’s upcoming hipster neighborhood, De Pijp has been home to the Albert Cuyp Market (and plenty of kebab shops) for decades, but only in the past decade has it grown to be one of the city’s coolest hotspots—and surprisingly as of yet undiscovered by many tourists.
But perhaps one of Amsterdam’s most undiscovered neighborhoods is the Noord. It’s shut off from the rest of the city, accessible by a (free!) ferry from behind the Amsterdam Centraal train station (built at the end of the 19th century). Home for office buildings and factorys in the 20th century, in the 21st century, Amsterdam Noord has become an architect’s dream. Today, it’s the site of a lot of modern architecture including the EYE film museum, the Adam Tower (including Europe’s largest swing) and many other projects.
Amsterdam is the perfect collection of art and culture, of history, of pleasure and self-discovery. Give yourself the time to wander aimlessly and see what you can discover on your own.