8 things to do if you’re visiting Amsterdam for the first time

Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, is a vibrant place that embodies a 900-year history and was once the epicentre of a powerful empire. Today it is a modern, youthful metropolis that combines an elegant and calm side with another dark and restless one. It is a city that can offer the visitor everything. With its unique physiognomy, the canals, the characteristic houses, and its artistic treasures, it will fill everyone with images and memories. The 8 things we suggest in this article (in no particular order) are just the beginning for everyone to discover their own Amsterdam.

Begijnhof (Photo by Massimo Catarinella – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

1. Enjoy the peacefulness of Begijnhof: Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, this small enclosure, with its church and a few houses, is an oasis of calm in the centre of Amsterdam. It was founded in 1346 by the members of the popular Catholic female fraternity of the Beguines. Although none of the original houses survive, not even the moat with water that existed around the courtyard, there is an excellent 15th-century wooden house. The house is the only wooden one that survives in the city before the ban on the construction of wooden houses due to the risk of fire.

Jordaan (Photo by Marcel Witte on Unsplash)

2. Stroll around Jordaan: This famous neighbourhood of Amsterdam is a former working-class bastion, renowned for the radical politics and a love for the drink of its inhabitants. In the last decades, the area has attracted galleries, restaurants, cafes, bars, concept stores, and vintage boutiques. It is one of the last areas of the city that still retains its authentic character and gives the feeling of an autonomous community. The centre of the neighbourhood’s life is the bustling Noordermarkt and also here you can visit one of the top historical sights of the city, the Anna Frank House. After a walk in the streets of Jordaan, you can sit and enjoy a piece of homemade apple cake at Winkel 43.

Albert Cuyp Markt (Photo by Matheus Frade on Unsplash)

3. Get lost in Albert Cuyp Markt: This market is one of the largest open-air markets in Europe. It has been operating since 1904 and is one of the liveliest parts of the city. With around 350 counters selling everything (from antiques and furniture to vinyl records) and a number of excellent ethnic restaurants, it is an experience not to be missed. On its counters, you can try traditional Dutch food, fish, cheeses, and waffles. But do not leave the market without trying kibbeling, one of the most beloved Dutch snacks (read our article about “5 European snacks you probably haven’t tasted yet”). It consists of pieces of battered cod cheeks served with a mayonnaise-based garlic or tartar sauce. There are many places at the market which serve excellent kibbeling, however, if we have to pick one, our choice would be Vishandel food stall. (albertcuyp-markt.amsterdam)

4. Admire the beauty of Oude Kerk: This church is the oldest monument of the city and was built on the site of a small wooden chapel of the 13th century which was destroyed by fire. After that incident Oude Kerk evolved into an impressive Gothic basilica in the centre of the famous Red Light District. Although the interior is stripped of intense decoration, it manages to impress the visitor with its exceptional stained glass windows and a unique church organ. The church is all year long the venue for an important series of concerts of organ music and a home for The International Organ Festival, held in summer each year.

Leidseplein (Photo by Matheus Frade on Unsplash)

5. Enjoy a night out at Leidseplein: This square is the touristic centre of the city. It can be bad taste but at the same time fun especially in summer when dozens of street artists, singers, and actors entertain the gathered crowds. The area is full of pubs, bars, nightclubs, and street food stalls. No visit to Amsterdam is complete without a glass of beer in one of the pubs on the square. The famous Cafe American is also located on the square, on the ground floor of the historic hotel of the same name. The Cafe impresses the visitor with its unique interior with stained glass windows and glass lampshades and its old-school aristocratic charm.

Canal Bus (Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash)

6. Take a trip to the Canals: The element that makes Amsterdam special and shapes its character and its unique atmosphere is the impressive network of channels. Seeing the city from a boat you can understand the real beauty of its buildings. The impressive public buildings, the spectacular mansions (such as the Bartolotti House) but also the simplest houses, other with the characteristic triangular roofs and others with their ornate facades, compose a unique image. There are many ways to take a trip to the canals but the most economical and flexible is to get a 24-hour ticket for the Canal Bus. The boats sail along popular canals, following four colour-coded routes and twenty stops near major sights, museums, monuments, and squares. Once you buy a ticket you can use the boats as often as you like, jumping off for sightseeing and then back on the next one to continue your trip along the canals. (www.canal.nl)

Van Gogh Museum (Photo by Frans Ruiter on Unsplash)

7. Visit one of the most famous art museums in the world: Amsterdam has a number of excellent museums but the one with the highest attendance is the Van Gogh Museum. The museum houses the most comprehensive collection of works of the great painter. The collection includes 200 of his paintings, more than 500 of his drawings, and hundreds of letters collected by his brother Theo, an art dealer. Among the exhibits are the paintings of the Sunflowers and the Wheatfield with Crows. There is no better way to get to know the most famous Dutch painter than to spend at least two magical hours in the museum. (www.vangoghmuseum.nl)

Pastry shop in Amsterdam (Photo by Rebecca Campbell on Unsplash)

8. Eat waffles: The crispy stroopwafel is a famous delicacy from the Netherlands, and Amsterdam is no exception. The city is redefining the classic waffle, with a number of cool new eateries and bakeries that present various new versions of the classic treat. Stroopwafels traditionally consist of two thin waffles with caramel sauce spread in the middle and you would find them almost everywhere in Amsterdam. But places like Van Wonderen Stroopwafels offer a more tasty and imaginative twist to the classic dessert. Here, you can customise your waffle with chunky toppings such as cookie crumbles, toffee, and marshmallows. (www.vanwonderenstroopwafels.nl)

Houses in Amsterdam’s Canals (Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash)

With these 8 things we just scrape the surface of a city with many layers and unique things to do. We have left out things like the notorious Red Light District, the Rijksmuseum which among other exhibits houses the painting of The Night Watch by Rembrandt, or even the Heineken Experience (an interactive tour through beer giant’s history in the former brewery). But as we have already said every visitor could discover his/her own Amsterdam.

Red Light District (Photo by Lara Puscas on Unsplash)

*[Photo at the top by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash]


Check also our previous successful “8 things to do…” guides to LisbonBarcelona, Copenhagen and Geneva.


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