I love Amsterdam for many of the reasons I love Paris: stunning architecture, a wealth of art, and an unpretentious food scene. Both cities are easy to explore on foot, or by public transport when you get tired. And both have enough quality attractions to keep even the discerning traveler occupied for at least a week. I’ve been to Amsterdam three times and still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I dug a lot deeper on my most recent visit thanks to the Amsterdam Museum Card. As in Paris, the card helped me discover a few gems I might otherwise have missed, like Museum Van Loon and the Hermitage. It also helped alleviate the guilt for quickly leaving one if it wasn’t my cup of tea. But museums aren’t the only top attractions in Amsterdam! Read on to find out which spots make the cut.
The best attraction in Amsterdam is arguably the city itself. Designed in the 17th century, Amsterdam’s UNESCO-listed Canal Ring is an engineering marvel. In order to expand the medieval city, it was necessary to drain the surrounding swamps. A network of canals were dug and the land in between filled in. Gabled townhouses were added once the project was completed, and the rest, as they say, is history. If I did nothing other than stroll along the canals and ogle the city’s distinctive gables, it would be a trip well spent.
Want to see inside one of those lovely buildings lining the canals? Head to Museum Van Loon, the only canal house in Amsterdam to retain both its garden and coach house. While the Van Loon family still resides on the upper floors, it’s possible to tour the rest of the home all the way down to the basement kitchen. Wandering from room to sumptuous room past the family’s private possessions, I felt like I was getting a glimpse of a secret world. It was delicious!
Do you have a favorite artist? Mine is Vincent van Gogh. I’ve long been drawn to his use of bold, rich colors and thick brushstrokes. It fascinates me that someone with such a troubled mind could see and express such beauty. Largely unsuccessful during his lifetime, van Gogh’s paintings didn’t make waves in the art world until after his suicide at the age of 37. He had been painting for just 10 years. But what a legacy he left behind! The Van Gogh Museum does an excellent job of bringing the enigmatic artist to life. Many of his masterpieces are on display – including several self portraits – as well as works by those who inspired him. You’ll want to allow several hours to explore the collection and peruse the gift shop. Photos aren’t allowed inside the museum, presumably to encourage visitors to buy prints.
Delve further into Dutch art at the Rijksmuseum. Nearly 8,000 artworks are on display, including many paintings by Dutch Masters including Jan Steen, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer. Pride of place goes to the Night Watch, Rembrandt’s monumental masterpiece. The biggest surprise was Cuypers Library, which was recently restored to its original grandeur. Tucked in a back corner of the museum, I stumbled upon the gorgeous room almost by accident. The Rijksmuseum Gardens, designed by the building’s architect Pierre Cuypers, are especially lovely when the spring flowers are in bloom. The gardens abut Museumplein, where you’ll find the famous “I amsterdam” sign from the tourism board’s genius marketing campaign. Good luck getting a photo!
For all of Amsterdam’s beauty, it has a dark side, too. After Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands during World War II, many Jews went into hiding. One family was Otto Frank’s, a German Jew who relocated to Amsterdam after Hitler came to power. Anne Frank, Otto’s daughter, kept a diary during the two years the family was in hiding. It provides an intimate look at their lives seen through the eyes of a teenage girl. Anne, a talented young writer, was also working on a novel about the family’s ordeal but never got to finish it. In 1944 the secret annex was discovered and the inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz. Only Otto Frank survived. He eventually published Anne’s diary, fulfilling her wish to become a writer. I encourage everyone to visit the Franks’ secret hiding place, which is now a part of the well-done Anne Frank House Museum, to learn about this tragedy and honor the memory of the victims.
Originally built to be Amsterdam’s Town Hall in the 17th century, the grand structure was converted into a Royal Palace by Louis Napoleon (Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother) in 1808. Louis’ reign was short lived, but his French Empire-style furnishings have endured. In fact, the Palace boasts one of the finest collections in the world! The fully furnished rooms, illuminated by heavy gilt chandeliers, are a feast for the eyes. The cavernous central hall is equally impressive. Gleaming marble floors are inlaid with two hemispheres which demonstrate Holland’s global importance during the Dutch Golden Age.
Interestingly, a branch of the famed Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg can be found in Amsterdam. Opened in 2009, the Hermitage Amsterdam was intended to highlight the long relationship between the Netherlands and Russia. Today, the permanent exhibition is entitled, “Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age,” and features group portraits of prominent 17th century Dutch citizens. At the time of my visit, another large exhibition held the works of Spanish Masters from the Hermitage Collection. Check the museum website to see the current schedule. The vast building, Amstelhof, served as a home for the elderly for over 300 years until it was converted into museum space.
You don’t need the Museum Card to enter Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District, but you do need an open mind and some discretion. Prostitution was legalized in the Netherlands in 1810, though it was quietly tolerated by the authorities at least a century before. De Wallen, Amsterdam’s largest red light district, is also its medieval Old Town. The Oude Kerk, or Old Church, was built in the early 1300s and is Amsterdam’s oldest surviving structure. The neighborhood is more sedate than one might expect since many of the brothels are tucked away in narrow alleys. Often, you can’t see the women until you are standing directly in front of their window. Most seemed bored and were checking their phones, perhaps a way of ignoring the leering crowds constantly passing by. But I was there during the early evening, so the atmosphere could liven up as the night progresses.
Another historic Amsterdam neighborhood is Begijnhof. In the 14th century, almshouses were built around a quiet courtyard as a sanctuary for a group of Beguines – religious women who took a vow of chastity. Although the last official beguine died in 1971, community residence is still restricted to women. The charming brick homes, with their leaning frames and gabled roofs, mostly date to the 17th century. Only one wooden house from about 1520 remains. Spui, the large square outside Begijnhof’s entrance, hosts a weekend flea market that’s also worth a gander.
While the city boasts many fabulous shops, two won my heart. The Amsterdam Cheese Company specializes in artisan Dutch cheeses and spreads. The friendly sales woman let me try as many samples as I wanted until I was sure of my choices. Of course I would have loved to load my suitcase with the entire contents of the store, but settled for two wheels of Dutch Gold Gouda (7 Months and Cumin) and a jar of Honey Thyme Mustard.
I also took home a few Delft Blue KLM Houses sold at Kramer Arts & Antiques. The family-owned shop may be best known for its stock of antique tiles, but I couldn’t resist snagging a few of the charming little houses as a souvenir of my trip. Originally filled with Dutch gin, or genever, the porcelain bottles are modeled after actual buildings in Amsterdam. Since the 1950s, KLM Airlines has given one to every passenger lucky enough to fly in World Business Class.
What are some of your favorite spots in Amsterdam?