Liberal by nature and refined in character, there’s no city in the world quite like Amsterdam — the Netherlands’ perennial capital.
Picturesque canals and waterways, quaint stone bridges, historic townhouses, brightly coloured tulips and souvenir clogs blend seamlessly with the steamy Red Light District, gritty street art, pungent ‘cafes’, and smart shops (so named because they reputedly stimulate the mind) selling all kinds of psychedelics. It’s an odd mix — but if anyone can make it work, it’s the Dutch.
Here are ten top things to do in Amsterdam on a first visit.
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1. Explore the city by bike
Yes, it may be clichéd. Yes, you may fall off on occasion. Yes, you may get exasperated looks from the locals who can somehow manage to ride their bikes while holding a coffee in one hand and a book they’re reading in the other (OK, we may have made that last one up). The fact is, there’s no better way to explore this maze-like, relatively flat city than by pedal power. Go where the intricate network of cobbled streets and canal-side laneways takes you, and have fun!
2. Mix with the ‘in crowd’ in the Jordaan
South of Haarlemmerbuurt lies the Jordaan — probably the most famous of Amsterdam’s neighbourhoods. It was once home to immigrants and the working-class, but is now one of the hippest hangouts in town. The narrow streets are lined with myriad cafes, cool bars, trendy boutiques and galleries. Check out the Noordermarkt open air market, which has a pedigree stretching back to the 17th century. It offers antiques, kitschy wares and bric-a-brac on Mondays, before morphing into a farmers’ market on Saturdays.
Most visitors don’t think to venture north of Amsterdam Centraal Station, but if you board one of the free ferries over to the Noord, you’ll discover a thriving creative community. Converted industrial warehouses and shipping containers house artists’ studios, creative spaces and entrepreneurial offices, as well as cutting-edge pop-up bars and restaurants. Visit the avant-garde Eye Film Museum on the banks of the river, which holds an impressive collection of arthouse films.
5. Walk on the wild side in De Wallen
Walking through De Wallen — better known to visitors as the Red Light District — is an eye-opening experience at night. Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam and skimpily clad sex workers gyrate under red lights in brothel window after brothel window. To be honest, it doesn’t feel all that seedy when everything is done so openly, and you’ll probably be more entertained by the groups of giggling girls and the rowdy bucks parties. Just remember not to take any photos; you could see your phone or camera heading for the bottom of the canal, courtesy of a miffed window worker or bouncer.
6. See amazing street art
A vibrant street art culture began to emerge in Amsterdam back in the 1970s, and one of the best places to enjoy it in situ today is along Spuistraat. This bohemian thoroughfare was once renowned for accommodating squatters in its ageing buildings. While it has gentrified in recent years, colourful murals and quirky quotes still adorn various walls, and there are paste-ups galore hidden down side alleys. On the northern side of town, Straat — the museum for street art and graffiti — opened its doors in the NDSM Wharf precinct in late 2020 and showcases the work of around 130 artists.
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7. Visit the Albert Cuyp Market
Amsterdam’s fabulous open-air Albert Cuyp Market operates from Monday through to Saturday and is well worth seeing. It’s one of the largest markets in Europe, and the heart and soul of the buzzing neighbourhood of De Pijp. There are hundreds of stalls selling everything from cheeses, vegetables and fish, to shoes, jewellery and other fashion items. Treat yourself to a serving of stroopwafels(thin waffles with a sweet syrup centre) or poffertjes(small fluffy pancakes coated with butter and powdered sugar) from one of the many food vendors; just follow the mouth-watering wafts of sugary goodness.
Afterwards, explore the lively De Pijp area. It boasts a plethora of great ethnic eateries, thanks to its vibrant multicultural community.
8. Shop in the Nine Streets
There’s no shortage of opportunities to splash your cash during a retail outing in Amsterdam. The main shopping streets are Kalverstraat and Leidsestraat, but to find some real gems, head to de Negen Straatjes (the Nine Streets). The precinct is made up of, not surprisingly, nine streets, bordered and intersected by four canals — Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. Within this labyrinth, you’ll discover plenty of unique stores, independent retailers, and vintage boutiques.
9. Chill out in Vondelpark
If the weather is on your side, pack a picnic and throw down a rug in Vondelpark — Amsterdam’s largest green space. It’s popular with locals and tourists alike, and offers quality people-watching opportunities. The park has cafes and restaurants, an open-air theatre (where free concerts are held), and a rose garden. See if you can find the Vondelbunker — a one-time bomb shelter that was converted into a nightclub and live music venue in the 1960s (and hosted the likes of Pink Floyd). Nowadays it’s utilised as an events space by community, counterculture and activist groups.
10. Snack on Dutch treats
When hunger hits in Amsterdam, it’s all about the street food snacks. We’ve already mentioned the delightfully sweet stroopwafels and poffertjes. On a savoury note, try bitterballen: deep-fried crispy meatballs, which are typically served in pubs, and Dutch frites or patat: fries served with mayonnaise or satay/curry sauce. If you’re a more adventurous eater, have a go at traditional raw herring. You can order it from the many herring carts dotted across the city.
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Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of top things to do in Amsterdam on a first visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Photodune/Bigstock
About the writer
Camha Pham is a freelance writer and editor who has recently swapped the cosmopolitan laneways of Melbourne for the sunny beaches of Perth. Struck with the wanderlust bug from an early age, she has travelled extensively through Asia, Europe, and parts of North America. When she isn’t travelling, Camha is planning her next adventure and loves nothing more than the thrill of exploring new destinations and learning about other cultures. Travel highlights to date include chasing waterfalls in enchanting Iceland, hot-air ballooning over the lunar-like landscape of Cappadocia, and accepting a surprise marriage proposal at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto!
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours and Travel Ideas, and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger, and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.