With its iconic canals lined by slender gabled buildings and spanned by arched bridges, Amsterdam must be one of the beautiful and charming cities in the world.

Whether you’re after exceptional art and architecture, innovative design, fabulous food or thumping nightlife, you'll find it here. Amsterdam’s condensed layout means you can fit a lot in even on a short trip, as you hit the city’s most famous attractions and discover under-the-radar surprises.

Here are 14 things to do that will show you the best of what Amsterdam has to offer.

Historic homes along the Singel canal after dark, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Amsterdam’s historic buildings are best appreciated from a canal boat – and perhaps at their most beautiful by night © Sam Tanno / Shutterstock

1. Soak up history with a canal cruise 

Amsterdam is a city shaped by water. The best way to appreciate its beautiful UNESCO World Heritage–listed Canal Ring is from a boat, passing through the canals themselves. This is a delight at any time – but particularly beautiful at night, when the waters’ ripples reflect the city’s twinkling lights.

You can navigate the waterways yourself (companies such as Boaty rent zero-emission electric canal boats), or hop on a sightseeing cruise, as just about every visitor does. Non-touristy alternatives include learning first-hand about the city’s history of migration aboard Rederij Lampedusa’s former refugee boats, or helping keep the waters clean by “plastic fishing” from Plastic Whale’s vessels, which are made from retrieved and recycled plastic waste.

Planning tip: If you prefer to enjoy the canals from land, grab a table at De Belhamel. Situated at the head of the Herengracht, this superb restaurant’s canal-side tables are perfect for canal-watching (summer only).

2. Make like the Dutch, and get on a bike

Cling-clanging bells and whirring spokes are part of the soundtrack of a city where bicycles outnumber cars – making for perhaps the essential means for getting around town. Bike lanes crisscross every part of the city, where the terrain (as in most of the Netherlands) is forgivingly flat and rental outlets abound. 

Beyond the built-up streets, fascinating places to explore range from the former ship-building yards of Amsterdam Noord to the rambling woodlands of Amsterdamse Bos and the pretty port of Muiden, with its storybook medieval castle.

To avoid being the kind of tourist Amsterdam doesn’t enjoy welcoming, it’s important to follow cycling etiquette. Always use the designated bike lane rather than lanes for cars, or sidewalks; adhere to the rules of the road; signal with your arm when turning; and make sure you’ve turned on your front and back lights at night.

A large 17th-century painting mounted on the wall, with many people gathered in front to view it
Rembrandt’s colossal painting “The Night Watch” is a highlight of the Rijksmuseum’s collection © Alexander Tolstykh / Shutterstock

3. Head to Museumplein to immerse yourself in art

Amsterdam’s top three museums are handily located around the green lawns of Museumplein. The grande dame of the trio is the famous Rijksmuseum, which occupies a palatial 1885 and contains perhaps the best collection of works by Dutch masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals. The museum’s galleries also display sumptuous decorative arts as well, including blue-and-white Delftware porcelain and intricate dollhouses.

The world’s largest collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s dazzling paintings (The Yellow House and Sunflowers, among them) hangs at the neighboring Van Gogh Museum. Modern and contemporary creations by the likes of Mondrian and De Kooning are the focus of the bright, light-filled Stedelijk Museum.

Planning tip: Invest in an I Amsterdam City Card, a discount pass that provides access to dozens of city attractions, to gain entrance to two of the museums (the Van Gogh Museum no longer participates). The Netherlands Museum Pass includes all three (as well as hundreds of museums across the country); buy one in person at the Rijksmuseum or the Stedelijk.

The taproom at Brouwerij ’t IJ, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Enjoy one of many local brews in the lively taproom at local favorite Brouwerij ’t IJ © Massimo Parisi / Shutterstock

4. Sip local brews at Brouwerij ’t IJ

You’ll know you’re truly in Amsterdam when you’re sip a tall, frothy beer under the sails of a windmill. Much-loved craft brewery Brouwerij ’t IJ brews in former public baths adjacent to a traditional wooden spinner. Its leafy terrace is idyllic for a pint (try its signature Zatte Tripel). It’s often possible to see the brewing in action on a behind-the-scenes tour.

5. Find something chic yet practical at a Dutch design shop

Bike carrier straps that function as shelving. Glow-in-the-dark door stoppers. Self-adhesive lamps to stick on the wall. These are just some of the witty, inventive and above all practical Dutch designs you’ll find in Amsterdam, along with furniture, fashion and gadgets galore.

A great place to start browsing is Droog, with a garden, gallery space and restaurant where most of the tableware is also for sale. Other emporiums to check out include X Bank, set up as a showcase for local creators, and the Gathershop, which stocks its shelves with handmade and fair-trade gift items.

People lie out on a lawn on a sunny day in Vondelpark, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Amsterdammers of all backgrounds flock to the Vondelpark on sunny days © kavalenkau / Shutterstock

6. Lie out with locals in Vondelpark

Amsterdammers’ favorite green escape is the sprawling Vondelpark, a lush, 116-acre (37-hectare) oasis of English-style gardens with fragrant roses, winding paths, ponds and sculptures. One of the best free things to do in the city, this egalitarian space is where everyone – kids, adults, couples, joggers, picnickers, locals and tourists – hangs out in the sunshine. Within the park, there are cafes as well as an open-air theater.

Planning tip: A short walk from the Museumplein’s institutions, Vondelpark is the perfect spot to reflect after soaking in superb art.

7. Visit the Anne Frank Huis, and never forget

When Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, war came to the city for the first time in almost four centuries – and devastated its thriving Jewish community.

The war’s impact on real people’s lives might be more palpable at the Anne Frank Huis than at any other site in the world. Behind a warehouse on Prinsengracht, the young girl hid for over two years with her family and their friends in a dark, airless “Secret Annexe” – until they were betrayed and sent to concentration camps. Only her father survived.

Anne recorded the entire experience in her diary, now a classic of Western literature. Walking through the tiny, dark rooms in which she recorded her story is a humbling experience indeed. 

Detour: Amsterdam’s occupation – which didn’t end until 1945 – is also brought to life at the museum of the Dutch Resistance, the Verzetsmuseum

Tourists and local people enjoy the dutch cafe Papeneiland in central Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Historic pubs (or “brown cafes”) lie all over central Amsterdam. Papeneiland is one of the best known © Petr Kovalenkov / Shutterstock

8. Raise a class at a bruin café

No matter the weather, the best place to experience Dutch gezelligheid (conviviality and coziness) is in one of its bruin cafés (brown cafes). Dark timber and tobacco-stained walls give these traditional pubs their name.

Planning tip: With around a thousand across the city, you’ll never be far from a bruin café. They’re especially concentrated charming neighborhoods like the former blue-collar quarter of the Jordaan, where canalside gems with candle-topped tables include Café Papeneiland, Café Pieper and ’t Smalle.

People at a concert at Melkweg, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Skip the Red Light District, and go dancing at a club like Melkweg instead © Ben Houdijk / Shutterstock

9. Go out on the town

Awash with bars, concert venues and music-thumping clubs, Amsterdam’s renowned nightlife extends far beyond De Wallen, better known the Red Light District (and an area whose reputation authorities are looking to change).

Leidseplein, home to the famed Melkweg, is a major hub, as is nearby Rembrandtplein. Amsterdam’s LGBTIQ+ scene is found throughout the city, with popular venues like Cafe Prik playing banging dance tunes late into the night.

Detour: Hop on a free ferry to Noord, one of the city’s coolest, most up-and-coming neighborhoods, and a haven of ultra-hip watering holes. Be sure to check out Pllek and Café de Ceuvel.

People peruse stalls of food vendors at the Albert Cuypmarkt, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Come hungry to the outdoor Albert Cuypmarkt © Dutchmen Photography / Shutterstock

10. Snack on local specialties from street markets

Lively street markets like the Albert Cuypmarkt are lined with stalls selling delicious cheap eats like haring (herring; served chopped with diced onion on a bread roll), Vlaamse frites (“Flemish fries”: crispy, fluffy and typically smothered with mayonnaise), stroopwafels (cookie-like wafers sandwiched with caramel syrup) and poffertjes (mini pancakes), as well as Dutch cheeses such as Gouda and Edam. At bars, classic snacks include deep-fried kroketten (croquettes), including ball-shaped, meat-filled bitterballen.

People look at exhibits of ARCAM, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Learn about new trends in urban planning and design at ARCAM © Will Salter / Lonely Planet

11. Learn about the newest architecture trends at ARCAM

At first glance, Amsterdam’s cityscape seems scarcely changed from the era of Golden Age paintings – yet the contemporary city abounds with such tech-savvy, forward-thinking innovations as solar-paneled bike lanes, a sustainable “floating neighborhood” and the world’s first 3D-printed stainless-steel bridge. Learn about these innovations and other cutting-edge trends in design and urban studies, as well as the best in 21st-century architecture, at the Amsterdam Architecture Foundation (ARCAM).

Planning tip: Get out of the galleries and see Amsterdam’s newer side with a guided tour led by an ARCAM expert. Visit their website for the latest schedule (an additional fee applies).

A bartender in Amsterdam pours jenever/genever into a tulip shot glass, as part of a tradition called kopstootje.
When in Amsterdam, make sure to take part in the kopstootje of taking a deep sip of aromatic Dutch gin © Photography by Adri / Shutterstock

12. Try jenever at Wynand Fockink

The local firewater, jenever (Dutch gin) is made from juniper berries and served chilled. Amsterdam has some wonderfully atmospheric tasting houses to try smooth jonge (young) and pungent oude (old) varieties, such as 17th-century Wynand Fockink.

Cultural tip: Jenever typically arrives in a tulip-shaped shot glass filled to the brim – the kopstootje tradition dictates that you bend over the bar, with your hands behind your back, and take a deep sip.

The top of the 22-story A’DAM Tower seen from above, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
The city views are unparalleled from the top of the 22-story A’DAM Tower – especially from the giant rooftop swings (left) © Kurka Geza Corey / Shutterstock

13. Swing out over city on the top of A’DAM Tower

The craziest activity in Amsterdam is nowhere near the Red Light District – in fact, it’s far above it. At the top of A’DAM Tower, a 1970s-era high-rise, a six-seater swing sends you out over the building’s edge and 100m (328ft) in the air, as your feet dangle below

You can also ride a virtual-reality roller coaster or take in the view from the tower's 360-degree observation deck, restaurants (one revolving) or rooftop bar.

Participants at the famous Canal Parade of Pride, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Many cities have street parties. Amsterdam has canal parties © kavalenkava / Shutterstock

14. Celebrate at one of Amsterdam’s festivals

Your visit to this outgoing city is likely to coincide with one of its many festivals; the occasion might involve food, drink, electronic dance music or classical concerts on barges moored on the canals. The most important date on Amsterdam's calendar is King’s Day (Koningsdag; April 27), when people don outlandish orange-colored outfits and party in the streets. And the “parade” of barges that takes to the canals during Pride Amsterdam at the end of the July is a flotilla you’ll never forget. 

This article was first published Dec 23, 2014 and updated Mar 12, 2024.

Explore related stories

Old Buildings on the Graslei Harbour, Ghent, Belgium - stock photo
Leie river bank in Ghent, Belgium, Europe

Tips & Advice

11 things to know before a trip to Belgium

Jun 15, 2024 • 7 min read