One of Europe's true jewels, with its Golden Age canals bordered by slender gabled buildings and spanned by arched bridges, Amsterdam might be small, like the rest of the Netherlands, but it has an outsized reputation.

From exceptional art, architecture and innovative design to nightlife, you'll find it here. Amsterdam's condensed layout means even on a short trip, you can fit a lot in, hitting the city's top attractions as well as discovering under-the-radar surprises. Here are 15 of the best things to do in Amsterdam.

Discover the world's most intriguing experiences with our weekly newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

1. Cycle around Amsterdam

Cling-clanging bells and whirring spokes are part of the soundtrack of this city, where bicycles outnumber cars. Bike lanes criss-cross the city, where the terrain 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.

Keep in mind that there is an etiquette to follow when cycling around the city; in short, use the bike lane (not car lanes or footpaths), adhere to the rules of the road, signal when turning, and turn on your front and back lights at night.

A small canal boat loaded with people moves along a canal in a city center
A cruise down the Unesco World Heritage-listed Canal Ring is an essential Amsterdam experience © Sandra Mori / Shutterstock

2. Cruise the canals

Amsterdam is a city shaped by water. Its beautiful Unesco World Heritage-listed Canal Ring is best appreciated by boat any time, but at night its particularly beautiful when the canals' 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. 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 boats 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).


3. Visit the Anne Frank Huis

When Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, it brought war to the city for the first time in almost four centuries, devastating its thriving Jewish community. It wasn't liberated until May 1945.

The war's impact is especially poignant at the Anne Frank Huis, where the young girl hid for over two years with her family and their friends in a dark, airless "Secret Annexe," recorded by Anne in her diary, until they were betrayed and sent to concentration camps. Only her father survived.

Detour: Amsterdam's occupation is also brought to life at the museum of the Dutch Resistance, the Verzetsmuseum

A large 17th-century painting mounted on the wall, with many people gathered in front to view it
The Rijksmuseum is home to works by Dutch masters, including Rembrandt © Alexander Tolstykh / Shutterstock

4. Browse fine art around Museumplein

Amsterdam's top three museums are handily located around the green lawns of Museumplein. Best of them all is the Rijksmuseum. In a palatial 1885 building designed by Pierre Cuypers to hold national and royal collections, it showcases paintings by Dutch masters, including Rembrandt and Vermeer, blue-and-white Delftware porcelain and intricate dollhouses.

The world's largest collection of Vincent Van Gogh's works (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: The I Amsterdam City Card, a discount card that provides access to dozens of city attractions, covers two of the museums (the Van Gogh Museum is no longer part of the program). 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 Museum.

Large green open parkland with small groups of people sat out in the sunshine
Visiting Vondelpark is one of Amsterdam's top free things to do © kavalenkau / Shutterstock

5. Picnic in Vondelpark

Amsterdammers' favorite green escape is the Vondelpark, a lush oasis spanning 47 hectares (116 acres) of English-style gardens with fragrant roses, winding paths, ponds and sculptures. One of the best things to do in the city for free, it's an egalitarian space 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: Situated near the trifecta of the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum and the Van Gogh Museum, Vondelpark is the perfect spot to reflect on Dutch art and history.

6. Cozy up in a bruin café

No matter the weather, the best place to experience Dutch gezelligheid (conviviality, 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 one, particularly in charming neighborhoods like the former workers' quarter, the Jordaan, where canalside gems with candle-topped tables include Café Papeneiland, Café Pieper and 't Smalle.

Crowds of tourists walk along a pathway between a canal and a row of bars and places advertising sex work in Amsterdam
Amsterdam's nightlife is not just found in the Red Light District © hurricanehank / Shutterstock

7. Revel in legendary nightlife

Awash with bars, concert venues and music-thumping clubs, Amsterdam's renowned nightlife extends far beyond De Wallen, aka the Red Light District (authorities are still looking at relocating the "erotic center" to purpose-built premises outside the city; there are also greater restrictions on "coffeeshops," ie, cannabis cafes).

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 thumping 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 haven of ultra-hip watering holes. Be sure to check out Pllek and Café de Ceuvel.

8. Snack on local specialties from the 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.

A bottled beer poured into a glass
Sample a local Amsterdam beer from Brouwerij 't IJ © Sarah Coghill / Lonely Planet

9. Savor local brews at Brouwerij 't IJ

Nothing says "I'm in Amsterdam" more than sipping 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.

10. Dine on Dutch cuisine

Thanks to prized produce from the country's fertile fields, abundant waters and passionate chefs, Dutch cuisine is having a renaissance. Discover reimagined traditional recipes (such as veal escalope accompanied by an elevated version of the mashed potato and vegetable dish stamppot, and served with melted duck liver and peach chutney) at Greetje.

Planning tip: For a fine-dining feast book in advance at D'Vijff Vlieghen or De Silveren Spiegel, both in exquisite 17th-century canal houses. 

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 tradition © Photography by Adri / Shutterstock

11. 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 – tradition dictates that you bend over the bar, with your hands behind your back, and take a deep sip.

12. Stop by 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.

A high building in Amsterdam with swing standing. The A'dam tower in Amsterdam Noord
Take in the city views from a swing, viewing deck or restaurant in A'DAM Tower © Ivan / Getty Images

13. Swing above the city at A'DAM Tower

What's the craziest thing to do in Amsterdam? Swooping out over the city on a giant swing is right up there – literally. At the top of A'DAM Tower, a 1970s high-rise ex-office block, a six-seater swing sends you out over the building's edge, 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.

14. Tour Amsterdam's contemporary architecture at ARCAM

At first glance, Amsterdam's cityscape seems scarcely changed from Golden Age paintings, yet tech-savvy, forward-thinking innovations include solar-paneled bike lanes, a sustainable "floating neighborhood" on arks, and, right in the Red Light District, the world's first 3D-printed stainless steel bridge.

Exhibitions on the 21st-century urban environment take place at the city's architecture center, ARCAM.

Revellers, mainly dressed in orange, party beside a canal
Join in with the locals at one of Amsterdam's celebrations © Steve Photography / Shutterstock

15. Celebrate at one of Amsterdam's festivals

Your visit to this festive city is likely to coincide with one of its many celebrations, whether 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.

This article was first published December 2014 and updated July 2023

Buy You Only Live Once 2nd Edition

Live your best life with this guide to 250+ travel experiences and start planning a lifetime of adventures. Whether you have an hour, day, week, month or year, discover how you can make the most of every precious moment. From seeing the sunrise at summer solstice, to camping off-grid or climbing a volcano, this is your guide to a life well-lived.

Buy You Only Live Once 2nd Edition

Explore related stories


Festivals & Events

Is Brussels a good option for an autumn weekend break?

Sep 19, 2023 • 4 min read