When you think of Amsterdam, forget about the drugs and the Red Light District. What started as a small fishing village around the year 1200 has now become one of the most visited cities in Europe and for a good reason. Numerous museums, culture and architecture are just a few of the reasons for visiting Amsterdam. Well, that and the curiosity about those wooden clogs.
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Visiting Amsterdam – the basics
Based on my experience so far, visiting Amsterdam from the airport is the easiest and most convenient process. Once you get past all the necessary checks at the airport, you walk into the train station. It’s so simple. You buy a ticket, get on the train and after a short ride, you are in the centre of the city.
Outside the station on the Amsterdam side, there are trams, buses and a tourism kiosk. Everything you need when you arrive in a new city is right in front of you. If only it were this easy in all the places. You can walk to your hotel or take public transit to your accommodations. Visiting Amsterdam is so easy right from the start.
The city can get very touristy so if you’re looking for a more authentic experience, make sure to explore the city beyond its touristy core. Amsterdam is a beautiful city, and you can find amazing gems away from the rowdy tourists swarming the Red Light District.
Check out the Black Heritage Tour in Amsterdam to learn more about the African diaspora in the Netherlands!
Visiting Amsterdam for architecture
I must admit that architecture wasn’t something on top of my reasons for visiting Amsterdam. It was something that I didn’t fully appreciate until I got there. I’ve seen images of the buildings, the canals and everyone riding bikes everywhere. All of it made Amsterdam look a bit like a Scandinavian version of Venice, without the gondoliers.
Once we arrived in Amsterdam, however, I noticed the little quirks typical of the architecture here. You’ll notice that some buildings are narrower at a closer inspection, some are uneven, and most of them have these hooks on the top, just under the roof.
Many of the canal houses that make Amsterdam so unique were built during the height of the Dutch Golden Age. Today, they are a throwback to the glory of those days and what makes Amsterdam architecture so fascinating.
There is so much to discover once you know a bit more about the city’s history and its architecture. It’s even more fascinating to visit these buildings inside. They offer a unique perspective into the life of people in the past.
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When visiting Amsterdam, it’s hard to miss the famous canal houses, built by merchants flaunting their wealth, have a dual purpose of storing goods and serving as living quarters. Many of them also housed servants and had additional buildings on the property to store horses and buggies, and provided additional living quarters for staff.
Many of them date back to the 17th century. After the earlier fires that destroyed the exiting wooden houses, the architecture was done in brick. There are a couple of wooden homes left in Amsterdam today, a throwback to a different time.
Trade was good, and money was flooding the hands of merchants who lived here. As the cost of living went up, so did the population. Parcels of land were divided into more narrow plots as the house’s width calculated property taxes to accommodate the population growth.
The buildings became long and narrow with large attic and basement storage areas. To compensate for the narrow space, owners got creative with decorating the facades of their homes. This also is the reason why there are so many steep stairs in the many Amsterdam buildings. Going up was cheaper.
Most of the Amsterdam buildings of that time functioned as businesses and residences. Many merchants also used them as storage for goods. You can see the doors at canal level that once provided easy access from boats to the house. During the boom, the city revamped the canal structure to accommodate Amsterdam’s flow and distribution of goods.
I don’t know about you, but that’s a cool feature. Definitely, something I didn’t expect to learn about Dutch architecture before visiting Amsterdam. You can even play a game of trying to spot these entrances and wonder what are they used for (if anything) today.
Hidden gems of Amsterdam buildings
Visiting Amsterdam can easily turn into an architectural treasure hunt. Little alleys, hidden gardens, and plenty of stories from the past surround many of Amsterdam’s houses. As many of the houses are either directly on a canal or have access to one, it can become pretty confusing where the streets lead. Sometimes, it’s more fun just to get lost by walking around the city. The less busy streets often will reveal old homes transformed into pretty galleries, shops and restaurants. You can imagine the city that once was and to ponder the secrets these buildings hold.
Depending on where you are staying in the city, you might get a chance to experience Amsterdam living for yourself. I once stayed in a hotel right in the centre of the city. It was located in an old building and definitely gave me an appreciation for what the Dutch have to go through daily. The steps were so steep that it felt like a workout every time I left or returned to my room. A daily dose on a Dutch stairclimber was not something I expected when visiting Amsterdam.
There are museums, like the Museum Van Loon, that allow you to go inside and explore what these homes actually look like inside. The Van Loon family was a wealthy Dutch family, and their home is now a museum. Inside and can tour the family spaces and the kitchen below. There is also a garden and a carriage house where servants used to live once.
Gables and hooks: staples of Amsterdam architecture
The ever-present hooks and gables are easily some of the unique features you didn’t know you wanted to learn more about before visiting Amsterdam. They add a touch of personality and play an important function. As the homes were narrow and tall, this made it challenging to gets goods in and out. You might notice some of the homes leaning forward, and that is quite intentional.
Building on a slant ensured no damage (or at least less of it) to the ornate facades that decorated the exterior. As goods were stored in attics, the outside pulley system made it easier to bring items in and out as needed.
Gables also had the purpose of camouflaging the sharp and unappealing edges of rooftops. Quite ingenious when you think about it. Because of that, the architecture in Amsterdam is unique and charming.
To admire an example of an authentically preserved house from 1622, head over to Keizersgracht 123. There you’ll find a house decorated with gargoyles, pillars and the heads that give it the name Het Huis met de Hoofden (the House with the Heads).
Visiting Amsterdam for museums
As someone who loves museums, I found that to be a great reason for vising Amsterdam. As far as Amsterdam’s museums go, there is plenty to choose from for everyone. With every visit, I try to stop by a few of them. Unless you’re planning on visiting Amsterdam for an extended period of time, you won’t be able to see them all. But on the other hand, it gives you more reasons to come back to Amsterdam in the future.
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The Rijksmuseum is probably the most iconic of Amsterdam’s museums. It is a large building, and you can spend a whole day just in this place alone. Opened in 1885, it houses an impressive collection of Dutch Masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer. You can also see works by Flemish and Italian artists, Asiatic art, and some more modern pieces.
The museum itself has amazing architecture, and you can admire it once you are inside. From staircases, glass windows and courtyards, there is plenty to admire. Also worth checking out is the sweet-looking Rijksmuseum Research Library and the area outside of the museum. Here you can find the famous Amsterdam sign. The museum has a cafe so you can take a break from exploring if you need to.
Van Gogh Museum
I am a huge Van Gogh fan ever since I first learned about Vincent in my high school art class. I found his story to be very tragic. His life, filled with so much sadness and emotional turmoil, was also inspirational. I have always felt drawn to his work and have been fortunate to see a few of his original pieces. Even before visiting Amsterdam, I knew I had to come here.
When I was in Paris, I saw some of Van Gogh’s work in museums there. So, when we arrived in Amsterdam, I knew that we had to make a stop here as well. As one of Amsterdam’s museums focusing on Dutch artists, the Van Gogh Museum has an impressive collection of his work, letters and other items. The floors are dedicated to different periods of his life. You can tour them chronologically, which is probably the best way to do it.
Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take pictures inside the museum. However, if you are a fan of the post-impressionist movement and Van Gogh, this is the place for you. There is also a small gift shop where you can buy replicas of your favourite Van Gogh prints.
The Heineken Experience
The Heineken Experience is a fun activity when visiting Amsterdam. It’s not a secret that I like beer. Whenever we visit a place known for its beer and happens to offer tours (I mean tastings), we can’t pass it up. Amsterdam was no different. We knew we had to check out the Heineken Experience, and we were not disappointed.
Based on what was once Heineken’s brewery until 1988, you embark on an interactive experience of how the beer is made. Throughout the tour, you learn about the company’s history, how the beer is made and, of course, sample it. Some parts of the tour are quite fun, and you end up in a tasting room with a feel of a European club or a soccer commercial. Either way, it’s a fun way to spend some time learning about the beer-making process. The tasting helps too.
More museums to check out when visiting Amsterdam
There are so many different types of museums to explore when you are visiting Amsterdam. You can explore the city and find new gems around every corner. As a city that welcomes many tourists, there are many options to check out when you’re here.
- Het Grachtenhuis (Museum of the Canals): Dedicated to the canals of Amsterdam, you can learn more about the history of Amsterdam’s Canal Ring.
- Museum Van Loon: Residence of the wealthy Van Loon family, the co-founders of the Dutch East India Company. Members of this wealthy family held various positions in government and banking. The home is a living museum with historical photographs, paintings, personal souvenirs and documents.
- Oude Kerk: First church in Holland to attain the official status of a museum, the Oude Kerk stands in the heart of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Here you’ll find contemporary art mixed with the historical significance of the location.
- Stedelijk Museum: Museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art. Collections include paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, applied artworks and (new) media.
- The Anne Frank House: In memory of Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who hid in the attic with her family for two years during World War II. Anne wrote her famous diary here, providing us with an insight into her daily life during that time.
- The Hermitage: Once a nursing home for the elderly, today the museum is one of the branches of the famous Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, filled with works from the Russian collection.
- The Rembrandt House: The former residence and studio of the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt lived and worked here in the 17th century.
- The Tropenmuseum: A beautiful building in itself, the museum houses a collection from cultures around the world, from Africa to Southeast Asia and from India to Latin America. Here you’ll also find the permanent collection of treasures from the Dutch East Indies in the VOC era.
It seems like that are so many museums in Amsterdam that it would be challenging to cover them all here. You can grab a museum guide in any tourist office in Amsterdam. There are even different tourist cards that allow you to see many of them when you get the tourist card. It’s a great way to explore the Dutch culture and history while visiting Amsterdam.
Further thoughts on visiting Amsterdam
We enjoyed visiting Amsterdam a lot more than we anticipated. However, it was never a place high on our list of places to visit for some reason. As Amsterdam is one of Canada’s options for direct flights, we decided to stop here. The idea was to fly in, check it out and move on to the next destination.
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I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Amsterdam. As a place that is probably more known for accessible weed and the Red Light District, Amsterdam’s museums, architecture and culture are largely overlooked. The many wonderful restaurants, bars and shops make this a very delightful place. I personally loved walking around and checking out the neighbourhoods.
Amsterdam can feel very crowded, but it’s quite enjoyable if you’re not there in high season. It is an easy city to get around by foot and public transit. Make sure you don’t walk on the many bike paths, or you might cause a collision. Be on the lookout for the bike riders as they dominate the city. They are not too pleased if you stumble upon the bike path as you’re wandering around, or worse, stop in the middle of it.
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For insider tips in and around Amsterdam, check out my friend Jessica’s blog. She lives in Amsterdam and knows all the best places to hang out. You might even discover places, not many tourists experience when visiting Amsterdam.