Things to Do in Amsterdam
It is one of the 20th century's most compelling stories: a young Jewish girl forced into hiding with her family and their friends to escape deportation by the Nazis. The house Otto Frank used as a hideaway for his family kept them safe until close to the end of World War II.
The focus of the Anne Frank House museum is the achterhuis, also known as the secret annex. It was in this dark, airless space that the Franks observed complete silence during the day, before being mysteriously betrayed and sent to their deaths.
The Anne Frank House is pretty much intact, so as you walk through the building, it's easy to imagine Anne’s experience growing up here as she wrote her famous diary describing how restrictions were gradually imposed on Dutch Jews.
The first image one conjures up when thinking of Amsterdam is its tranquil canals. Three rings of canals, lined by elaborately decorated merchants' residences and warehouses built in the 17th century, the Dutch "Golden Age", give the city its iconic and easygoing image. In fact, 90 islands were created when the canals were built, and they’re all connected by hundreds of charming bridges. The best-known canals form the central Grachtengordel (Canal Belt). To the wandering visitor, they’re like lifelines because the subtle turns in the center can throw your inner compass out of whack. The semicircular canals form a huge ring, cut by canals radiating from the middle like spokes on a wheel. Starting from the core, the major semicircular canals are the Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. From east to west, the major radial canals are Brouwersgracht, Leidsegracht, and Reguliersgracht.
Built on the banks of Prinsengracht Canal in the 17th century, Amsterdam’s Westerkerk is famous for three things: sky-high views of Amsterdam from the top of its spire, Rembrandt's grave, and Anne Frank's ties to the church. Designed by star architect Hendrick de Keyser in the Dutch Renaissance style, the Protestant church's spire reaches 85 meters, making it the highest structure in Amsterdam's old city. From the viewing platform halfway up the tower, you'll get panoramic views right across town. And from outside the church, look up at the bell tower to see the blue imperial crown of Habsburg emperor Maximilian I at its top — it was bestowed on the city as a coat of arms in 1489.
Rembrandt’s paintings may fetch tens of millions today, but he died bankrupt in 1669 and was buried in an unmarked grave, typical for the very poor, at Westerkerk, so that no one quite knows this exact location of his final resting place where he lies buried along with his wife and son.
Madame Tussauds is an international attraction beloved of youngsters for its lifelike waxwork models; when the very first Madame Tussauds opened in London in 1835, it featured a gruesome chamber of horrors. Today the displays have moved on and the Amsterdam outpost exhibits a topical band of waxwork images of royalty, B-list celebs, rock gods, movie stars, sporting heroes and historical figures with a degree of accuracy lacking in some of the earlier models.
Although displays are updated frequently as the tide of celebrity waxes and wanes, Madame Tussauds Amsterdam is divided into four themed sections packed with family fun. It’s fast-paced and interactive: work out next to David Beckham in the sports zone; have your photo taken with former Queen Beatrix; attend a political meeting with President Obama and Germany’s Angela Merkel; attend an A List party with world icons such as Robbie Williams, Robert Pattinson and J-Lo; or paint a work of art in the style of Picasso.
The Rijksmuseum, or National Museum, is the premier art museum of the Netherlands, and no self-respecting visitor to Amsterdam can afford to miss it. Though most of the building is closed for renovations until 2013, key paintings from the museum’s permanent collection can be viewed in the Philips Wing.
The collection includes some 5,000 paintings, most importantly those by Dutch and Flemish masters from the 15th to 19th centuries. The emphasis, naturally, is on the Golden Age. Pride of place is taken by Rembrandt's Nightwatch (1650), showing the militia led by Frans Banning Cocq. Other 17th century Dutch masters include Jan Vermeer (The Milkmaid, and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter), Frans Hals (The Merry Drinker) and Jan Steen (The Merry Family).
Other sections include Sculpture and Applied Art (delftware, dolls' houses, porcelain, furniture), Dutch History and Asiatic Art, including the famous 12th century Dancing Shiva.
Visitors to Amsterdam, feel the fear. Just how many ways were there to die in the old city? Find out at the Amsterdam Dungeon as you experience the city’s horrible past – you’ll encounter plague victims, suffer tortured screams as the Spanish Inquisition comes to town and hear the dying groans of scurvy-ridden sailors as their ship Batavia sails into the Doldrums. Drop through the darkness into the bowels of the earth on simulator rides and despair as you lose your way in the Labyrinth of the Lost. New among the 11 terrifying actor-led interactive shows at the Dungeon in ‘Murder on the Zeedijk’ – just when will the moaning spirit of lonely Helena ambush you?
If you like your horror with a modicum of kitsch and humor, then this is the place for you. But be warned, while most teenagers will love the Amsterdam Dungeon, it’s probably not the place for young kids.
Located in the center of the city, Amsterdam Central Station is the largest railway station in the Netherlands, as well as the most visited national heritage site in the country. Used by more than a quarter of a million passengers every day, it is a hub for both national and international train services. It has also been continuously under construction for more than a decade due to the development of the North-South Metro line, which should finally open fully in 2017.
Built upon three artificial islands, the station was designed by the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, who also designed the famous Rijksmuseum. The similarity is apparent in the Gothic/Renaissance Revival façade of the station, which features two turrets and a variety of ornamental details. First opened in 1889, the station is within walking distance of many popular tourist sights, including the Royal Palace, the Anne Frank House and the Red Light District.
Magere Brug is a bridge in Amsterdam that crosses the Amstel River. Its name translates as “skinny bridge” and comes from the original bridge that was so skinny, it was difficult for two people to pass each other while walking across it at the same time. Legend also has it that the bridge was built by the Mager sisters to make it easier to visit each other since they lived on opposite sides of the river. Though it is still called the Skinny Bridge, today it is no longer so skinny. The bridge was replaced with a wider one in 1871, and now pedestrians and bicycles can cross with greater ease.
The bridge is a wooden drawbridge that is raised frequently throughout the day to allow boats to pass through. At night it is lit up by over 1,000 light bulbs. Day or night, the Skinny Bridge is a charming place to visit and enjoy views of the river and the city.
More Things to Do in Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s Red Light District (aka De Wallen) has been a familiar haunt for pleasure seekers since the 14th century. Though certainly not an area for everyone, the Red Light District has more to offer than just sex and liquor. For underneath its promiscuous façade, the area contains some of Amsterdam's prettiest canals, excellent bars and restaurants, and shops of all kinds. It also consists of windows with sexy girls, dressed in eye-popping underwear.
The best places for window-watching are along Oudezijds Achterburgwal and in the alleys around the Oude Kerk (Old Church), particularly to the south. The atmosphere throughout is much more laid-back than in other red-light districts. Families, lawyers, young couples, senior citizens - all types of locals live and socialize here, in stride with the surrounding commerce. You’ll probably find yourself on Warmoesstraat and Zeedijk at some point, both commercial thoroughfares chock-a-block with shops and restaurants.
Amsterdam might be most famous for its winding canals and pretty locks, but it’s the Amstel River that the city was first built around, even deriving its name from its early settlement at the ‘Amstel Dam’.
Today the river runs through the center of the city, lined with landmark buildings, stately mansions and colorful houseboats. A walk along the riverside pathway takes in a number of key sights: the regal Carré theatre, still a popular performance house; the post-modernist Stopera city hall and opera house, with its contemporary glass facade; and the neo-baroque domes of the St Nicolas church, all face the river front. A number of landmark bridges also cross the river, the most famous of which is the Magere Brug, or the ‘Skinny Bridge’, a white painted bascule bridge, rebuilt in the early 1900s. Don’t miss out on renowned tourist attractions like the Hermitage Museum, the Amsterdam Museum and Waterlooplein, either – all lie along the shores of the Amstel.
Housed in a humungous former arsenal built in 1656, the National Maritime Museum reopened in 2011 after extensive reworking and is dedicated to showcasing the importance of Amsterdam’s maritime history. During the 17th-century Golden Age, The Netherlands was one of the richest powers in the world, thanks to its trading wealth and an empire that stretched across the globe. It was a time of great progress in Amsterdam, when the Canal Ring was built and the middle classes grew rich. All this is reflected in interactive and audio-visual displays of model ships, maritime oil paintings, charts, silverware and weaponry; the growth of the fabulously successful Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) is charted and visitors are whisked on a simulated journey through Amsterdam as a piece of cargo. Two now controversial issues that are dealt with sensitively through thoughtful exhibits are the European slave trade and the whaling industry.
Conveniently located right in central Amsterdam, Jordaan is one of the city's most important, and most interesting districts. Never short of things to do, it is the location of the famous Anne Frank house, where renowned holocaust victim Anne Frank hid from the Nazis during WWII.
Currently, the district is bustling with life, with tons of opportunities to visit one of its many specialty shops, soak in Dutch culture at an art gallery, or try some of the local delicacies at its street markets.
Prideful of its early 20th-century music culture, this central district also features wonderful music festivals and has scattered statues throughout, commemorating the likes of local hero and Dutch patriot Johnny Jordaan. Not dead, you can go check out Jordaan's lively modern music scene at many of its bars and club venues, these days mainly featuring alternative, punk and grunge music.
The Science Center NEMO overlooks the Oosterdok and is the perfect antidote to Amsterdam on a rainy day, especially for families as its clever interactive experiments can entertain children for hours. Housed in what appear to be a pale green ship – albeit one designed by Renzo Piano in 1997 – the aim of NEMO is to introduce science and maths to kids and make both subjects educational and entertaining. Through experiments, demonstrations and interactive games, they can learn how rainbows form, search for ETs, follow treasure trails through the galleries and send parcels across the world. NEMO looks forward too, with clear explanations of Big Bang and the future of our planet, discussions on harnessing green energies and experiments on purifying water.
Dr. Gunther von Hagens is a controversial German scientist who invented a new method for preserving human tissue called Plastination and has subsequently made his fortune exploiting it. His acclaimed, but somewhat macabre, exhibitions have travelled the world ceaselessly for the last 20 years and in that time have been visited by more than 40 million people. Today Von Hagens has set up six floors of permanent home in the former American Express building in Amsterdam’s city center; currently on show is Body Worlds: The Happiness Project, which is designed to highlight the beneficial effect of happiness and exercise on the human body. Display are not always for the faint-hearted, as they include human corpses stripped of their skins or in various states of dissection, some hale and hearty, some neatly sliced to illustrate disease – the smoker’s lungs would make anyone give up on the spot – as well as fetuses.
A visit to the old Heineken brewery is paramount to brew-worshipers and beer lovers. You will learn the history of the Heineken family, find out how the logo has evolved, and follow the brewing process from water all the way through to bottling. Along the way you can watch Heineken commercials from around the world, join a Heineken bottle on its life's journey and drive a virtual dray horse.
Inside the brewery are fermentation tanks, each capable of holding a million glassfuls of Heineken, as well as vintage brewing equipment and tall malt silos. Unique attractions make the Heineken Experience a fun trip. You can see and feel what it’s like to be Heineken beer bottle, or take a (simulated) ride on an old brewery dray-wagon, pulled by Shire horses on a video screen in front of you. The ride rattles and rolls you through a short tour of Amsterdam.
If all this gets to be too much fun, you can wind down at the free “tasting” sessions at the end of your visit.
Recognized as one of the most exclusive addresses in the city, Herengracht has been home to Amsterdam elite since the early 17th century. And while this famous canal is still the ideal spot to brush elbows with the well-to-do, it’s also an incredible place to explore the history and culture of this famous city.
Travelers who venture to this charming neighborhood can check out the original home of the Dutch West India Company, located in Herenmarkt, a charming town square, or visit the well-known merchant’s house called Three Hills, which has been designated as a historical monument. Perhaps the most-famous merchant’s home, the Bartolotti House, is located along the right side of the canal and once served as a residence for one of the most successful silk merchants.
Transformed from a complex for the elderly to a department of Saint Petersburg’s famous Hermitage Museum in 2009, a visit to the Hermitage Amsterdam starts with marveling its the impressive exterior. The sprawling Amstelhof building, designed by architect Hans Van Petersom, dates back to the 17th-century and stretches 105m along the Amstel riverfront, featuring a central courtyard garden shaded by chestnut trees.
Hermitage Amsterdam is now one of the largest museums in the country and features some of the country’s most captivating temporary exhibitions. The collections, rotated each 6 months, feature selections imported from the Russian museum’s enormous treasury of artifacts, including its famously expansive collection of French 19th and 20th century paintings. Past exhibitions have included Modernist and expressionist artworks; sizable exhibits on ‘Peter the Great (1672–1725), the modernizer of Russia’ and ‘The Immortal Alexander the Great’.
Museum Our Lord in the Attic (Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder) is one of the oldest museums in Amsterdam. The attic of this 17th century canal house conceals a secret church, where Catholics of the Dutch Reformed Church who were unable to worship in public held their services. A merchant purchased the building during this period, and he and his family lived on the ground floor. Catholic masses were officially forbidden from 1578 onwards, but the Protestant governors of Amsterdam generally turned a blind eye, as long as churches such as this one were unrecognisable from the outside.
The lower floors of the building became a museum in 1888 and today contain refurbished kitchens and other rooms housing a collection of church paintings, silver, and various religious artifacts. Visitors can explore the building’s narrow passageways and stairways while marveling at the ornate furniture and works of art.
In Amsterdam’s central district Jordaan, along the Prinsengracht canal, you’ll find this small, quirky museum floating right on the water. The Houseboat Museum (Woonboot Museum) is a traditionally furnished houseboat that really gives a feeling for what everyday life on the canals of Amsterdam was like before ‘modern’ times. The boat, a former freighter named the ‘Hendrika Maria,’ is completely furnished and has several different visuals and models to show how life on the canals has changed through the decades. Once on board, you can see how the authentic barge (built in 1914) was converted to a comfortable houseboat in the 1960s. The houseboat has proper skipper’s quarters with a sleeping bunk, a good-sized living room and kitchen, and a bathroom. (The houseboat is equal in size to the average Amsterdam apartment.) Nowadays, the Hendrika Maria welcomes visitors to its homey interior — it seems as though the owners have just popped out to do a bit of shopping!
Built in the late 17th century, the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam is one of the most significant legacies of Jewish history in the entire city. During the 16th and 17th, century when the Jewish community was facing persecution in Spain and Portugal, many fled to Amsterdam and the concept of building the biggest synagogue in the world began.
Building of the Portuguese Synagogue began in 1671 and was complete in 1675. Restorations have been made over the years but overall it stands today as it did over 300 years ago. Still in use by the Jewish community in Amsterdam, it also attracts swathes of visitors who come to marvel at its ancient architecture and beguiling interior.
The synagogue is located in a complex that also houses a number of other buildings, including the rabbinate, a mortuary, and the Ets Haim (Tree of Life) library, which is home to a valuable collection of Sephardic Jewish manuscripts.
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