Amsterdam’s picturesque ring of canals is one of the city’s most iconic sights and after the famous waterways achieved UNESCO World Heritage status back in 2010, a new museum sprung up to celebrate their rich history.
The Het Grachtenhuis, or the Canal House, opened its doors in 2011 and features a series of exhibitions devoted to the history of Amsterdam’s 17th-century canals and the city development project behind them. The self-guided tours utilize audio guides and a series of interactive installations to provide a uniquely entertaining and engaging rundown of how the system was designed and built. 3D video projections, miniature city models, animations and galleries all help to bring the exhibition to life, making it a thoroughly modern museum experience.
The Canal House itself, perched on the banks of the Herengracht or ‘gentleman's canal’, is just as impressive outside as it is from the inside.
Designed by Jacob van Campen, the impressive Romanesque construction is fashioned around over 13,500 woolen piles sunk into the ground and is best known for its iconic rooftop statue of Greek titan Atlas, straining beneath the weight of the world on his back. First built as a city hall, the building was transformed into a Royal Palace back in 1808, under reign of Louis I, King of Holland and is still used frequently for state visits by today’s monarchs.
Famously described as ‘the eighth world wonder’ by local poet Contantijn Huygens, the Royal Palace does its best to live up to its opulent reputation with glistening marble floors, lavish décor and a slightly ostentatious theme of Amsterdam’s power and prestige. The grand interiors, open to the public, provide the principal attractions, furnished with a spectacular collection of antiques and decorated with ornate carvings and Rembrandt-inspired paintings.
Amsterdam is known for its canals and bridges – the city boats 165 canals and more than 1,200 bridges. One of the most popular bridges is known as the Bridge of 15 Bridges, named as such because it is the only place in Amsterdam where you can see as many as 15 of the city’s bridges. While it is a great spot any time of day, it is particularly impressive at night when the bridges are illuminated. It is also considered one of the most romantic spots in Amsterdam.
To spot all 15 bridges, make your way to Thorbeckeplein, which is adjacent to Rembrandtplein. Walk south to Herengracht and, at the intersection of Reguliersgracht and Herengracht, stand on the odd-numbered side of the street. With your back to Thorbeckeplein, you can see six bridges across the Reguliersgracht and gazing down the Herengracht to your left, you can see another six bridges. Two more bridges are visible to your right and the 15th bridge is the one you are standing on.
With its ring of canals extending over 62 miles (100 km) and featuring an incredible 1,500 bridges, it's no surprise that Amsterdam’s canal ring has earned itself the nickname ‘the Venice of the North’. The 17th-century canals, including the most famous waterways of Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Jordaan, achieved UNESCO World Heritage status back in 2010, and remain key landmarks for visiting tourists.
The Prisengracht, or Prince’s Canal, is the longest of Amsterdam’s four main canals, measuring around two miles, and one of the liveliest in the city. Here, colorful houseboats float by the riverbanks and the surrounding streets are crammed with cafés, shopping boutiques and landmark buildings.
Dedicated to the preservation and history of Dutch and foreign films, the EYE Film Institute is an archive museum located in Amsterdam. It houses over 37,000 film titles, 60,000 posters, 700,000 photographs and 20,000 books, with some of the earliest materials dating back to 1895 when the movie industry was just starting in the capital. The permanent collection offers a fascinating glimpse into Dutch and world history. EYE is a vast complex that includes a cinematography museum (previously known as the Dutch Historical Film Archive), an auditorium, a souvenir shop filled with memorabilia, four movie theaters, as well as a waterfront restaurant and café. Many specialists refer to the EYE as the best cinema museum in the world. The acclaimed, futuristic building was unveiled by Queen Beatrix in 2012 and was designed by Viennese firm Delugan Meissl Associated Architects, which specializes in über-modern buildings that appear to be in motion.
As the name might suggest, the Homomonument, located in the center of Amsterdam, pays homage to the struggles of gay men and women fighting for equity and freedom. The memorial, which includes three large pink granite triangles, was opened in 1987 and is the first in the world to honor gays and lesbians who lost their lives at the hands of Nazis. In 2011, another such monument was erected in Barcelona that was modeled after the famous Homomonument.
Travelers looking to explore the history and culture of Amsterdam may want to include a visit to this iconic destination en route to the Anne Frank museum. Travelers say that while it’s easy to miss, the pink triangle monument recognizing some 600,000 who died during the Holocaust.
Located in a terrace of sprawling 17th-century mansions along Herengracht in Amsterdam’s UNESCO-listed Canal Ring, the Willet-Holthuysen Museum forms the elegant backdrop to a wonderful collection of fine paintings, antique furnishings and decorative pieces. Owned in the 19th century by the wealthy Willet family of avid art collectors, the house and its contents were later donated to the city. Today it forms the best example of 19th-century style and decoration in the city.
The carefully restored interior, decorated in rich blues, gold and greens, is typical of the indulgent lifestyle of Amsterdam’s prosperous merchant classes. Above stairs there’s a ballroom, library, dining room, salons and a bedroom complete with an ornately carved four-poster bed; they are all kitted out with silverware, silk wallpaper, gold-embellished Meissen porcelain, hand-embroidered curtains and beautifully crafted furniture.
Since opening its doors back in 1864, the Tropenmuseum, or ‘Museum of the Tropics’, has amassed 175,000 objects from Dutch colonies around the world, making it one of the largest museums in Amsterdam.
Split into eight sizable permanent exhibitions, the items showcase the daily life and possessions of Dutch overseas residents and provide a fascinating glimpse into the diverse cultures and traditions of inhabitants around the globe. Each exhibit focuses on a different geographical region, with Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, all getting a nod. Other key attractions include a vast collection of over 150,000 photographs dating from 1855–1940; a theatrical exhibition featuring masks, puppets and musical instruments from around the world; and a Junior sub-museum, with a series of interactive exhibitions and events, including dance, art and cooking, aimed at children.
The miniscule but informative Tulip Museum is just across Prinsengracht canal from the Anne Frank House and has recently has a major revamp. The all-new displays take a colourful and cheery look at Amsterdam’s obsession with tulips in the 17th century, when the bulbs were imported from the Himalayas and sold on the open market in The Netherlands. For years they were more highly prized than gold and prices became so over-inflated that the country nearly went bankrupt when trade in the bulbs collapsed in 1637. This sorry tale of national folly is related in a series of basement exhibitions alongside cleverly designed woodcuts showing the journey of tulips from the Far East into Europe. Today’s multi-million-euro Dutch bulb industry is also showcased against the stunning backdrop of vast photos of tulips in glorious technicolor that adorn the walls. On the ground level of the museum is one of Amsterdam’s classier souvenir stores.
The Museum Van Loon is located in a fine mansion overlooking the Keizersgracht canal; it was designed by Adriaen Dortsman in 1672 and the house’s first tenant was Ferdinand Bol, a pupil of Rembrandt. Between 1884 and 1945 it was home to the Van Loon family, who founded the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) and were one of the wealthiest families in Amsterdam. Today this is one of the few 17th-century canal-side townhouses in Amsterdam to have retained its original integrity and the elegant double-fronted mansion still stands with its vast proportions intact. It certainly reflected the Van Loon family’s elevated social standing by its sheer size, with grand apartments stuffed with Louis XV furniture, fine porcelain and precious silverware leading on to a procession of yet more ornate rooms.
Michel de Klerk was the leading architect of the early 20th-century Amsterdam School movement, and his legacy is the foremost example of the style in the city. Greatly influenced by the works of Hendrik Berlage, the designer of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange (Beurs van Berlage), De Klerk’s Het Schip is found just north of the Westerpark and was completed in 1921. It was to be his swansong, a vast apartment building intended to provide social housing for more than 100 families of railway employees to combat a severe housing crises in the city. Beautifully formed in the shape of an ocean liner and constructed from red brick, Het Schip is adorned with elaborate masonry, spiky towers, spires, ornate glass and wrought-iron grid-work. When it was completed, the complex also incorporated a school, meeting hall and a post office; the latter is today a museum of Amsterdam School architecture featuring a typical working-class apartment of the 1920s.
Amsterdam’s largest and oldest daily flea market, Waterlooplein market has a vibrant history dating back to 1893 and remains one of the city’s liveliest markets, sprawled between the Leprozengracht and Houtgracht canals. Held from Monday to Saturday in the former Jewish quarter, the market has long been at the center of Amsterdam’s bohemian culture and remains one of the prime gathering spots for the city’s youth.
Browsing the stalls offers a snapshot of the city’s cosmopolitan culture with alternative and vintage clothing, music posters and memorabilia and DVDs all on sale, along with hair braiding artists and tattoo booths. Today, the market encompasses around 300 stalls, selling everything from quirky antiques and second hand goods to cheap and cheerful souvenirs and general bric-a-brac. Even if you’re not buying, shimmying your way through the crowds of locals and tourists provides the perfect opportunity to soak up Amsterdam’s eclectic vibe.
Running from Amsterdam Central railway station to Dam Square, The Damrak is often called the "Red Carpet" of Amsterdam. For it is the first site, in all its bustling glory, that visitors see when they exit the train.
The Damrak, as the center of the city, is a bustling thoroughfare, filled with souvenir shops, hotels, and restaurants. Two famous buildings also make their home here: the Beurs van Berlage (the former stock exchange) and the famous mall, the Bijenkorf. From the station, the street ends at Dam Square, site of events and demonstrations of all kinds.
The Damrak is the original mouth of the Amstel River - rak being a reach, or straight stretch of water. In the 19th century, the canal was filled in, except for the canal-boat docks on the east side. Before you reach the Stock Exchange you’ll see a body of water. This is all that remains of the erstwhile harbor. The gabled houses backing onto the water are among the town’s most picturesque.
Standing high in the center of Amsterdam’s Dam Square, the National Monument is the Netherlands’ most important World War II memorial. In 1945, shortly after the end of the war, a liberty pole was erected in Dam Square; it evolved into the present-day 72-feet tall monument, which was unveiled on May 4 1956 by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. Every May 4 since then, the Dutch royal family and local residents participate in National Remembrance Day and pay their respects to fallen soldiers from both WWII and subsequent armed conflicts involving the Netherlands. Dutch architect J.J.P. Oud created the travertine stone monument, while John Rädecker and his sons designed the monument's sculptures. One of the most striking features is the Peace relief, which depicts four chained male figures demonstrating the misery endured during the war.
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.
Amsterdam is a city crammed with museums and galleries, but for the definitive history of the city itself, head to the Historisch Museum, or the Amsterdam Historical Museum, located just off Kalverstraat shopping street.
From its origins as a tiny, riverside settlement to the modern sprawling metropolis, the museum’s permanent exhibitions trace the city’s evolution. Exhibits feature everything from Dutch trading to bicycle use in the city, with special rooms focusing on WWII, gay rights and the city’s famously liberal drug policies. Interactive displays, a series of paintings by the Dutch Old Masters and a 17th-century style reconstructed café liven things up.
The Historical Museum is housed in a 17th century building, formerly home to the City Orphanage, and its classical facade is still adorned with the Amsterdam Coat of Arms above its entrance. Inside, rooms are circled around a central courtyard and the David & Goliath restaurant.
Renowned as being Europe’s biggest outdoor market, the Albert Cuyp Market, named after the 17th-century painter of the same name, has been trading since the late 19th-century. Starting out as a collection of street traders, the market was taken over by the city council in 1905 and has since become a tourist favorite, offering a fascinating glimpse into local life.
Located on Albert Cuypstraat in the city’s characterful De Pijp district, the market is open every day except Monday and is an easy tram ride from the city center. Here, around 260 market stalls offer just about everything imaginable. Share some jovial banter with the notoriously chatty stallholders as you bargain over books, clothing and electronics, then fill your shopping basket with fresh fruit, vegetables and fish, all at very reasonable prices.
Located opposite Artis Royal Zoo in the Plantage, the award-winning Dutch Resistance Museum has been named as Amsterdam’s best history museum. The displays follow the story of Amsterdam in World War II, from the point of Nazi invasion of The Netherlands in May 1940 until the end of the war in May 1945. The slow build-up of Dutch resistance to their German occupiers is highlighted with the use of clever dioramas and interactive exhibits that manage to convey a sense of claustrophobia and urgency. As well as following the tragic fate of the 140,000 Amsterdam Jews murdered in Nazi concentration camps, the museum recounts the story of the 20,000 Dutch political prisoners who were sent to labor camps such as Dachau in Germany; of those 2,000 were executed and several thousand died of disease.
The chronological exhibits include propaganda posters and the underground printing presses used to produce them; newspaper clippings; interviews with resistance members.
Designed by architect Adolf Leonard van Gendt, the 19th-century building, located right in front of the Rijksmuseum, was inspired by the famous 18th-century Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig. Fashioned mostly in a Dutch Neo-Renaissance style, the impressive building includes a classic monumental facade and a gilded lyre atop its roof.
To fully experience the Concertgebouw’s spectacular interiors and acoustic prowess, attend one of the 445 annual concerts held in the main hall. Why not take an evening Theatre Tour to learn more about the intricate architecture before experiencing a live performance. Those on a budget can get a taster of events to come by attending the free 30-minute rehearsal slots held at midday, each Wednesday between September and June.