Amsterdam is the most liberal city I’ve been to. This was clear the moment I stepped out of Amsterdam Central Station after arriving at Schiphol Airport from Copenhagen.
While crossing a bridge from the station, I see a sign of the Sex Museum on a lamp post in front of the Basilica of St Nicolas. After we enter one of the alleyways on the way to our apartment, I see coffee shops with marijuana leaves in their signage. We pass by scenic canals and wave through the bike lanes pulling our baggage.
Our accommodation was right in the center of the Canal Ring district, a UNESCO World heritage site and one of the city’s prime nightlife hotspots. Our first priority after checking in was to find food and it didn’t take us long to discover that Amsterdam is a gastronomic paradise.
In the first few hours after arriving, I fell in love with the city. I knew the 4 days I had with my friends will not be enough to experience all the city has to offer. Amsterdam is not just the capital of Netherlands – it is also its financial, cultural, and creative center.
Here are 9 things I recommend for travelers to Amsterdam who have limited time to spend, as we did.
1) Visit Rembrandt’s House
Fee: €13 for adults
Opening Hours: 10AM to 6PM daily
The Rembrandt House Museum (Rembrandthuis) is located in the Canal Ring district. This is where Rembrandt van Rijn, the greatest Dutch painter and one of the greatest ones in Europe, lived and worked from 1639 to 1656.
The house has been preserved the way it was when Rembrandt was still living there. It shows some of his collections from various cultures and his artistic works. Because Rembrandt was also a teacher, some of his students’ best works are also displayed there.
The most interesting part of the house for me was his work area – where he created the art works credited for ushering in the Dutch Golden Age in painting. Visiting Rembrandt’s house and learning about his life are good ways to understand the central role art played in the blossoming of Dutch society.
2) Go canal cruising
Opening Hours: 9AM to 10PM daily
You cannot fully experience Amsterdam if you don’t explore its famous and historic canals. The city has more than 100km of canals traversing 90 islands and 1,500 bridges. This structural wonder actually gives the city it’s unique ambiance as “The Venice of the North.”
The major canals date back to the 17th century and were used for Dutch trade and defense. They are one of the best examples of successful urban planning in the world.
A typical canal tour around the city center would take around 1 hour. It would go through all the important buildings and unique infrastructures. Audio guides are provided to travelers for free.
There are tours that offer lunch or dinner and the price varies depending on which boat company you ask. Renting a boat is also a good way to tour the city, especially if you plan to visit the outskirts.
3) Experience Heineken
Fee: €16 for adults
Opening Hours: 10:30 AM to around 8 PM daily
Heineken is one of the proudest products of the Netherlands since the company was founded in Amsterdam in 1873. This beer is a staple drink when eating a Dutch meal.
The Heineken Experience is a tour that educates tourists on the company’s history and the process the beer goes through, among other things. The brewery-turned-museum is actually the company’s first brewery in the city until 1988.
The tour is very interactive, with fun activities for tourists. My favorite part is when they taught us how to properly pour and consume the Heineken beer. And did I mention you get free drinks along the way?
4) Get to know Vincent Van Gogh
Fee: €17 for adults
Opening Hours: 9 AM to 6 PM daily
Once you meet Rembrandt, you have to know Vincent Van Gogh, another famous and influential Dutch painter.
Van Gogh is known for his post-Impressionist paintings and self-portraits. He wasn’t appreciated as much as Rembrandt was though, until his suicide in 1890. Van Gogh is also known for having a mental illness, which many experts say is bipolar disorder.
The Van Gogh Museum houses many of his paintings, letters, and early drawings. It tells the story of Van Gogh’s life, his suffering, his travels, and the people he loved. The museum humanizes the Dutch master painter that is Van Gogh by telling his unsuccessful story of mental illness and battle with poverty.
There are also guest art collections and exhibits from time to time. When we went there in late February 2016, there was an exhibit on prostitution in French art.
This is one place in Amsterdam where you have to plan your visit as it is usually packed with long lines of tourists. But what you’ll see inside is totally worth the queues.
5) Eat a hearty steak and/or burger
Price: €15 to €50
You can find everything in the gastronomic wonderland that is Amsterdam – from Asian noodles to Middle Eastern kebabs to Latin American treats. My suggestions: grab a good burger and eat a hearty steak!
There are a lot of burger joints in Amsterdam that offer all types of meat, toppings, and extras. Most of the restaurants let you choose your burger’s composition. For around €15, you can already have a burger meal that will keep you full for hours. Needless to say, I had the best burger in my life in Amsterdam!
On our last night together, my friends and I decided to go fancy and eat in one of the Argentinian steakhouses scattered across the city. We enjoyed the steak and the wine as much as we enjoyed each others’ company for the past weeks we were together. It was a fitting end to our trip and it only cost us around €30 each.
6) Chill beside the De Gooyer Windmill
Windmills in Holland played a key role to the development of the country. This is why – aside from cheese, clogs, and tulips – the Netherlands is famous for its windmills. Dutch windmills played an important part in shipbuilding and other industries during the 17th century.
From 9,000 working windmills in the 19th century, however, only few remain. Fortunately, there’s still one in Amsterdam.
The De Gooyer Windmill, the tallest wooden one in the country, was originally constructed in the 16th century and is considered a national monument.
While the mill itself is not open to visitors, it is a site worth seeing. There are also restaurants and coffee shops beside the windmill so it’s a nice place to chill and eat snacks.
7) Explore the Netherlands Museum of Art and History
Fee: €17.50 for adults
Opening Hours: 9 AM to 5 PM daily
Let’s go back to Dutch art! Simply known as the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands Museum of Art and History displays 8,000 objects of art and history – among which are masterpieces of Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer.
The museum is located near the Van Gogh Museum and was built in 1895. I really enjoyed looking at the paintings from the Dutch Golden Age and the objects from the medieval ages. A must-see collection is Rembrandt’s “The Night’s Watch” – a colossal painting he created in 1642.
You can easily get lost admiring the art in this museum for a couple of hours. If you get hungry, there’s a cafe in the museum’s atrium.
8) Walk around De Wallen
Fee: Free – if you’re just walking 🙂
The Netherlands is one of the few countries in the world where prostitution is legal. It has been tolerated since the Middle Ages. Sex tourism now is a big industry and this street is its center.
De Wallen is the largest red light district in Amsterdam and probably one of the most famous ones in the world. There are sex shops, sex theaters, peep shows, and of course, prostitutes for every type of fantasy.
Most of the prostitutes are “displayed” in glass windows and doors, where they attract tourists and passersby to get their services. The street is very much lively at night but there are still open brothels at day. There’s also a sex and cannabis museum located in the walking street.
It’s common courtesy not to take photos of the brothels and the glass doors.
9) Check out a coffee shop
Fee: It depends
Opening Hours: Mostly from 9 AM to midnight
They are in very alley and every street, especially if you’re in the center. The Netherlands is one of the few countries where marijuana can be legally consumed and it’s coffee shop culture is one way to get a feel of the local and tourist life.
I am not encouraging anyone to try marijuana. I didn’t partake of any myself. But I did enter a coffee shop and got a cup of coffee. It’s an interesting place to meet people and observe the city’s liberal culture!
Anne Frank House is a must-visit place in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, I didn’t wake up early enough to get tickets! There are very long lines of people who want to visit at around 9 AM. I’ll surely do this next time!
I have never seen such a liberal city like Amsterdam. Bangkok, one of my favorite party places in Southeast Asia, doesn’t even come close! An ideal trip to Amsterdam should last at least a week. That way, you can enjoy the laid-back culture of the Dutch and explore as many places as you can.
Are there any must-do activities in Amsterdam that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!