Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands. Even though the Dutch government and the king’s office are in The Hague, Amsterdam remains the nominal capital, as stated in the country’s constitution.
Amsterdam is known for its vibrant and diverse nightlife, with many bars, clubs, and restaurants scattered throughout its neighborhoods. It hosts several international cultural festivals annually, enhancing its reputation as a cosmopolitan and creative hub.
Where is Amsterdam?
Amsterdam is located in the western part of the Netherlands, in the province of North Holland. The city is built around a network of canals and is situated near the IJ Bay and the Amstel River, from which it derives its name. It’s approximately 13.6 kilometers west of the North Sea and around 59 kilometers north of Rotterdam, the second-largest city in the Netherlands.
Amsterdam is quite centrally located in the European context. For instance, it’s about 360 kilometers west of Berlin, Germany, and around 520 kilometers north of Paris, France. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is one of the major aviation hubs in Europe, facilitating easy international access to the city.
History of Amsterdam
Amsterdam has an extensive and fascinating history has seen it develop from a humble fishing village into a bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis.
Amsterdam originated as a small fishing village in the 12th century. Named “Amstelredam,” it denoted “dam in the Amstel” as the city was founded around a dam in the Amstel River.
In the 13th century, Amsterdam was officially granted city rights. These rights led to the city constructing fortifying walls and granting the citizens legal and economic privileges that sparked growth.
The 17th century was Amsterdam’s “Golden Age,” when the city flourished and became one of the wealthiest cities globally due to its dominance in trade and finance. The world’s first stock exchange was established in Amsterdam in 1602. This period was also significant for cultural development and architectural advancements, with the construction of the city’s iconic canals and gabled houses.
Amsterdam experienced economic decline during the 18th century, but the 19th century heralded a new era of expansion. The completion of the North Sea Canal, which connected Amsterdam to the North Sea, and the construction of railways marked this era. The city’s boundaries expanded, and new neighborhoods were established.
World War II brought with it Nazi occupation, lasting for five years. Amsterdam’s Jewish population, including the young diarist Anne Frank, faced significant persecution. Today, the Anne Frank House is a poignant reminder of this dark chapter in the city’s history.
In the aftermath of the war, Amsterdam bounced back and experienced another growth phase. The city became a hub for culture and counterculture during the 1960s and 70s, fueled partly by a surge in immigration that increased its diversity.
Today, Amsterdam is celebrated for its cultural richness, diversity, and historical charm. The city is home to several internationally acclaimed museums and is recognized as a leading financial center. It has successfully preserved its history while embracing modernity, making it an attractive destination for travelers worldwide.
Features of Amsterdam
Amsterdam is a city of captivating contrasts. It uniquely blends historic charm with modern urban flair, narrow cobbled streets, and elegant, centuries-old architecture coexist seamlessly with contemporary design, avant-garde art, and a cosmopolitan lifestyle.
One of Amsterdam’s most defining features is its vast canal network. These were mostly built during the 17th century, and today, they form a picturesque waterway system that adds a unique charm to the cityscape. Exploring these canals, either by foot along the streets that border them or by boat, offers an intimate glimpse into Amsterdam’s historic heart.
Geography and Climate
Amsterdam is characterized by its flat landscape, typical of the Netherlands, a country approximately one-third of which lies below sea level. The city is virtually at sea level and intersected by many canals, contributing to its distinctive geographical character.
The city’s climate is classified as oceanic, influenced by its proximity to the North Sea. This results in mild summers and cool winters. The average high temperature in the summer months hovers around 20-22 °C (68-72 °F), while winter temperatures usually hover around 2-6 °C (36-43 °F). Rainfall is spread throughout the year, but the wettest months tend to be August and October.
Amsterdam’s population is over 1.4 million people. The city is highly multicultural, with residents from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Non-Dutch nationals are estimated to make up approximately 50% of the city’s population, and the city is home to people from 180 different nationalities.
The official language of Amsterdam is Dutch, but English is widely spoken due to the city’s international orientation. Amsterdam is known for its liberal attitudes and open-mindedness, contributing to a vibrant and diverse social atmosphere.
Amsterdam’s economy is diverse and robust. The city is considered one of Europe’s top financial centers, with many banking and financial services companies having offices there. It’s also home to the oldest stock exchange in the world, now part of Euronext.
Besides finance, the city has a thriving creative industry encompassing design, advertising, and media. Information technology is another key sector, with Amsterdam often dubbed the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe.’ Thanks to several world-class research institutes and hospitals, it’s also a life sciences and health hub.
Amsterdam’s Port is the second-largest port in the Netherlands and one of the top in Europe, facilitating trade and logistics. The city is also a significant tourist destination, with tourism contributing significantly to its economy.
Furthermore, Amsterdam’s strategic location and excellent infrastructure, including Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, one of Europe’s busiest airports, contribute to its role as a gateway to Europe, attracting international businesses and foreign investment. The city is known for its high standard of living, robust labor market, and high level of innovation.
Things to Do and Places to See in Amsterdam
Amsterdam boasts an abundant array of activities and sights to explore. Let’s delve into some of the city’s most sought-after landmarks and attractions.
1. Explore the Canal Ring
The Canal Ring (or “Grachtengordel”) in Amsterdam is a network of intersecting waterways built during the 17th century, known as the Dutch “Golden Age.” This system was a marvel of urban planning and engineering for its time and remains one of the city’s most iconic features.
The Canal Ring is a significant feature of Amsterdam for its aesthetic value and because it represents an innovative approach to the city’s growth. The construction of the Canal Ring reflected a comprehensive, forward-looking vision that combined urban planning, water management, city aesthetics, and economic development.
2. Visit the Rijksmuseum
The Rijksmuseum, or National Museum, was founded in 1800 in The Hague and moved to Amsterdam in 1808. The museum is dedicated to arts, crafts, and history. The Rijksmuseum is most famous for its collection of 17th-century Dutch masters. It has an extensive collection of more than 1 million objects dating from the years 1200–2000, among which are some masterpieces by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer.
The most well-known among these is arguably Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” which has its own dedicated space in the museum. The museum also has a vast collection of prints, drawings, and classic photographs. In addition, it includes substantial collections of Asian and Egyptian art, Dutch history, costumes, glass, silver, delftware, ship models, and other objects of decorative arts.
3. Tour the Anne Frank House
The Anne Frank House Museum is located on the Prinsengracht canal near the Westerkerk in central Amsterdam, where Anne Frank, her family, and four others hid from Nazi persecution during World War II.
Anne Frank is the author of “The Diary of a Young Girl,” also known as “The Diary of Anne Frank.” This diary is one of the world’s best-known personal accounts of the Holocaust. Anne wrote in her diary while hiding in the Secret Annex — an empty section of her father Otto Frank’s company building — from 1942 to 1944. The Secret Annex was concealed behind a movable bookcase.
The hiding place was discovered in August 1944, and Anne and the others were arrested by the Nazis. Anne and her sister Margot were transported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they both died of typhus in March 1945.
4. Explore the Van Gogh Museum
The Van Gogh Museum, which opened in 1973, is located in Museum Square (Museumplein), close to other notable institutions like the Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk Museum. The museum’s building was designed by Gerrit Rietveld, a Dutch architect associated with the modernist De Stijl movement.
The Van Gogh Museum houses the most extensive collection of Van Gogh’s works worldwide. This includes over 200 paintings, 500 drawings, and more than 700 of his letters. The collection provides a comprehensive overview of his life and artistic career, from his early sketches through his later iconic sunflower paintings and haunting self-portraits.
5. Stroll around the Jordaan District
Jordaan District is known for its picturesque canals, narrow streets and lanes, colorful houses, and abundant greenery, the Jordaan is a beautiful and vibrant part of Amsterdam with a rich history. Originally a working-class neighborhood built in the 17th century to house workers and immigrants, the Jordaan has undergone significant gentrification in the past few decades and is now a highly sought-after area.
Jordaan District has become renowned for its diverse mix of boutiques, art galleries, specialty shops, restaurants, and sidewalk cafes. The Jordaan is also famous for its courtyard gardens, known as ‘hofjes,’ hidden behind the buildings. Wealthy people originally built these as a form of social housing.
6. Visit the Royal Palace Amsterdam
The Royal Palace of Amsterdam, known as Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam in Dutch, is one of three palaces in the Netherlands that are at the disposal of the monarch (the others being Noordeinde Palace in The Hague and Huis ten Bosch, also in The Hague). It is located on the west side of Dam Square in the center of Amsterdam, opposite the War Memorial and next to the Nieuwe Kerk.
The Royal Palace was initially built as a city hall during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. The building was opened as a city hall in 1655 after designs by architect Jacob van Campen. The interior, focusing on the power and prestige of Amsterdam, was completed later, mainly by the painter Ferdinand Bol. The building is considered an essential example of the Dutch Classicism.
7. Experience the Heineken Experience
The Heineken Experience is a historic brewery and corporate visitor center for the internationally distributed Dutch pilsner, Heineken beer. Located in the city center of Amsterdam, the Heineken Experience offers an interactive journey through the world of Heineken.
Visitors learn about the company’s history, the brewing process, the Heineken family, and the origins of its logo. They also get insights into the beer’s ingredients and Heineken’s innovative brewing process.
8. Explore the Stedelijk Museum
The Stedelijk Museum’s collection spans from the late 19th century to the present day and includes works from many of the world’s most famous artists. Opened in 1895, the museum was initially located in a neo-Renaissance building designed by the Dutch architect Adriaan Willem Weissman.
In 2012, a new wing was added, designed by Benthem Crouwel Architects, featuring a futuristic design that starkly contrasts the original 19th-century structure. This combination of old and new architecture reflects the museum’s focus on historical and contemporary art.
The museum’s collection includes over 90,000 objects and features significant movements such as Bauhaus, the Amsterdam School, De Stijl, CoBrA, abstract expressionism, pop art, minimal art, and conceptual art.
9. Discover the Rembrandthuis Museum
The Rembrandthuis Museum provides insights into Rembrandt’s life and work. The interior has been furnished with items and artworks from the time of Rembrandt. The museum holds an almost complete collection of Rembrandt’s etchings and conducts demonstrations of his etching technique for visitors.
In the 20th century, the house was purchased by the city of Amsterdam, and after a restoration to return it to its 17th-century state, it was opened as a museum in 1911. The restoration involved removing the top two floors and restoring the house’s layout according to a detailed inventory from the time of Rembrandt’s bankruptcy.
10. Relax in Vondelpark
Vondelpark is the largest city park in Amsterdam, and one of the most famous in the Netherlands, welcoming around 10 million visitors annually. The park was opened in 1865 and was originally named “Nieuwe Park” (New Park). A statue of Joost van den Vondel was placed in the park in 1867 and was subsequently renamed “Vondelpark”.
Inside Vondelpark, there’s a lot to see and do. It is home to several restaurants and cafes, including the popular ‘t Blauwe Theehuis and Vondelpark3, an open-air theatre (Openluchttheater) that offers performances from May through September, and the Groot Melkhuis with a playground for children.
11. Visit the A’DAM Lookout
A’DAM Lookout is an observation deck with an unrivaled panoramic view of Amsterdam. The tower was initially completed in 1971 to serve as the headquarters for Royal Dutch Shell. After Shell vacated the premises, the building underwent a significant renovation. It was re-opened in 2016 as a multi-functional tower, housing offices, a revolving restaurant, a hotel, and the Lookout observation deck.
The A’DAM Lookout offers a stunning 360-degree view of Amsterdam’s historic city center, bustling port, and unique Dutch polder landscape. The deck is equipped with interactive multimedia exhibits and state-of-the-art telescopes that allow visitors to learn more about the city’s landmarks and history.
12. Visit the Bloemenmarkt
The Bloemenmarkt is a famous floating flower market in Amsterdam, along the Singel Canal between Muntplein and Koningsplein. The market is a vibrant and fragrant tourist attraction that’s been a part of the city since 1862.
The market stalls are located on houseboats, a nod to the city’s past when flowers arrived in Amsterdam daily from the countryside by boat. Today, these houseboats are more permanently moored and form the base for stalls selling various flowers, plants, and gardening accessories.
13. Take a Bike Tour
Biking is a quintessential Amsterdam experience, and a bike tour is a fantastic way to explore the city. With more bikes than people, Amsterdam is renowned for its bike-friendly streets and scenic routes. It’s no wonder that cycling is a favorite way for both locals and tourists to get around.
Several companies offer guided bike tours in Amsterdam. These typically last a few hours and take you around the city’s main sights, such as the canals, the Anne Frank House, the Rijksmuseum, and the Vondelpark. Many tours also venture into lesser-known parts of the city or even the beautiful Dutch countryside. The guides usually provide exciting insights into Amsterdam’s history and culture.
14. Visit the Albert Cuyp Market
Named after the 17th-century Dutch painter Albert Cuyp, the market began as an informal collection of street traders and pushcarts in the early 20th century. By 1905, it had become so popular that the city government set it up as a formal market.
Today, the Albert Cuyp Market is a bustling place where you can find nearly everything you need, from fruits, vegetables, cheese, fish, and spices, to clothes, textiles, flowers, and household goods. Over 260 vendors sell vast goods six days a week (the market is closed on Sundays).
15. Explore the Artis Royal Zoo
ARTIS was established in 1838, located in the center of Amsterdam, near the Waterlooplein and Rembrandtplein. ARTIS encompasses 14 hectares and is home to over 700 species of animals and more than 200 species of trees. The zoo’s layout reflects the 19th-century garden design with winding paths, majestic trees, and historic buildings.
The animal exhibits include an aquarium, an insectarium, a butterfly pavilion, a planetarium, a birdhouse, a wolf enclosure, and a large primate house. You can see various animals here, including elephants, giraffes, lions, zebras, and gorillas.
What is the best time to visit Amsterdam?
The best time to visit Amsterdam is during the spring (April to June) when the tulips are in bloom, or during the fall (September to November) when the city is less crowded. The weather during these periods is typically mild and pleasant.
Is it safe to visit Amsterdam?
Yes, Amsterdam is generally a safe city for tourists. However, like in any metropolis, it’s always important to be aware of your surroundings and take standard precautions, especially in crowded tourist areas and at night.
What is traditional food and cuisine like in Amsterdam?
Dutch cuisine is hearty and straightforward, focusing on meat and vegetables. Traditional dishes include:
• Stamppot (a mash of potatoes and vegetables)
• Hutspot (a variant of stamppot)
• Erwtensoep (split pea soup)
What’s a must-try dish/food in Amsterdam?
You should try raw herring in Amsterdam, a traditional Dutch snack. Another dish you need to try is “stroopwafel” – a sweet treat of two thin waffles with a caramel-like syrup filling.
What souvenirs can I bring home from Amsterdam?
Dutch cheese, wooden clogs, Delft Blue pottery, and tulip bulbs are popular souvenirs. Consider artwork from local artists or items from the city’s many design shops for a unique keepsake.
How can I get around in Amsterdam?
Amsterdam is known for its cycling culture, and bicycles are a common mode of transport. The city also has an extensive public transportation system, including trams, buses, metros, and ferries. Walking is also a viable option in the city center.
Is it expensive to visit Amsterdam?
Compared to other major European cities, Amsterdam is moderately expensive. Costs can be managed with budget accommodations and meals, but entrance fees to popular attractions, dining, and hotel prices can add up.
Which currencies are accepted in Amsterdam?
The official currency is the Euro (€). Credit cards are widely accepted, but having some cash is always handy.
Is Amsterdam a good city to live in?
Amsterdam is often ranked as one of the best cities to live in worldwide, thanks to its high standard of living, robust healthcare and education systems, and rich culture and history. However, it’s worth noting that the cost of living is relatively high.
Is it safe to drink tap water in Amsterdam?
Yes, tap water in Amsterdam is of high quality and safe to drink.
Which cultural customs should I be aware of when visiting Amsterdam?
Dutch people are known for their directness, which can sometimes be mistaken for rudeness. It’s also customary to greet people with three kisses on the cheeks. When entering shops or cafes, saying hallo (hello) and tot ziens (goodbye) is polite.
Amsterdam is undeniably a city worth visiting. It blends historical richness with modern sophistication and offers diverse experiences that cater to every kind of traveler. The charm of its intricate canals, architecture, world-class museums, and vibrant cultural life combine to create a uniquely appealing destination.
The city’s progressive spirit, open-mindedness, and welcoming nature make it not just a tourist spot but a place where one feels a sense of belonging. Whether it’s the calm serenity of a boat ride along the canals, the thrill of discovering art treasures, the warmth of its quaint cafés, or the joy of cycling down its cobbled streets, Amsterdam invites and embraces with an authenticity that leaves a lasting impression. Truly a visit to Amsterdam is not just a trip but an enriching experience.