Amsterdam is a deceptively large city – even though the population is barely scraping the 1 million point, including the outlying towns, there are endless cultural things to see and do here. Even if you’re spending a week in this gem that is the Netherlands’ capital, it’s impossible to see everything. Many tourists tend to get overwhelmed by the infinite options of museums in the city and end up only visiting those, or they might get side-tracked by that one substance the city is famous for and never make it a block from their hostel… So where do you start?
Alright, let’s try somewhere in the middle – you’ve only got 24 hours in Amsterdam and you want to see it all. First of all, don’t worry about planning to buy tons of tickets and drawing up an intense step-by-step map beforehand. Why not? Because the best way to see this gorgeous city is actually by wandering. Unlike many of Europe’s capitals where you might need taxis, metros and Ubers after an exhausting day of sightseeing, Amsterdam’s got a chill vibe that’s perfect for taking your time. Plus, the tram system is a great transport option that’s on time, frequent and easy to hop on and off of throughout the city.
Amsterdam’s layout is compact too, and almost everyone speaks near-perfect English. So get ready to find your way through this city with the attitude of a local, exploring lively multi-cultural neighbourhoods, ultra-green parks, architecture galore, quirky restaurants and views to die for in this go-to list of 20 must-sees.
20 Central Station
Starting off at Amsterdam’s Central Station is the perfect gateway to the city’s unique architectural feel. This building was finished in 1889 and named a national monument in 1974. Many architects have worked on the building over the past century, with one of the newest additions being the Amstelpassage – a cool, mood-lit alley of pop-up shops, ateliers and eateries that extends from the south to north entrances. For some more history, stop in for a sophisticated coffee or have a meal at the restaurant 1e Klas, situated in the Royal Waiting Room.
This impressive space used to be reserved for the King, Queen and their entourage.
Even if you’re not hopping on a bus, head up the escalator on the newly renovated north side by the IJ river and check out the views towards Amsterdam Noord and of the river. There’s a multi-coloured roof and an awesome contemporary space-age film institute called the Eye on the other side.
19 NEMO Science Museum Roof Terrace
After you’ve fuelled up, just east of Central Station you’ll find this imposing building – a super funky and interactive science museum geared towards kids (but also fun for adults, too!). Its unique design was created by Italian architect, Renzo Piano, and was inspired by the old port of Amsterdam, built to look like an anchored ship. If you don’t have much time in Amsterdam, it’s all good. You can make your way up the stairs to the top where there’s an outdoor exhibit, Energetica – entry is free! There’s also a restaurant up there in case you want to grab a drink or warm up before heading off. NEMO’s roof terrace is open every day from 10 am to 5:30 pm. Across the way you’ll see the Maritime Museum which has an awesome replica ship docked outside. Directly south you’ll get to enjoy views out over the entire city.
18 Canal Cruise Tour
Right by the water near NEMO and Central Station you’ll find lines of long canal boats that are available for cruises throughout the city. You can buy tickets at the stands right by where the boats dock, with options from hop-on/hop-off 24-hour tickets all the way to a full 3-course dinner experience. If you’re short on time, opt for a quick 1-hour tour.
This is one of the coolest ways to see the city, even for locals.
You get a from-the-canal view of all the amazing architecture throughout the city, breathtaking bridges, plus the guide will tell you all about significant buildings and historical areas along the way. Don’t be shy – you can usually ask the guide more specific questions about any of the places at the end if you’re curious. Feel free to take your own drinks/snacks on board too to save a few bucks and stay hydrated.
17 The Nine Streets (Negen Straatjes)
One of the cutest little pockets of the city isn’t too far from Central Station. Just head a bit southwest and you’ll stumble upon the adorable Nine Streets. This quaint little area is famous for its artisanal shops, sweet corner stores and charming cafés and restaurants. And as if it couldn’t get any cuter, the entire area is made up of tiny streets in between some of the city’s prettiest canals. Stop into one of the many second-hand shops and pick up some cool wears, buy some reading material or treat yourself to a piece of bling in one of the many vintage jewellers. Quench your thirst with a beer or other beverage in the delightful little Café ‘t Molentje (meaning 'little mill') and experience one of Amsterdam’s typical Amsterdam brown cafés – named as such because of the totally wooden interiors.
16 Jordaan Neighbourhood & Westerkerk
The Jordaan neighbourhood overlaps with the Nine Streets extending west and is just as charming, but with an extra serving of cool. Head here to feel the start of sophisticated vibes from Amsterdam’s cultural and (dare-I-say-it?-hipster) west side.
There are plenty of unique shops, cute cafés and great eateries here, too.
It’s got a real ‘round-the-block feel since it’s quite residential as well. Dig into some dangerously good brunch at Gs Place, then continue on past Anne Frank’s House and on to Westerkerk – an impressive church from the 1600s that pops up above the short narrow houses right along one of the main canals. Make your way over to the other side by the Keizersgracht canal and you’ll find the Homomonument, a triangular structure that juts out into the water and is dedicated to all gay and lesbian people who have been persecuted for their sexuality.
15 Dam Square & The Palace
This square is basically the busiest and most famous central point in the city. It’s clearly marked with a giant stone National Monument on one side that reaches skyward 22 metres high, and the Royal Palace on the other. The National Monument was built in memory of those lost in WWII, and the Royal Palace was opened in 1655 during the Netherlands’ ‘Golden Age’ as a new town hall for the city. Grab some typical Dutch fries at any one of the shops nearby and post up on the circular stairs around the National Monument. The area is so abuzz with movement, street buskers, tourists and locals alike so it’s the ideal spot to feel out Amsterdam’s vibe and do a little people-watching. After you’ve chilled a bit, wander around the Palace and take a look at all the intricate exterior stonework above doors and on the walls as well.
14 800-Year-Old Oude Kerk
You can’t explore Dam Square without heading around the corner and down a main, small canal street to see Oude Kerk or ‘Old Church’, Amsterdam’s oldest building at 800 years of age. This unique church stands right smack-dab in the middle of De Wallen, known everywhere else around the world as the Red Light District. It’s made up of a mish-mash of architectural styles and religious influences over the years that actually mesh well together. You can visit the inside for just 10 euros, where there are also art exhibitions. But if you don’t have much time,
it’s impressive enough to just explore the interesting mix of architecture on the outside.
This juxtaposition echoes the intriguing makeup of Amsterdam’s one-of-a-kind mix of residents, in a country where there’s a general feeling that everyone should feel welcome and respected.
13 Kalverstraat Pedestrian Shopping Avenue
Needing some retail therapy? Swing back around towards Dam Square and head south down the relatively narrow Kalverstraat. This is the most popular name-brand shopping street in the city, with all sorts of stores, including UK’s Waterstones bookstore, H&M and European favourite, Stradivarius. Love it or hate it, there are also usually Dutch street organists playing old-timey folk music on brightly painted machines, rolling slowly through the crowds. They usually ask for some tips in a friendly way by gently shaking their tin cups towards the droves of people moving past. Head down a side street on the south end towards the Artplein-Spui where you’ll find the American Book Center – one of the best English bookstores in the city. If you happen to be in the area on a Sunday, you can’t miss the eclectic open-air vintage market set up in the square from 10 am to 6 pm. You’ll find everything from antique marketing posters and books to tiny Dutch trinkets.
12 Flower Market
Just around the corner from Kalverstraat off of Muntplein you’ll find the beginning of the gorgeous Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt). This sweet little street is blooming all year ‘round. It’s the go-to spot for checking out the amazing floral products that are available from the Netherlands and where you can also pick up some tulip bulbs to bring back as a gift for mom.
All of the shops are set up on floating barges parked on the canal alongside the street – this used to be a port of delivery for the flowers when they arrived by boat.
This market isn’t just about tulips though; you can find almost any kind of flower you’re looking for, plus pick up some cute souvenirs and even some Dutch cheese. And don’t forget to glance up at the Munt Tower part of one of the original mediaeval gates to the city.
This square is Amsterdam’s mini, humble version of Times Square. Okay, so there’s only a couple big screens, but who needs advertisements anyways? Dedicated to one of the city’s most famous Renaissance painters, Rembrandt van Rijn, there are restaurants, shops, snack bars, historical buildings and some green space to hang out. Even though it’s not that big, you definitely can’t miss it on your wander through the city. There’s a life-size statue reproduction of Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht).
Take some selfies with those moustachioed dudes and wander into one of the coffeeshops along the square, or sit outside at one of the cafés and do some more people-watching.
This meeting point is filled with trams, bikers, cars, taxis and tourists bustling through to their next destination, so you definitely won’t be bored. If you end up here at night, there are also plenty of crazy clubs to get some dance moves in.
10 Amstel River – Magere Brug
If the IJ River by Central Station is known for the shipping of commercial goods, then Amstel River should be known for the enjoyment of locals. If you happen to be in Amsterdam when the weather’s nice (and when it is, it’s absolute paradise), you’ll see many privately owned boats cruising up and down this wide avenue of a river. Running right along the city’s major canals, Amstel River is a main artery for the city and has been since the Middle Ages. Stroll down the canal streets on either side near the centre as the bridges curve up and down. The Magere Brug or
‘Skinny Bridge’ is one of the most famous along the way – it’s a wooden drawbridge that used to be hand-operated and was one of the skinniest in the city.
Now it’s been widened to cope with traffic, but its original construction barely fit two pedestrians! If you’re here early evening you can see the romantic lights that line the bridge.
9 Waterlooplein Market
One of the biggest markets in Amsterdam is sandwiched between two large buildings on Waterlooplein Square and along the canal. The market came to be in 1885 and has always offered a varied mix of goods over the years, with an ongoing theme of wearable items. Known for its funky mix of clothing and flea market feel, you can pick up hippie-style psychedelic tapestries, clothes and accessories, as well as Amsterdam souvenirs like ‘XXX’ t-shirts, tulip bulbs and Dutch cheese wheels. And that’s not all – there are tons of vintage items like books and records, shoes, artists’ jewellery and art, and even bikes. In the ‘50s it was very popular as a place to find second-hand furniture, which you’ll still see here and there. Nowadays, you can also grab a bite to eat from one of the many food stalls that set up shop here.
8 Charming Utrechtsestraat
This charming little avenue is just around the corner from Rembrandtplein and the Amstel River. It’s named after the Dutch city that’s not too far away, Utrecht. The tram line has been running right down this street since 1877 (originally horse-drawn!), so it’s also easily accessible from many places in the city.
Lined with cool shops like record stores, local clothing makers, bakeries, furniture designers, coffee houses and plenty of restaurants along the way – this is a great street to make your way down at a chill pace.
Take your pick and stop in at some of the wide-ranging mix of shops. You can either stay a while or just window-shop your way down. At the south end of the street there’s a green, tree-filled park called Frederiksplein with a fountain that’s usually surrounded by locals enjoying the space in the summer months.
7 De Pijp Neighbourhood – Sarphatipark & Cafés
Just south of Utrechtsestraat you’ll find the beginning of De Pijp neighbourhood, one of the most bohemian areas of the city with plenty of things to see and do for all tastes. There are loads of independent shops here too, and you can grab a drink or a bite to eat at one of the many casual cafés and restaurants around just about every corner. Stop in at CT Coffee & Coconuts and have a coffee or cocktail –
it’s whatever floats your boat in this laid-back old 1920’s cinema.
Right in the middle of De Pijp you’ll also find the tree-filled oasis that is Sarphatipark. With gorgeous statues and a pond that stretches from one end to the other, complete with swans and willows, a wander through this green space is a must while you’re in the neighbourhood.
6 Albert Cuypmarkt Open-Air Market Street
Not far from Sarphatipark and also tucked away in De Pijp neighbourhood, make your way on down to the Albert Cuypmarkt.
This is the biggest outdoor market in the whole country with 260 stalls setting up for sale every day except Sundays.
This market is definitely known for its food products, with everything from raw fish (fancy some herring?) and fresh meats to artisanal olives and spicy Indonesian street food snacks like 'loempia', but there’s clothing, purses and other goods for sale, too. Obviously, you can also pick up some super addictive Dutch stroopwafels here…mmm. And let’s not forget this lively street at night – you’ve got yourself a collection of some of the best restaurants and night spots in the whole city! On this one main drag you can grab sushi, eat in an old synagogue, throw down a taco and see some live jazz, all basically right next door to each other.
Even if you’re only in Amsterdam for a day, you have got to get down to Museumplein and check out the giant grassy square and its impressive counterparts like Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum. The Rijksmuseum was opened in 1885 and is extremely intricate in its details and brickwork – a great example of Dutch architecture at the turn of the century. It was also recently renovated in 2013 so it’s in great condition. If you have a couple minutes to spare, head inside just to see the Rijksmuseum Library, a beautiful Harry-Potteresque labyrinth of books that’ll put anyone’s collection to shame. Lots of trams run to Museumplein, which has a wonderful green space to hang at for a minute and enjoy some fresh air. While you’re there, take a look over at the Stedelijk Museum, a contemporary collection that’s totally opposite in style with the addition of a new modern wing in 2012 (it’s said to resemble a bathtub).
If you’re looking for a paradise that’s right in Amsterdam proper, then look no further. Vondelpark is the most popular in the city, spanning an amazing 116 acres and covering a good chunk of the southern part of the centre. Don’t miss this serene spot! The scenery throughout is so varied, it’s another great place to just wander and people-watch. Enjoy the many ponds, swans, statues and locals going about their day here. There are also a few restaurants and cafés scattered throughout the park in case you’re in the mood to take a break. If it’s warm out and you end up in the southern end of the park, make a pit stop at De Vondeltuin, a relaxed tree-covered spot with outdoor seating serving great drinks, snacks and full meals.
When you thought you’d already seen the coolest buildings in town, wait until you see Nieuwmarkt square. This giant brick building, called De Waag (an old weigh station), sits right in the middle of a busy square that was originally a waterway, which was filled in 1614 to create this bustling market space.
There’s an open-air market here every day, and a special organic one on Saturdays.
There are tons of lively bars and restaurants surrounding the square and places to sit outside (with heaters for the colder months) and take in the beauty of this district. It also happens to be right on the edge of Chinatown, which is a great area to explore by window-shopping, and to grab a quick meal or even sit down to enjoy some elaborate dim sum. You can find all sorts of Asian cuisine styles here, including Thai, Japanese and Indonesian food.
2 Red Light District
As evening approaches, you’ll find this famous district known as ‘De Wallen’ coming to life even more than it already was in the daytime. You’ve surely heard about this place before heading to Amsterdam, imagining the streets are lined with pubs, coffeeshops, red glowing windows and s*x shops. And this is true, but there are also a lot of changes happening in the area, backed by the government’s plans to rejuvenate the city’s heart. Of course you can go wild in the many pubs and clubs in this central district, but you can also enjoy the amazing architecture and canals, and the loads of funky shops and restaurants popping up. Head to De Prael Brewery for some beers or a pub-grub dinner – a laid-back spot right in the middle of the district, or make your way to Mata Hari, a cosy canal-side restaurant with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences, named after the famous Dutch courtesan and spy.
1 A’DAM Lookout
Didn’t think you could see it all in one day? Think again. This brand-new building showcases panoramic views of the city from the north side of the IJ river—just a free 5-minute ferry ride from Central Station—and is one of the freshest spots for locals and tourists alike. The modern and funky A’DAM Toren is
one of the city’s tallest structures, with crazy cool views, a sky bar and a giant swing on the rooftop.
It’s a great place any time of the day, but is especially awesome at sunset. From the rooftop you can enjoy 360-degree views of the entire city, plus the polders north of it. If you’re feeling a little more dare-devilish, then make your way to the swing at the top that’s 100 metres up – Europe’s highest, open from 10 am to 9 pm. If you’re feeling swankier, head to the rotating Moon restaurant on the 19th floor for a classy refined dinner. But if you’re ready to get down with some panoramic views, move on up to the 20th at Ma’dam Restaurant & Skybar for a ‘casual chic’ dinner followed by some funky time on the dance floor to finish off your epic day!