Few cities in the world are as inviting as Amsterdam. It’s like an eccentric and oh-so-cool aunt that you finally get to meet for the first time. It’s a city of inclusion, where you’ll find a church, brothel and child care center all on the same block. With tall brownstones, endless canals and more than 300 days of sunshine, the city has an ethereal glow, whether you’re visiting in January or July, making it is easy to see why 17th century masters such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt chose to call Amsterdam home
Biking is more than a trend in Amsterdam—it’s a way of life. Approximately 63 percent of Amsterdam residents ride a bike on a daily basis, which explains how a city with a perpetual case of the munchies manages to stay so trim. Even having invented the stroopwafel, Amsterdam boasts a low 10 percent obesity rate. Tourists can rent a bike and join the fun, though they’re likely the ones responsible for the 12,000-15,000 or so bikes fished out of the canals every year.
If you’re visiting Amsterdam, don’t only experience the city’s laissez-faire approach to prostitution and marijuana. While both are an undeniable part of the city’s day-to-day life, there’s much more to explore.
1. Anne Frank House
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This is arguably the most significant cultural experience in all of Europe. Nothing compares to walking the same steps, experiencing the same enclosures and peeking out of the same attic window as Anne Frank did while in hiding. For the hour or so that you’re touring the house, you cease to be a Democrat or Republican, an immigrant or a minority. You become Anne Frank. You experience her struggle. You cry for the futility of a war waged against an innocent group of people and feel a sense of hope at the boundless optimism of a child. The walls still display the clippings Anne used to decorate her room and show her measurements in pencil, documenting the years as they passed.
There are no photographs permitted on the premises, despite what you may have seen on Beyoncé’s Instagram account. There’s also a permanent line around the block to get tickets, even in the offseason, so save time and disappointment by booking online. It will be well worth the effort to actually plan the rest of your trip around this visit.
2. Cheese Museum
Just down the street from the Anne Frank House is the Cheese Museum. This is the perfect place to decompress and eat your feelings after an emotional experience. With dozens of cheese variations and, more importantly, free samples, you won’t mind the fact that this museum is technically more of a store with a photo area and some artifacts in the basement. There are props, costumes and a backdrop where you can take a commemorative picture on your own phone or on the machine provided. Prices are reasonable overall. Not to mention, the service is friendly and the cheese is outstanding. Don’t leave without trying the Prima Donna; it lives up to its name.
3. Van Gogh Museum
Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty
Three floors of incredible artwork and multimedia enhancements await you in one of the best-curated museums in all of Europe. Founded by Van Gogh’s nephew in his honor, the museum takes you through his life and works chronologically, allowing you to see Van Gogh’s progress as an artist and a person. Unlike his reclusive contemporaries, Van Gogh wrote profusely to his brother and friends, leaving fans with countless letters from which to gain rare insight into the mind of the man behind all the self-portraits.
Well-known pieces such as “Sunflowers,” “Almond Blossoms” and “The Bedroom” draw a steady crowd, but photographs are not allowed. Spend the extra 5 euros on the audio guide and, if your schedule permits, visit on a Friday night when the museum is open late (till 10 p.m.), with live music and a bar in the lobby.
4. Bridge of Love
The Bridge of Love was actually formed for two wealthy sisters who wanted access to each other from across the Amstel River. Today, it is open to pedestrian and bikes only and symbolizes the value of all types of love. While the French government has taken extreme measures to ban locks of love from the Ponts de Arts bridge in Paris, those looking to leave a token of their affection in Europe will find an equally worthy, though still not government sanctioned, alternative at the Bridge of Love.
Also, legend has it that those who kiss at the bridge will be together forever, so choose who you lock lips with wisely.
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty
It is impossible to look at an Amsterdam guidebook without seeing a picture of the famous “I amsterdam” statue. Erected in front of the Rijksmuseum, it makes the perfect background for your welcome photographs and Snapchats. If you visit early enough, you might just luck out and get the famous landmark all to yourself.
The added benefit of tackling Rijksmuseum first thing is the quick admission line and sparse crowd around the museum’s most famous paintings. Though it spans the length of a wall, “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt is difficult to catch without a bevy of onlookers. Go straight to the Great Hall on the second floor upon arrival and begin a 90-minute highlights tour. You can download the audio guide for free on the Rijksmuseum app, just make sure you have headphones as it does not play aloud on your phone.
6. Hermitage Amsterdam
Russia limits the display of Russian artwork outside the country, lending its pieces only to pre-approved institutions. The Hermitage Amsterdam, a branch of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, is one of the few places in the world where you can view Russian art year-round. While it has only been open since 2009, it is already an integral part of Amsterdam’s museum scene. The exhibits rotate and have featured jewelry and furnishings belonging to Catherine the Great.
7. Canal Cruise
Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty
Amsterdam is affectionately referred to as the Venice of the North because of its many canals and bridges. Unlike Venice, however, Amsterdam’s canals are man-made. The city started off as a dam. You can learn this and more while exploring the city aboard the Friendship Amsterdam, a small open-air boat that offers one of the most thorough canal cruises available. While others wait in line forever to board a boat enclosed by windows with 50-100 people, those who choose Friendship Amsterdam take unobstructed pictures on a boat so tiny that it can go under smaller bridges and through secluded canals.
You’re encouraged to touch the panels underneath one of the bridges for luck while cruising by, or recline comfortably with a drink in hand. This is the way a canal cruise should be, and is sure to be the highlight of any trip to Amsterdam year-round, day or night.
8. Zaanse Schans
Amsterdam is such a modern city that it can be hard to forget you’re in the Netherlands. A mere 40 minutes outside the city by bus or train, however, is Zaanse Schans, a living outdoor museum that provides visitors with a uniquely Dutch experience: life in the 1800s. Start by attending a clog making demonstration to witness firsthand how a block of wood is turned into a shoe. Next, tour one of the eight working windmills on the premises, each devoted to a different purpose such as harvesting raw materials or sawing lumber.
Don’t forget to try hot chocolate with rum on your way out if you’re visiting during the winter; it will warm you right up.
9. Rembrandt House
This is the house where Rembrandt lived before going bankrupt and having to sell all his belongings. It is important to note that this is a reconstruction so no original paintings or furniture are on display. What is on display, however, is the original near-complete collection of his etchings in an annex to the house. Guests can gain context and background by attending a sketching demonstration beforehand, held throughout the day.
There is also a paint-making workshop demonstrating how to make paint from scratch. The raw materials you see featured in the paint workshop are the very ones produced and manufactured at Zaanse Schans.
10. Coffee Shops
Last but definitely not least, you have to visit a coffee shop. Big names like Dampkring or Green House have many celebrity visitors, but their wait times and prices reflect the hype. Check out Coffee Shop New Times instead, with chic Middle Eastern décor, leather seating and televisions. If you’re in the Centraal Station area, drop by Coffeeshop The Store. It has a warm tavern feel and is the perfect bookend to any trip.
Jen Ruiz is a Fort Lauderdale-based lawyer and blogger.