Take a Canal Tour
No visitor should miss out on a water-borne tour of the splendid canals of Amsterdam. The canals, which were declared a UNESCO monument in 2010, aren't just a picturesque attraction, but were essential to defense and transport in 17th-century Amsterdam. With the arrival of the automobile, hundreds of canals were filled in nationwide to accommodate the new mode of transport, but Amsterdam has retained 165 of its historic canals, more than any other Dutch city.A canal tour makes for a wonderful first impression, as the tour boats take in much of the monumental architecture that lines the Canal Belt, the four concentric semi-circles that loop around the the historic Center. While any canal tour will be an experience to remember, the options are plentiful: hop aboard an open-top boat from the St. Nicolaas Boat Club , or charter a private boat or a special themed or catered tour.
Explore Dutch Art, from the Old Masters to Mondriaan
Dozens of Amsterdam museums are devoted to the fine arts, which the Netherlands has pioneered for centuries. Rembrandt, a household name, has his own dedicated museum, the Rembrandt House Museum (Museum het Rembrandthuis), whose restored interior reproduces the atmosphere of the artist's former residence. But it's the Rijksmuseum, one of Amsterdam's top museums, where his classic De Nachtwacht resides, beside thousands of invaluable masterworks across the scope of Dutch art history.Amsterdam promises just as much for lovers of modern art: its most-visited museum, the Van Gogh Museum, is a tribute to the post-impressionist painter whose inventive technique and sympathetic subject matter has earned him countless admirers. The Stedelijk Museum, recently re-opened for another temporary exhibit despite its renovation, is another can't-miss destination for modern art enthusiasts; its Erezaal ("Hall of Honor") is bedecked with classic canvases from Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Yves Klein and other celebrated artists.
Remember Anne Frank and the Dutch World War II Experience
The Netherlands was not exempt from the horrors of World War II, and its memory remains in the minds of all those who experienced it. World War II memorials like the Dutch National Monument, the Homomonument and others commemorate the victims of this war, and three spectacular museums are devoted in whole or in part to this period.
The Anne Frank House is one such museum, where visitors can explore the "secret annex" where Anne hid for years with her parents, sister and three others as she composed her famous diary.Even the Gestapo soldiers who found them could scarcely believe the cramped existence lived out in these clandestine rooms. Brave individuals like the couple who harbored the Franks were part of the Dutch Resistance movement, and to them a museum is also dedicated: the Verzetsmuseum, voted the best historical museum in the Netherlands, which documents the tireless attempts of the resistance members to thwart the Nazis. The Jewish Historical Museum, too, retells how the Holocaust devastated Jewish communities in the Netherlands, and how these communities have rebuilt themselves in its wake. Few visitors are left unmoved by the powerful exhibits at these museums.
Stop and Smell the Flowers
Tulips and other bulb flowers are the pride of the Netherlands, and nowhere is this more evident than at Keukenhof, the world-famous bulb flower park in Lisse (35 to 40 minutes by bus from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol). Stroll past rows upon rows of vibrantly-hued tulips in this outdoor wonderland, where flower lovers come from far and wide to admire the seasonal blooms.
Explore De Wallen
Take a stroll in De Wallen, Amsterdam's red light district, to see what all the fuss is about … and learn that there's more to this fabled district than the sex tourism it attracts. The red-lit windows where sex workers primp are often attached to historic townhouses, and monumental architecture abounds in this sliver of the city. The Oude Kerk (Old Church), established in 1306, presides over its own square, while Museum Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder ("Our Lord in the Attic" Museum), a former clandestine church sequestered in a townhouse attic, testifies to a time when Catholic worship was forbidden — before the Netherlands became known worldwide as a beacon of tolerance.
De Wallen is also home to a number of fine restaurants, and just a stone's throw from the diverse eateries of Amsterdam Chinatown.
Hop on a Bicycle
Just about everyone cycles in Amsterdam, and not just for fun: 50% of Amsterdammers use their bikes daily, and rush hour bike lanes teem with office workers in suits, students headed to class, and parents with tots piled onto children's seats. Join the locals for a taste of this daily ritual, and discover the city on its favorite means of transport.
Rental bikes are available all over town, from inconspicuous Dutch omafietsen (also known as "Dutch bikes"), to ones that clearly hail from a rental company — an effective device to warn locals of the possibly inexperienced cyclists behind the handlebars.
Specialized bike maps, like the Amsterdam op de fiets map ("Amsterdam by Bicycle"; available for EUR 4 at the VVV tourist information center), are an indispensable resource for first-time cyclists in Amsterdam.
Taste Traditional Dutch Cuisine
Traditional Dutch cuisine typically consists of comfort food to warm one's insides in the cold season, which on some years can feel eternal. Favorites like erwtensoep (split pea soup) and stamppot boerenkool, mashed potatoes streaked with curly kale, are eaten year in and year out. Pancakes are treated like pizza, loaded with extras like ham and bacon; wheels of artisanal Gouda stare out at window-shoppers from the best cheese vendors; and French fries are consumed in abundance.
For all this splendor, sometimes it's nice to dip into more exotic fare. This is where two of the Netherlands' former colonies, two vastly distant countries, come in: Indonesia and Suriname. The rijsttafel, a Dutch colonial invention that assembles dishes from all over Indonesia, is a veritable attraction in itself; dozens of tapas-sized portions allow diners to sample a variety of Indonesian recipes. Surinamese, by comparison, is a South American cuisine spiked with Afro-Caribbean, South Asian, Indonesian and Chinese flavors, courtesy of its intensely multicultural population; Surinamese eateries are typically casual affairs that dole out impossible portions for moderate prices. Both cuisines are rare outside their home countries, and the opportunity to experience them is one that shouldn't be missed.
Get out of Town
The most populous cities in the Netherlands are concentrated in the central west, the so-called "Randstad", and train travel to these cities — Haarlem, Delft, Leiden and others — is a cinch.Most cities in the Randstad are less than an hour from Amsterdam by train, while hardly any city in the Netherlands is further than three hours; this makes the capital a convenient hub for day trippers to anywhere in the country.
One day trip I like to recommend to first-time visitors is Zaanse Schans, a town that's chock full of traditional Dutch crafts and architecture, with six windmills, a wooden shoe workshop, a cheese farm and more. Travelers who are here for tulip season will want to take the bus to Lisse, site of the Keukenhof tulip and bulb flower park. Ceramics lovers shouldn't miss the historic center of Delft, where the beloved "Delft blue" porcelain is produced. The list of wonderful cities and towns to see in the Randstad alone is endless, so read up in advance to find your ideal day trip from Amsterdam.
Experience the Cannabis Coffeeshop Culture
Amsterdam is one of the rare places where you can purchase reputable quality weed and/or hash, in a public transaction, and not be branded a criminal for it — a fact that clearly holds wide appeal. Almost half a million travelers come to Amsterdam each year expressly because of its cannabis coffeeshops, and a quarter of all visitors step into a coffeeshop at least once on their trip.
But these establishments haven't turned the city into a den of depravity; far from it — for cannabis smokers, coffeeshops are simply a laid-back alternative to cafes, where you can relax with a joint and a cup of coffee, share a "space cake" with friends, or sometimes even have a full post-smoke meal.
Buy Yourself Happy at Amsterdam's Retail Hot Spots
Paris and Antwerp, but it sure is fun place to shop. From the exclusive labels whose retail outlets line the P.C. Hooftstraat — think Prada, Gucci, Versace — to the unique, independent boutiques of the Nine Streets area, Amsterdam administers retail therapy to shoppers of all stripes.
Besides fashion, Amsterdam also has an abundant share of specialty shops — from toiletries to interior decor.
Stroll down Nieuwendijk and Haarlemmerstraat, both just minutes from Central Station, for a sample of the fine specialty food stores in town — from cheese, oil and salt specialists to international importers.
Some locals will claim that there's no better place to drop a few euros than at the beloved outdoor markets of Amsterdam. From fashion, to art and antiques, to food, there's a market for it. Most markets are open year-round, but April to September is obviously peak market season thanks to the abundance of sunny days.