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Things to Do in Amsterdam

The Netherlands brims with beauty and adventure, from its picturesque windmills and wondrous fields of tulips to its hip, art-centric capital city of Amsterdam. The most populated region of the Netherlands, historic Amsterdam is renowned for its quaint streets and scenic canals. Take in Amsterdam’s rich tradition of art by touring iconic museums such as the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum; tours offer skip-the-line access to these popular sights. The Anne Frank House is another must-see, attracting visitors from around the globe. A walking tour—or if you want to be like the Dutch, a bike tour—is a great way to get into the culture. For a little romance, enjoy a candlelit cruise at night with Dutch wine and cheese, and watch the city sparkle. Make time to tour the happening Red Light District’s bars and coffeeshops, and sample bitterballen (fried meatballs) and classic pickled herring, along with some of the country’s famed beers. Take a day trip or two to the Dutch countryside to admire Zaanse Schans, with its iconic windmills and clogs; or traditional villages such as Volendam and Marken. Keukenhof Gardens offers the pièce de résistance: a burst of colors from its vast array of flowers and millions of tulips. All in all, Amsterdam’s uniqueness makes it an unparalleled destination in Europe.
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Rijksmuseum
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The Rijksmuseum, or National Museum, is the premier art museum of the Netherlands, and no self-respecting visitor to Amsterdam can afford to miss it. Though most of the building is closed for renovations until 2013, key paintings from the museum’s permanent collection can be viewed in the Philips Wing.

The collection includes some 5,000 paintings, most importantly those by Dutch and Flemish masters from the 15th to 19th centuries. The emphasis, naturally, is on the Golden Age. Pride of place is taken by Rembrandt's Nightwatch (1650), showing the militia led by Frans Banning Cocq. Other 17th century Dutch masters include Jan Vermeer (The Milkmaid, and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter), Frans Hals (The Merry Drinker) and Jan Steen (The Merry Family).

Other sections include Sculpture and Applied Art (delftware, dolls' houses, porcelain, furniture), Dutch History and Asiatic Art, including the famous 12th century Dancing Shiva.

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Van Gogh Museum
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Art lovers and van Gogh fans must reward themselves with a visit to the Van Gogh Museum, one of Amsterdam's must-sees. The museum consists of about 200 paintings and 500 drawings by Vincent and his friends and contemporaries (Gauguin, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec and Bernard), as well as many of the artist's personal effects. Famous works on display include The Potato Eaters (1885), The Yellow House in Arles (1888) and The Bedroom (1888). One of his last paintings, Wheatfield with Crows (1890), is an ominous work finished shortly before his suicide. Of special note is the wall on the second floor, which displays 18 paintings produced during a two year period in the south of France, generally considered to be his artistic high point. A new wing,set partly underground, showcases temporary exhibits by van Gogh and other artists.
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Amsterdam Canal Ring (Grachtengordel)
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The first image one conjures up when thinking of Amsterdam is its tranquil canals. Three rings of canals, lined by elaborately decorated merchants' residences and warehouses built in the 17th century, the Dutch "Golden Age", give the city its iconic and easygoing image. In fact, 90 islands were created when the canals were built, and they’re all connected by hundreds of charming bridges. The best-known canals form the central Grachtengordel (Canal Belt). To the wandering visitor, they’re like lifelines because the subtle turns in the center can throw your inner compass out of whack. The semicircular canals form a huge ring, cut by canals radiating from the middle like spokes on a wheel. Starting from the core, the major semicircular canals are the Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. From east to west, the major radial canals are Brouwersgracht, Leidsegracht, and Reguliersgracht.

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Madame Tussauds Amsterdam
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Madame Tussauds is an international attraction beloved of youngsters for its lifelike waxwork models; when the very first Madame Tussauds opened in London in 1835, it featured a gruesome chamber of horrors. Today the displays have moved on and the Amsterdam outpost exhibits a topical band of waxwork images of royalty, B-list celebs, rock gods, movie stars, sporting heroes and historical figures with a degree of accuracy lacking in some of the earlier models.

Although displays are updated frequently as the tide of celebrity waxes and wanes, Madame Tussauds Amsterdam is divided into four themed sections packed with family fun. It’s fast-paced and interactive: work out next to David Beckham in the sports zone; have your photo taken with former Queen Beatrix; attend a political meeting with President Obama and Germany’s Angela Merkel; attend an A List party with world icons such as Robbie Williams, Robert Pattinson and J-Lo; or paint a work of art in the style of Picasso.

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Amsterdam Red Light District (De Wallen)
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Amsterdam’s Red Light District (aka De Wallen) has been a familiar haunt for pleasure seekers since the 14th century. Though certainly not an area for everyone, the Red Light District has more to offer than just sex and liquor. For underneath its promiscuous façade, the area contains some of Amsterdam's prettiest canals, excellent bars and restaurants, and shops of all kinds. It also consists of windows with sexy girls, dressed in eye-popping underwear.

The best places for window-watching are along Oudezijds Achterburgwal and in the alleys around the Oude Kerk (Old Church), particularly to the south. The atmosphere throughout is much more laid-back than in other red-light districts. Families, lawyers, young couples, senior citizens - all types of locals live and socialize here, in stride with the surrounding commerce. You’ll probably find yourself on Warmoesstraat and Zeedijk at some point, both commercial thoroughfares chock-a-block with shops and restaurants.

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Anne Frank House (Anne Frank Huis)
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It is one of the 20th century's most compelling stories: a young Jewish girl forced into hiding with her family and their friends to escape deportation by the Nazis. The house Otto Frank used as a hideaway for his family kept them safe until close to the end of World War II.

The focus of the Anne Frank House museum is the achterhuis, also known as the secret annex. It was in this dark, airless space that the Franks observed complete silence during the day, before being mysteriously betrayed and sent to their deaths.

The Anne Frank House is pretty much intact, so as you walk through the building, it's easy to imagine Anne’s experience growing up here as she wrote her famous diary describing how restrictions were gradually imposed on Dutch Jews.

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Amsterdam Central Station
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Located in the center of the city, Amsterdam Central Station is the largest railway station in the Netherlands, as well as the most visited national heritage site in the country. Used by more than a quarter of a million passengers every day, it is a hub for both national and international train services. It has also been continuously under construction for more than a decade due to the development of the North-South Metro line, which should finally open fully in 2017.

Built upon three artificial islands, the station was designed by the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, who also designed the famous Rijksmuseum. The similarity is apparent in the Gothic/Renaissance Revival façade of the station, which features two turrets and a variety of ornamental details. First opened in 1889, the station is within walking distance of many popular tourist sights, including the Royal Palace, the Anne Frank House and the Red Light District.

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Red Light Secrets (Museum of Prostitution)
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Amsterdam is known for its wide streets, classic museums, and colorful canals. It is also known for its coffeehouse culture and open-minded approach to cannabis and prostitution. Visitors flock to see the city’s Red Light District, where prostitution is legal and very much out in the open. Red Light Secrets, located in the heart of the area, is the world’s only museum dedicated to prostitution — offering an eye-opening glimpse into the profession and its history in Amsterdam.

Housed in a traditional 17th-century canal house, the small museum aims to educate curious visitors without entering a brothel. Full scale replicas of luxury brothel suites, wardrobe displays, interviews with prostitutes about their daily lives, and even the chance to step into a florescent, red-lit window all seek to grant insight. The building itself was once home to an operating brothel, facilitating an authentic experience.

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Amsterdam Dungeon
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Visitors to Amsterdam, feel the fear. Just how many ways were there to die in the old city? Find out at the Amsterdam Dungeon as you experience the city’s horrible past – you’ll encounter plague victims, suffer tortured screams as the Spanish Inquisition comes to town and hear the dying groans of scurvy-ridden sailors as their ship Batavia sails into the Doldrums. Drop through the darkness into the bowels of the earth on simulator rides and despair as you lose your way in the Labyrinth of the Lost. New among the 11 terrifying actor-led interactive shows at the Dungeon in ‘Murder on the Zeedijk’ – just when will the moaning spirit of lonely Helena ambush you?

If you like your horror with a modicum of kitsch and humor, then this is the place for you. But be warned, while most teenagers will love the Amsterdam Dungeon, it’s probably not the place for young kids.

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More Things to Do in Amsterdam

Xtracold Icebar

Xtracold Icebar

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Westerkerk (Western Church)

Westerkerk (Western Church)

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Built on the banks of Prinsengracht Canal in the 17th century, Amsterdam’s Westerkerk is famous for three things: sky-high views of Amsterdam from the top of its spire, Rembrandt's grave, and Anne Frank's ties to the church. Designed by star architect Hendrick de Keyser in the Dutch Renaissance style, the Protestant church's spire reaches 85 meters, making it the highest structure in Amsterdam's old city. From the viewing platform halfway up the tower, you'll get panoramic views right across town. And from outside the church, look up at the bell tower to see the blue imperial crown of Habsburg emperor Maximilian I at its top — it was bestowed on the city as a coat of arms in 1489.

Rembrandt’s paintings may fetch tens of millions today, but he died bankrupt in 1669 and was buried in an unmarked grave, typical for the very poor, at Westerkerk, so that no one quite knows this exact location of his final resting place where he lies buried along with his wife and son.

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Heineken Experience

Heineken Experience

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A visit to the old Heineken brewery is paramount to brew-worshipers and beer lovers. You will learn the history of the Heineken family, find out how the logo has evolved, and follow the brewing process from water all the way through to bottling. Along the way you can watch Heineken commercials from around the world, join a Heineken bottle on its life's journey and drive a virtual dray horse.

Inside the brewery are fermentation tanks, each capable of holding a million glassfuls of Heineken, as well as vintage brewing equipment and tall malt silos. Unique attractions make the Heineken Experience a fun trip. You can see and feel what it’s like to be Heineken beer bottle, or take a (simulated) ride on an old brewery dray-wagon, pulled by Shire horses on a video screen in front of you. The ride rattles and rolls you through a short tour of Amsterdam.

If all this gets to be too much fun, you can wind down at the free “tasting” sessions at the end of your visit.

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Portuguese Synagogue

Portuguese Synagogue

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Built in the late 17th century, the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam is one of the most significant legacies of Jewish history in the entire city. During the 16th and 17th, century when the Jewish community was facing persecution in Spain and Portugal, many fled to Amsterdam and the concept of building the biggest synagogue in the world began.

Building of the Portuguese Synagogue began in 1671 and was complete in 1675. Restorations have been made over the years but overall it stands today as it did over 300 years ago. Still in use by the Jewish community in Amsterdam, it also attracts swathes of visitors who come to marvel at its ancient architecture and beguiling interior.

The synagogue is located in a complex that also houses a number of other buildings, including the rabbinate, a mortuary, and the Ets Haim (Tree of Life) library, which is home to a valuable collection of Sephardic Jewish manuscripts.

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Amstel River

Amstel River

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Amsterdam might be most famous for its winding canals and pretty locks, but it’s the Amstel River that the city was first built around, even deriving its name from its early settlement at the ‘Amstel Dam’.

Today the river runs through the center of the city, lined with landmark buildings, stately mansions and colorful houseboats. A walk along the riverside pathway takes in a number of key sights: the regal Carré theatre, still a popular performance house; the post-modernist Stopera city hall and opera house, with its contemporary glass facade; and the neo-baroque domes of the St Nicolas church, all face the river front. A number of landmark bridges also cross the river, the most famous of which is the Magere Brug, or the ‘Skinny Bridge’, a white painted bascule bridge, rebuilt in the early 1900s. Don’t miss out on renowned tourist attractions like the Hermitage Museum, the Amsterdam Museum and Waterlooplein, either – all lie along the shores of the Amstel.

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Old Church (Oude Kerk)

Old Church (Oude Kerk)

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The Oude Kerk (or Old Church) is the city's oldest surviving building, consecrated in 1306. Yet the location of this triple-nave, late-Gothic church embodies a huge moral contradiction: it's in full view of the Red Light District, with passers-by getting chatted up a stones throw from the church walls.

Still, this Gothic-style church rewards visitors with one of the finest carillons in the country, the city's oldest church bell (1450), and a stunning Christian Müller organ that’s still used for recitals. Check out the lively 15th century carvings on the choir stalls, some of which are downright rude.

The floor of the church consists entirely of gravestones, as the church itself was built on a cemetery. There are 2,500 graves in the Oude Kerk, under which are buried 10,000 Amsterdam citizens, including Rembrandt's first wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Rembrandt himself visited the Oude Kerk often, and his children were all christened here.

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Skinny Bridge (Magere Brug)

Skinny Bridge (Magere Brug)

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Magere Brug is a bridge in Amsterdam that crosses the Amstel River. Its name translates as “skinny bridge” and comes from the original bridge that was so skinny, it was difficult for two people to pass each other while walking across it at the same time. Legend also has it that the bridge was built by the Mager sisters to make it easier to visit each other since they lived on opposite sides of the river. Though it is still called the Skinny Bridge, today it is no longer so skinny. The bridge was replaced with a wider one in 1871, and now pedestrians and bicycles can cross with greater ease.

The bridge is a wooden drawbridge that is raised frequently throughout the day to allow boats to pass through. At night it is lit up by over 1,000 light bulbs. Day or night, the Skinny Bridge is a charming place to visit and enjoy views of the river and the city.

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Dam Square

Dam Square

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Dam Square is the main city square in Amsterdam and is one of the most well-known locations in all of the Netherlands. Located in the historical center of the city and just 750 meters south of Amsterdam Centraal Station, Dam Square is home to an array of notable buildings and frequently hosts events of national importance.

The square sits over the original location of the dam in the Amstel River and has been surrounded by land on all sides since the mouth of the river was filled in the 19th century. On the west end of the square you will see the Royal Palace, which was the city hall from 1655 until its conversion to a royal residence in 1808. Next to the palace are the Gothic Nieuwe Kirk (New Church) and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. On the east end of the square is the National Monument, a stone pillar erected in 1956 to memorialize the Dutch victims of World War II.

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Jewish Historical Museum (Joods Historisch Museum)

Jewish Historical Museum (Joods Historisch Museum)

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Amsterdam is justly proud of its long-standing reputation for tolerance and with Ashkenazi Jews finding refuge in its borders throughout the 17th century, Jewish traditions have played an important part in the city’s heritage. To honor this, the award-winning Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum) opened in the 1930s, and despite being shut down during the Nazi occupation of WWII, reopened in 1955. Its present location sprawls throughout the 17th-century buildings of 4 Ashkenazi synagogues on Jonas Daniël Meijerplein; as impressive outside as it is inside. Today, it remains the country’s only dedicated Jewish museum, exploring the history, culture and religion that have shaped so much of its population. A vast collection of artwork, short films and photography accompanies the three permanent exhibitions, which showcase over 11,000 objects and focus on ‘Jewish traditions and customs’, the ‘history of Jews in the Netherlands’ and the harrowing tales and written testimonies.
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Artis Amsterdam Royal Zoo (Natura Artis Magistra)

Artis Amsterdam Royal Zoo (Natura Artis Magistra)

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Established in 1838, Amsterdam’s happily family-friendly zoo was the first to open in The Netherlands and covers more than 14 hectares (35 acres) of shady tree-lined pathways and landscaped botanical gardens in the Plantage. It combines 19th-century architecture amid hundreds of mature trees with a 21st-century approach to conservation, housing more than 900 species of animal, some in majestic 19th-century compounds. The most impressive of these is the Aquarium, which was built in 1882 and reveals a cross-section of the murky waters of the city’s canals as well as housing more than 300 species of shark, eel and shoals of tropical fish. While the Wolf House was formerly a 19th-century pub, the big cats, elephants, gorillas, zebras, meerkats, giraffes and antelopes range freely in spacious enclosures of modern design.

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Royal Palace Amsterdam (Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam)

Royal Palace Amsterdam (Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam)

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Designed by Jacob van Campen, the impressive Romanesque construction is fashioned around over 13,500 woolen piles sunk into the ground and is best known for its iconic rooftop statue of Greek titan Atlas, straining beneath the weight of the world on his back. First built as a city hall, the building was transformed into a Royal Palace back in 1808, under reign of Louis I, King of Holland and is still used frequently for state visits by today’s monarchs.

Famously described as ‘the eighth world wonder’ by local poet Contantijn Huygens, the Royal Palace does its best to live up to its opulent reputation with glistening marble floors, lavish décor and a slightly ostentatious theme of Amsterdam’s power and prestige. The grand interiors, open to the public, provide the principal attractions, furnished with a spectacular collection of antiques and decorated with ornate carvings and Rembrandt-inspired paintings.

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Jordaan

Jordaan

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Conveniently located right in central Amsterdam, Jordaan is one of the city's most important, and most interesting districts. Never short of things to do, it is the location of the famous Anne Frank house, where renowned holocaust victim Anne Frank hid from the Nazis during WWII.

Currently, the district is bustling with life, with tons of opportunities to visit one of its many specialty shops, soak in Dutch culture at an art gallery, or try some of the local delicacies at its street markets.

Prideful of its early 20th-century music culture, this central district also features wonderful music festivals and has scattered statues throughout, commemorating the likes of local hero and Dutch patriot Johnny Jordaan. Not dead, you can go check out Jordaan's lively modern music scene at many of its bars and club venues, these days mainly featuring alternative, punk and grunge music.

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