The best things to see in Amsterdam and Amsterdam must-see sites for first time visitors.
Amsterdam is one of the most visited cities in Europe and one of the most beautiful.
Its historical center, where you find the UNESCO Amsterdam Canal Ring, is a delight of fairytale looking houses and waterways, the city’s museums are among the best in the world and the city is full of quirky attractions, appealing to different types of visitors.
I love Amsterdam and thanks to a local friend, I have had the chance to visit it often and discover the many aspects of this city.
Today, I want to share with you the top things to see in Amsterdam, the best Amsterdam places that I believe will showcase the best the city has to offer.
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The best places to visit in Amsterdam
Amsterdam Canal Ring
Amsterdam City Center is characterized by the Canal Ring, a series of 17th-century canals that divide up the city in small islands interconnected by bridges.
The canal ring is the most characteristic area of the city and entered the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites because of its peculiarity and magnitude in terms of city planning and engineering skills.
It is the largest artificial urban planning project from that time and made Amsterdam a model of the ideal city in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The canal ring is a large enough area and many of the places in this list belong in it and is it the best place in Amsterdam to experience what it truly unique about the city: its peculiar architecture, history and beauty.
The best way to enjoy the canals is by taking a leisure stroll along their leafy banks or with a canal cruise.
If you come to Amsterdam in winter, a boat tour is also the best way to enjoy a special Amsterdam event.
The festival of lights, that illuminates landmarks and bridges in Amsterdam with lightwork from artists from all over the world.
Fun fact! The canals of Amsterdam were the main transport arteries around the city and still now important waterways. The houses were built to be tall and narrow so as many families as possible could have access to the water. You can find more fun facts about Amsterdam here.
Museum Plein is a large square in Amsterdam City Center with some of the most important and interesting museums in the city such as the Rijks Museum and the Van Gogh Museum.
The square is beautiful and worth seeing even if you do not intend on entering the museums themselves.
In winter, you have a lovely Christmas market here, in spring you can see may tulip displays here during the Amsterdam tulip festivals and in summer you can lounge in this beautiful spaces and enjoy its beautiful fountains.
Museum Plein is also home to the IAmsterdam sign that while not particularly interesting, it is so recognizable and Instagram famous it may be worth a stop.
The Rijks museum is a large museum in Amsterdam city center and one of the great museums of the world.
It has a plethora of masterpieces but it is most famous for the 1600-1700 Wing, where you can admire works of art by Dutch painters from the Golden Age of Dutch Art such as Vermeer, Frans Hals and Rembrandt.
The most famous piece in the museum and the one that draws the most crowds is the Night Watch by Rembrandt, which alone attracts visitors from all over the world.
Van Gogh Museum
The Van Gogh Museum is one of the most visited museums in Amsterdam and it is devoted to Dutch Painter Van Gogh.
The museum is well organized and worth visiting and a must-see in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is an old city and the oldest part of all, as well as one of the most charming, is the city’s begijnhof.
Hidden in the busy commercial center of Amsterdam, the Begijnhof is a pretty, historical courtyard overlooked by old houses with traditional Dutch façades.
Originally the residence of the beguines, religious ladies who lived and prayed in this small community, now it is a pleasant, beautiful and historical corner of the city where you can go to escape the crowds and tap into Amsterdam’s cultural history.
This is a must-see Amsterdam attraction for history lovers and lovers of architecture but also anyone who feels like taking refuge in a pretty, historical courtyard while shopping in Amsterdam’s busy city center
Oude Kerk is Amsterdam’s oldest religious building towering over the area now known as the red light district.
The church was born as a Catholic place of worship but then developed as an important center for Dutch protestants especially.
The church is worth visiting inside and it is most peculiar especially because of its location in between red light district windows and coffee shops!
Amsterdam gingerbread houses
Amsterdam is full of peculiar houses with a delicate facade that gave them a distinctive ‘fairy house look’.
However, there is one place where this particular style of Dutch architecture comes out in all its splendor and it is the stretch of Amsterdam with the so-called ‘Amsterdam gingerbread houses’.
This is a cluster of a few houses with the typical tall and narrow look and they are so pretty, they are among the most photographed in Amsterdam.
They are located just beside the central station and they are as pretty as the photos suggest.
The Magere Brug
Amsterdam is a city on water and therefore a city of bridges too.
One that is worth seeing is the Magere Brug, the ‘skinny bridge’.
Allowing safe crossing over the river Amstel, this is a bridge built in typical old Dutch style and it takes his name from its particularly narrow width.
Fun fact: one of the stories about this bridge says that it was built by two Mager sisters who lived on the two sides of the river.
While wealthy enough to commission the creation of a bridge, they were not wealthy enough for a full-size bridge, hence the narrow width of this one!
While charming, the story does however seem to be true and the name is most likely linked to the word ‘Magere’ which in Dutch means ‘skinny’.
The bridge was replaced in 1871 by a larger one and is not particularly skinny anymore however it still maintained the traditional shape and it a must-see attraction in Amsterdam
The 7 bridges
Another peculiar bridge sight worth seeking out in Amsterdam is the so-called 7 bridges.
This is a peculiar intersection between canals inside the canal ring with 7 bridges allowing for safe crossing.
This is a beautiful corner of Amsterdam and a must-see, especially for photography lovers.
The beautiful streets of Jordaan
The area of Jordaan is on the western part of the canal ring and it is famous under a few accounts.
First and foremost, it is the area with Anne Franke’s house, now an important museum and itself one of the most interesting places to visit in Amsterdam.
Second, this is an area wit wonderful wealthy homes and a stroll here is one of the best ways to take in the beauty of Amsterdam’s city center away from the crowds
The Nine Streets (de Negen Straatjes)
The nine streets is an area of 9 streets with pretty architecture and a plethora of cafes, restaurants and concept stores.
Very popular with locals and tourists, it can be a little overwhelming but it is one of the prettiest in the city and a great place for tasting the amazing Amsterdam food (pancakes, herring and anything in between can be found here).
This is an area where you find fairytale looking houses, cute shops (careful at their price tags!) and, in the good season, rose bushes and pretty flowers decorating shop entrances and doors.
The red light district
Amsterdam’s Red-light district is a peculiar area of the city and one that doesn’t appeal to everyone.
However, there is more here than what the obvious: as well as the sex workers, this is an interesting area for architecture and a surprisingly pleasant one to discover on foot, with that extra edge given by the ‘windows’ that are peculiar to the city.
Dam square is the main square in Amsterdam city center and is famous for hosting the Dutch Royal Palace and the National Monuments, the Netherlands’ most important memorial to World War II.
Often very busy with tourists, it is one of those places that I feel should be seen by first-time visitors due to the sheer symbolic importance of the place.
Nemo is Amsterdam’s science museum and as well as interesting displays it has something specials that makes it worthy of a stop: a wonderful terrace (with bar) with stunning views over the city.
The terrace is free to access also without visiting the museums and it is a popular place with families especially.
In spring and summer, it is possible to have a drink here while enjoying views over the city and pretty displays of tulips.
Amsterdam is a very green city and not only because of its leafy streets.
Amsterdam also has lovely parks: the most famous of them is Vondel Park, which is wonderful especially in spring and summer, when you can enjoy its flowers, play areas and outdoor cafes.
While you do not have tulip fields in Amsterdam city, this is a lovely place to enjoy the tulip festival that comes to the city each spring.
Other beuriful parls worth visiting are Amsterdam Bos, Rembrandtpark and Beatrixpark
Good to know: you can find the best spots to see tulips in and near Amsterdam here.
Amsterdam Noord used to never appear in Amsterdam travel guides as it used to be a working-class area of the city with little to offer to visitors.
However, things have changed in the last few years and not Amsterdam Noord has plenty to offer.
As well as the Amsterdam film institute and the Amsterdam Lookout and Swing, this area has many multifunctional places now hosting art spaces, bars, restaurant and beer gardens.
Good to know: Amsterdam Noord is connected to the central station by a free ferry service. You can hop on at the back of the station and can then explore Noord on foot or, better, by bike. This area is especially pleasant in summer.
Amsterdam quirky museums
As well as world-famous museums, Amsterdam has several unusual museums worth visiting.
Some of the most interesting and special are the houseboat museum (a traditional houseboat now open to visitors), Katten Kabinet (devoted to all things cats), the purse museum as many as temporary and permanent exhibitions.
Amsterdam bar scene
Amsterdam is an elegant city with cafes and bars to match.
Some are traditional and are called brown cafes, with reference to their dark wood interiors, and some are modern and sleek.
In this last category, worth mentioning are the Hoxton (in the photo) and the Pulitzer bar which is one of the most elegant in Amsterdam and also Hollywood famous thanks to the movie Ocean 12, shot here.
Good to know: if the budget is not an issue, the Pulitzer is also a fabulous hotel in one of the best areas to stay when visiting Amsterdam.
Amsterdam has a famous Zoo, Artis Royal zoo worth seeing especially if visiting Amsterdam with kids.
A large, lovely space full of educational activities, it is a great place for a family day out and one of the best things to do in Amsterdam with kids of all ages.
Once the city’s municipal gasworks, Westergas is now a dynamic cultural hub with many bars, restaurants, creative businesses and a microbrewery as well as an art-house cinema.
This is one of the best places to visit in Amsterdam to tap into the most hipster side of this city!
More experiences for your Amsterdam bucket list
- Experience Amsterdam’Albert Cuyp Market
- Eat to your heart content at the Food Hallen
- Get a herring from a herring stall
- See the peculiar Amsterdam’s violinist, emerging from the floor of Amsterdam’s opera house
- Taste the famous Dutch pancakes
- Do like the locals and explore Amsterdam by bike
- Take a Canal Tour
- Discover Amsterdam’s hidden churches and their history
- Admire Amsterdam’s leaning houses
Recommended itineraries to Amsterdam must-see places
These are my recommended itineraries to see the best of Amsterdam in a limited amount of time:
Safe travel planning!