Amsterdam’s Top Tourist and Cultural Hot Spots

Amsterdam's canalside
Amsterdam’s canal culture

Amsterdam is one of the world’s great cities so if you’ve visited before, it’s definitely worth going back for more.

It’s a city which is constantly reinventing itself. There’s always something new and different to see, as I discovered on my trip this month.

With several new tourist attractions and makeovers for old favourites, here are my ‘must see’ highlights for travellers to Amsterdam this spring and summer.

The Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum looks magnificent since re-opening following its extensive make-over. For several years the refurbishment meant that only part of the collection was on show.

Now it’s back to its full splendour and the tourists are flocking to the museum in droves to see its world-famous collection of Old Masters including Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer.

The revamped Rijksmuseum

The superb collection is one of Europe’s biggest draws but there’s just one problem with this tourist ‘honey pot’. The sheer number of visitors can be suffocating.

As with the Uffizi in Florence, the Louvre in Paris and the Vatican Museum in Rome, you can expect big queues and long waiting times at the entrance.

Make sure that you allow for queueing time or pre-book tickets online to avoid ‘queue rage’.

The Night Watch – crowd alert

Once inside, large crowds congregate around the most popular paintings including Rembrandt’s Night Watch, one of the most stunning art works in the world. It can be a fight to get up close to the paintings.

Away from the Old Masters, there are some less congested galleries including the Asian Pavilion and the ‘special collections’. If you enjoy looking at model ships, weaponry and Dutch porcelain then take a detour to these quieter areas.

But expect the main galleries to be fantastically busy especially at the height of the tourist season.

Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum

On a positive note, the Great Hall, which provides a stunning entrance to the main galleries, is so large that you can shake off the crowds for a few moments.

It’s here that you can see the beautiful decorative wall paintings and ceilings of the Rijksmuseum.

Alternatively, why not lose yourself in the new shop, cafe or outdoor gardens?

Rijksmuseum – the new courtyard

Stedelijk Gallery

The Stedelijk Gallery of Modern Art, another of Amsterdam’s big three art galleries, has also benefited from a major facelift.

It hasn’t been without controversy. The gallery building is now dominated by an impressive architectural extension which has been dubbed “God’s Bathroom” because of its shiny, white shape which resembles a wash tub.

I like the design which is fun and playful but it may not be to everyone’s taste.

Stedelijk Museum
‘God’s bathroom’? – The Stedelijk Museum

Inside the museum the visitor experience is much improved with new galleries, a fabulous basement exhibition space and impressive shop.

I’ve always been a fan of the Stedelijk with its classy modern art collection but the revamped spaces have brought it alive for a new generation.

The summer exhibitions are well worth the admission price too. Look out for Canadian artist Jeff Wall’s striking photographic tableaux in the upstairs gallery.

Jeff Wall's amazing tableaux
Jeff Wall’s amazing photo tableaux

These larger than life images are super realistic. Look closer and you’ll see that they’re made up of a montage of overlaid images. Amazing!

Don’t miss the basement where there’s a superb exhibition featuring the work of Dutch designer Marcel Wanders, a fabulous mix of Daliesque pieces and extraordinary objects.

Look out for giant heads, surreal eggs, spectacular interiors and radical furniture designs.

The main collection covers everything from painting and photography to poster art and furniture design.

There are displays from the famous modernist De Stijl designers including rooms from a house designed by the Dutch designer, Gerrit Rietveld.

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Barnett Newman – the ‘big blue’

My favourite work is this bright blue painting – called Cathedra – by the American colour field painter Barnett Newman.

The big blue canvas almost seems to change colour and move as you stare into it.  It’s simply gorgeous.

Other highlights from the collection include modern art by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Cezanne and Monet.

Pop art aficionados are in for a treat with works by Andy Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein as well as contemporaries like Jeff Koons with his kitsch sculptures.

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Warhol’s flowers at the Stedelijk

Another personal favourite is The Beanery, a bizarre bar installation designed by the American artist , Ed Kienholz.

It’s a representation of the interior of a Los Angeles bar called Barney’s Beanery where time seems to have stood still.

Go inside this ‘walk-in art work’, move around the claustrophobic space and interact with the surreal figures which have bizarre clocks for faces.

It’s a slightly disturbing experience with a weird sense of the bar’s regulars being stuck in a time warp.

Stedelijk Museum The Beanery
The Beanery bar – a time warp

Film EYE

Eye is a great addition to the Amsterdam cultural scene which will delight film and art lovers alike. Eye is part cinema, part media gallery.

Its striking white architecture with jagged edges stands out on the Amsterdam waterfront. There are interactive displays and changing multi-media shows as well as an impressive film programme.

Eye! Amsterdam
Film fanatics will love Eye

Cinema Remake Art and Film is the current exhibition featuring the work of filmmakers and artists who use existing films to create something radically new.

It’s the perfect mix of art and entertainment topped off with a great cafe with stunning views over the waterfront.

Eye is a short hop by free ferry service from the terminal at the rear of Amsterdam’s Central Station.

Eye to eye in the cafe bar
Eye, Eye! The cool cafe bar

The Hermitage Amsterdam

The Hermitage Amsterdam is another welcome addition to the city’s cultural scene.

It’s the Dutch spin-off of its parent museum in St Petersburg, Russia from where it takes its changing programme of exhibitions.

Hermitage exhibition
The Silk Road c/o State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Silk Road is the big summer show for 2014 with a selection of objects and art including a mural from the palace in Varakhsha, Uzbekistan as well as silver and gold treasures.

The exhibition is beautifully presented, if a little too focused on the objects rather than the stories of the people who lived and worked along the Silk Road.

The Hermitage is housed in the old Amstelhof, one of the largest 17th Century buildings in Amsterdam.

Overlooking the River Amstel in the Plantagebuurt district of the city centre, it’s a short walk or cycle ride from the main historic area.

Hermitage Amsterdam
Hermitage Amsterdam – Photo by Luuk Kramer

It’s more relaxed and quieter than many of Amsterdam’s popular attractions which makes this a good place to escape if you can’t stand the queues outside the Rijksmuseum.

Het Scheepvaart – Maritime Museum

The National Maritime Museum is a good choice if you’re looking for an attraction with something for everyone including children.

Starting in the large open courtyard, you can navigate through the building using the four points of the compass to find your bearings.

National Maritime Museum Amsterdam
National Maritime Museum – lives on the waves

Great presentation and storytelling make this a very engaging experience, whether you’re wandering through the tales of whaling, the Golden Age of Dutch shipping or taking in a 360 degree film about the port of Amsterdam.

The highlight is the replica of a Dutch East Indies ship called The Amsterdam from the 1740s which is moored in the dock outside.

Climb on board to get a sense of  life above and below deck during the 18th Century. Delve into the bowels of the ship or try lying in a hammock. I climbed into the hammock but got stuck because I have a bad back!

Tammy on board
Tammy on board ship

For those who love nautical history, there’s everything from figureheads and navigational instruments to old atlases and models of ships.

An imaginative children’s section keeps the hardest-to-please youngsters engaged.

The great revamp and modernisation of the museum is a triumph. It manages to be interactive, fun and entertaining whilst shining light on 500 years of seafaring, ships and maritime adventures.

Courtyard at Amsterdam's Maritime Museum
Courtyard at the Maritime Museum

Finding NEMO

Another striking addition to the Amsterdam waterfront is NEMO, an interactive Science Centre, which is perfect for kids who like to push buttons and enjoy hands-on activities.

Marvel at the strange building designed by the famous, international architect Renzo Piano. It looks like an ocean liner or underwater vessel from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

There are breathtaking views of the port of Amsterdam from its sloping roof which doubles as an ‘urban beach’ in summer.

The Deep
Nemo – explore ship-shaped science

Van Gogh Museum

It’s always a delight to drop in to the Van Gogh Museum, one of Amsterdam’s most popular attractions.

Van Gogh is one of Holland’s greatest artists and nowhere has a better collection of his oil paintings, drawings and personal letters than this museum.

From Sunflowers and Irises to his self-portraits and landscapes, you’ll need plenty of time to explore the artist’s stunning works.

Van Gogh c/o Van Gogh Museum
The Sower by Van Gogh c/o Van Gogh Museum

Although I’ve visited the museum many times, there’s always something new including a programme of changing exhibitions.

This season’s show focuses on Felix Vallotton, a Franco-Swiss artist working in the early 1900s whose style was influenced by Van Gogh and Gauguin.

Like Amsterdam’s other museums, the gallery isn’t resting on its laurels. A spectacular, transparent glass entrance is being built to improve visitor facilities.

Van Gogh Museum - new entrance plans
Van Gogh Museum – dramatic new entrance plans

Anne Frank’s House and Jordaan neighbourhood

Beware of massive queues at Anne Frank’s House!

Anne Franks' House
Anne Franks’ House – join the long queue

After three trips to Amsterdam, I’ve still never managed to get inside the small house where Anne Frank and her family lived during the Second World War.

It’s disappointing to miss out on visiting this iconic house where the teenager wrote her famous diary while hiding in occupied Amsterdam.

Book ahead or pick your time to avoid the queues. There’s also late night opening most nights.

If you’re disappointed and fail to get in, why not hire a bike or walk around the surrounding Jordaan area, one of the most scenic districts in the city.

This pretty quarter is often overlooked by tourists but has much to offer including quirky shops, cafes and impressive canal-side houses.

Jordaan quarter

Amsterdam’s Changing Waterfront

Everyone heads for Amsterdam’s canal boats which are a fun way to spend an afternoon. But why not try something different?

Ferry travel in Amsterdam
Ferry travel in Amsterdam

Take a ferry ride from Amsterdam’s Central Station to discover a different perspective on the city from the water.

Ferries are largely free and there are regular services to several destinations along the Ij Canal.

We took the number 52 ferry from the station terminal to NDSM Werf from where there are interesting views. The trip takes just 15 minutes each way with regular services day and night.

Greenpeace and sub Amsterdam
Old submarine spotted from the ferry

Look out for a former Soviet submarine which was once in a museum. There were plans to convert the sub into a floating club but these were scuppered when it was found to be falling to bits. It’s now on sale for scrap

Next door are the Greenpeace ships, Rainbow Warrior III and Esperanza which are docked in Amsterdam when they’re not involved in campaigns overseas.

It’s a thrill to see these iconic ships which aim to convey Greenpeace’s messages of environmental protection.

Ferry travel in Amsterdam
Greenpeace ship docked in Amsterdam

Just around the corner from the ferry stop at NDSM Werf there’s an interesting arty-eco quarter with cafes, eco-houses and riverboats.

It’s a strangely urban, post-apocalyptic scene which could be straight out of a Terminator movie.

One large, derelict shipyard shed has been turned into artists’ studios. Outside we spotted this surreal, old car with stained glass windows.

Amsterdam art zone
Amsterdam’s art attack

It’s another of Amsterdam’s many surprising experiences. Amsterdam is full of unexpected delights which makes this a city you have to keep on coming back to.

I love Amsterdam. Why not enjoy a holiday break to this great city too!

Tammy’s Top Travel Tips – Amsterdam

When and where to go

Plan your schedule to make the most of your trip.

The major galleries are located close together in the Museum Quarter – the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh and Stedelijk. This means they can be combined on a single day trip but beware of  ‘museum overload’.

Think about booking ahead for the Rijksmuseum or joining a pre-booked tour.  Expect big crowds!

The National Maritime Museum and NEMO are located close together so can be combined on one trip. Both are walkable from Central Station or catch a bus from the station, if you’re feeling lazy.

Spread out museum trips to avoid ‘culture overload’

Check opening times before you set off as some attractions are closed on Mondays in Holland. The Riksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Hermitage and Stedelijk museums are open on Mondays.

Some galleries are open late including the Stedelijk (Thursdays till 10), Anne Frank’s House and the Van Gogh Museum (Fridays till late).

Hermitage Amsterdam c/o Kramer
Hermitage Amsterdam – Photo by Luuk Kramer

The major museums have good cafes where you can hang out and relax in between sightseeing tours.  We enjoyed the Eye Film Museum’s chilled-out cafe – its meals are good value for money.

The Hermitage has a beautiful restaurant on its upper floor whilst the Stedelijk has a street cafe which is perfect on sunny days.

Stedelijk Museum
Monday opening – Stedelijk Museum


Travel around Amsterdam is easy especially by tram and bike. Buy a three-day or week-long tram pass if you’re staying for more than one night as this is better value. The tram pass also includes bus services.

All travel tickets can be bought from the office opposite the main Central Station as well as from tabacs.

Take to the water to see a different face of Amsterdam whether by canal trip or ferry-boat. There are plenty of commercial canal trips to choose from including evening dinner cruises.

The GVB ferries provide a shuttle service around Amsterdam’s waterfront.

Amsterdam ferry
Amsterdam ferry – free shuttle services

If you’re travelling to Amsterdam there are a variety of flight options from the UK with operators such as EasyJet, British Airways, KLM and Jet2.

If you’d prefer to travel by sea, DFDS Seaways runs daily ferry services from Newcastle in North East England to Ijmuiden/Amsterdam.

We opted to travel by DFDS ferry so here’s a look at how that experience worked out for us in this video film…

Read more about travelling to Amsterdam on this blog post about ferry travel from the UK.

Check out the Netherlands Tourism website for the bigger picture and accommodation options.

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