Amsterdam

Europe's best-preserved 17th-century city, Amsterdam is quaint and jarring, traditional and modern. Filled with history and happy-go-lucky, it’s a delight to explore. Uniquely entertaining Amsterdam shows us Rembrandts and Van Goghs, more bikes than cars, flirting prostitutes, and pot-filled coffeeshops — all under tall, skinny facades leaning out below quaint church towers.

Travel Details

EYE Film Institute Netherlands

The newest and most striking feature of the Amsterdam skyline is EYE, a film museum and cinema housed in an übersleek modern building immediately across the water from Central Station. Heralding the coming gentrification of the north side of the IJ waterway, EYE (a play on “IJ”) is a complex of museum spaces and four theaters playing mostly art films (shown in their original language, with selections organized around various themes). Its many other offerings include a Sunday afternoon program of silent films with live musical accompaniment, special exhibits on film-related themes, a free permanent exhibit in the basement, a shop, and a trendy terrace café with great waterside seating. Helpful attendants at the reception desk can get you oriented.

Sloep Delen Boat Rental

Several boat-tour companies shuttle tourists on a variety of routes covering different combinations of the city’s top sights. If you’re a confident boater, consider renting a serious vessel. Sloep Delen has a fleet of 12-seater boats with silent electric motors. Captaining your little ship is fun, and you’re just minutes away from the idyllic canals of the Jordaan neighborhood. While it’s designed for locals to book on the Web, for tourists it’s easiest to call and pay an attendant who will meet you at the dock, give you a little map and suggestions, and set you free.

Rijksmuseum

Holland’s Golden Age shines with the best collection anywhere of the Dutch Masters — from Vermeer’s quiet domestic scenes and Steen’s raucous family meals, to Hals’ snapshot portraits and Rembrandt’s moody brilliance. This delightful museum — much improved after a long renovation — offers one of the most exciting and enjoyable art experiences in Europe. As if in homage to Dutch art and history, the Rijksmuseum lets you linger over a vast array of objects and paintings, appreciating the beauty of everyday things.

Begijnhof

Stepping into this tiny, idyllic courtyard in the city center, you escape into the charm of old Amsterdam (free, daily 8:00–17:00). Please be considerate of the people who live around the courtyard, and don’t photograph the residents or their homes. Notice house #34, a 500-year-old wooden structure (rare, since repeated fires taught city fathers a trick called brick). Peek into the hidden Catholic church, dating from the time when post-Reformation Dutch Catholics couldn’t worship in public.

Amstelkring Museum (Our Lord in the Attic Church)

At this museum near Central Station, you’ll find a fascinating, hidden Catholic church filling the attic of three 17th-century merchants’ houses. This unique church — embedded within a townhouse in the middle of the Red Light District — comes with a little bonus: a rare glimpse inside a historic Amsterdam home straight out of a Vermeer painting. Don’t miss the silver collection and other exhibits of daily life from 300 years ago.

Portuguese Synagogue

This synagogue is majestic in its simplicity — a spacious place of worship with four Ionic columns supporting a wooden roof. There’s no electric lighting, only candles and windows. The larger complex includes the Ladies Gallery, the candle-storage room, and the ritual bath, where women purify after menstruation. Don’t miss the downstairs Treasury, containing precious ceremonial objects, textiles, and rare books, plus a slideshow on the history of this beloved synagogue, known as the Esnoga.

Dutch Theater (Hollandsche Schouwburg)

Once a lively theater in the Jewish neighborhood, and today a moving memorial, this building was used as an assembly hall for local Jews destined for Nazi concentration camps. On the wall, 6,700 family names pay tribute to the 104,000 Jews deported and killed by the Nazis. Some 70,000 victims spent time here, awaiting transfer to concentration camps. Upstairs is a small history exhibit with a model of the ghetto, plus photos and memorabilia (such as shoes and letters) of some victims, putting a human face on the staggering numbers. Television monitors show actual footage of the Nazis rounding up Amsterdam’s Jews. You can also see a few costumes from the days when the building was a theater. While the exhibit is small, it offers plenty to think about. Back in the ground-floor courtyard, notice the hopeful messages that visiting school groups attach to the wooden tulips.

Anne Frank House

A pilgrimage for many, this house offers a fascinating look at the hideaway of young Anne during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The Anne Frank House immerses you, in a very immediate way, in the struggles and pains of the war years. Walk through rooms where, for two years, eight Amsterdam Jews hid from Nazi persecution. You’ll see actual artifacts: the secret bookcase entry, Anne’s movie-star cutouts on the wall, and her diaries. The thoughtfully designed exhibit offers thorough coverage of the Frank family, the diary, the stories of others who hid, and the Holocaust.

Dutch Resistance Museum

This is an impressive look at how the Dutch resisted (or collaborated with) their Nazi occupiers from 1940 to 1945. You’ll see propaganda movie clips, study forged ID cards under a magnifying glass, and read about ingenious and courageous efforts — big and small — to hide local Jews from the Germans and undermine the Nazi regime.

Sama Sebo Indonesian Restaurant

Sama Sebo is considered one of the best Indonesian restaurants in town. It’s a venerable local favorite for rijsttafel, with a waitstaff that seems to have been on board since Indonesia was still a colony. I prefer the energy in the casual “bodega” to the more formal restaurant (and only in the bodega will they serve the smaller lunch plate for dinner). Their 17-dish, classic rijsttafel spread is as good as any. At lunch the bami goreng or nasi goreng (fried noodles or rice) is a feast of its own (reservations smart for dinner).

Van Gogh Museum

Near the Rijksmuseum, this remarkable museum features works by the troubled Dutch artist whose art seemed to mirror his life. Vincent, who killed himself in 1890 at age 37, is best known for sunny, Impressionist canvases that vibrate and pulse with vitality. Highlights include Sunflowers, The Bedroom, The Potato Eaters, and many brooding self-portraits. The third floor shows works that influenced Vincent, from Monet and Pissarro to Gauguin, Cézanne, and Toulouse-Lautrec. The worthwhile audioguide includes insightful commentaries and quotes from Vincent himself. Temporary exhibits fill the new wing, down the escalator from the ground-floor lobby.

Vondelpark

This huge, lively city park is popular with the Dutch, and it’s a favored venue for free summer concerts. The park’s ’T Blauwe Theehuis (“The Blue Tea House”) is a delightful spot to nurse a drink and take in the scene.

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.


Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time, I’m trying to find my hotel somewhere in the back canals of Amsterdam. Thanks for joining us.

Amsterdam is perhaps Europe’s best-preserved 17th-century city. Yet at the same time, it’s got a fun, contemporary edge. It’s a progressive place invigorated by a time-honored spirit of live and let live.

We’ll cruise the canals and bike the back lanes. We’ll sample the Dutch masters from Rembrandt to Van Gogh. We’ll drop into a coffee shop…that doesn’t sell coffee, and we’ll ponder the Red Light District. We’ll remember Anne Frank, we’ll feast on Indonesian food —Dutch style, and we’ll relax in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark.

The historic core of Amsterdam remains much the same today as when it was first laid out back in the 1600s. That was Holland’s Golden Age, when Dutch merchant ships made this the world’s richest city.

Amsterdam’s touristy main drag, Damrak, was once the main canal. Today it connects the train station with the city’s main square and the Royal Palace. From this spine, the city opens like a fan, with hundreds of bridges and a series of concentric canals.

Wealthy merchants built this city upon millions of wooden pilings, creating a wonderland of canals lined with trees and townhouses crowned with fancy gables.

Traditional bridges — like this one, which crosses the Amstel River — were built with a clever counterbalance. They were fine-tuned: Bridgekeepers bragged they could raise and lower one with a single finger. The city’s founders built a dam on the Amstel back in the 13th century. The community that gathered here was named for that Amstel dam — eventually, “Amsterdam.”

This is where the river hit the sea. From here, boats could sail into the interior of Europe, and out to the rest of the world. Dutch merchant ships would sail right up the main canal, loaded down with material delights — silks, spices, and porcelain — from faraway lands.

Amsterdam’s port is still huge. But it’s being transformed from a gritty industrial area into a vibrant, modern, and very livable district. A striking film museum and art cinema is bringing new life to this now-revitalized neighborhood. You can hop on a free shuttle ferry to see this evolving district, or you can cruise a different way, by joining the hedonists and tourists on Amsterdam’s myriad canals. Surprising to me, anyone can hire one of these electric boats for a little independent exploring. For some help with the navigation, I’m joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Rolinka Bloeming.

Rick: Tell me about the difficulty of building here.
Rolinka: Well, the soil is very swampy. So, everything you see, Rick — all the houses, all the bridges, and the walls of the canals — are built on wooden pilings. It’s actually oak wood, and it comes from the Black Forest in Germany. We have about a hundred canals, and they were all dug out in the 17th century, entirely by hand — took them about 30 years. The most important one was the Gentleman’s Canal, Herengracht, and then there is the Emperor’s Canal, Keizersgracht, and then there’s the Prinsen Canal.
Rick: This has got to be the most beautiful canal in town.
Rolinka: It’s my favorite canal, Rick.
Rick: So what is this neighborhood called?
Rolinka: It’s called, uh, “Jordaan,” this area.
Rick: This has gotta be the most characteristic part of Amsterdam.
Rolinka: Oh, today it’s one of the most popular places to live.
Rick: Beautiful.

The characteristic Jordaan district offers a quiet slice of Dutch urban life. Built in the 1600s for warehouses and to house workers, it’s now home to artists and inviting little restaurants and cafés. While just a few blocks from the busy center, the Jordaan feels like another world. Everything’s in its place, and life seems very good.

Amsterdam has about a million people — and as many bikes. This multi-story bike garage is for commuters who ride the train and then pedal to work. This is one of Europe’s most bike-friendly cities. Bike lanes run next to the sidewalks, and bikers whiz by silently — walk carefully!

One of the joys of visiting Amsterdam is simply being in this swirl of healthy, busy, biking Dutch. Bikers everywhere, doing chores, flirting, delivering, texting…you name it: Around here, it happens on two wheels.

The city is decorated with ornate gables. The frugal Dutch made their simple buildings look fancy by adding ornate facades. Amsterdam’s famous gables include the point gable, bell gable, step gable, and neck gable.

Seventeenth-century land was expensive, and taxes were based on the width of the house. So the Dutch built skinny — and straight up.

In a merchant’s house the shop was on the ground floor, the family lived in the middle, and the attic served as a kind of warehouse. With their cramped interiors and steep stairs, houses came with a pulley, so goods could be hoisted up and down on the outside with a rope. That original design still works today.

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is one of the artistic highlights of Europe. It was built to showcase the art of the Dutch Golden Age. Here we can gain insight into the industrious people who made tiny Holland so prosperous and powerful back in the 17th century.

This art is really all about money. The Dutch worked hard, they were brilliant traders, and the wealthy had plenty of money to match their egos. Now, painters earned their living working not for the Church or the king, but by painting portraits for local big shots.

The great Dutch painter Rembrandt — this is a self-portrait at age 22—earned his money painting portraits.

These Dutch “masters — actually the drapers’ guild — all paid equally and expected to be portrayed equally. Wearing the standard power suit of the day, it’s as if someone walks in and grabs their attention — natural as a snapshot.

In Rembrandt’s Nightwatch we see another group portrait. But, rather than the standard stiff pose, this one bursts with energy. It’s the local militia, which was also a fraternity of business bigwigs — a kind of Rotary Club of the 17th century. They tumble out of their hall, weapons drawn, ready to defend the city. While creative and ground-breaking in its composition, some of those who paid the artist — like this guy — were probably none too pleased.

This self-portrait of Rembrandt at age 55 shows a man who’s seen it all and woven those experiences into his art.

Rembrandt did more than paint for big egos. In this painting, the prophet Jeremiah laments the destruction of Jerusalem. He slumps in defeat, confused and despondent. Rembrandt’s use of light to highlight certain details set him apart from other artists of his age.

The Rijksmuseum has four rare and precious paintings by Johannes Vermeer. Here the master of tranquility and stillness shows an intimate street from his hometown of Delft. In this quiet painting of an ordinary milkmaid, Vermeer — who brings out the beauty of everyday things — creates a scene where we can almost hear the trickle of the pouring milk.

Perhaps for the first time, art catered to the tastes and budgets of middle-class people too. Smaller canvases by no-name artists that a regular merchant could afford and hang in his living room.

The work of Jan Steen offers a delightful slice of 17th-century Dutch life. No preachy religious or political themes. Just light entertainment, with a dose of folk wisdom. Here, children teach a cat to dance — mischief on their delighted faces — but their father’s upset that they’re wasting time. And in Steen’s Merry Family, the parents party while their kids copy their irresponsible behavior: The girls learn to drink and the little boy picks up smoking. The note warns, “Parents beware; your children are learning from your bad behavior.”

This light-handed approach to morality lives on in the Netherlands. Amsterdam has plenty of examples of their progressive approach to subjects many people consider unsavory.

And with the local passion for tolerance, it’s occasionally shocking. Prepare for some differences: curbside urinals, prostitutes who are unionized, taxed, and regulated…and “coffeeshops” that sell marijuana.

Throughout the Netherlands, places selling marijuana are called “coffeeshops.” For decades now, the Dutch, like many Europeans, view marijuana as a soft drug — like tobacco and alcohol. Marijuana use is tolerated. But hard drugs are strictly forbidden.

Rick: A lot of people think marijuana is a “gateway” drug. They think if you smoke marijuana, you’ll be smoking harder drugs.
Coffeeshop worker: Uh, marijuana here is soft drugs, like alcohol and cigarettes. And hard drugs are still strictly forbidden.
Rick: What’s the age limit for people buying marijuana?
Coffeeshop worker: Eighteen.
Rick: Eighteen.
Coffeeshop worker: Yep.
Rick: And how much can you buy in one visit?
Coffeeshop worker: Five grams.
Rick: How much is five grams of marijuana?
Coffeeshop worker: This is five grams of marijuana.
Rick: OK, so that’s five grams. And if you wanted to buy a smaller quantity, what is one gram of marijuana looking like?
Coffeeshop worker: It’s about, like, a bud of this size.
Rick: OK, so this is one gram…and how much would this cost, probably?
Coffeeshop worker: Eleven.
Rick: Eleven euros.
Coffeeshop worker: This particular strain, yeah.
Rick: Now, you have a menu with a lot of variety.
Coffeeshop worker: Yeah — we got all our sativa ones, make you happy, giggly; we got the indicas — that’s more of a sleepy; got the organic ones; outdoor; and I’ve got a whole bunch of pre-rolled ones.
Rick: OK, so you can get the loose leafs, or you can get pre-rolled joints.
Coffeeshop worker: Yes.
Rick: In the United States we still have so many people in prison because of marijuana.
Coffeeshop worker: Yeah, but here we believe that it’s better to tolerate than to put more people in prison.

Another example of Amsterdam’s creative approach to social challenges is its Red Light District. Practitioners of the world’s oldest profession flirt and tease in windows as they have here for centuries. When it comes to prostitution, the Dutch figure, if it’s going to happen anyway, rather than criminalize it, it’s smarter to corral and monitor it. The intention: Women run a safe, independent business. If a prostitute needs help, she pushes her emergency button, and the police come.

For this spectacle, browsers are welcome.

The Dutch call their approach to social problems like this “pragmatic harm reduction.” They consider legislating morality to be counter-productive and remind me that we Americans lock up nearly 10 times as many people per capita as Europeans do.

Beyond the Red Light District, nighttime Amsterdam has a relaxed and inviting charm. Enjoying this dimension of the city is my idea of a good time after dark. Canal boats treat visitors to a scenic ride, while privately hired boats of all sizes create their own ambience. As the street lamps come on, you’ll enjoy yet another memorable dimension of this romantic city.

This peaceful oasis is a begijnhof, originally an almshouse for devout women who served the church. Its humble chapel has served Amsterdam’s English-speaking community since the 1600s. The pilgrims, refugees from religious intolerance in England, likely worshipped here before boarding the Mayflower for Plymouth Rock.

Amsterdam has a long tradition of welcoming the persecuted. When the Netherlands won its independence from Catholic Spain back in the 1500s, the Dutch government outlawed Catholicism. But locals here conspired to give Catholics a place to worship— provided they kept a low profile.

This 17th-century merchant house look normal from across the canal…but inside is a hidden Catholic church. Called “Our Lord in the Attic,” it dates from 1661, when post-Reformation Dutch Catholics were forbidden to worship in public. Imagine this small church crammed with worshippers. It’s like a grand church…in miniature.

Jews also found safe haven in Amsterdam. Nearby stands the bold, 17th-century Portuguese Synagogue.

While the Dutch were tolerating Catholics here, elsewhere, Catholic nations — in response to the Protestant Reformation — were expelling anyone who worshipped differently. And that included Jews. The ever-pragmatic Dutch smartly welcomed Jews from Eastern Europe, Spain, and Portugal, and put their business acumen to use to help build their economy.

Amsterdam’s thriving Jewish quarter was a Babbel of tongues, and this synagogue served its Portuguese-speaking community. It’s a commanding structure, built in the 1670s, when Catholics were still worshipping in secret. It survived World War II, and still functions as a place of worship — with the Ten Commandments, in Hebrew, still shining down on the congregation.

Whether Protestants, Catholics, or Jews, through the ages, the Dutch have given refuge to the persecuted. But they couldn’t protect their haven from the Nazis.

This building, a thriving theater in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter before the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in 1940, was part of that sad story. Visitors enter an assembly hall Nazis used for local Jews destined for concentration camps. Today, it’s a thought-provoking memorial that makes an indelible impression on its visitors — whether tourists or school groups having a thought-provoking field trip.

On the wall, thousands of family names represent the tens of thousands of Dutch Jews who were assembled here before being deported to camps in the east…and death. And that included the family of Anne Frank.

At the Anne Frank House, visitors learn the story of eight Jews who, in 1942, went into hiding. They went behind this secret swinging bookcase, into the attic above a shop, and hid almost silently for two years.

Among them was 13-year-old Anne, whose journal has inspired millions of people. You’ll see how Anne’s father, Otto, tracked the progress of the allies after D-Day…and pencil lines tracking how Anne and her sister were growing up in hiding. Anne’s room is still decorated with photos and magazine clippings — showing the idols, dreams, and passions of a 13-year-old girl. A small window, letting in a splash of the outside world, lifted her spirits. Then, one fateful day, the Gestapo came. All eight were deported, sent east to concentration camps. Only her father survived. Anne died just weeks before the end of the war. Her handwritten diary inspires visitors, and her book has been translated into 70 languages. Visiting the Anne Frank House humanizes the horror of the Holocaust through the story of just one of six million victims.

Nearby, the Dutch Resistance Museum takes you behind the scenes during the Nazi occupation, and tells how the Dutch fought back. Pistols were hidden in books. With this corset, stuffed with ration cards, a woman who looked pregnant helped feed both hidden Jews and resistance fighters. And courageous moms with strollers did their part as well. Resistance fighters falsified IDs. This student, wanted by the Nazis, disguised himself as a woman. Propaganda movie clips tried to make Dutch Nazis look like winners. While the Germans confiscated all radios, the Dutch secretly got their news from England via miniature radios. This one’s hidden in a matchbox. The suffering was horrific. Many starved. And many barely survived — on a diet of tulip bulbs.

Rick: So you grandparents actually lived through this.
Rolinka: Yeah. The winter of ’44­–45 was called the “Hunger Winter,” where people in the cities were starving, and they started to eat tulip bulbs, just to have something in their bellies.
Rick: Wow.
Rolinka: Grandparents starved so that children could live, and that entire generation of people is actually shorter than their countrymen. Today we eat well, and our young people are the tallest in Europe.

And eating well in the Netherlands today includes enjoying cuisine from some of its former colonies. Indonesian food is a popular choice, and the ultimate meal here is a grand rijsttafel.

Rick: Oscar, this is beautiful.
Oscar: Yes.
Rolinka: So, this, this is what we call a “rice table,” rijsttafel, and there’s actually no starter, there’s no main dish, there is no dessert; it’s just a festival of different dishes.

Our waiter, Oscar, patiently tells us what each dish is…

Oscar: Fried chicken, shrimp, sweet-sour for the shrimp, fried egg, tomato with sauce, fried banana, tofu — soybean cake, beef with soya, beef with padang sauce…

…I’m still thinking about the fried bananas…

Oscar: …vegetables, sweet-sour vegetables, that is some…

…Hmm…I’ll never remember all this. I guess I’ll just have to try everything.

Rick: Oscar, how many plates altogether?
Oscar: Twenty-eight.
Rick: Twenty-eight plates!
Oscar: Yeah.

…and there’s a proper way to try each of the 28 dishes.

Rick: Put the rice in the middle.
Rolinka: Yeah — put the rice in the middle, and the different dishes come on the side, so that it doesn’t mix…
Rick: Ok, so you don’t mix it together; you want to appreciate each distinct spice.
Rolinka: Exactly. Can you imagine that tiny Netherlands today once, 350 years ago, had colonies all over the world? And these kinds of dishes and spices came from Indonesia? They were called the “Spice Islands.”
Rick: So wait a minute — Indonesia was originally the “Spice Islands”?
Rolinka: Mmm-hmm.
Rick: And today, centuries later, we’re celebrating the spices of Indonesia! In Amsterdam!
Rolinka: Yes.
Rick: I love it! The connection!

An entire museum is dedicated to the work of the great Dutch artist, Vincent van Gogh. The Van Gogh Museum — laid out as a stroll through the story of Vincent’s life — shows how intimately his life and art were intertwined.

Van Gogh grew up in poor, rural Holland. From the start, he had an affinity for working people. In paintings like his Potato Eaters — a painting as dark and grainy as the soil itself — he gives these farm laborers the same dignity Rembrandt gave to merchants and aristocrats.

As a young man, Vincent was very religious. He studied to be a pastor and did church work in poor communities. But this wasn’t his true calling. He decided to paint, to capture the world he felt so intensely on canvas.

He moved to Paris, and the City of Light opened up a whole new world of color. Vincent hobnobbed with the Impressionists. He studied their bright colors, rough brushwork, and everyday scenes.

He painted shimmering reflections like Monet…café snapshots like Degas…still-lifes like Cézanne…and self-portraits like nobody else. But Vincent longed to strike out on his own. In 1888, he headed for the south of France, arriving just as winter was turning to spring. Energized by the sun-drenched colors and the blue, blue sky, in just two years Vincent produced an explosion of canvases.

His unique style evolved beyond the Impressionists’ — thicker paint, brighter colors, and swirling brushwork that made even inanimate objects pulse with life.

Vincent’s ecstasy alternated with depression. Eventually, he was admitted to a local hospital. His letters home told of his great loneliness. While in the hospital, he found peace painting calm scenes of nature. But he also wrestled with his inner world, capturing spiritual scenes with surreal colors, twisted forms, and dark outlines.

In this, one of his last works, the canvas is a wall of thick paint, with roads leading nowhere, and ominous black crows taking flight. Overwhelmed with life, Vincent walked into a field like this one…and shot himself.

A stroll in the park is a good complement to a thoughtful museum experience. Somehow Amsterdam manages to be both vibrant and mellow at the same time. You feel that best in Vondelpark on a sunny summer afternoon. It offers a fun look at the city taking a break. The park is popular with romantic couples, free spirits sharing blankets and beers, and young families. The easygoing hedonism here seems to say “inhale, exhale, and relax.”

Amsterdam offers everything a sightseer could want. And, with a determination to embrace life, a visit here can contribute mightily to that ultimate souvenir: a broader perspective. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’. Tot ziens!

Credits:

It’s a progressive place, invigorated by a…time-honored spirit of live and let live!

Collar good, wardrobe good, hair good? … I’m having my zipper down on the urinal shot.

…prostitutes who are unionized, taxed, and regulated, and marijuana shops that sell coffee!

I feel all mucky and sweaty!

The ever-pragmatic Dutch smartly welcomed…