Finding things to do in your spare time in Amsterdam
Amsterdam: so many things to do, see, and experience
Amsterdam is a city like no other. No matter which way you turn there’s something interesting to see or do. There’s no shortage of attractions for tourists and Amsterdammers alike. As an expat, you have a banquet of possibilities when it comes to filling your spare time in Amsterdam. The city boasts an extraordinary array of museums and similar sights, as well as historic buildings, beautiful canals, and cozy restaurants, cafes and bars.
The best things to do in Amsterdam
So what are the best things to do in Amsterdam? For city residents there is a wide selection of regular activities and clubs you can join, so there’s no shortage of things to do in Amsterdam. The real question is, what things are so quintessentially ‘Amsterdam’ that you can’t do them anywhere else? In this article we focus on the best things to do in Amsterdam that you just can’t do elsewhere. This list isn’t exhaustive by any means – there’s so many possibilities we had to cut it down somehow! However, these are definitely some of the best things to do in Amsterdam, and you would be sorry to miss out on them!
Looking for things to do in Amsterdam? Join the club!
No - seriously. Join a club.
There are hundreds of different clubs and societies to join, and this is our #1 tip if you want to have an active social life in the city. These cover all kinds of interests and activities, and there are many expat clubs that are explicitly English-speaking. You will find, however, that the Dutch love to practice their English skills, and they will happily welcome you into whichever club you join - especially if you make an effort to try out some Dutch!
You can find many clubs on the MeetUp website, as well as the ‘I Amsterdam’ (english) municipal website.
Perhap, as a newcomer, you want to explore your new territory before making new friends. That’s OK! There’s also plenty of other activities that you can do without involving other people, as we will see below.
Planning things to do around Amsterdam
If you were just a tourist, you’d be limited by the amount of time you have in Amsterdam, and this will affect how you plan your visit. In this situation, you would prioritize the sights, activities and other things that are the most ‘essential’.
When you actually live here, you have the luxury to take things at a different pace, and to explore some of the more interesting things you can do in the city. There are lots of places to visit outside of the city center, for example, that you would maybe not prioritize if you are only going to be in Amsterdam for a few days.
9 best things to do in Amsterdam:
1. Eat raw herring from a herring-cart
The Netherlands and its people have a long history of seafaring, and the Dutch have a distinctly maritime identity. This is reinforced by their love of boating, the beach, and raw herring.
Yes, that’s right – raw herring.
Herring is a traditional dish that’s available all year in some form or another, but the favorite is Hollandse Nieuwe, which is exclusively available from the middle of May until September 30th. Whichever herring you go for, try to get a recommendation from a local for a good herring-cart (haringkraam), to get the authentic experience.
Herring is served in a prepared form, but essentially uncooked, and usually with little pieces of raw onion (uitjes), which you drag the fish through to get the pieces stuck to it before you dangle it into your mouth and bite. Delicious!
2. Bike Trip
Biking is a fact of life in the Netherlands – it’s the most convenient and quickest way to get around. Although bikes are available to rent in Amsterdam, it is not advisable to bike around the city until you know it quite well.
Thankfully, you can get the practice by taking a number of lovely bike trips out of the city, and find some wonderful places within a stone’s throw. When you’ve run out of things to do in Amsterdam, there are many little towns and villages that are an easy cycling distance.
Most of the roads have totally separate and very safe bike roads that run alongside them. There’s beautiful countryside just outside the city, and you can stop by the charming village of Ouderkerk aan de Amstel to the South, the bustling town of Zaandam to the North-West, Muiden or Weesp in the West.
If you want a high-end fashion experience with all the big-name designer labels, you can visit the PC Hooftstraat, which prides itself on exclusive shopping.
There’s great high-street shopping along the Kalverstraat and there are some fantastic malls too, including the Kalvertoren (right on the Kalverstraat), and the Magna Plaza, which is located on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal in the magnificent old post office building.
If you’re looking for a simple, regular shopping mall, the Gelderlandplein mall in Amsterdam Zuid and the Stadshart in Amstelveen are two great and accessible locations.
There are many interesting and unique boutiques to be found especially in the Jordaan’s ‘Negen Straatjes’ (which is also a nice place to walk around), however there are niche shops spread across the city, along with many nice cafes to sit in when you need a break (and some cake!).
4. Take the ferry to Amsterdam Noord (North Amsterdam)
Amsterdam Noord is an interesting part of town, which is undergoing rapid regeneration. One of the great things about a visit to Amsterdam Noord is that most tourists are totally unaware of the area, and this means you can enjoy an escape from the crowds as soon as you step off the ferry.
You can visit the old shipyards at NDSM wharf, or stop by the various trendy bars that are scattered around the area. Amsterdam Noord is also home to the IJ-Hallen, which hosts the biggest flea market in Europe, for one weekend per month.
5. Chill out at the Westergas
The Westergasfabriek (or ‘Westergas’) is the old Gasworks in Amsterdam West, and it’s now the home to a trendy hotspot, right next to the Westerpark. It’s a lovely place to wander around during the day, or to stop and have some drinks and nibbles in the evenings. The area is a redeveloped industrial site that has become an Amsterdam fixture. If you’re looking for something fun to do in Amsterdam, then look no further. The Westergas offers bars, restaurants, ice-cream, a club, and numerous events.
6. Visit the museums – ALL of them
Amsterdam is famous for its many museums and collections of culturally-important items. As a resident of the Netherlands, you can get a Museumkaart (Museum-card) for a modest annual fee. This card gives you free admission to most museums, and discounted entrance to many others.
These are our favorite 13 museums in Amsterdam (but there’s a load more):
- The Amsterdam Museum
- Anne Frank House
- The Rijksmuseum
- The Van Gogh Museum
- Artis (Amsterdam Zoo)
- Ons Lieve Heer op Zolder
- Stedelijk Museum
- Het Rembrandthuis
- Het Scheepvaartmuseum
- Joods Historisch Museum
- De Hortus Botanicus
7. Walk around, and take in the beauty
Amsterdam is famous for its magnificent canals, varied architecture and beautiful medieval city center – so take a stroll and enjoy it!
We recommend these lovely areas to walk around:
De Jordaan (including the Negen Straatjes)
Has some fantastic boutique shopping, cozy cafes, and restaurants to enjoy.
Lovely park near the Willemspark and Museumplein (Museum Square) area.
Source: NL Times
This area is the oldest part of the city – the old medieval city walls, contains the Red Light District and some of the oldest and best preserved medieval buildings anywhere.
A huge park originally created as a project for the jobless during the 1930s.
A great place to stroll around. There’s lots of niche restaurants, shops and businesses here, and you can sit and enjoy some food and drinks in a number of great venues.
Plenty of locals use ‘the Cuyp’ as their regular shopping-spot, and there’s a huge selection of different stalls.
The ‘Canal Ring’ (Grachtengordel) is one of the most majestic parts of the city, featuring some fantastic buildings and canal vistas.
Stuffed full of antique shops and art galleries – a great place to mull around.
8: Take a canal boat tour
This is an Amsterdam ‘must’. It’s definitely a touristy thing to do, but taking a canal boat tour of the city gives you a fascinating insight into the history and culture, while giving you a pleasant place to sit and enjoy a coffee or beer. There are many different tour companies, and each has their own benefits, so the choice will depend on the price and location you prefer.
A canal boat tour will typically take an hour or so, depending on the company and route – but it gives you a unique perspective on the city.
9: Day trips outside the city
With the luxury of more time, you’re free to choose some activities that involve slightly more traveling time. When you’ve exhausted every possibility of things to do in Amsterdam itself, a wide world of Dutch culture awaits you just beyond the city. Because the region is so well-connected by public transport links, many places are a lot easier to reach than you might expect.
These are some of the best spots to visit just outside Amsterdam:
Zandvoort aan Zee
This is a quaint seaside town which is very close to Amsterdam, it’s a short train ride away from Amsterdam Central Station or Station Sloterdijk. It has a great beach, and several bars and cafes. It’s everything you could expect a seaside town to be
This is the ‘real’ beach visited by Amsterdam locals. It’s entirely artificial, but much of the Netherlands is man-made. Located in the east of the city (right on the Ij), Strand Blijburg is a short drive or medium bike ride from most places in the city.
The city of Utrecht is less than 30 minutes away by train, and it has some beautiful architecture, interesting shops, museums and one of the best botanic gardens in Europe.
Another University town, Leiden is like the ‘Oxford’ of the Netherlands. It has an interesting vibe; a mix of the genteel and bohemian, but without the hectic energy of a larger city. The canal walks here are quiet and pleasant, and tourists are few.
The town of Haarlem is just a short ride from Amsterdam, with some great shopping, restaurants and cafes to enjoy. It’s a refuge for those escaping the high energy and high prices of the big city. It’s a manageable size, and a very pleasant place to walk around.
What to do first?
With so many possibilities it can be hard to figure out what to do first. Relax! You live here - so you can take things at your own pace. As we’ve seen, there’s plenty of possibilities so there’s something for everyone.
Last updated: July 22, 2022