Amsterdam might have a reputation as the city of sin, with legalized prostitution and cannabis on every corner in the Red Light district, but it’s actually a laid-back city with tree-lined streets next to beautiful canals with great coffee and a rich cultural heritage.
From medieval churches to the oldest Jewish library in the world, from tiny Rembrandt etchings to an irreverent canal boat tour, here are some of the more unusual things to watch out for when you visit Amsterdam.
(1) Carved grave flagstones at the medieval Oude Kirk
The Oude Kirk is Amsterdam’s oldest building, founded in the 13th century as Catholic and later turned into a Calvinist church, hence it’s stark interior.
The church is in the center of the Red Light District so check out the windows under the red bar lights in the surrounding streets. Sailors would spend their wages on pleasure and then go for confession before heading out to sea again.
Check out the flagstones on the floor of the church, carved with esoteric symbols and even a rotting corpse.
(2) Portuguese synagogue and Ets Haim library
When Jews fled Spain in the expulsion of 1492, many traveled through Portugal and on to Holland where they had freedom of religion. The Portuguese synagogue was completed in 1675 and even now retains its heritage with no electricity, so it is lit only by 1000 candles during times of worship.
The Ets Haim library, the oldest functioning Jewish library in the world, is within the synagogue complex. It contains precious Kabbalah, Talmud and Midrash manuscripts as well as many more. It’s closed to casual visitors, but you can arrange a tour in advance if you want to study there.
(3) Take an irreverent canal boat trip
A canal boat tour is a must in Amsterdam, but there are different kinds. If you want to avoid the mass tourism canal ‘bus,’ check out Those Dam Boat Guys who offer small boat tours with irreverent history, and you can bring a drink (or a smoke) if you fancy it.
(4) Rembrandt etchings at the Rijksmuseum and the Cuypers library
The Rijksmuseum has a huge hall containing Rembrandt’s most famous painting, The Night Watch, but personally, I prefer his tiny etchings — and if you look at the way he draws faces, I think Rembrandt himself preferred creating on a smaller scale.
In this unusual Adam and Eve etching, the figures are middle-aged and look to be fighting over the apple as a dragon watches from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The Cuypers Library is part of the Rijksmuseum and is the oldest art history library in the Netherlands. You access it through the museum.
(5) Huis te Vraag Cemetery
This quiet, forgotten graveyard dates to 1891. Attached to the Dutch Reformed Church, around 16,000 people are laid to rest here. Some anonymous burials date to World War II, their bodies found in the area both during and after the war.
The history of the land dates back several centuries. The name translates as ‘house to ask’ due to a local legend. In the story, Emperor Maximilian I of Austria stopped here to ask for directions in 1486. A cloth merchant built a house on the site in 1618 (demolished in 1890). It’s less boggy than surrounding land which made it perfect as a graveyard.
Huis te Vraag offers peace and tranquillity away from the bustle of Amsterdam. Potter about between the graves while ivy reclaims the monuments. The cemetery closed to burials in 1962.
Huis te Vraag Cemetery is still open to the living. Visit between 11 am and 4 pm Tuesday to Thursday.
(6) The Beurspassage and Oudemanhuispoort
Narrow passages might remind you of Edinburgh’s closes or Venice’s crooked streets. But there are two well worth a visit in Amsterdam.
The first is the Beurspassage, connecting Nieuwendijk Street and Damrak Avenue. Find it near the Primark store.
Known as “Amsterdam Oersoep”, this public art celebrates the waterways crisscrossing the city. Glass mosaics display images related to the water. The chandeliers made from bicycle parts are a monument to the iconic canals.
The second is the Oudemanhuispoort. Filled with stalls selling secondhand books, Vincent Van Gogh once shopped here. Follow in his footsteps to buy sheet music, prints, or books. Pause in the small courtyard garden nearby to enjoy your purchases.
The passage runs through a building in the University of Amsterdam. During its 400 years, the building has been a cholera hospital, a convent, and an art museum.
(7) Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (Ritman Library)
Fans of Dan Brown will love the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. Also known as the Ritman Library, it houses books on religion and mysticism. Brown used the library during research trips for his Robert Langdon novels. He even donated $300,000 to help the library digitize its collection.
Founded in 1984, the library now contains around 25,000 items. The collection focuses on Christian-Hermeticism. But you can also see texts on alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and other spiritual paths. It even holds a copy of the first illustrated edition of Dante’s La Divina Commedia.
Visit the Ritman Library between 10 am and 5 pm Wednesday to Saturday. Or join a guided tour to get the most out of your visit since most of the books are not on open shelves.
(8) Museum Vrolik
The Vrolik displays a wide range of anatomical specimens, originally used to train doctors in the hospital where the museum is based. Personally, I love a good anatomy museum, but it can be a creepy place if you’re not into body parts in jars!
Established in the late 18th century, the collection first focused on deformity in childbirth. But over the decades, other forms of anatomy have found their way into the collection including animal specimens and full-size skeletons.
You can find the Museum Vrolik in the Academic Medical Centre which is a little way out of Amsterdam. We just jumped in an Uber but there are also public transport options to get there. The entrance isn’t well marked but just go into the hospital and ask directions. It’s open Monday to Friday, from 10 am until 5 pm.
(9) Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer Op Zolder
Seen from the street, this museum looks like a normal Dutch townhouse. But inside, it’s a seventeenth-century time capsule. The museum captures a townhouse at the height of the Dutch Golden Age. They recreated anything they couldn’t preserve.
Follow the narrow staircases upwards to the attic room. Here, you’ll find a Catholic chapel that dates to 1663. It’s hidden away because Dutch laws prevented Catholics from celebrating mass in public. Secret churches like this one became a way to worship in peace. Worshippers still attend services in the church today.
Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder is the second oldest museum in the city, after the Rijksmuseum. It’s open from 10 am until 6 pm on Monday to Saturday, and 1 pm until 6 pm on Sunday.
(10) Tiptoe through the tulips at Keukenhof
Who doesn’t love flowers in full bloom?
If it’s flower season (March to May), visit Keukenhof just a short trip outside the city with easy transport options, or you can cycle out there if you hire a bike.
The colors are incredible with immaculate gardens and fields of flowers waiting to be harvested. It’s quite touristy but still worth the visit. Lots of joy on happy flower-loving faces!
Books set in Amsterdam
- The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton. Historical fiction based around an extraordinary wedding gift.
- The Diary of Anne Frank. Non-fiction. Young Anne’s diary as she hid from the Nazis with her family.
- Tulip Fever – Deborah Moggach. Romance set in 1630s Amsterdam.
- The Harbour Master – Daniel Pembrey. Crime thriller set on the dark side of the liberal city.
- A Cold Death in Amsterdam – Anja de Jager. A cold case detective faces her own damaged past.
- Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean – Edward Kritzler. I found this book in the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam and it traces an unusual history of Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal for Holland and also Jamaica.