Forget the Coffee Shops and Red Lights: These Are Amsterdam’s Essential Attractions

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Americans tend to be a bit silly when it comes to Amsterdam: mention of the city usually elicits comments on either a) the coffee shops that famously serve pot (though not to tourists, now); b) the Red Light district with its sex shows and prostitution. In associating Amsterdam with these two particular businesses, tourists miss out on the fact that Amsterdam is a cultural treasury, rich with art, historic buildings, and a thriving, exciting arts scene.

Stay away from the damned coffee shops… at least until you’ve checked out these top five Amsterdam attractions.

5 Rijksmuseum

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The Rijksmuseum is one of those attractions that everyone feels compelled to see… but it might not be the most memorable. Most people come for the painting known as The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn; savvier visitors also know there’s a fascinating 17th century dollhouse and a gallery with remarkable pieces by other Dutch masters, including Frans Hals and Jan Vermeer. The good news is that The Night Watch is as spectacular in person as it’s made out to be; the bad news is that you might be inclined to join the hordes leaving after they see the painting. The Rijksmuseum is currently being renovated and its new incarnation looks promising.

4 Canal Boat Ride

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Americans might not associate Amsterdam with canals the way they link them to Venice, but the waterways do shape the city’s identity, culture and traditions. Many people really do reside on houseboats, for instance. As you walk around Amsterdam you will have ample opportunity to view the canals and the picturesque bridges that cross them, however, taking to the water and exploring the city by boat is a must. Companies across Amsterdam offer boat tours ranging from the large and touristy to the intimate and quirky. The Rijksmuseum, for instance, has a special tour that points out areas depicted in the paintings in their collection. If you’d really like to see the canals close-up, you can book a room in a private houseboat or floating hotel, such as the PhilDutch.

3 Sexmuseum/Venustempl

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As salacious as the name might sound, the Sexmuseum is neither a strip club nor a brothel — it’s a museum that documents the history of sex in society and popular culture from the ancient world to modern times. The collection includes erotic sculptures, photos and paintings ranging from 2000 year old Greek pottery to Victorian postcards to contemporary pin-up girl art. Even if your party contains a few spoilsports who don’t like museums, they might concede to visiting this one. This should be a no-brainer, but let’s say it, just in case: obviously, this particular attraction isn’t for young ones. If you’re not at least 16 years of age, you’re not getting through the front turnstile.

2 Van Gogh Museum

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The world’s largest collection of paintings by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh is housed here in Amsterdam. Considering the fact that Vincent was famously only able to sell one painting during his lifetime, he might be chuffed to know he is now so celebrated that he has his own museum. The galleries are arranged chronologically. The earliest works show his earnest efforts to master traditional techniques, the ones completed at the zenith of his career highlight his distinct personal style, and the ones from the last month of his life, including the stark Wheat Field with Crows, are somewhat disturbing in their sadness.

1 Anne Frank House

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The Anne Frank House is one of the saddest attractions in Amsterdam, but one that is vitally important to see. The house is the site of the “Secret Annexe” where young writer Anne Frank, along with her parents, sister and four other individuals — hid from the Nazis during World War II. The Annexe itself might seem surprisingly large at first, but the space shrinks right down again when you realize that eight people were sharing the space. In Anne’s narrow bedroom, the photos of the movie stars she adored are still pasted to the walls. The Museum space attached to the Annexe building displays Anne’s original diary, temporary programs and educational exhibits on the Holocaust.

There’s a lot to see in Amsterdam. Get to it.

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