20 Things Amsterdam is Known and Famous For

The capital of the Netherlands is one of the most recognizable cities in the world.

Amsterdam is known for its emblematic canals, the stark contrast between its Baroque townhouses and state-of-the-art architecture, as well as its unapologetic culture embodied in coffee shops and the Red Light District.

iconic buildings in Amsterdam

But of course, Amsterdam has countless other wonders to offer. Tag along to find out a bunch of fun facts about Amsterdam as you explore our list of (pretty much) everything Amsterdam is known and famous for.

Grab your Heineken and buckle up!

Amsterdam is known for its ultimate sights

On the surface, Amsterdam may look tame and imposing. It is the capital of a kingdom and former colonial empire, after all!

1. Canals

Amsterdam is known for its canals

The canal ring that makes up Amsterdam’s historic core is hands down the ultimate symbol of the Venice of the North.

Singel, the innermost canal, served as the city’s moat throughout the Middle Ages. Then with the 17th-century prosperity came an impressive population growth, and the four outermost canals were built.

Today, apart from a Unesco World Heritage Site, the canals are a microcosm of their own. They’re home to one-of-a-kind attractions like a floating cat sanctuary and a floating flower market, besides countless luxury, romantic, and themed boat tours.

2. Townhouses

Amsterdam townhouses at night

Between the late 1500s and the 1600s, the Dutch replaced the Portuguese and the Spanish as the world’s leading traders. All that money had to go somewhere, which by that time usually meant two things: art in general and lavish palaces in particular.

Enter the Dutch Golden Age.

What’s really cool about the houses that line the canals of Amsterdam is that they were both homes and warehouses: goods would arrive on flatboats and be moved up all the way to the attic.

And because nobody wanted a ruined façade, many houses lean visibly forward. Talk about smart engineering!

3. Museums

The Van Gogh Museum is one of Amsterdam's famous attractions

In case you’re not exactly a fan of debauchery, don’t worry: Amsterdam’s world-class museums cater to every taste.

Art lovers can check out the Rijksmuseum for Rembrandt and Vermeer masterpieces, the Van Gogh Museum for some of the best canvases by the post-impressionist genius, and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam for modern and contemporary works.

History buffs can head to the Anne Frank House, the Jewish Historical Museum, or the Amsterdam City Archives. Then you have a wide range of interactive and unusual museums like Nemo Science Museum, the Sexmuseum, the Cat Cabinet, and even a “microbe zoo”, Micropia.

4. The Royal Palace

Amsterdam is known for its royal palace

The Royal Palace’s bell tower and location at Dam Square, at the heart of Amsterdam’s city center, gives away its original purpose. It’s no coincidence it looks like a northern European city hall: it did serve as Amsterdam’s main administrative building for a little less than 150 years.

Amsterdam’s Royal Palace is more majestic than your regular town hall because it was built during the Dutch Golden Age to showcase the Low Countries’ newfound wealth.

Currently, since King Willem-Alexander actually lives in the Hague, the palace welcomes visitors almost every day (except for Mondays). Royals only use it for official receptions on occasion.

5. Architecture

Contemporary architecture in ijburg zuid, Amsterdam

The amazingly well-preserved 17th-century rowhouses are Amsterdam’s classic architectural wonder. Yet without its eclectic mix of buildings in radically different styles that Amsterdam is known for, it would probably look quite boring. 

Everything from the gothic Oude Kerk (i.e. Old Church), the oldest standing structure in town, to the revivalist architecture of both the Rijksmuseum and the Amsterdam Centraal Station, to the contemporary towers that have taken over the northernmost boroughs, turn Amsterdam into a feast for the eyes.

Its culture is vibrant and unique

Amsterdam is famous for being historically tolerant of all sorts of vices. That’s also why it’s always been a magnet for so many (too many?) people from all over.

6. The Red Light District

amsterdam red light district

Amsterdam actually has three (!) red light districts, which I guess makes them more of a cultural item than a landmark. De Wallen, the most (in)famous of the three, developed around the Oude Kerk (because of course) at some point in the 13th century. 

The area is pretty close to where the city’s earliest port used to stand — together with the thirsty seamen that came with the package.

Today, though the rum-drinking clientele is long gone, the cis-women behind red light windows and trans women behind blue light ones keep on fascinating and entertaining thousands of visitors every day.

7. Drug culture

Inside an Amsterdam coffeeshop
Image credit: Tom Jutte

How does the Netherlands fight drug addiction? Legalizing drugs, obvs. Well, sort of.

Legalization has been gaining ground across the globe as the soundest type of drug policy, but the Kingdom only adopted a tolerant attitude toward weed and pills specifically to be able to fight so-called hard drugs more efficiently (and harshly).

Smoking at one of Amsterdam’s 250+ coffeeshops is legal (and tons of fun), yet the weird thing about is that, by law, businesses may buy and sell grass and hash, while their suppliers may not grow or sell it.

This is crazy even for the Netherlands, honestly.

8. The XXX flag

The xxx flag in the netherlands
Image credit: Images George Rex

Though there’s absolutely no hidden meaning behind the Amsterdam flag, it’s ironic that you’ll see a triple X everywhere you look in the city — including on traffic bollards. Like there’s any need to be reminded you’re in Sin City!

The X-rated symbol, which is in fact quite saintly — each X is a Saint Andrew’s Cross — has medieval origins and is also emblazoned on Amsterdam’s coat of arms.

9. Overtourism

Crowds on Amsterdam street

If you’ve been to Amsterdam, you might have noticed how it seems easier to overhear your own native language than Dutch on the streets of Amsterdam.

And while the city proper has a population of about 872,000 people, everywhere you go is almost as crowded as Disneyland. After all, around 20 million tourists visit it each year!

In spite of being a major source of revenue for Amsterdam, the tourism industry’s disproportionate size has triggered pushback from locals.

So in the past five years, measures like a ban on Red Light District tours, the implementation of the highest tourist tax in Europe, and the removal of the famous I amsterdam Letters were adopted to curb excessive tourism in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is known for a few other landmarks

No. 1-5 do get far more hype, but these are classic in their own special way too. 

10. Vondelpark

Amsterdam's well-known park, vondelpark

Amsterdam is one of the most sustainable cities in Europe, yet within the central boroughs, parks are relatively scarce. Vondelpark makes up for that, though.

With its zigzagging ponds and paths, inviting lawns, year-round events, and beautiful rose garden, it’s the perfect spot to cure your hangover, enjoy your high, or just chill with your friends.

11. Schiphol Airport

The tower of Schiphol Airport

Outside of Asia, entering an airport seems almost guaranteed to be a dreadful experience. Yet we both know efficiency and comfort are two things the Dutch excel at.

So it’s no wonder Schiphol was voted the 9th best airport on Earth in 2020, second to Munich’s and behind seven Asian airports. What’s more, it ranks third among the largest airports on the planet.

KLM’s hub is not a tourist attraction per se, but it’s one of Amsterdam’s (and the Netherlands’) points of pride. It will probably leave you with a great first impression of the country.

12. I amsterdam Letters

The I amsterdam landmark
Image credit: Images George Rex

Another reason you’ll love flying into Schiphol is because the only I amsterdam Letters left to take a selfie with — at least on a permanent basis — are located there. The other set, which stood south of the Rijksmuseum, was removed in 2018.

Since then, it’s been touring lesser-known areas in an attempt to decentralize tourism across the entire Amsterdam region, which does sound like an offbeat way of exploring it. At the point of writing, the traveling sign is by Sloterplas Lake in western Amsterdam.

13. Amsterdam Stock Exchange

Amsterdam stock exchange

While speculative markets had begun to flourish in other European cities a couple centuries back, Amsterdam is known for inventing the modern stock exchange by moving it into a building as early as 1611.

From 2000, the Amsterdam HQ houses the registered office of a stock market accounting for six other European global cities, including Paris, Milan, and Brussels. 

Its politics are loud and proud

With its impressively diverse demographics, pioneering fight for LGBT rights, and decades-old squatters’ movement, Amsterdam is known for its militant and game-changing politics.

14. Squatting

squat sign in amsterdam
“I study, therefore I squat!” | Image credit: Charles Roffey

No exercising involved here, unless rioting qualifies as exercise.

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, a radical fight for housing rights broke out throughout the Netherlands, with Amsterdam as its epicenter. Anarchist-leaning groups would occupy abandoned buildings and wreak havoc when police tried to evict them.

A few decades on, many squats managed to be granted property rights and now house vibrant social centers, while the movement itself was criminalized in 2010.

But the Amsterdam trailblazers paved the way for similar initiatives across the West and helped establish the notion of housing as a human right.

15. Diversity

Amsterdam diversity
Image credit: Alex Proimos

Although this is hard to quantify, Amsterdam is definitely among the most multicultural cities on the planet: you’ll find about 180 nationalities within its territory.

On top of that, the Dutch-born are expected to become a minority in the near future.

Racism (especially of the structural kind) is still an issue in Amsterdam, yet folks from extremely different backgrounds live side by side in greater harmony than virtually anywhere else.

16. LGBT rights

Gay pride in Amsterdam
Image credit: Laauwen Media

Do you know of any other city honoring the LGBT fight for rights with a monument (the oldest one for that matter) located right outside a church? I don’t. In 2001, the Netherlands was the first country on Earth to legalize same-sex marriage, thanks in large part to Amsterdam’s outspoken queer community. 

Homosexuality has been legal in the country since 1811, and by the 1920s a gay bar (which is open to this day) and gay magazine were founded. Today, Amsterdam ranks consistently among the top gay-friendly cities worldwide.

Amsterdam is known for its quintessential Dutchness

It’s no wonder these icons that define the Netherlands abroad are also an integral part of Amsterdam’s culture: the city is the capital of all things Dutch.

17. Tulips

Tulips in Amsterdam

When tulips became fashionable in the Netherlands in the early 1600s, they caused a countrywide craze that resulted in the first economic bubble in history. The country has since turned into the world’s no. 1 producer of tulips. 

In Amsterdam, tulips are all over the place and even have their own festival. On National Tulip Day, held each January, 200,000 colorful tulips cover the Dam Square.

18. Koningsdag

Koningsdag
Image credit: Paula Abrahao

On the latest episode of “Only in the Netherlands…” we have the king’s birthday being celebrated with a wild nationwide party. Orange-clad crowds take to the streets, set up huge flea markets, and party like there’s no tomorrow. 

In Amsterdam, massive boat parades crown it all. The one thing to bear in mind, however, is that staying in the city for Koningsdag is either obscenely expensive… or impossible.

19. Cheese

Rows of cheese

Amsterdam’s a fantastic place to dive into the world of Dutch food. While you’re there, don’t forget to sample some Dutch cheeses.

The fact that cheese has its own museum in Amsterdam isn’t particularly striking, as apparently everything else in the universe does as well. But binge-eating cheese is yet another decadent pleasure only Amsterdam isn’t embarrassed to offer.

Cheesy recipes galore at restaurants, huge gouda wheels at any farmers’ market, floor-to-ceiling displays of obscure cheeses at quaint shops,… Amsterdam is a cheese lover’s heaven, much like the Netherlands itself.

20. Biking culture

Cycling in Amsterdam

In the Netherlands, there are over twice as many bikes as there are cars, and about 1/3 of locals travel by bike more often than any other mode of transportation.

This very Dutch passion is even more evident in Amsterdam, where 63% of residents ride their bike every single day.

Next time you visit the city, don’t miss the chance to do as the Amsterdammers do; cycling will take you everywhere and let you see far more of Amsterdam than walking around or riding the tram possibly could. 

Amsterdam at night

After discovering the awesome things Amsterdam is known for, I bet you can’t wait to pack up and feel like just another face in the crowd of tourists…

But because hardly anywhere else is as exciting or stunning as the Dutch capital, experiencing it is more than worth it, I promise!

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