Amsterdam, Netherlands is well explored by tourists. The picturesque canals and the world-famous Anne Frank Museum are just two well-known attractions in Amsterdam. If you are looking for the most popular things to do in Amsterdam you can find many lists. In this post, however, I wanted to look at the most unusual, the quirkiest and the coolest activities in Amsterdam. Let’s take a look at this great city in the Netherlands and explore its hidden attractions. To help plan the rest of your trip, don’t forget to check out the list of the best things to do in the Netherlands – outside of Amsterdam.
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- Where to Stay in Amsterdam?
- How to Get to Amsterdam?
- What to Wear in Amsterdam?
- When is the Best Time to Visit Amsterdam?
- 1. Help out Mother Nature on the Plastic Whale
- 2. Explore the Hidden Art World At NDSM
- 3. Discover the Tiny Universe at Micropia
- 4. Swing on Top of the World at Adam Lookout
- 5. Dine in Total Darkness at CTaste
- 6. Taste the Tradition of Sinterklaas
- 7. Shop Till you Drop on Nieuwe Spiegelstraat
- 8. Get Groovy at The Electric Ladyland
- 9. Honor the Feline Overlords at The Cat Museum
- 10. Listen to Old World Music at the Pianola Museum
- 11. Discover the Our Lord in The Attic Church
- 12. Freak Out at the Museum of Torture
- 13. (Bonus) Go Bicycle Hunting
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Where to Stay in Amsterdam?
How to Get to Amsterdam?
Amsterdam is home to a major airport hub (AMS). The flight to AMS from JFK is only 7 hours. It’ll cost you 8 hours to reach AMS from Chicago. And, it’ll cost you about 15 to go from Los Angeles to Amsterdam.
If you are already in Europe, a much slower and more beautiful way is to reach Amsterdam by train.
What to Wear in Amsterdam?
When is the Best Time to Visit Amsterdam?
Amsterdam (and the Netherlands) are busiest during spring‘s tulip season which takes place form the end of March through mid-May. Summer is also a wonderful time to visit the city, the weather is comfortable and there are many events taking place. Fall is romantic and quieter. Winter is off-season and you’ll find great hotel deals in the winter in Amsterdam.
1. Help out Mother Nature on the Plastic Whale
Amsterdam is a city of canals but its also a city of tourists and high population density. This means that garbage sometimes winds up in the water – and eventually flows out to the sea. To help remedy the problem, The Plastic Whale company came up with a brilliant solution. Using the specially designed Plastic Whale boats (constructed from old bottles) the company offers a unique canal cruise. The tourist (that would be you) gets to tour the canals, learn a bit about the history and the architecture, all while helping to pull the plastic out of the water.
The impact of the Plastic Whale tours is huge – every year they pull out 60 to 80 thousand plastic bottles per year (plus countless tons of other garbage). They turn the bottles into more boats and into high-end office furniture available for sale on their website. The tour itself is a great deal of fun. A small, hardworking and like-minded group of folks all led by a captain who truly believes in the mission. Perhaps more important than the garbage is the awareness the company raises to help combat the problem – and to help us find the solution.
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2. Explore the Hidden Art World At NDSM
In the 1990’s the face of Amsterdam began to change. As the city went from industry to service oriented, many factories closed. The same fate fell upon the historic shipyard located in the NDSM wharf. As the giant building stood unoccupied, few ventured into the area – the neighborhood was unsafe. However, a small contingent of artists moved to the island and set up informal art studios in the abandoned building. As time passed more artist squatters showed up and a community developed, first in the shipyard and then in the neighborhood around.
As the area grew more populated and safer, the city of Amsterdam purchased the large shipyard and formalized the arrangements. The artists now have formal studio rentals and developers began to build out the area with housing. Today’s NDSM is still artsy but developing quickly. Like in many such cases, after the artists came the hipsters and the property values on the island are rising.
Still, the old shipyard building is here. You can tour more than 300 studios and visit the space. But there is a lot more artwork on the island than just what you will find in the old shipyard. I was lucky to encounter a local artist Paul Rinzo who took me through the island to show me artwork located in the area. True to form, unexpected adventures took us far off course – but that’s a story for another time.
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3. Discover the Tiny Universe at Micropia
If you love science, don’t miss the brilliant Micropia museum (discounted with the Amsterdam Pass or free with I am Amsterdam Card). Not only is the subject unique – the presentation is as well. Boasting the latest technology, including virtual reality, computer microscopes, and 3d equipment, the exhibits are stunning. It is all so well executed you can easily spend the entire day here. And some people do – several scientists work at Micropia full time. You can watch them at work in their lab through a large plexiglass window. In terms of quality of the exhibits, this little known museum is on par with the Museum of Natural History in New York – no easy task.
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4. Swing on Top of the World at Adam Lookout
Adam lookout (free with the Amsterdam Pass) is the kind of a traditional attraction that might not make it on the 12 weirdest things to do in Amsterdam list. After all, what’s so weird about a rooftop offering a cocktail bar and great views? Well, there is one thing. The lookout point is also home of Europe’s highest swing, a brand new Amsterdam attraction. In fact, the swing is so new, that when I visited in April 2019, the staff was offering free tickets for the experience.
Although initially, I thought it would be a little lame, the experience was very enjoyable, fun and only a little scary. They’ll even photograph you on the swing. Afterward, you can download low-resolution images for free or pay for high resolution. But be sure to come early. Lines do build up later in the afternoon, so an early morning visit here is your best bet.
5. Dine in Total Darkness at CTaste
Perhaps the most emotional experience I had in Amsterdam – CTaste is a simple concept that left me reeling. The restaurant looks normal from the outside – a large, well lit waiting area and a bar. But inside, the dining room is shrouded in total darkness. Your servers are visually impaired so for them this is home turf. But for you, the dinner the experience is fascinating and disturbing all at once.
No electronics of any kind are allowed inside the dining room to preserve the atmosphere. As you sit in sensory deprivation level darkness, at first your eyes seek out something to focus on. Eventually, as they find nothing, your brain adapts, and all your other senses become sharpened – smell, hearing, touch, and taste. At this point, the servers begin to bring out your pre-ordered meal. The experience calls for you to discover what you are eating as you are eating it (you inform the staff about your preferences and allergies before the meal).
It is strange to eat a meal in a room full of strangers, but invisible to all. The food is just ok, but the experience is extraordinary – and a must do for anybody visiting Amsterdam and looking for adventure. To guarantee a spot make a reservation at CTaste. If you aren’t ready to commit to a full meal here they offer smaller meal options.
6. Taste the Tradition of Sinterklaas
On December 6th, many European countries celebrate the holiday of Sinterklaas, Santa’s long lost cousin. Like at Christmas time, families exchange presents and organize festivals. However, some things are different. Sinterklaas lives in Spain not the North Pole and commutes by boat. Another difference is the traditional snacks – including Pepernoten cookies. These small, hard cookies serve a special purpose. At festivals celebrating the holidays, adults throw the cookies at the children as a treat.
This might not sound particularly safe (it is not) but it is a tradition. Luckily, you can try cookies (and purchase these at souvenirs) without needing to risk your children’s safety. Van Delft Biscuits is open year-round at 500 Singel street in Amsterdam. The shopkeeper is generous with samples and happy to share more of the backstory. A fun and tasty stop on this list of weird things to do in Amsterdam.
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7. Shop Till you Drop on Nieuwe Spiegelstraat
Amsterdam’s antique street has gotten a facelift in recent years. Just a few years ago, the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat street was the home to several dozen antique stores, each with a niche specialty. However as real estate in Amsterdam got more expensive, many antique stores closed and art galleries and restaurants have moved in. But even so, wandering this street is a must if you are looking for the weird and unusual in Amsterdam. Check out the toy antique store and the one offering 19th-century dishes. This street is also a fantastic place to pick up souvenirs – helping the small stores stay in business and to keep Nieuwe Spiegelstraat weird.
8. Get Groovy at The Electric Ladyland
Amsterdam’s smallest museum – the Electric Ladyland – just celebrated its 30 year anniversary. Initially, you might be shocked as I was when you descend the narrow stairs into a tiny basement room which contains the “museum.” However, once the owner makes his way down and starts playing with the black light, the room comes alive with colors. There is much more here than you initially realize – perfect for a museum that for things that can not be seen by the naked eye. Electric Ladyland is by appointment only although I saw a few people walk in without an appointment.
9. Honor the Feline Overlords at The Cat Museum
Dedicated to all things feline, the cat museum is our next weird stop on this list of things to do in Amsterdam. The museum was set up to honor a special cat named John Pierpoint Morgan, who passed away in the early 1980s. Constantly expanding, today’s KattenKabinet may be the world’s largest collection dedicated to felines. Even if you are not a huge cat person, the collection is a fascinating study of an important aspect of western culture. The original founder of the museum still lives on the upper floors of the townhouse with his cats. You’ll notice some of them wandering the museum and the grounds.
10. Listen to Old World Music at the Pianola Museum
Perhaps one of the quirkiest attraction on the list is the Pianola Museum (free with the Amsterdam Pass or I am Amsterdam Card). On this fun stop, you’ll have a chance to learn about the unusual musical instrument – the Pianola. A late 19th-century version of the iPod, the wealthy of the day used the Pianola attachment to play music for their guests. The Pianola, when attached to a Piano played a variety of music without the involvement of the host.
Your tour of the museum is led by a surprisingly passionate guide and its hard not to marvel at their contagious enthusiasm for this unusual subject. Although the museum is fairly small there is a lot of information here, so allow yourself 2 hours for the tour.
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11. Discover the Our Lord in The Attic Church
In the 1600s, as religious wars raged over most of Europe, the people of Holland took a different approach. Although most of the population practiced the one officially recognized religion in Holland (Protestant Christianity), the authorities turned a blind eye to those who practiced other faiths in Amsterdam. You could worship as a Catholic or a Jew – as long as you didn’t advertise. In order to practice, the faithful build their own private temples and churches. The only unwritten rule was that the temples must be hidden from plain sight.
And so, dozens of temples and Catholic churches were built in Amsterdam in the 17th century. Today, you can visit the best-preserved temple in the Our Lord in the Attic Church (free with the Amsterdam pass). Your tour starts off in the old house. Here you can stroll through the small rooms and narrow staircases and discover the lifestyle of the 17th-century middle class. Well preserved and decorated with original artifacts, the museum is a fascinating tour worth doing on its own. However, the highlight is towards the end as make your way up the dark staircases into the church. Complete with vaulted ceilings its hard to believe such a large structure can fit into a standard townhouse. The beautiful Our Lord in the Attic Church that survived half a millennia virtually intact, is the first stop on our list of things to do in Amsterdam.
12. Freak Out at the Museum of Torture
The disturbing and spooky museum of torture is not for the faint of heart. Displaying instruments of medieval torture and explanations in six languages, the museum takes a couple of hours to work through. I have to say I think I really underestimated how disturbing it would be – and felt queasy several times as I walked through the exhibits. This is a fantastic stop for the lovers of history or those fascinated by the macabre – but I would probably not take a child into this museum. Still, an interesting and super weird stop on this list of the most unique things to do in Amsterdam. Unlike most other places, the Museum of Torture is cash only.
13. (Bonus) Go Bicycle Hunting
As you wander Amsterdam and its outskirts, you will come across unique bicycles decorated by local artists. They appear overnight – and disappear just as quickly. I saw dozens when I was visiting Amsterdam, but this one is my favorite. And, you’ll find the bicycles in many places outside of popular tourist areas too – including near NDSM. Keep your eyes peeled!
For even more unique travel ideas check out: Best Things To do in the Netherlands (Outside of Amsterdam)