Destination Guides Travel & Leisure

The Insider’s Guide to Exploring Amsterdam, the Netherlands

From a little-known Picasso sculpture to secret gardens and a greenhouse restaurant, Amsterdam locals share their must-see spots in honor of Christie’s Made in Holland sale

Until October 6, Christie’s Amsterdam will present Made in Holland, a curated online sale of paintings, works on paper, and sculptures by Dutch artists spanning 400 years of art history. And evidence of this rich past is visible in every facet of the country’s capital—from its mix of architectural styles to the outdoor art lining its parks.

In particular, says Leslie de Ruiter, managing partner for Residence 365 B.V., a top luxury real-estate brokerage in the Netherlands, Amsterdam’s Vondelpark is known for a hidden artistic gem. The expansive 120-acre (47 ha) setting includes lakes, an open-air theatre, and excellent restaurants—and, in its southern end, “a sculpture by Picasso himself,” de Ruiter explains. “Created in 1965 as part of an outdoor exhibition to mark the park’s 100th anniversary, the Figure découpée l’Oiseau (The Bird) was donated to Amsterdam by the artist and has remained in the same spot ever since.”

Here, he and other Amsterdam locals share more of the city’s best-kept secrets, along with insight into its top neighborhoods, eateries, and sights.

Canal boats in front of Amsterdam's famous merchant houses
Amsterdam’s renowned architecture is best viewed via a boat trip along its network of 17th-century canals, which are lined with narrow merchant houses and were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. Image: Ethan Hu, Unsplash

Equestrian Appeal

As well as Vondelpark, de Ruiter recommends heading to nearby Overtoombuurt. “You might notice a strange whiff of horses, more to be expected in the countryside than in such a residential area,” he says. “But follow your nose and you’ll be rewarded by one of the city’s most beautiful and special spaces: De Hollandsche Manege, an ornate arena dedicated to all things equestrian.”

Hidden behind a rather ordinary façade on Vondelstraat, the interior of this 18th-century riding school abounds with decorative Baroque features. “There’s also a beautiful café with a balcony overlooking the arena, where visitors can sip tea or coffee while watching the finest horses undergo training,” de Ruiter adds.

Secret Gardens

Meanwhile, Thomas van den Brink, founder of Zoyo, which creates tailor-made travel experiences, recommends the city’s Jordaan neighborhood to his clients. The many delights of this area include its secret gardens or hofjes.

These are almshouses set around a shared courtyard garden and were originally created by the wealthy to provide housing for those in need. But today you’ll need to know where to look, as many aren’t visible from the street. Try a hidden door when you spot one and you’ll soon find yourself in a peaceful oasis, or visit Sint Adrieshofje, one of the oldest hofjes in Amsterdam.

An inner courtyard surrounded by houses and featuring a statue of Christ
The Begijnhof is the only hofje in Amsterdam that was founded during the Middle Ages, and lies within the Singel—the innermost canal of Amsterdam's circular canal system. Image: Getty Images

Culinary Delights

Amsterdam is known for its Bruin (brown) cafes. Despite the name, these venues are more akin to pubs and are a quintessential part of local life. Van den Brink recommends Cafe T Papeneiland in Jordaan for “the greatest apple pie ever” and raves about its bitterballen, a fried meatball enjoyed in the same manner as Spanish tapas.

He’s also quick to suggest local favorite Piet De Leeuw for “the best steak in Amsterdam,” as well as Mr Porter, which blends a modern steakhouse offering with a chic lounge atmosphere. “Mr Porter attracts business clientele for its excellent food and a glam party crowd for its top cocktail bar,” says de Ruiter.

If you’re looking for a fine-dining experience, de Ruiter suggests The Duchess, a Michelin-starred restaurant located in a former bank, with high ceilings and opulent Belle Epoque-inspired décor. Alternatively, head to Van Dam Brasserie, a household name in the city and an integral part of its picturesque Cornelis Schuystraat, an area dubbed “little Paris.”

For a uniquely modern Amsterdam eatery, van den Brink points visitors towards Restaurant De Kas, set in a former greenhouse a short way from the city center in Frankendael Park. “Our guests can expect creative and delicious fresh dishes with distinctive flavors in the most beautiful setting,” says head chef Bram De Kanter.

The greenhouse of de Kas restaurant lit up at night
Expect delicious seasonal dishes and fresh, local produce at De Kas, where, since 2001, the restaurant has operated with the motto, “Harvested in the morning, on your plate in the afternoon.” Image: Kaan Sensoy

And when De Kanter says fresh, he means it. “Every day at around 10am, our electric van arrives at the restaurant loaded with produce harvested from our land in nearby Beemster. We also have a smaller nursery at the restaurant itself.” In total, some 300 varieties of fruits, herbs, and vegetables are grown by De Kas. “It’s a must-do for lunch or dinner—one of my top places to eat,” van den Brink says.

Must-Visit Museums

Amsterdam’s most iconic museums include the Van Gogh Museum, dedicated to the works of Vincent Van Gogh and his contemporaries; Rijksmuseum, home of the Dutch masters; and contemporary art museum Stedelijk. All are well worth a visit, along with the moving experience of seeing the Anne Frank House, where Frank and seven others hid for more than two years during WWII.

However, perhaps the most unusual, and another of the city’s hidden gems, is a Catholic church secreted away on the top floor of a residential house. Our Lord in the Attic Museum is a unique 17th-century house with a church, dating back to 1663, located at its highest point. Visitors can climb the stairs to see for themselves.

The outside view of a Amsterdam villa
Formerly a church, this four-bedroom villa boasts 5,382 square feet (500 sq m) of interior space on a lot of 1.2 acres (0.5 ha). It is situated alongside the Bloemgracht canal in the city’s Jordaan district, and is on the market with Residence 365 B.V.

Neighborhoods to Know About

If you’re considering investing in Amsterdam’s real estate, de Ruiter believes there are certain locations—each with their own charm—to prioritize.

One appealing option is Grachtengordel in the canal district. “The ring of canals, with its 8.7 miles (14 km) of waterways and 80 bridges, is an urban, hydraulic, and architectural masterpiece,” he explains. Jordaan is a great option too, described by de Ruiter as “extremely popular with visitors and residents alike for its picturesque canals, small shops, and cozy streets and alleys.”

The lively student district De Pijp, with its many cafes, is also worth considering. In addition, de Ruiter identifies Amsterdam Noord, De Baarsjes, and Bos and Lommer as emerging neighborhoods, featuring new developments. “In the past 12 months, the average house value here has increased by 6.8 percent, making real estate in Amsterdam, and all over the Netherlands, a good investment,” he concludes.

Banner image: Merchant houses along Amsterdam’s Heerengracht canal. Getty Images