Many people also come to Amsterdam to experience the world-class museums, as well as enjoy the distinctive crooked canal houses that make up a large part of the city’s architecture. Indeed, if you’re someone who likes learning about famous buildings and architectural styles, then you’re spoiled for choice in Amsterdam.
A large part of Amsterdam is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, plus there are many distinctive and fascinating famous landmarks in Amsterdam that are instantly recognizable.
Here are ten of the most famous landmarks in Amsterdam that are just as iconic from the outside as their interiors.
1. Amsterdam Centraal Station
The first of the most recognisable landmarks in Amsterdam is the one you’re most likely to see first, although you may not pay it the attention it deserves!
Amsterdam Centraal is the largest railway station in Amsterdam, the second-busiest station in the country (Utrecht is the busiest) AND the most-visited Rijksmonument in the country. Rijksmonument is the name given to national heritage sites in the Netherlands, which makes it even more surprising that a train station should be so important.
But if you’ve ever seen Amsterdam Centraal from the outside then you will understand why. It’s a majestic building built in a combination of Gothic and Renaissance Revival styles by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers. If you’ve also visited (or seen photos of) the Rijksmuseum you’ll notice that Centraal Station bears a strong resemblance to the museum building. That’s because Pierre Cuypers was also the architect behind the Dutch national museum.
Amsterdam Centraal station opened in 1889, so it’s actually younger than the Rijksmuseum by four years, but still looks very similar in its palatial style, reminiscent of medieval cathedrals. The main station building features two turrets: one houses a clock and the other displays a giant compass which shows the current wind direction.
The building is also decorated with stone reliefs to represent how powerful Dutch economy and culture were at the time. If you look very carefully at this famous landmark in Amsterdam, you might be able to find the wheels with wings at each end of the cast iron platform roof. This NS Golden Eagle was the symbol for the Dutch railway (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) company before it changed to the logo used today.
On top of all that, it might surprise you to learn that the entire station is resting on 8,687 wooden piles driven into three man-made islands in the River IJ! So next time you’re travelling through Centraal Station, make sure you take a moment to appreciate this beautiful piece of architecture.
The Rijksmuseum is the most well-known landmark in Amsterdam. It’s featured on many postcards and is a popular location for tourist photos, especially when combined with the pond (or ice-skating rink in winter) in front of the main entrance on Museumplein.
Also designed by the renowned Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, the Rijksmuseum was purpose-built to house the collection of the Dutch national museum, which was previously located in the Royal Palace. Cuypers actually won a design competition for the museum, which (like Centraal Station) combined Gothic and Renaissance architectural styles.
The exterior of the Rijksmuseum also features images related to Dutch art history, including sculptures, tile tableaus and stained glass. While the museum has been remodelled a number of times over the years since it opened in 1885, the main exterior has not changed much.
Today the Rijksmuseum is regularly the most-visited museum in the Netherlands and one of the most-visited art museums in the world. It houses more than a million objects of which around 8,000 are on public display. Items include arts, crafts, and history from the years 1200 to 2000, including many paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, in particular, The Night Watch by Rembrandt, which is the most famous piece in the museum.
Inside the Rijksmuseum is the Pierre Cuypers Library, also known as the Rijksmuseum Research Library. It’s the largest public art history research library in the country and also a popular spot for photos. There are plenty of Rijksmuseum highlights to look for inside.
Directly in front of the Rijksmuseum is an open park area known as Museumplein, due to it being surrounded by three other museums along with the Rijksmuseum. All three museums are quite distinctive from the outside and worth a visit if you have time.
The Moco Museum is the smallest and newest, housing modern art in a townhouse from 1904 that was designed by Eduard Cuypers (nephew of our friend Pierre Cuypers). The Moco Museum is most notable for several permanent Banksy works on display and is one of the busiest, artiest landmarks in Amsterdam!
Get a bit of Banksy
Next door to the Moco Museum is the Van Gogh Museum, which is dedicated to the works of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh and his contemporaries. While the exterior is much more modern than the other museums on Museumplein, the Van Gogh Museum is another one of the famous landmarks in Amsterdam, especially the oval Kurokawa wing.
On the outer side of the Van Gogh Museum is the Stedelijk Museum, which focuses on modern art and design. Part of the museum is housed inside the Weissman Building which was designed by Dutch architect Adriaan Willem Weissman with the same red brick neo-classical style seen in the Rijksmuseum. There’s also a more modern Benthem Crouwel Wing, which was officially opened in 2012.
The Weissman Building faces onto Paulus Potterstraat and Van Baerlestraat, so it’s the more modern Benthem Crouwel Wing seen from Museumplein. This wing is also sometimes referred to as ‘The Bathtub’ by locals for the white material and shape used.
Along with the museums of Museumplein, the Amsterdam Concert Hall (Het Concertgebouw) stands across the road and makes for another impressive landmark, and a musical addition to this location. Even if you don’t have time to visit all (or any) of the museums, Museumplein is the ideal spot for a rest or a picnic on the grass on a sunny day in Amsterdam!
4. Dam Square
One of the most famous landmarks in Amsterdam is Dam Square; a town square in the center of the city that’s often referred to as the beating heart of Amsterdam!
Sometimes called ‘the Dam’ by locals, Dam Square is easy to find after walking up Damrak from Centraal Station. It’s located where there was originally a dam on the River Amstel, hence the name. Not only is this cobbled open area a pretty spot to take photos, but it’s lined with important (and impressive) buildings, which are also symbolic Amsterdam landmarks in their own right.
The main building, which dominates the square is the Royal Palace (Koninklijk Paleis in Dutch) which was originally built as Amsterdam’s city hall in the 17th century. After its construction during the Dutch Golden Age, the building was converted into a royal palace by King Louis I (younger brother of Napoleon Bonaparte) when he ruled the Kingdom of Holland while it was a French client state.
A right royal day out
Today the neoclassical building is the official reception palace of the Dutch Royal Family in Amsterdam, hosting many state events throughout the year. It’s also open to the public as much as possible and well worth a visit.
Next door to the Royal Palace is the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), although it’s not particularly new anymore since it was constructed in the 15th century! It was originally built because the Oude Kerk (Old Church) was too small for the growing population of Amsterdam, but today it is an exhibition space rather than a place of worship.
Across the cobbled square from the Royal Palace of Amsterdam is the National Monument, a round concrete pillar covered in white stone. This was built to commemorate those who died during WWII and every year on the 4th of May a national Remembrance of the Dead ceremony is held here, with the King and Queen in attendance along with thousands of other people.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Dam Square is also home to some of the most popular Amsterdam attractions, such as Madame Tussauds and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, as well as the Bijenkorf, an upmarket department store. You could spend an entire day here and not get bored!
5. Grachtengordel (Canal District)
Amsterdam is often called “the Venice of the North” due to the many canals, islands and bridges which make up the historical center of the city. This picturesque area is one of the most famous landmarks in Amsterdam and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The three main canals that ring the city were all constructed during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century. Together, the Herengracht, Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht (gracht is Dutch for canal) form the concentric belts around the city, known as the Grachtengordel. Many of the buildings which line the Grachtengordel are also from the Dutch Golden Age, and a canal cruise to see the city from the water is a must-do when visiting Amsterdam!
Go back to the Golden Age on a canal cruise
There’s another canal between the three main canals and the city centre (Singel) although this is actually older than the Grachtengordel as it was used as a defence for the city when Amsterdam was much smaller. The Grachtengordel was constructed to make room for Amsterdam’s growing population and another canal on the outside ring (the Singelgracht) replaced the Singel as the outer boundary of the city.
While a canal cruise is the best way to see Amsterdam from the waterline, a trip to the Museum of the Canals is also a great way to learn more about the fascinating history of Amsterdam’s waterways. Don’t forget, you can combine tickets for attractions with a canal cruise!
If you do take a canal cruise, you’ll also be able to spot quite a few landmarks in Amsterdam along the way, including the stunning Westerkerk, which is right next door to the famous Anne Frank Huis.
The Anne Frank Huis is one of the most popular Amsterdam attractions, but the building it’s located in isn’t particularly eye-catching or tall. The Westerkerk, however, has the highest church tower in Amsterdam, the Westertoren (Western Tower) which can be seen from many points within the city and is quite beautiful. Anne Frank even mentioned in her diary that being able to see the clock-face and hear the bells chiming was a comfort while she and her family hid from the Nazis.
The Westerkerk was built between 1620 and 1631 in the Dutch Renaissance style. It was actually one of the first churches in Amsterdam purpose-built for Protestantism. Other famous churches, such as the Oude Kerk and Nieuwe Kerk were built before the Reformation and then converted to Protestantism.
A church amongst churches
A visit to the Westerkerk should definitely include some time inside, as the interior of this Amsterdam landmark is stunning, particularly the main Duyschot organ. The shutters on either side of this beautiful organ are painted with scenes from the Old Testament by Dutch artist Gerard de Lairesse.
From April to October, free concerts are performed inside the church on this organ on Fridays or Saturdays at 1pm, while in August there are free concerts almost every day during the week known as ‘Geen dag zonder Bach’ (‘Not a day without Bach’).
Behind the Westerkerk is another famous landmark in Amsterdam – the Homomonument. Three connected pink triangles commemorate persecuted gays and lesbians throughout history. A special event takes place each Remembrance Day to honor gays and lesbians killed by the Nazis, as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community who are still persecuted around the world.
Amsterdam might be the only capital in the world where the red light district is a famous tourist attraction as well as the oldest and most historic part of the city.
7. Amsterdam Red Light District
Also called De Wallen, this area was the medieval city center of Amsterdam next to the harbor, which is why the Red Light District first appeared here, catering to sailors. Even though the area around De Wallen has changed and red-light businesses have relocated over the years, the main section remains here.
The Oude Kerk (Old Church) within De Wallen is the oldest building in Amsterdam, having passed its 700th birthday. A wooden church was constructed around 1213, then built over in stone, and consecrated around 1306. It was a Roman Catholic church before the Reformation and since it was built on top of a cemetery, the floor is entirely made up of gravestones. Today, the Oude Kerk is a modern art exhibition space, which houses a permanent exhibition on its history and that of the city of Amsterdam.
Respect sex workers all over the world
A visit to the Oude Kerk and the statue of Belle outside it is a must if you want to experience Amsterdam’s Red Light District. This statue was unveiled on the Oudekerksplein in 2007 and has an inscription reading “Respect sex workers all over the world”.
Do not miss a trip to the Red Light Secrets museum within the Red Light District for a proper understanding of the area and its history before you start enjoying the other attractions.
While many famous landmarks in Amsterdam are historic, there’s one that’s very modern as well as imposing, and that’s the building known as NEMO.
Towering over the Oosterdok like a giant ship, this structure’s official name is NEMO Science Museum and it’s filled with fascinating interactive exhibits all about the different branches of science. While the interior is exciting for children and science nerds alike, it’s the modern architecture of the building that really stands out.
Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, many people think the green copper shape of NEMO is meant to represent a ship, but he actually wanted it to mimic the shape of the IJ Tunnel, which is underneath the museum. As the tunnel descends down under the River IJ, Piano designed NEMO to ascend from the river and even placed a piazza on top, 22 meters above the water.
TOP TIP: A visit to the piazza is free and offers lovely views over the docks of Amsterdam, including the nearby Maritime Museum. This rooftop also contains a café and a children’s play area, so it’s a nice spot to enjoy on a sunny day.
Of course, while the structure of NEMO makes it a famous Amsterdam landmark, the interior is worth a visit for hands-on learning about the human body, mathematics, energy and more. This is the largest science museum in the Netherlands, after all, and with five floors to discover, nobody will get bored.
9. STRAAT Museum
One of the other more modern landmarks in Amsterdam, a must-visit is the STRAAT Museum, located over the River IJ at NDSM-Werf. In particular, the 24-meter-high painting of Anne Frank by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra is an iconic image of Amsterdam.
NDSM-Werf is the former shipyard of Amsterdam, which can be reached via a free ferry from behind Centraal Station. Over the years, many graffiti artists started tagging the walls of the former warehouses until the team at STRAAT turned one of them into the world’s largest museum dedicated to street art.
Over 130 artists showcasing their masterpieces
Since the museum is located within an 800-square-meter former warehouse, there’s plenty of space for BIG pieces to display. Artists from around the world have been invited to add their work to the museum and there are now more than 150 artworks by more than 130 artists on display.
It’s not all paintings either, with sculptures and installations charting the history of street art in this vibrant neighborhood. While visiting NDSM-Werf to see the STRAAT Museum, we also recommend a trip to Pllek for lunch in converted shipping containers overlooking the river. Be sure to also check out our insider interview with STRAAT Museum’s curator David Roos here!
10. Heineken Experience
While Heineken is a beer brand both produced and known all around the world, it started off in the building in Amsterdam’s De Pijp neighborhood, which now houses the Heineken Experience.
This factory building is where the original brewery was established by Gerard Adriaan Heineken in 1864. It was designed by Isaac Gosschalk (who was also the architect for the similar Westergasfabriek building) in a renaissance revival and gothic revival style. The former brewery is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Amsterdam today, particularly when viewed from the neighboring Freddy Heineken Bridge.
Why choose thirst when there’s beer?
The striking brick building retains the original brewery name and clock on the exterior, while the interiors were opened as a tourist attraction when the main production location was moved to a larger space in Zoeterwoude. Even for visitors who may not particularly be fans of the beer, it is fascinating to find out how this Dutch beer brand became famous worldwide.
Not only is the Heineken Experience a major tourist site and a historic landmark for the Heineken company itself, but it is also an important building on the European Route of Industrial Heritage: a tourist route that visits the most important industrial heritage sites throughout Europe. Of the 845 sites in 29 European countries, the Heineken Experience is one of just 66 Anchor Points that make up the main route.