Last Updated on 9th May 2020 by Sophie Nadeau
After you’ve seen the Gingerbread Houses on Damrak, cycled along the canals of Jordaan, and admired the paintings of the Rijksmuseum, there’s a whole other side of off the beaten path Amsterdam that’s also worth exploring. Here’s your guide to the best of hidden gems, unusual things to do, and secret spots in Amsterdam you won’t want to miss on any visit to the Dutch capital!
#1 Shop on Nieuwe Spiegelstraat
Close to the Rijksmuseum, Nieuwe Spiegelstraat is home to all manner of boutiques and independent shops. From clock vendors to ceramic sellers, this antique lover’s heaven lies to the South of the historic city centre and has been home to all kinds of stores for well over three centuries. Visit today, and you can expect to discover stores selling authentic Delft blue tiles, ceramic tulip vases, and even some cool vintage clothing shops.
#2 De Waag, the oldest remaining non-religious building in Amsterdam
Now a pleasant restaurant in the heart of a square that overlooks a particularly pretty canal, you would never have guessed that De Waag was once part of the historic city walls of Amsterdam. Dating all the way back to the 15th-century, De Waag is the oldest non-religious building in the Dutch capital and has since been used as a guildhall, museum, fire station and anatomical theatre.
#3 Drink a beer in In ‘t Aepjen
Drink beer in a quintessentially Dutch brown bar where broke sailors once traded monkeys in exchange for drinks! In ‘t Aepjen can be found on the fringes of the Red Light District close to Amsterdam Centraal Station and is one of the oldest bars in Amsterdam.
Founded as early as 1519, the name of this historic drinking establishment refers to “In the Monkeys,” harking back to when sailors would return from abroad and pay for their drinks using monkeys. In time, the bar became so overrun, that regular customers would complain about the fleas!
#4 Amsterdam gable stones in the Begijnhof
Of course, at this point in time, the Amsterdam Begijnhof is no longer the kind of ‘secret’ it was, even just a few years ago! This historic beguinage dates back to the Middle Ages, and yet still many visitors miss the secret wall of gable stones in a dead-end alleyway close to one of the courtyard’s entrances.
Historically the Amsterdam gable stones date back to a time when canalside numbers didn’t have numbers and the general population couldn’t read. These colourful plaques would have indicated the trade of the resident of the house and pictures depicted the names of homeowners and occupations. Today, a wide array of these pretty signs can now be spied in the Amsterdam beguinage.
#5 The House with the Graffiti
On the fringes of the Amstel Canal, there’s one residence that’s alleged to have centuries-old graffiti that was scrawled in blood. Once the home of a certain Coenraad van Beuningen, the building itself was constructed in the 1670s and can be found at 216 Amstel. The story goes that the six-time mayor of the city etched Kabbalistic signs on the front façade of the building, rumoured to be in his own blood.
Located in the ever-so-pretty Jordaan district of the city, one of the best hofjes of Amsterdam is that of the Kartuizerhofje, one of the larger Amsterdam hofjes that’s actually open to the public. Free to visit, head here and you can expect to find a wealth of beautiful plants, a trickling fountain, and plenty of benches on which to sit and relax.
#7 Westerstraat 54 Hidden Miniature Houses
If you’re looking for adorably cute canal houses in pint glass sizes, then you simply must head to No.54 Westerstraat. For, if you look closely enough at the gap between numbers 54 and 70 Westerstraat, you’ll soon spot seven tiny houses.
Originally installed as part of a local advertising agency promotion, the real-life full-sized numbered houses actually disappeared when a courtyard leading to the seven numbers was closed off, and the abodes were merged into the surrounding houses. Today, just be sure to look closely, the miniature canal houses are easy to miss when strolling along Westerstraat!
#8 Shop at the Waterlooplein Flea Market
One of the larger and better flea markets in the city, that of Waterlooplein is the oldest of its kind in the Netherlands. For 6 days a week, every week, some 300 vendors tout their wares in this 19th-century marketplace. Antiques, vintage clothing, and antiquarian books are all to be found for sale here, making this a treasure trove of hidden gems and the kind of place where you’ll never know what you’ll stumble upon next!
All glazed mosaic tiles and completely sea-themed, Beurspassage can be found steps away from Damrak. The brainchild of Arno & Iris and Hans van Bentem, while the glass arched rooftop is covered in fantastical and mythical sea creatures, the floor is all about the relationship between the city of Amsterdam and the water. After all, this is the city of canals!
#10 Secret Library in the Rijksmuseum (Cuypers Library)
You may well not know this (I certainly didn’t back when I visited the Rijksmuseum a couple of years ago!), but there’s actually a secret library in the Rijksmuseum. All wooden shelving and books stacked from floor to ceiling, wandering inside this hidden gem feels akin to stepping back in time, right into the 19th-century.
The Rijksmuseum Research Library is accessible to the public with and it’s the largest public art library of its kind in the Netherlands. For more information on how to visit the Renaissance and Gothic Cuypers library, check the library’s website. Otherwise, if you’re planning to enjoy the highlights and secrets of the Rijksmuseum, then book your skip-the-line ticket here in advance.
#11 Be Amazed by the Muizenhuis (Mouse Mansion)
Off the beaten path and away from the crowds in the city centre, of all the secret spots in Amsterdam, the Muizenhuis is easily one of my favourites. The ‘mouse mansion’ is essentially set of incredibly detailed doll-house-like rooms created by Karina Schaapman together with her children.
They’re so successful that the models have since spawned a set of hugely successful children’s books and even a Youtube series! Now, you can visit the studio and shop and even purchase some supplies to create your own ‘mouse mansions’. The shop itself is free to visit and can be found at Eerste Tuindwarsstraat 1hs. Once there, you’re free to admire the mouse mansion and ask questions about the making of the miniature models!
#12 Drink a beer in Het Papeneiland
Often alleged to be the oldest bar in the Netherlands, Het Papeneiland lies alongside the Prinsengracht and is surrounded by the picturesque cobbled lanes that are so synonymous with Amsterdam. Founded as early as 1642, if you’re feeling a little peckish and want to sample a local speciality alongside your beer, be sure to sample a slice of one of their citywide-famous apple pies!
#13 Claes Claez Hofje
A little different from some of the other hofjes in Amsterdam on account of the fact that this is actually a set of merged courtyards, as opposed to the usual number of one, Claes Claez can be found not far from the Muizenhuis. Pretty, secluded, and away from the tourists, just be sure to be quiet and respectful upon entering- this is someone’s residence, after all!
#14 Hofje Van Brienen
Quiet, secluded, and the perfect off the beaten tourist path place to sit and relax for a little while, Hofje Van Brienen can be found in the Jordaan district of the city. The history of this small courtyard traces its roots back to 1797 when a local merchant, Arnaut van Brienen, bought a house, storehouse, and brewery named the star so as to demolish the complex and transform it into a hofje. During the 19th-century the space was used to house up to twenty couples and six men.
#15 Eat the best cookie in Amsterdam
Though not so much of an Amsterdam secret as even just a year ago, the cookies from Van Stapele are often alleged to be some of the best that the city has to offer. Located down a little cobbled alley off Spui and close to Amsterdam’s main Begijnhof, you’ll smell this nostalgic sweet shop before you even see it.
Often with a long line out the door and decorated in traditional wooden furniture, this is one bakery you won’t want to miss off your Amsterdam bucket list. However, don’t make the Amsterdam mistake that we did by not eating the cookies while they’re still warm! Though van Stapele cookies are still delicious the next day, they’re nowhere near as nice when they’re still fresh from the oven!
#16 Portuguese Synagogue
One of the oldest synagogues in Amsterdam is that of the Portuguese Synagogue, a place of worship that dates all the way back to the 17th-century. Also known as Esnoga, or Snoge, the Place of Worship can be found in the very heart of the Jewish Cultural Quarter and is characterised by its stunning treasure chambers and light-filled spaces. Book your Portuguese Synagogue tickets here in advance.
#17 Bells on Taksteeg Street
When strolling around the city centre, there are plenty of hidden gems and unusual sights worth noting down. Among these are the bells at Taksteeg, i.e. the old town bells of the city. In total, there are nine bells, which in turn are topped by a clock.
#18 Oudemanhuispoort Bookmarkt
Down a little covered street that’s barely visible from the side of the road, Oudemanhuispoort (literal translation: Old Man’s House Passage), this covered walkway was even once frequented by Van Gogh. Today, this hidden gem of Amsterdam is home to a large selection of stalls selling second-hand books (a Boekenmarkt) and the perfect place to escape the rain on bad weather days.
#19 Sample Bitterballen in Cafe de Sluyswacht
For a local beer with a classic Dutch view and the chance to sample some local Bitterballen snacks (they even serve vegan Bitterballen for the non-meat-eaters out there!). Housed within a 17th-century former Lockkeeper’s cottage and steps away from the world-famous Rembrandthuis, Cafe de Sluyswacht is easily one of the best pubs in Amsterdam.
#20 Heritage Museum Courtyard
Though you’ll have to pay for entry into the Heritage Museum, the courtyard hidden within the building’s grounds is actually free to visit. Filled with beautiful spring blooms during the Holland tulip season, this little oasis of calm is home to many benches and is the perfect place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the busy city centre.
#21 Stay on a boat in Amsterdam!
Of all the quirky accommodations you can expect to find in the Dutch capital, staying on a boat in Amsterdam is the quintessentially Dutch experience you never knew you needed. Imagine waking up each day on the water, ready for a day of exploring the canal-lined city. Check my best recommendations for Amsterdam houseboats you can rent here.
#22 Stay in the smallest hotel in Amsterdam!
And while we’re on the subject of finding a place to stay in the Dutch capital, it’s worth noting that Hotel de Windketel is the smallest hotel in the city. Housed within an 1897 octagonal brick tower which was once used by Amsterdam’s waterworks, the structure is now a luxury apartment for two people and can be found in the Westerpark district of the city. Check prices and availability here.
#23 Montelbaastoren Tower
Once upon a time, the Oude Schans (the widest canal in Amsterdam) would have been the gateway to inner Amsterdam. This would have been one of the main importation routes in and out of the city, not to mention that the waterway would have also acted as the first line of defence in case of invasion.
The original Montelbaanstoren would have been built during the 16th-century as part of the city’s walls, and that which you can spot today was an extension of the 1516 tower and was completed in 1606. All brick in design and 48 metres in height, the tower can be spied from plenty of places around, including the historic pub, Cafe de Sluyswacht.
Close to one of the better fries shops in the city centre, the ancient archway of Rasphuispoort is all that’s left of an ancient Rasphuis (Grating House) and now marks the entrance way to a very modern shopping complex and Kalverpassage. Built from Bentheimer sandstone, the gate was designed by Henrick de Kayser.
#25 Oude Accijnhuis (Old Tax Collector’s Office) in the Red Light District
Dating all the way back to 1638 and situated on the fringes of the Red Light district, the tax collector’s office was built to collect tax from merchants who were trading in beer, wine, grain, and tobacco. Now, the former office is flanked by two archways crested with gilt-gold lions.
#26 H.H. Petrus en Pauluskerk Hidden Catholic Church
Blink and you might miss it, for this secret Catholic church is announced by just one simple poster and a quintessentially Dutch doorway. Down an otherwise unassuming ever-so-modern shopping street, the H.H. Petrus en Pauluskerk is an oasis of calm in the midst of the hustle and bustle of busy city life.
Situated in a pedestrianised shopping district, this ecclesiastical building is free to enter and dates back to 1848. Constructed in the Neo-Gothic style, the church has been nicknamed De Papegaai (the parrot) on account of the fact that a bird trader’s house once stood right in front of it, hiding the Place of Worship from the roadside.
#27 Museum Willet-Holthuysen
Of all the small museums in Amsterdam, this 17th-century canalside house is easily one of my favourites. Once the canalside home of the 17th-century Mayor of Amsterdam, Jonathan Hop, today three floors of the house have been transformed into a museum and give visitors a glimpse of what it must have been like to live in the city all those centuries ago.
Though definitely more popular than when I last visited just a few years ago, this small museum still remains a great alternative to the much more popular Van Loon museum. Fancy visiting? Purchase your ticket here in advance.
#28 Hortus Botanicus
One of the oldest botanical gardens in the world can be found in the Plantage district, to the West of Amsterdam’s city centre. Founded by the City of Amsterdam in 1638 to grow both medicinal and herbal plants, this is one Dutch green space you definitely shouldn’t miss while in the Netherlands.
Of particular note is the early 20th-century palm house and the 17th-century hexagonal house. It’s also worth noting that the Hortus Botanicus is part of the I Amsterdam city card, which grants free access/ discounts to over forty Amsterdam attractions, as well as the use of public transportation. Purchase your I Amsterdam card here in advance.
#29 De Otter Windmill
A little way out of the city centre, De Otter windmill is in the non-touristy ‘windmill district’ to the North of Jordaan. Once upon a time, just under fifty windmills graced the landscape here. Predominantly used as sawmills, just one 17th-century windmill is still in existence today, De Otter Windmill.
Constructed as early as 1631, this wind-powered mill is sadly closed to the public, but can still be admired from the exterior! Nearby, the district is more residential than some of the other Amsterdam districts and is filled with parks, houses, and fewer shops than in Centraal.
#30 Amsterdam’s City Archives
Away from the hustle and bustle of the historic city centre, Amsterdam’s City Archives can be found close to the Kattenkabinet alongside the Herengracht (which is often thought to be the most important of the Amsterdam canals).
Free to visit and enter, the City Archives is housed within the historic De Bazel building. Though the permanent exhibition is solely in Dutch, the displays are still great to look at. Also within the Archives, you’ll soon discover a wonderful bookshop which stocks all kinds of books about the history and culture of Amsterdam (including plenty of books in English!)
#31 Ons Lieve Heer op Solder
Of all the unique things to do in Amsterdam, one of the better attractions is easily that of the church of Ons Lieve Heer op Solder. Literally translated as ‘Our Lord in the Attic,’ this clandestine church turned museum dates back to the 17th-century.
Today, the old canalside houses have since been transformed into a museum where you can learn what life would have been like all those centuries ago. Head up to the top floor and you’ll soon discover the stunning hidden church. Purchase your Our Lord in the Attic tickets here in advance.
#32 Eat unlimited pancakes on the pancake boat!
Want to see Amsterdam from the water and eat an unlimited amount of pancakes at the same time? Well, on the Pannenkoekenboot you can! Lasting for a duration of 2.5 hours, eat as many of the sweet treats as you can while admiring the most beautiful and unusual attractions of Amsterdam. Check prices and availability here.
#33 Wake Me Up When I’m Famous bench
Located a little way outside of the historic city centre, as you might imagine the ‘Wake Me Up When I’m Famous’ bench has gained in popularity with the ever-increasing popularity of Social Media, most notably Instagram.
Located to the North of Central Amsterdam, the exact address for the bench is: Frans Halsstraat 64, 1072 BT Amsterdam, Netherlands. Otherwise, you should know that the surrounding neighbourhood is pretty and perfect for photos.
#34 Kattenkabinet (Cat Museum)
For lovers of furry felines, the Kattenkabinet is an absolute must. Easily one of the most unusual small museums that Amsterdam has to offer, this quirky cultural space offers the chance to enjoy all kinds of cat-related prints, objects, and furniture.
Located alongside one of Amsterdam’s main canals, Kattenkabinet is not only filled with cat-art, but live cats themselves! The small museum doesn’t take long to visit and only needs an hour or two to fully explore…
#35 Search for The Fault in Our Stars filming locations
If there’s one movie that’s perhaps one of the most iconic and famous to have been filmed in the Dutch capital city, it’s that of The Fault in Our Stars. Filmed across Amsterdam, here’s your ultimate guide to The Fault in Our Stars filming locations.