Amsterdam is best known for its luxurious canal houses and charming gabled facades, but the city has enough architectural treasures to keep design lovers busy for weeks. From windmills and drawbridges to the Amsterdam School and cutting-edge modern design, learn the stories behind Amsterdam’s most memorable structures.

Canal houses

Brouwersgracht Koen Smilde Photography

Amsterdam’s canal belt is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and it’s where you’ll find charming canal houses. Originally homes for the wealthy, many were built at the height of the 17th-century. Be sure to look up as you wander or cruise by as the ornate facades and gables are something to behold. Get a peek behind the scenes to marvel these architectural wonders by visiting museums located in repurposed homes.

Three places to start your discovery:

  1. Huis Marseille Museum of Photography

  2. Museum van Loon

  3. Take a walk along the Herengracht, Keizersgracht or Prinsengracht venturing down the smaller canals that sprout off them

Amsterdam School

It's all about sculptural brickwork when it comes to this iconic architectural style. Referencing Expressionist architecture, Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) and elements of Art Deco, Amsterdam School gives equal weight to the interior and the exterior of each building. Amsterdam School was used for many housing estates, government institutions and schools and was influenced by the socialist roots of the style’s founders.

Prime examples of the Amsterdam School:

  1. Museum Het Schip

  2. Het Sieraad (the jewel)

  3. Het Scheepvaarthuis

See our list of Amsterdam School highlights.

The classics

Amsterdam Centraal Station

Amsterdam Centraal Station and the Rijksmuseum are two of Amsterdam’s most iconic and recognisable buildings. Both were designed by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, combining Renaissance and Gothic elements, and are sometimes considered as being Neo-Gothic in style.

For full effect, explore both the exterior and interiors of:

  1. Amsterdam Centraal Station

  2. Rijksmuseum. Once inside, take note of the redeveloped foyer with natural light flowing in from the atrium.

Modern classics

EYE Amsterdam Merijn Roubroeks

Amsterdam is home to some truly striking architectural feats, including the massive bathtub that's part of the Stedelijk Museum’s extension or the dramatic lines of Eye’s sleek edifice on the IJ, which was inspired by the overlaying of reality and fiction, illusion and real experience.

Three sterling examples of modern architecture:

  1. Eye Filmmuseum

  2. The ship-like NEMO Science Museum designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano

  3. Pontsteiger, a 26-storey high-rise with sprawling views of the IJ

Bridges

Skinny Bridge Amsterdam

In a city of 1,200+ bridges, it’s fair to say that there are some striking examples of bridge building in the city. The oldest bridge dates from 1648 and in the east you’ll find one of the city’s newest bridges, the Python Bridge. It’s not just about the architecture, engineering also plays a part as many of these bridges elevate to allow high boats to pass and when back in place, trams, trains, cars and bikes can continue to cross.

  1. Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge)

  2. The Torensluis Bridge, the city’s oldest

  3. The Seven Bridges is one of the city’s most romantic spots

Zuidas and Amsterdam RAI

Doriann Kransberg Gemeentearchief

Amsterdam’s business district is a hotbed of contemporary architecture. From skyscrapers (or "cloud scrapers" as the Dutch say: wolkenkrabbers) to quirky low-rise optical illusions, Zuidas is home to some of Amsterdam’s boldest new buildings.

Four buildings that push form:

  1. The former ING Headquarters looks as if it would be more at home in space

  2. The Rock, a building that uses crooked elements to reflect nature

  3. The OMA Architecture designed Nhow hotel is the largest in the Benelux

  4. The RAI Car Park by Benthem Crouwel Architects is a joy to behold with its fantastic curves and ramps.

Repurposed buildings

Time can change how we use space. For some buildings it’s the end of the line and in roll the wrecking balls but for others it's an opportunity to be put to new uses. From the former bridge houses transformed into hotel suites to entire shipping yards converted into hip and arty social spaces, Amsterdam has its fair share of repurposed urban areas.

Visit these three re-imagined spots:

  1. WoZoCo by MVRDV cleverly utilises cantilevered balconies to repurpose a building for the elderly

  2. NDSM, a former industrial area

  3. Foodhallen in Oud-West was a former tram depot

Learn about more of Amsterdam’s repurposed buildings.

Eastern Docklands

Once a hub for the shipping industry, the Eastern Docklands is now a vibrant residential area featuring some daring architectural constructions. Nestled among row houses are flashy buildings that somehow blend into the surroundings.

Check out these three constructions:

  1. The Whale by Frits van Dongen has become a landmark, comprising 194 apartments, retail and commercial space with a private garden

  2. Pythonbrug (Python Bridge) by West8 snakes across the water and has quickly become a much-loved icon in the area

  3. The Yays Crane Apartment in a, you guessed it, former crane

Architecture and urban planning

Betondorp via Wikipedia

Over the years, Amsterdam has transformed its neighbourhoods in waves. From the initial push-out of the canal belt to districts in all directions, developments were the work of a single architect or an experiment with new building materials.

Take a walk through some of these districts to experience the vision of urban planners:

  1. Betondorp was an experiment in the use of inexpensive building materials and concrete before Brutalism took off in the 1950s

  2. Bijlmer is a modernist urban development utilising hexagonal forms

  3. Dutch architect and urban planner Cornelis van Eesteren was connected to De Stijl and worked for the Town Planning department of the City of Amsterdam. Visit the museum devoted to his work in Amsterdam’s Nieuw-West.

Brutalism in Amsterdam

Cygnus Gymnasium via Wikipedia

This oft-maligned style has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in recent years. Known for its use of concrete and steel, the stark style is all about functionalism. Many examples have been demolished over the years but some still stand.

Fans of Brutalism won’t want to miss these fine examples:

  1. Cygnus Gymnasium in Oost won a couple of prizes following its renovation in the early 2010s

  2. Leeuwenburg by Piet Zanstra is a high-rise that has housed banks, office and now the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

  3. Amsterdam Orphanage by Aldo van Eyck was designed to be both house and city for orphans of all ages

Contemporary architecture in Almere

Architecture Almere Cris Toala Olivares

If modern architecture is more your thing, then you should head to the newest city in the Netherlands, Almere. This city ranks highly for contemporary buildings designed by the likes of Teun Koolhaas, Herman Hertzbergen and Liesbeth van der Pol.

Take an architectural tour that includes:

  1. The Wave

  2. City centre designed by Rem Koolhaas and Office for Metropolitan Architecture

  3. The sharp lines of the Schouwburg Theater

Architecture aficionados can join a number of tours that will take you to the city’s impressive buildings and provide detailed information on their history. ARCAM operates tours, stages exhibitions and is itself housed in a small sculptural building.