While I'm often asked which is the best neighbourhood to stay in Amsterdam, getting some cycling tips so you don't hurt yourself (or anyone else) while on two wheels in Amsterdam, tips for hiring a boat, and finding out how you can make the most out of your Airbnb or self-catering accommodation in Amsterdam, I'm rarely asked where people should go take good photos of the city, because, errr, well, it's all a bit pretty. But there are some places that, I think, are a bit more special than others so let me be one of the first to list some really great locations to seek out for some of Amsterdam's best photo opportunities. Here they are for you photography fans!
Best Location for Canal Houses - Herengracht, Prinsensgracht & Keizersgracht
Let's get the most obvious one out of the way. The three main ring canals that encircle the oldest part of Amsterdam aren't to be missed with a camera. Home to some of Amsterdam's most expensive and historic real estate here is where you'll find some of the most iconic views. I am never disappointed by the photos I take along these three canals. Needless to say, they serve up the goods especially well at magic hour. This photo I snapped on my phone as I cycled home from a breakfast meeting on Keizersgracht earlier this year.
Best for photographing the Red Light District - Armbrug
The Red Light District is a tricky place for a photographer. You're prohibited from taking photos of any window with a red light above it and indeed don't be surprised if a plain clothes policeman pops up out of nowhere to stop you even lifting your camera to your eye if you're remotely close to one. Then there are the crowds and the chaos and the fact that despite being a very historic area full of some of Amsterdam's oldest houses and churches and buildings, there are also far too many "Sex Show" neon signs and plastic fronted Argentine steak houses diluting any kind of pretty canal scene. And don't even get me started on the British stag and hen dos who litter the streets at weekends. They're also not very photogenic. However, if you make your way to Armbrug - the last bridge at the end of Oudezijds Voorburgwal - you'll be greeted with two views of relative calm.
From one side of the bridge you'll see a small row of houses line up beside canal's waters just next to where the canal narrows under a small bridge, and on the other side you'll find a classic Amsterdam canal scene featuring a three-arch bridge with no doubt plenty of people and bikes battling their way across.
You may also find this chap trying to feed some of Amsterdam's noisy seagulls with bread held out of his hands.
Best for photos of a cute canal and church - Groenburgwal
Make your way along Staalstraat and you'll find a small old-fashioned drawbridge with a view up to a church tower, perfectly framed by the canal houses along each side. This is possibly my favourite view in Amsterdam. It draws me in every time I see it and I can't really explain why. Maybe it's the perfect composition already all set out for you, maybe it's because the council unapologetically keep painting green paint over all the love locks fighting for space on the bridge's metalwork, or maybe because it's a car-free road so you can actually take your time taking a photo (though watch out for bikes... as always).
Best for photos of bridges - Seven Bridges (Reguliersgracht)
Hopefully I don't need to explain what Seven Bridges looks like, but it may be worth pointing out that this view does look better from the water. It's also a little trickier to photograph from the water but it's a fun challenge to try out and the results are worth it. If you like night-time photography this is a great spot to head to to get some long exposure shots of the bridges all lit up with bulbs that remind me of one of those old make up mirrors.
Best place for city views from above - Top of OBA Public Library
I'm including these in the list even though I think there must be a better place for a high up view of Amsterdam, i.e. one that doesn't feature a very dominant and tired-looking Chinese restaurant in the foreground - I just need to find it! However, the view from the La Place cafe on the 7th floor of the big public library just a short walk from Centraal Station is worth seeing, especially on a clear day.
Best location for photographing the Iamsterdam sign - Museumplein (before 9 o'clock in the morning)
I love the Iamsterdam signs dotted around the city and I could spend hours watching tourists climb all over the one outside Rijksmuseum, with wide smiles on their faces and mine. What I don't really like about this scenario is how it makes photographing the sign uninterrupted by the crowds utterly impossible. Unless, that is, you head down to Museumplein before 9 o'clock in the morning. Not only should the sign be free of bodies but the light will be fantastic and when you set up a tripod to perfectly frame the Rijksmusem in the background, you've got yourself a pretty special photo. I actually like this one I took which features a group of
Best for photographing waterfront landscapes (and sunsets) - Along the Amstel
I've already blogged about how I think that the River Amstel is one of Amsterdam's most underrated attractions, so do yourself a favour and go and discover it through your camera lens. Yes, I love Skinny Bridge (Magere Brug) which crosses it, but it's actually quite difficult to photograph face on - unless by water - and my favourite views of the Amstel are actually of much further along the river past the Stadhouderskade and along Amsteldijk. Standing on that side of the river you will get great views of typical Dutch houses along Wesperzijde. Then if you cross the river and evening is on its way be prepared for some great views of the sky changing colour as sunset descends. (P.S. If you want to put your camera down and just enjoy the sunset, there are plenty of park benches and bar terraces for you to do so!)
Best for photos of 1990s Post-modernist Architecture - Java Eiland
If you have an interest in Nineties architecture you will already know about Java Eiland. If that interest is an enthusiastic one you may have already made a special visit to Java Eiland where I've regularly seen buses dropping off groups of architecture and design students who disperse into the streets and canal ways lined in post-modernist architecture. While the houses aren't as traditionally pretty as the famous 17th century buildings lining the three main ring canals, I do find them just as interesting and I particularly like the bridges that take you across the canals. Each one is different and like a modern work of art made of metal.
More good photo opportunities can be found at the western tip of the island where, on a clear day, you can enjoy nearly 360 views of the IJ, the ferry passenger terminal on Veemkade and Amsterdam Noord.
Best for photos of Jordaan - Bloemgracht
Jordaan is one of Amsterdam's oldest neighbourhoods and I highly recommend wandering around its narrow streets with a camera. If you like photographing little details, you should also look out for the plaques of animals and fish above houses (which tell you what businesses used to be based there) and for the mirrors positioned outside windows so people can sit at the window and watch the world go by... and then down the road. My favourite spot for photography in the Jordaan is along Bloemgracht. It's a relatively quiet canal and offers you the opportunity to take photos along the canal (with another church perfectly positioned at one end), across the bridges and then peering down the alleyways that lead off it. You can see more photos of Jordaan here.
And yes, I know the photo above of my friend and me on one of Bloemgracht's bridges is totally over exposed but I like it too much to not share.
Best for photographing canal houses disappearing into the water - Damrak
While on one side Damrak is a busy, noisy, tourist-trap-filled street of mostly bad hotels and restaurants, on the other side it offers one of the most famous views in Amsterdam. If only the canal boat tour companies weren't lined up on one side, photos of these houses that are built directly beside the canal would be even better. This is another photography spot worth getting up early for to avoid tourists and make most of some delicious light.
Best for photographs of the oldest houses in Amsterdam - Begijnhof
A place of great historic significance (more about that here) and arguably Amsterdam's most famous enclosed garden, Begijnhof is one of those places I like to pop into regularly just to see how the changing seasons are effecting it and to, well, get some peace and quiet. While it's home to the oldest house in Amsterdam (the wooden house on the corner opposite the church) this isn't really the easiest of the buildings to photograph. The rest of the courtyard makes up for it though. One of the city's calmer photography spots for sure.
Best for photos of canals without too many tourists in them - Brouwersgracht
Taking photos in Amsterdam is something of a sport in that you always have to have one eye open and a pair agile feet in case a bike, or a car, or a pedestrian or a crowd of tourists come along and unintentionally - or quite purposefully - interrupt your photo or attempt to take you out instead. That's why I recommend going a little off the beaten track if you want that perfect canal shot without a grumpy Dutch cyclist photobombing it, or without you ending up wrapped around his handlebars. Brouwersgracht is one of the most historically important canals in Amsterdam - it translates as Brewer's Canal so you can probably figure out why it was important! - and is lined with typical Dutch bridges and beautiful canal warehouses now converted into homes neither you nor I could afford. All that said, you MUST avoid Saturdays and Mondays when the nearby markets at Noordermarkt and Lindengracht are on.
Best for photographing views of the IJ, Centraal Station and Noord Amsterdam - On the ferry to NDSM Werf
There is an endless list of things you can photograph from the free ferry that takes you from the back of Centraal Station to NDSM Werf (home of one of my favourite Amsterdam spots Pllek); the EYE film institute, the currently being redeveloped A'DAM Tower and on the other side of the IJ the futuristic, occasionally gravity-defying architecture of the buildings along Westerdoksdijk and Silodam. You'll also get to see quite how huge Centraal Station is and in the distance you'll see Amsterdam's working docks, a marina and closer to NDSM a crane that is actually a hotel. Oh and also look out for the half sunk submarine and one of my favourite pieces of artwork in Amsterdam as captured here..
While the ferry is rarely choppy and goes pretty slow, a tripod may be a good idea and get on near the front to claim your spot by the side of the boat.
Did you get some other good shots in Amsterdam? Please do let me know your favourite spots for photography in the city in the comments, and feel free to leave links to your own photos. I'd love to know about more great photo locations!
And if you want some more tips planning your trip to Amsterdam, check out this Amsterdam neighbourhood guide I wrote giving you tips for where to stay, and here are some cycling tips if you want to hire a bike while you're here, some advice for seeing the city by boat, and some tips for staying in self-catering accommodation in Amsterdam.
All photos by me except Damrak. I should set the alarm and take my own one day soon...
Frances M. Thompson
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