Overview

Tell anyone you're going to Amsterdam and there's a fair chance they'll either sigh with envy or give you a sly nod. Amsterdam's reputation for tolerance laced with sin precedes it, but equally renowned are its scenic and cultural attractions.

Amsterdam hotels are known for their cleanliness and hospitality, its restaurants offer world cuisine, and along the city streets is a shopper's paradise. Most visitors fall in love with the city and return again and again.

Amsterdam is nourished by a wealth of museums, concert halls, and avant-garde theater and dance venues. Its relaxed and tolerant attitudes draw those looking for a creative, anything-goes atmosphere.

Large numbers of beautiful tree-lined canals are bordered by streets with rows of narrow, gabled houses and 17th-century warehouses, making Amsterdam an architectural treasure trove. Amsterdam is much smaller in population (but no less interesting) than many European capitals. As a result, much of the city center can be comfortably explored on foot—or, if you want to look like a true local, by bicycle.

Geography

Dam Square is at the heart of Amsterdam's network of canals, streets and squares. There, you'll find historic structures such as the Royal Palace. The street Damrak connects Dam Square to Central Station. Kalverstraat and Rokin, two popular shopping streets, lead from Dam Square to Muntplein and the Flower Market. Farther to the west of Dam is the district of the Jordaan, a picturesque and trendy neighborhood. The Red Light District lies to the east of Dam Square.

The 17th-century canals—whose names often end in the word gracht or kade—wrap around the historic city center in a series of semicircles called the Grachtengordel (Canal District) and were added to UNESCO's World Heritage list in 2010. The innermost canal in the series is the Singel, followed by the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and finally the Prinsengracht. The Singel canal encircles the old center, extending along its western edge and meeting the Amstel River on the center's southern edge. Intersecting the canals are smaller cross-canals and streets.

On the eastern side of the center is the old Jewish Quarter, largely rebuilt, and the Waterlooplein, with the flea market and Stopera (city hall and opera house). To the southwest is Museumplein, the site of several museums, including the Rijksmuseum and the Concertgebouw, the main concert hall.

Nearby Leidseplein is another important square that is frequented by tourists seeking its theaters, restaurants and nightspots. Also popular for clubbing and nightlife is Rembrandtplein, an entertainment square presided over by a statue of iconic Dutch artist Rembrandt Van Rijn and ringed by clubs, cafes, and bars. Slightly east of Museumplein, you'll find the former working-class neighborhood De Pijp, now a bustling mixture of stylish cafes, shops and restaurants, not to mention the largest street market in the Netherlands, the Albert Cuyp Markt.

After years of gentrification, the Oud-West has traded its Wild West reputation for new life as one of the city's most up-and-coming neighborhoods. Bordered by the Vondelpark and Singelgracht canal, the area encompasses the Overtoom, a lively shopping street parallel to Vondelpark, as well as De Hallen, a tram depot turned creative hub and cultural hot spot, housing an eclectic mix of creative, media and fashion businesses, in addition to an indoor food court, library, movie theaters, cafes, upscale restaurants and the four-star Hotel de Hallen.

History

In the early 11th century, dikes were built to tame the Amstel River. By 1240, the small village of Aemsteledamme occupied the area that is now Dam Square. Fortunately positioned, Amsterdam grew and spread as it became a bustling port, charging tolls to ships and indulging in trade with many countries.

This trade, fostered by the famed Dutch East India Company, made the Netherlands rich. From the end of the 1500s until the beginning of the 1700s, Amsterdam experienced its Golden Age and became one of Europe's cultural and economic centers. Some of the greatest Dutch artists—most notably Rembrandt—lived during this period.

The spiderweb of canals and streets that gives the city such a distinctive design began to take form in the 1600s. One of the first cities to practice religious tolerance, it drew refugees, adventurers, artists, writers, intellectuals and statesmen from many countries. These immigrants, along with the hardy natives who claimed the land from the sea, have all had a lasting influence.

After World War II and the memories of hardship it incurred began to fade, the city grew quickly, attracting a youthful population. The 1960s were marked by lively counter-culture happenings organized by hippies and "Provos." Also, spurred by a perennial housing shortage, squatters took over deserted buildings in run-down parts of the city, and by the 1980s, clashes with police were becoming common.

Those rebels have grown up now, and redevelopment of the run-down city and harbor areas is well under way. Amsterdam has become increasingly diverse in recent decades as more immigrants, notably those of Moroccan and Turkish descent, have settled there with their families.

Sightseeing

The broad plaza outside Central Station is a good place to begin a tour—you're likely to end up there anyway at some point during your stay. A walk down Damrak will take you to Dam Square, site of the Royal Palace and National Monument. If you turn toward the National Monument and continue walking, you'll end up in the colorful Red Light District. This is the oldest part of the city and a neighborhood where quaintness mingles with sex. From there, you can make your way north to the Oude Kerk, the city's oldest church, or continue walking to the southeast and see the Rembrandthuis, the Portuguese Israeli Synagogue and the Jewish Historical Museum.

If you turn toward the Royal Palace at Dam Square and keep walking, you'll be headed in the general direction of the Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht. Also nearby is the Westerkerk, where Rembrandt is buried. The Jordaan, one of Amsterdam's most picturesque districts, is just beyond Prinsengracht. Other areas worth exploring are around Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein and Muntplein, near the Flower Market.

Amsterdam offers a wide range of museums documenting everything from the city's highest cultural achievements to its seediest underpinnings. The must-see museum is the Rijksmuseum, which contains famous old-master paintings, including The Night Watch by Rembrandt. Nearby is the excellent Van Gogh Museum.

The Stedelijk Museum is a major modern-art venue that showcases contemporary art alongside works of impressionism, fauvism, cubism and expressionism. At the other end of the spectrum are small private museums dedicated to everything from sex and drugs to rock 'n' roll, tulips, cheese, houseboats, torture, small purses and even cats.

Folks planning to take in many of the local attractions and institutions might consider purchasing a one-, two- or three-day I amsterdam City Card, which entitles holders to free public transportation, discounts for restaurants and attractions, a free canal-boat trip and admission to many museums. A 24-hour pass is 49 euros, a 48-hour pass is 59 euros, and a 72-hour pass is 69 euros. The pass is available from any of the Amsterdam Tourist and Convention Board's VVV offices, or you can order it online. http://www.iamsterdam.com/en-GB/experience/deals/i-amsterdam-city-card.

For those who love museums, the museumjaarkaart may also be worth purchasing. It grants free or reduced-fee admission to more than 400 museums (normally just the permanent collections) throughout the Netherlands (32 are in Amsterdam) and is available at participating museums at a cost of 54.95 euros (27.50 euros for children and young adults up to age 18). You can also order it online, but an administration and shipping fee of 4.95 euros is added to the price. A museumjaarkaart is valid for one year. http://www.museumkaart.nl.

Nightlife

Nightclubs, dance clubs, cafes and taverns offer plenty of after-dark options. In summer, the sidewalk bars are crowded until late, and street performers entertain in the public squares.

Jazz is popular on the live-music scene, and the city offers abundant opportunities to enjoy live acts. Nightclubs and late-night dance clubs are clustered around Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein. DJ bars line the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal.

Amsterdam has a reputation for its thriving gay scene, and there are many bars and nightclubs catering to gay people in the Red Light District and along Amstel, Reguliersdwarsstraat, Warmoesstraat and Kerkstraat.

Most nightclubs are open until 4 or 5 am. Bars tend to close a few hours earlier.

Dining

Practically every cuisine in the world can be found in Amsterdam, from sophisticated French fare to the renowned Indonesian rijsttafel. Enjoy an Argentinean steak in a decor that evokes the vast pampas, dine on a pleasure boat cruising the canals, stop at any of the inexpensive Middle Eastern grills that seem to be on every other block, or try one of the small Chinese restaurants lining the Zeedijk and its many cross streets.

Smoking is banned in public places in Amsterdam, including restaurants. However, restaurants may designate an area, completely closed off from the rest of the premises, as a smoking area. Service is not provided in these areas, and you'll need to return to the bar to buy drinks.

At least once, you should try a paper cone of french fries served with mayonnaise, peanut-butter satay sauce or any of an ever-increasing number of exotic condiments. The best french fries are called vlaamse frites (Flemish fries). Other Dutch specialties reflect the locals' close relationship with the sea, such as smoked eel and raw or pickled herring (which is usually eaten whole with chopped onions and gherkins).

In winter, locals savor hearty meals of mashed potatoes combined with vegetables such as endive, cabbage, onions and carrots (stamppot) topped with delicious smoked sausage (rookworst). Another cold-weather favorite is snert (also called erwtensoep), a thick pea soup usually served with sausage.

Make a meal of the pannenkoeken, large Dutch pancakes with bacon, cheese, apples or other ingredients mixed into the batter; or poffertjes, tiny pancakes with powdered sugar. Cafes often serve a plate of three fried eggs with ham or cheese, known as an uitsmijter. The Dutch usually have it for lunch, although it also makes an excellent breakfast.

The hearty Dutch breakfast consists of a selection of breads, local cheeses, sliced meats, butter and chocolate sprinkles called hagelslag and jam. Lunch is generally a snack, with dinner being the main meal, eaten between 6 and 8 pm. Most restaurant kitchens close by 10 pm. Reservations are advisable because restaurants are often small and may be crowded during peak periods.

The Dutch are famous for their gin (jenever) and beer (bier). A popular winter drink is a rich herbal liqueur called Beerenburg. Bottled imported wines are expensive, but a carafe of house wine is of good quality for the most part. The Dutch drink their coffee strong, usually with cream and sugar, or opt for a kofie verkeerd, the Dutch version of a latte, that contains more milk than coffee. Tea is normally taken weak and without milk.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax, tip and service charge: $ = less than 10 euros; $$ = 10 euros-25 euros; $$$ = 26 euros-50 euros; and $$$$ = more than 50 euros.

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