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Amsterdam - city of canals, flowers, and bicycles

Amsterdam City Guide by Joanna Fiduccia

Country of windmills and dykes, grassy fields and grass heads, tolerance and tradition, Van Gogh and Shocking Blue, the Netherlands concentrate their features in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is small enough to navigate on foot and saturated in culture both past and present. Its reputation as a youthful city, largely derived from its legalized prostitution and cannabis, holds true, yet Amsterdam’s exquisite museums, vibrant markets, and rich history easily leap the age gap and make it the ideal destination for a short, cheerful and relativel cheap break. The downside of this is that things (both hotels, events and travel ) tend to get booked up in advance. Divento has up todate information on what's going on as well as tickets to most events. These days even popular exhibitions need to be booked in advance, so check out what's on and make the necessary bookings before you go.

In Amsterdam, first impressions are decidedly not everything. You’ll arrive at Centraal Station and emerge into a chaotic intersection of trams and crowds, fast food and plastic. Fear not—it can only get better—and keep walking. Amsterdam’s quaint houses, broad rivers, arced bridges, and tall locals lie just beyond. Hailed as the Venice of the North, Amsterdam is a half wheel of canals and cross streets. The innermost Singel canal is echoed by the Herengracht, the Keizersgracht, and the Prinsengracht canals. Each canal proffers a beautiful stroll peppered with Amsterdam’s finest architecture. In fine or poor weather, a canal boat tour can conduct you through Amsterdam’s waterways. Most boat tours can be accessed near the Central Station. The Museumboat stops at six museums, so you can hop on and off when and where you please.

The Dutch are known for their hospitality and their appreciation for all things gezellig, or informal and welcoming. Almost every resident speaks English, so very few linguistic barriers prevent even the most casual tourist from conversation and conviviality in one of Amsterdam’s many cozy restaurants and cafes. The Dutch are also characterized by their tolerance, particularly as it manifests in the legalization of prostitution and cannabis. However, that is not to say that everything goes in Amsterdam—tolerance dovetails with respect, and police are increasingly vigilant in enforcing the latter.

Tourism traffic reaches its acme in spring and summer, which have their evident disadvantages as well as several compelling draws. April 30th is Queen’s day, a festival of fairs and music in national celebration among the bulbs sprouting from every nook in the city. The first weekend of August is Canal Pride, during which the city’s margins flood its main canals with music, art, and celebration. If you plan to visit Amsterdam in the spring, summer, or winter holiday, reserve both hotel rooms and performance tickets in advance. Amsterdam’s easy navigation and low cost make the city one of Europe’s most popular get-aways, and rooms and tickets are snatched up quickly!

Across from the central station is the district cupped by the Singel canal. South of the station is the Dam Square, where sit the Royal Palace, the National Monument, and frequent markets. The Royal Palace, built between 1648 and 1655, was originally the town hall. Napoleon’s brother Lodewijk adopted it as his palace when he ascended the throne in 1808. The royal family no longer lives behind the Palace’s staid facade, leaving the grounds open to tours excepting the occasional royal event.

Oude Kerk

South of Dam Square is Oude Kerk, the oldest church in Amsterdam, located in the infamous red light district. The red light district, known de Wallen for its former status as city defenses, houses the city’s prostitution joints. Bursting with peep shows and erotica shops, the red light district is a sight one need not necessarily see. Also in the district, however, is the Amstelkring, or Our Lord in the Attic as recognized by the locals, an idiosyncratic church tucked in a canal house amidst the red light sin, at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40.

The Munt Tower stands west of Dam Square. Build around 1480 as part of the old city walls, the Munt is a prodigiously polyvalent structure, once a glass blowing shop, a police checkpoint, and even an inn before serving as a warehouse for metals awaiting transport to the mint. When Amsterdam was at last granted the right to make its own coinage, the tower assumed the operation—hence its namesake, the mint, or Munt. The carillon in its emblematic tower resounds throughout the city.

Near the Munt Tower are the Kalverstraat and the Nieuwendijk, broad pedestrian shopping streets, generally congested with tourists. On Kalverstraat is the Amsterdam Historical Museum, an engaging and well-curated exposition covering Amsterdam’s erection and development—well worth the trip. Floating on the Singel between Koningsplein and Muntplein is the Bloemenmarkt, Amsterdam’s majestic flower market.

To the southeast rests the 17th century house where Rembrandt lived and worked. There, one can buy prints from Rembrandt’s original plates. Near the Rembrandt house is Amsterdam’s oldest market, the Waterlooplein. Until WWII, this expansive, jammed bazaar was the city’s Jewish market. Following the war, Waterlooplein was reinstated, this time as a second-hand fair active everyday except Sundays. Though a magnet for the city’s visitors, the Waterlooplein is nonetheless a rousing metropolis of brocantes. Near the Waterlooplein is Het Muziektheater, the city’s opera house. A performance at Het Muziektheater should certainly be part of your visit. You can book tickets here.

The museum district, to the west of the Waterlooplein, contains the famous Rijksmuseum, home to Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” as well as numerous masterworks by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Hals. The neighboring Van Gogh museum, at Paulus Potterstraut 7, hosts an expansive collection of Van Gogh and his contemporaries. Near both is the stupendous Vonderpark, a park full of groves, fields, and paths once populated by hippies, now peopled by rollerbladers, teens, and families. Gather picnic ingredients from the nearby Albert-Cuypstraat market cornucopia for a perfect parkside lunch. Within the district as well brims the high-end Leidseplein antiques market and ultra chic Hoofstraat shopping district.

For shopping that doesn’t make your wallet tremble, seek the Nine Streets, an area abundant in boutiques and specialist shops. It’s north of the Rijksmusuem bounded by the Prinsengracht and the Singel. To the east of the Nine Streets is Westerkerk, Amsterdam’s largest church. On a clear day, the view from the tower extends to the coast. Nearby is the Anne Frank House, an intimate museum in the cramped attic where Anne Frank and her family hid during WWII. The house is crowded, and rightly so, during the day. Buying tickets in advance for visits in the early evening can spare you the line.

Further west of the Nine Streets is the Jordaan, once a working class borough, now a quirky knot of streets, shops, cafes, and markets. On Monday and Saturday, the Noordermarkt off the Prisengracht canal presents a lush selection of organic cheeses, herbs, and fish.

After an afternoon winding through the Jordaan, head to one of Amsterdam’s many cafes. In Amsterdam, a strong distinction exists between the café and the coffeehouse, the former serving what you’d expect, the latter catering not to java but to cannabis. It’s quite easy to differentiate, however, due to the latter’s certain pungency accompanied by names including ‘space,’ ‘rainbow,’ and ‘high.’

As night falls, return to the Leidseplein in southwest Amsterdam, percolating with nightlife, restaurants, cafés, and hotels. The area houses many of Amsterdam’s best DJs at clubs such as Paradiso and Melkweg, and the municipal theater is a stunning site day or night.

het muziektheater

With so much to see on foot, it would still be an incomplete Amsterdam experience without its vital arts scene. Amsterdam’s opera house, the Het Muziektheater in Waterlooplein, often sells out within the first weeks of ticket sales, so be certain to reserve tickets in advance. For classical music, the Het Concertgebouw is the place to be—again, advance tickets are strongly advised. The Amsterdam ArenA hosts large pop acts as a prime venue in international tours. The Heineken Music Hall and The Choice feature indy rock, from the famed to the obscure. Shows are often sold out months in advance, so plan ahead and order tickets here.

On the day after, spend some time wandering through Amsterdam’s gardens, the Hortus Botanicus at Plantage Middenlaan, or head east of the Oude Kerk, through the markets and hubbub at de Nieuwmarkt and de Waag, the former city gate, once used to weigh food products entering the market. Farther east in the Plantage Kerklaan is the Artis Zoo, whose aquarium is a veritable spectacle (and includes a cross-section of the canals, where eels entwine with rusted bike parts).

Top the day off with a visit to one of Amsterdam’s breweries. The Heineken brewery on Stadhouderskade now includes a museum and visitors’ center, and free beer. De Bekeerde, formally Maximilaan, in the red light district is a bar and brewery. De Ooievaar in the Jordaan is the last distillery in Amsterdam, and features a prodigious selection of spirits, open Monday and Wednesday 9:30-12:00. Finally, find time in a gezellig café to imbibe the atmosphere—among the warmest and heartiest in Europe.


Amsterdam has an efficient tram system. Buy a ‘strippenkaart’ from a tabac, post office, or rail station beforehand, and board the back of the train to validate your ticket (one zone is two tickets; two zones are three, and so forth).

Weather permitting, rent a bike. With plentiful bike lanes and minimal traffic, Amsterdam promotes bike travel as an excellent way to see the city. There are three principal bike shops: Bike City, at Bloemgracht 68 (Westerkerk), 6263721, Damstraat Rent a Bike, at Jacobszoondwarsstraat 11 (Dam), 6255029, and Amsterdam’s most popular, MacBike, at Leidseplein 528 7688 (Paradiso). Bike theft is always a concern, so do lock both the wheel and the frame to a secure base.

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