Until recently, the Netherlands' capital was something of a work-in-progress, its world-class art museums – among them the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk museum of modern art and the Van Gogh Museum – shuttered for ambitious renovations that temporarily shifted the focus away from the city's rich artistic heritage towards its sleazy, hedonistic side. Although Amsterdam's clubs, bars and nightlife, and the notorious Red Light District, are as vibrant as ever, now that the bandages are off it can revel once more in its unique status as one of Europe's most diverse and boundary-pushing destinations - a place that should feature on every discerning weekend-breaker's hit-list. Whether you're looking to sample Amsterdam's best restaurants, chill out in one of its weed-touting coffeeshops, pound the cobbled streets for one-off shopping finds, or bed down in one of our recommended hotels, this guide should equip you with everything you need to immerse yourself in a city that revels in high and low culture.
Compared to London or Paris, Amsterdam used to be like a kid brother who didn't want to grow up; it was a playground where all involved were guaranteed a good time. In terms of things to do, Amsterdam assails you from all angles, managing to be all things to all people, depending on where you go.
First things first: the Red Light District. Despite the best efforts of the legislators, it remains a drug paradise for stoner backpackers. It's also a bottomless well of live sex and no-holes-barred porn for stag parties. And it's a sleazy, subterranean warren of darkrooms for S&M gay men. Phew!
In the Museum Quarter, thanks to the high-profile re-openings of the famous Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk museum of modern art and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam is once again a grade-A destination for international art and architecture connoisseurs. Museumplein itself is actually not really an authentic Amsterdam square, but it does have plenty of grass, a wading pool that adjoins a skating ramp and several pleasant cafés.
Of course, Amsterdam continues to look good on a postcard (or Instagram), largely thanks to its 400-year-old waterways, which are criss-crossed with a host of bridges that outnumber those in Venice. A word on those famous canals: Singel was the medieval city moat; other canals such as Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht, which follow its line outwards, were part of a Golden Age renewal scheme for the rich.
The connecting canals and streets, originally home to workers and artisans, have a number of cafés and shops. Smaller canals worth seeking out for the purposes of pottering include Leliegracht, Bloemgracht, Egelantiersgracht, Spiegelgracht and Brouwersgracht.
Less explored but up-and-coming suburbs include Oost, currently undergoing something of a foodie renaissance, Noord, on the far bank of the IJ where the EYE Film Institute has recently relocated, and even the Bijlmermeer, a concrete '60s experiment that houses immigrant factories, which comes alive with summer's Kwakoe festival and is now getting some groovy galleries exploring the area's unique heritage.
Whichever way the wind happens to be blowing on your visit, one thing's for certain: Amsterdam will continue to grow, as it has done since 1200, whether literally or metaphorically.
The best things to do in Amsterdam
Explore Amsterdam’s best museums (and their cafés!)
Delve into the past of the city at the Amsterdam Museum (formerly the Amsterdam Historisch Museum), which maps the last eight centuries of urban evolution using quirky found objects like 700-year-old shoes. Next, hop over to the Museum Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder ('Our Lord in the Attic'), a charming hidden church in the Red Light District that has been recently restored to its 17th century glory. Round off your day with a trip to the Joods Historisch Museum in the old Jewish quarter. Housed in four former synagogues, it's crammed with photos, painting and artefacts exploring the history of Judaism in the Netherlands. There is an excellent children's wing, full of interactive exhibits and, predictably, the cafe does a mean bagel.
Visit the famous flower market
When you think of Amsterdam, images like clogs, tulips, cheese and windmills spring to mind. But beyond the clichés lie unique sights. Just outside the city, there's the Zaanse Schans museum, detailing the history and symbolism of the clog, and other tradtional crafts. The most famous place to buy tulips is the Bloemenmarkt, along the Singel, and you can find flavourful cheeses at the smart Reypenaer tasting room. Meanwhile, eight windmills remain in Amsterdam, the most famous of which is De Gooyer. It's a great place to sip a beer, as it's right next to the award-winning artisan brewery Brouwerij 't IJ.
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Lose yourself in Amsterdam’s Canal Belt
Criss-crossed by bridges, 165 canals encircle the city of Amsterdam and keep the sea at bay. The waterways provide an attractive border to the arty locales of the Museum Quarter, the Jordaan and the Pijp. Within the pockets of land that their eclectic network creates, you can find shops, galleries and authentic cafés. The most picturesque of canals is Prinsengracht, lined by shady trees and funky houseboats. As you wander up to this area, you'll find the tall spire of the Westerkerk and the modest Anne Frank Huis. Smaller canal areas that are worth visiting include the historic Brouwersgracht, one of the city's most desirable residential addresses.
Picnic in the Vondelpark
For the perfect picnic, head to the Vondelpark. The largest green space in Amsterdam, the park is named after its best-known poet Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679), whose controversial play Lucifer caused the religious powers of the time to crack down on 'notorious living'. Yet it continues to thrive in the summertime, when people gather to smoke, drink and feast here. The park is also something of a cultural hub, with a number of sculptures including one by Picasso. From June to September, music, dance and kids' activities take place at the Vondelpark Openluchttheater.
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Rent an Amsterdam bike and get cycling
Cycling is a quintessentially Dutch means of getting around Amsterdam. Bicycles have long been part of a thriving democracy in the Netherlands. They played a vital role in the early-20th century campaign to secure women the vote and the absurd 1960s happenings of the Provos art group, when artists used them as a Socialist symbol. So, by getting on your bike, you'll prove yourself a free spirited citizen. There are plenty of places to hire them such as MacBike and Rent-A-Bike, while clear cycle lanes stitch the city together. You can catch all the sights on a bike by booking a guided tour from the Yellow Bike company. Bear in mind some golden rules. Never cycle next to your friend, put your lights on at night and lock your bike up.
Eat street food, Amsterdam-style
You simply must try raw herring. We don't want to hear any excuses. The best time to try one is between May and July when the new catch hits the stands, because this doesn't require any extra garnish such as onions and pickles, since the fish's flesh is at its sweetest. There's a quality fish stall or store around most corners. There are stalls all over town, but the best places to buy a herring include the family-run Stubbe's Haring on the Singel Haarlingersluis near Centraal Station. This fish is a bargain snack and makes for an authentic Dutch eating experience.
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Tour the Red Light District for sex shops and bars
Amsterdam's Red Light District has cultivated a notorious reputation on the international stage. But when you visit, you'll discover that the reality is a bit different. It's like a small, cutesy version of Las Vegas, with cheesy sex shops selling blow-ups, massive dildos and other outrageous toys. Situated in a rough triangle formed by the Central Station, it's the oldest part of the city. But its historical significance has been largely obscured by the popularity of window-shopping in the area. Along its streets, the multi-cultural community of prostitutes, junkies, clerics, carpenters and cops freely intermingle, exhibiting a strange kind of social cosiness. As a tourist, of course, you'll be a mere voyeur.
Visit the reopened Rijksmuseum for Old Master paintings
After a delayed comeback, Amsterdam has a world-class art museum to rival that of any major European city in the form of the lavishly restored Rijksmuseum. Original architect Pierre Cuypers, also responsible for the city's Centraal Station, envisaged the place as something of a secular church for the veneration of Rembrandt and pals, and the building's ten-year renovation at the hands of Spanish architect Cruz y Ortiz is also nothing short of masterful, incorporating a light-flooded atrium and a new Asian Pavilion. Over the years, the Rijksmuseum has amassed the country's largest collection of art and artefacts from the 15th century to the present day, but the likes of Rembrandt's The Night Watch and Vermeer's Kitchen Maid (both displayed in the magnificent Gallery of Honour) remain the big hitters. In this new context, you'll be able to see exactly why.
Explore Amsterdam’s parks and canals (on skates)
If you enjoy skating, you'll love Amsterdam. Traditionally in winter, the frozen canals provide a playground for ice-skating locals. Fearless skaters whoosh along narrow city canals at the marathon-style event of Elfstedentocht – a 200km race around Friesland. But due to warm conditions, the race hasn't been held since 1997. In summer, you'll find locals and tourists alike skating through the park. All year round, at 9pm on a Friday night, a group of skating enthusiasts meet opposite in the the Vondelpark to join a 20km, three-hour tour through the night streets. It's called, imaginatively enough, Friday Night Skate and its final destination is the pub.
See great Dutch art – at the Stedelijk Museum and the Van Gogh Museum
In this city, you can mingle with great modern painters. The amazing bathtub-shaped Stedelijk Museum has an amazing collection of 20th and 21st-century artists. It holds pre-war works by Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, plus a selection of paintings and drawings by Malevich. Post-1945 artists include De Kooning, Judd, Lichtenstein, Nauman, Stella and Warhol. Another highlight, of course, is the Van Gogh Museum, which holds 200 paintings and 500 drawings produced by the troubled genius, as well as Japanese paints and works by his one-time collaborator Gauguin. It is housed in a Rietveld building, enlarged with a newer wing by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa.