1. A city of 165 canals
The canals are very much part of Amsterdam’s charm. Around 165 were created over the centuries to stimulate trade and reclaim land so the city could expand. The network to the west and south of the old town and the medieval port, built in the late 16th and early 17th century are now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
With their ornate gables and slightly wonky appearance, the canal houses date back to the city’s heyday, when Amsterdam was the most important trading city in Europe. Many still retain the hooks used to haul furniture and goods up to the top floors – a method still used today.
2. Hiring a bike
3. The Bulldog, De Wallen
Known for its world-famous works of art, Amsterdam also enjoys another sort of fame – or infamy – for its liberalism, especially in De Wallen, the city’s Red Light District. The government’s relaxed attitude in regard to this seedier side of city life is sometimes summed up by the very Dutch concept of gedogen.
You can’t really translate it, but it seems to be based on the idea of incorporating or tolerating certain things rather than ignoring them. So that even though selling ‘soft drugs’ may be technically illegal, café owners are still asked to pay taxes on these sales.
4. Anne Frank’s House
Anne Frank and seven others hid in a secret annexe of this house in Jordaan for almost two years, trying to escape capture by the occupying Nazis. Whatever time you visit the house on Prinsengracht – the museum is bottom right in the picture above – you will probably have to queue to get in, but don’t let this put you off.
Stepping into the cramped spaces once inhabited by the now world-famous schoolgirl who recorded her thoughts and feelings in her diary elicits sadness, wonder and horror at what she and her family had to endure.
5. The Rijksmuseum
The Rijksmuseum, home to some of the greatest works of Dutch art, has re-opened after a decade-long closure for a major refurbishment. The extensive makeover ended up costing the city around 375 million euros, but the museum’s 8000 artworks are now back on display.
Covering art from the medieval to modern times, the main focus is on the masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age and includes early self-portraits by Rembrandt and Vermeer’s beautifully subtle yet spiritual studies of domestic life.
6. Science Center NEMO
Should you tire of the bikes and canals and cafes, you can easily spend a whole morning or afternoon here in Amsterdam’s huge state-of-the-art science museum. NEMO has four floors of interactive, educational fun – see what you look like 50 years older; make a bubble that’s bigger than you; tell the time on a giant water clock – all housed in a spectacular space-age building designed by Renzo Piano, the man behind The Shard.
7. ‘Our Lord in the Attic’ clandestine church
Constructed on the top floors of a canal house by a wealthy merchant, Jan Hartman, there are no clues from street level as to what lies within. But climb the narrow stairways to the top of the house and you come across ‘Our Lord in the Attic’, an elaborately decorated clandestine church complete with frescoes and an organ.
It was built during the 1660s as a place of Catholic worship after the Dutch Reformed Church officially prohibited the celebration of Catholic mass in 1578.
8. Eating and drinking
The city is famous for its ‘brown bars’, so-called for their wooden interiors and smoke-stained walls. One of the best is t’ Smalle, a welcoming, intimate bar in Jordaan where you can enjoy a beer and rub shoulders with the locals.
In the same area – and equally an Amsterdam institution – is The Pancake Bakery. Perennially popular, this pancake house serves up traditional and innovative options. For a taste of local produce head to Restaurant de Kas to enjoy a plot-to-plate experience courtesy of its vast greenhouse just outside the centre of town. Expect creative seasonal fare and an excellent wine list. The food and culture of former Dutch colony Indonesia has had a noticeable influence on the city and Tempo Doeloe is one of the best-known and popular of Amsterdam’s many East Asian eateries.