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AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS

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.

HIGHLIGHTS

Sights—The Westerkerk (West Church) on the Prinsengracht and the spectacular view from its tower; gabled mansions on the 17th-century canal ring inside the Singelgracht; the Anne Frank House; the Red Light District; Amsterdam-Noord.

Museums—Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum; the Van Gogh Museum; the Stedelijk Museum.

Memorable Meals—Smoked eel at Haesje Claes; french fries with mayonnaise or peanut-butter sauce from the rear end of the Albert Cuyp Markt; rijsttafel at Tempo Doeloe; salted or pickled herring from one of the fish stands along the canals; traditional Dutch fare at Moeders; international dishes from Food Hallen.

Walks—A stroll that takes in all the sights of Dam Square and the adjacent Red Light District; a walking tour of the old Jordaan section; a walk in Vondelpark; a guided walking tour from Gilde Amsterdam of the city's hidden courtyards, Jeiwsh quarter or other specialized itineraries.

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.

WEATHER

Amsterdam's climate is mild but changeable year-round. January and February are the chilliest months, with temperatures usually between 30 F and 40 F. Though often windy, it's rare for Amsterdam to get much snow or for the canals to freeze. June-September is warm but generally not hot: Temperatures rarely exceed 80 F and can get as cool as 50 F.

The Netherlands is a damp country. The running joke is that it only rains two days a year—the rest of the time it pours. Rain can arrive unexpectedly on what starts out to be a sunny day. Therefore, a raincoat and umbrella are often necessary. In summer, the humidity can become oppressive.

 
 

RED LIGHT DISTRICT

For better or worse, this is the place that many outsiders associate with Amsterdam. It's also the oldest part of the city and is known as De Wallen because the old city walls were located there. This crowded, colorful neighborhood draws tourists by the thousands with its proliferation of sex shops and dens along narrow streets and canals. Prostitutes pose in illuminated windows, exhibiting their wares, as would-be customers, backpackers, strolling couples and travelers of all ages gape. (When the window shade is down, it means the woman of the house is engaged in business.) The experience is nothing short of surreal.

One way to explore the buildings and monuments of the district is to join a guided tour. If you're visiting De Wallen out of simple curiosity, you might feel more comfortable going during the day, though the night is when the real crowds show up. Taking pictures is taboo and could prove dangerous—at the least you'll risk your camera being thrown into the murky canal, and if you are really unlucky you may still be attached to it. Ignore the street drug dealers. If you go in the evening, avoid deserted streets. There are also plenty of eateries and bars to nourish the tired spectator.

Some of the best Chinese and Thai restaurants are located in Amsterdam's Chinatown, which occupies a small area of the Red Light District around the Zeedijk and Geldersekade.

A plan called Project 1012 (named after the local area code) was launched in 2007 to clean up the neighborhood. The city is buying up windows and plans to replace them with galleries, artists' workshops, restaurants and high-end bars. Some windows already display fashion, but the plan to turn the whole district into a shopping paradise has been met with major protests from locals and tourists alike.

To reach the Red Light District, head east from Dam Square.

POTPOURRI

At the Prostitute Information Center's minimuseum, run by ex-prostitute Mariska Majoor, visitors can see a mock-up of a historic brothel room.

There are 206 paintings by Van Gogh hanging on museum walls in the city compared with just 22 paintings by Rembrandt. Amsterdam is also known as the Venice of the North, and it has more canals than the Italian city.

The movie Ocean's Twelve was shot in and around the Hotel Pulitzer, the Kloveniersburgwal and Heiligeweg. A key scene was filmed in De Dampkring coffeeshop on the Handboogstraat.

Rembrandt had to leave his home and declare bankruptcy because the company that commissioned his painting The Night Watch was dissatisfied with it. The painting is now hailed as one of Rembrandt's masterpieces and can be seen at the Rijksmuseum.

Central Station is supported by 8,687 wooden stakes, which were pounded into three artificial islands built to support it.

All public bars and restaurants in Amsterdam are smoke-free: Coffee shops aren't quite sure whether the ban includes them or not. Currently, you can still smoke your (legal) joint inside, but only if it's 100% marijuana and not laced with tobacco. If you want to smoke a plain cigarette, you must go outside.

DOS AND DON'TS

Do take a boat trip: The city is at its loveliest from the water.

Don't bother trying to speak Dutch unless you know more than a couple of words. Most locals speak English well. Efforts to use the words alstublieft ("please," but also "you're welcome") and dank u wel ("thank you very much") will be appreciated, though.

 

Do leave the athletic shoes, shorts and baseball cap at home if you want to pass for a local.

Don't walk in the bicycle paths (narrow lanes sometimes marked with a white cycle symbol).

Do try raw herring with chopped onions and pickles (best in late spring) or, at the very least, the great frites.

Don't miss the appropriately situated 3-D bronze rendition of Rembrandt's The Night Watch in Rembrandtplein.

Do make an evening pit stop at the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge). Of Amsterdam's 1,280 or so bridges, it's arguably the most beautiful, lit up as it is at night. Hardly surprising, then, that it's a popular smooching site.

Don't overlook the city's green lung, the Vondelpark. It's located in the south of Amsterdam, just a five-minute walk from the Leidseplein and within walking distance from the Museumplein. The Vondelpark is a perfect respite from the beaten tourist path.

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.

TIPPING

Tipping is not something that is expected in Amsterdam, as service charges are included in hotel, restaurant, shopping and taxi bills. North American visitors may have some difficulty with this, but be advised that the pay structure of workers in these service industries does not make them rely on tips to make up their wages. The Dutch usually round up their bill to the nearest euro. There is also nothing wrong with leaving a small tip for exceptionally good service.

Some public restrooms in Amsterdam have an attendant. In these cases, when using the restroom, tip the attendant 0.50 euros.

PERSONAL SAFETY

Violence occurs less frequently in Amsterdam than in many other European cities, so simple precautions usually suffice. However, pickpockets do operate regularly. Watch your wallet or handbag, especially on public transportation and in department stores, and watch your bags when waiting for a train or bus. Be wary of strangers trying to distract you while you're using an ATM.

Be alert if you walk around the Red Light District, especially at night. The Red Light District is a major tourist attraction, and there are plenty of non-customers there just looking around. If you choose to walk around this area alone, stick to main, well-lit streets. Keep your camera well-stowed; taking pictures is not appreciated and will lead to immediate problems.

Trafficking in either hard or soft drugs is illegal.

 

Consumption of hard drugs (cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, etc.) is illegal. However, soft drugs (marijuana and hashish) are sold in so-called coffee shops, which are easily identified by their window displays. (Confusion with regular coffee shops is highly unlikely.) The soft-drug coffee shops are allowed to sell small quantities only (no more than 5 grams per person), which can be smoked there or taken to go. The minimum age for this is 18. Police vigorously prosecute those who possess or sell hard drugs.

GEOSTATS

Population: 813,562

Languages: Dutch. English is widely spoken—it's taught in the schools. Many Dutch people also speak German and French

Predominant Religions: Christian (Roman Catholic, Dutch Reformed), Jewish and Islamic, though many other religions are represented

Time Zone: 1 hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+1 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is observed from the end of March to the end of October.

Voltage Requirements: 220 volts. 50 Hz.

Telephone Codes: 31, country code; 20, city code; 06, mobile numbers;

Travel 42

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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon

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