Amsterdam Essentials (One of our favorite cities in Europe)

by Eleanor Berman and Dan Askin

There is a fairy tale quality to the tree-lined canal streets of Amsterdam.

Boutiques, cafes and hotels may hide behind the facades of the gabled townhouses, but the look of this beautiful city hasn't changed much since its 17th-century Golden Age. Some 7,000 historic buildings remain -- merchants' mansions located along canals laid out in five concentric circles, connected by bridges and intriguing small streets. No matter how many times you walk along the canals, they are enchanting to see, even when traffic and whizzing bicycles dispel the Old World illusion. On a silent Sunday morning or a summer evening when the old facades are floodlit, the city is magical.

Amsterdam is small enough that much of the city can be covered on foot, allowing visitors to savor sights such as the charming no-two-alike gables atop the houses, houseboats bedecked with potted greenery and masses of blooms in the colorful, floating flower market. Shops offering antiques or avant-garde art beckon everywhere. Outdoor markets, selling everything from postage stamps and parakeets to "junk-tiques," are another intriguing facet of the city.

Considered one of Europe's major art capitals, Amsterdam boasts three great Dutch museums as well as a small branch of the Hermitage -- the famous trove of art treasures in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Anne Frank House and Rembrandt's home are also popular attractions. In the performing arts, the city has two international stars -- the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (a 2008 poll from classical music magazine Gramophone called it the world's best) and the National Ballet.

The canal streets of the old city are protected by ordinance and will never change, but Amsterdam is expanding outward and architecture buffs will find both modern and historic neighborhoods to explore. Though quite close to the old city, the cruise terminal -- known as "the wave" for its free-form facade (shaped like a whale) -- is the part of the Eastern Docklands area where shipping docks have given way to neighborhoods of striking contemporary design that now house more than 20,000 people. A concert hall for jazz and modern music opened in 2005, adjacent to the terminal, and ongoing construction will bring many more amenities, including hotels.

What to See
A Canal Boat Cruise: A cruise aboard a glass-topped canal boat is the best overview of the fine gabled homes and many picturesque bridges that make this city unique. Boats also take you into the busy harbor. The ride is romantic on nights, in season, when the bridges and facades are lit. Tours last about 1.5 hours and depart frequently from the harbor in front of Central Station.

Rijksmuseum: This world-class museum always seems to be under renovation, but its most famous works, a small fraction of its whole collection, can still be seen in a special wing. The exhibit, aptly named The Masterpieces, displays favorite paintings by Hals, Vermeer, Steen and Rembrandt (including the latter's "Night Watch"), as well as highlights of the Golden Age like silver, delftware and exquisitely furnished doll houses. The museum won't completely reopen until 2013 at the earliest. The Rijksmuseum also maintains a gallery that's well worth visiting at Schiphol Airport.

Van Gogh Museum: The world's largest collection of works by the Dutch master is found here, along with paintings by Van Gogh's contemporaries -- Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Sisley and others. Highlights are 18 paintings from the two years when Van Gogh lived in the south of France. It is generally considered his best work, with familiar images such as "The Yellow House," "Vincent's Bedroom at Arles," "Sunflowers" and "Self Portrait with Pipe and Straw Hat."

Anne Frank House: Many decades after World War II, a line still forms almost every day with visitors waiting to view the small, hidden rooms where 13-year-old Anne Frank wrote her famous diary. Eight people, family and friends, lived in this space, hardly daring to speak aloud for more than two years, hoping in vain to escape the Nazis. The bare rooms have lost none of their impact or poignancy with the passage of time.

Historic churches: Three of the city's oldest churches are worth looking into. The Oude Kerk dates to the 13th century and has beautiful stained-glass windows. The 14th-century Nieuwe Kirk -- which means "new church" -- is anything but! The late-Gothic-period church has many features of note, including a handsome pulpit, and hosts revolving modern art exhibits and music concerts. Westerkerk, built between 1620 and 1630, is considered a masterpiece of Dutch Renaissance style, and is the scene of summer concerts played on a 300-year-old organ. Visitors can go up into the tower, a landmark in the shape of a crown, for a clear city view.

Rembrandt House Museum: This is an atmospheric reconstruction of the 1639 home built when Rembrandt was at the height of his fame, furnished with items and works of art from the master's time. Rooms include his kitchen, his studio, the workroom where he did his meticulous etchings and a gallery displaying dozens of them. Demonstrations show how pigments were ground into paint in earlier days, and a modern-day master is on hand to show the painstaking techniques of etching, guaranteed to leave you with a greater appreciation of this art.

Royal Palace: This one-time city hall, built in the mid-17th century, was transformed into a palace by Napoleon Bonaparte's brother, Louis, when he was king in the early 19th century. Though it is the official royal palace, no one lives there. The palace is used today only for ceremonial events.

Other museums: It would take at least a month to visit Amsterdam's more than 40 museums, but depending on your interests, there are several more major attractions. Along with interesting displays, the Jewish Historical Museum has a beautiful setting. It's in a restored building that is the oldest public synagogue in Europe. The Hermitage is small, but often brings rare traveling exhibits from its home museum in Russia. The Amsterdam Historical Museum, housed in the 17th-century buildings of the former city orphanage, illustrates how a small fishing village became a world power and offers paintings by many Dutch masters in the context of their time and place. Paintings also are hung in the covered street between buildings; this passage is free and also connects to a fascinating little enclave of 14th-century homes, the Begijnhof, which is also free.

The Red Light District: You've heard about it, so you might as well see the area, just behind the Oude Kerk (old church), where ladies of the night dressed in scanty underwear are sitting in the windows, waiting for customers. Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, and the ladies enjoy police protection (still, behind many ladies is a pimp). While more unsavory at night, the narrow streets are safe to walk in daytime and the windows seem to be occupied around the clock. Just watch for pickpockets -- and remember that taking pictures of the women is forbidden.

Those interested in learning more about the district can book a tour, day or night, through a private operator like Randy Roy's Redlight Tours.

The Aalsmeer Flower Auction: The world's largest flower auction takes place Monday through Friday in Aalsmeer, not far from Schiphol Airport. Visitors' hours are from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Get up early to see the best of the action. Thirteen mammoth bidding clocks go at once in five buildings as millions of tulips and daffodils are wheeled by; buyers must be quick, as the first bid stops the clock. Bus #172 from central station will take you to Aalsmeer; allow an hour for the trip.

Keukenhof Gardens: Especially in April and May, this 20-acre park, maintained by an association of Dutch bulb growers, is one of the world's most glorious gardens, featuring some seven million colorful tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other bulb flowers in artistic array. Tours from Amsterdam are usually available to the garden, located about an hour away in Lisse.

Where to Shop
Amsterdam has shops to appeal to everyone. Traditional, large department stores, such as the Bijenkorf, are near the Dam Square, and Magna Plaza (just behind the Royal Palace) is a historic building that has been converted to a luxurious shopping center. Exclusive designer fashions are found on P.C. Hoftstraat and other streets near the Rijksmuseum, while Rokin Street and the Spiegelkwartier are centers for the city's many antique shops.

Most fun for browsing are the small streets between the main canals, lined with intriguing little shops and galleries that have made the city increasingly known for its young, cutting-edge fashion and design. The Frozen Fountain and Droog Design are good places to see some of the best work of new interior designers.

Many of the diamond dealers offer demonstrations of how a diamond is cut and polished, fun to see even if your budget doesn't allow for a solitaire on this trip. The "Shopping in Amsterdam" brochure available at the tourist office offers a plan of numerous shopping areas around town.

Amsterdam is home to a number of excellent markets. The Floating Flower Market on the Singel Canal is a colorful sight, packed with fresh-cut flowers year round. The Kunst & Antiekcentrum de Looier is a big indoor market, held on weekends and Wednesdays in old warehouses along the canals in the Jordaan section. The Thorbeckeplein Art Market offers a mix of paintings, sculpture and jewelry by local artists. The Book Market on Fridays at Spui features second-hand books, the stamp market on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal takes place on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, the bird market at Noordermarket is a colorful sight on Saturday mornings, and the Waterlooplein Flea Market has a little bit of everything, including junk; some vendors are out almost daily, but summer Saturday mornings are the time to snag better antiques and books.

Looking for souvenirs? Delicate Delft china is one of Holland's best-known products; it can be found both in traditional blue and white and in multi-color designs. Gardeners will want to order famous Dutch tulip bulbs, which are shipped to buyers at the proper planting time. Delicious Dutch cheeses can be bought at the airport, as well as in town. The hand-worked, aged Gouda is a special treat. Amsterdam is also an international diamond-cutting center, with many showrooms offering competitive prices on diamonds.

Editor's Note: If you spend more than 50 euros in a store and are not a European Union resident, you are entitled to a refund of the value-added tax (VAT), which amounts to 19 percent of the bill (shop where you see the Global Refund Tax-Free Shopping sign and remember to ask for the Global Refund Cheque). A lower rate of 6 percent applies for certain goods and services, such as food products, books, medicines, art, antiques, entry to museums, zoos, theatres and sports. When leaving the country or the European Union, show your purchases, receipts and passport to customs officials and have your Global Refund Cheques stamped.

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