Sitting at an outdoor cafe next to one of Amsterdam's famous canals, drinking a Heineken, the Netherlands' world-famous beer, noshing on a pastry and watching swans and other waterfowl floating along, sometimes bobbing in the quiet wake from the many tourist cruisers and residents' boats, it's easy to get lost in the moment. The Dutch call it gezelligheid, and it refers to the coziness felt throughout the historic city -- that laid-back, live-and-let-live vibe.
Breathe and take it in. It feels gooooood.
This is a city to which you could easily imagine yourself moving, perhaps running a bed-and-breakfast and enjoying a stress-free quality of life. The city's well-preserved history, with centuries-old buildings and houses, and its active lifestyle -- bicycles are everywhere as are fit-looking people -- add to the enticement.
Some people actually do move there. It's one of the most expensive European cities to live in, yet those who feel the calling find a way to make it happen. Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands and one of the oldest cities in Europe, has a high percentage of residents who weren't born in Holland. Another reason Amsterdam is a favorite for expats: easy access to Europe's other great cities. Seeing Berlin, Paris, London, Stockholm and Barcelona is as easy as an escape to Austin, Hot Springs, Ark., and New Orleans for North Texans.
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But whether or not you are contemplating a move, Amsterdam is a place that warrants a visit, more than once. There are museums and such, sure, but between and after making those rounds, the city begs you to sit and relax and take it all in.
Take a cue from the many cats that can be spotted in the windows, on pretty much every floor of every building, taking in the city's gorgeous views.
With the overwhelming sense of gezelligheid, it's easy to forget that Amsterdam is one of Europe's most exciting cities -- and not just because there's a greater tolerance for vices. We're talking about a city that makes Las Vegas look like Branson, Mo.
So here's an easy guide for first-time visitors: the must-sees, foods and helpful tips. Although trips to other Netherlands cities (Rotterdam, The Hague), or even to Antwerp or Brussels, Belgium, are easy, these suggestions are mostly limited to the Old City Center and Canal Rings, the Jordaan and the Museum districts.
Where to go
Anne Frankhuis , or the Anne Frank House Museum (www.annefrank.org)
At this tourist destination, the line gets long quickly, so get there first thing in the morning. The museum, which features video, letters and memorabilia, occupies four floors of the building next to the house in which Frank and seven others hid from the Nazis for two years in an upstairs annex. The area in which they lived in confinement, including the hinged bookshelf that served as the covert entryway, is still preserved. In the small room where Anne wrote her famous diary hang the magazine movie-star pictures that she put on the wall. Definitely worth a visit; be prepared to do some steep stair-climbing.
Address: Prinsengracht 263-267, Amsterdam
Phone: +31 (0)20-5567105
Rembrandthuis, or Rembrandt House Museum (www.rembrandthuis.nl)
The largest collection of works by one of the country's most famous artists can be viewed in the sprawling Rijksmuseum (www.rijksmuseum.nl), but the Rembrandthuis, where the painter and etcher lived between 1639 and 1658, offers a more intimate portrait of the man and his trade. Rembrandt sold his own paintings, and the room where he made those transactions is one of the first stops in the four-story house. Other rooms offer fascinating accounts of 17th-century life, and his studio space and collections of world and animal objects are revealing of the man's interests. If you happen to go through when one of the etching demonstrations is happening, pop in. In related sites, the Van Gogh Museum (www.vangoghmuseum.nl) and the Vermeer Centrum (www.vermeerdelft.nl) are worth visits. While you're in the Rembrandthuis area, make it to the Hermitage Museum (www.hermitage.nl), an offshoot of the famous Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. The current exhibition, "The Immortal Alexander the Great," runs through next March.
Address: Jodenbreestraat 4, 1011 NK Amsterdam
Phone: +31 (0)20 5200 400
Dam Square (www.amsterdam.info/sights/dam_square)
Every great city has at least one famous central gathering spot, and this large plaza is Amsterdam's. Some of the striking features include the National Memorial obelisk (erected in 1956 in memory of Dutch soldiers who died in World War II), the Royal Palace (which was closed for renovation on our visit) and the beautiful Gothic 15th-century Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). The plaza is filled with entertainers, bizarrely dressed in American horror movie costumes (Freddy Krueger, the Scream slasher), who stand on boxes and perform tricks for tips. This is where all the city's visitors gather, and you'll no doubt spot a few people rolling a joint, which is tolerated in the city. Various forms of cannabis (marijuana for smoking as a joint or in pipes, hash in baked goods, among them) can be purchased at coffee shops all over town.
Dam Square is about a 10-minute walk from Centraal Station.
The Red Light District (www.amsterdam.info/red-light-district)
It's the most famous Red Light District in the world, and the sex industry is government-approved and thriving. There are brothels and sex shops throughout the city (prostitution is legal in the Netherlands), but the district has the largest concentrations of window prostitutes, made known by the red lights above the doors and around the windows. Many of them are on the streets that spoke out from the Oudekerk, or Old Church, a 14th-century Gothic structure. When the workers aren't busy, they're either drumming up business or looking completely bored, checking their cellphones and nails.
The Red Light District is about a five-minute walk from Centraal Station.
The Tulip Museum (www.amsterdamtulipmuseum.com)
The Amsterdam Tulip Museum is small but offers insight into the industry of the country's most famous flower, which was actually imported from the Himalayas. To see the flowers in full bloom, visit Holland in April.
Address: Prinsengracht 112, 1015 EA Amsterdam
Phone: +31 (0)20 421 00 95
The Houseboat Museum (www.houseboatmuseum.nl)
This is another short tour, but worth it to view how a family might live in one of the only 250 houseboats that stay anchored in the canals. The 800-square-feet living quarters seem cramped, but owning one is a sign of wealth. Some have gardens, patios and even sculpture gardens on deck.
Post box 17291, 1001 JG Amsterdam
Phone: +31 (0)20-4270750
The Renzo Piano-designed interactive science museum, which resembles a large, sinking ocean liner in the bay near the Centraal Train Station, is the hub of the Old City Center.
Address: Oosterdok 2, 1011 VX Amsterdam
Phone: + 31 (0)20-531 32 33
What to eat
Pancakes are common all over the city, and not just for breakfast. Dutch pancakes are slightly thicker than French crepes, but about the same size in diameter. They're popular topped with all varieties of fruit preserves and syrup, but savory flavors, such as Thai chicken curry, are not unheard of. The best place to munch on these delights is Pancake Bakery (www.pancake.nl) in the Jordaan area.
Street food is prominent in high-traffic areas, and although hotdogs and falafels pop up everywhere, stop at one of the herring kiosks, where you can find the popular snack fish in various forms, as well as mackerel and other fish of the North Atlantic and North Sea. A herring sandwich, with pickles and onions, is a treat. Another common street food is french fries, slathered with mayonnaise (ketchup is available, too).
Gourmet chocolate and cheese can be found in shops, too. But if you want to take some back from one of these pricey stores, it's best to have it shipped home and avoid the duty at the airport. You find less-expensive options at the duty-free shops.
Before the 1990s, the most common international cuisine in Holland was Indonesian; that Southeast Asian nation was one of the many Dutch colonies around the globe. There is still a large contingent of what is considered the best Indonesian restaurants outside of Indonesia, but Amsterdam is brimming with other international restaurants, especially Thai, Argentinean and Spanish. China Town, near the Red Light District, is supposedly one of the best in Europe. Don't pass up Tibet Restaurant (www.tibet-restaurant.nl), which offers some Tibetan dishes, heavily leaning toward Szechuan flavors.
Moving about the city is incredibly easy, with lots of mass transportation options. Metro stations and tram and bus stops are within a few meters of anywhere important you want to go, while taxis and pedicabs are easy to find, too. The Old City Center area is small enough that walking is viable -- just wear comfortable shoes.
You can also rent bicycles and even take bike tours of the city. Bicycles are the predominant way Amsterdam residents get around, and bike parking can be found all over. The bicycle garage at Centraal Station is a site worth visiting. All of the railings on bridges over the canals have bikes chained to them; and many of the bikes have baskets/storage over the back wheel, and safety seats for small children between the handlebars and the bicyclist.
Where to stay
Hotels and hostels are everywhere, in every price range. Check online for rooms to rent in private residences or at bed-and-breakfasts. We found Mae's Bed and Breakfast (Herenstraat 26 hs 1015 CB, Amsterdam, + 31 (0)20 427 5165; www.bedandbreakfastamsterdam.com) in the Jordaan area, a few blocks from the Anne Frankhuis, and highly recommend it for comfortable rooms, free and reliable WiFi and super-friendly hosts. The incredible breakfast spread goes beyond the typical "continental" fare at most European hotels -- the fresh fruit included figs -- and one of the staffers is on hand to make pancakes and provide friendly conversation.
There are many ways to get to Amsterdam from Texas, but KLM flies direct from D/FW to Schiphol International Airport. Round-trip tickets, when found offseason and in advance, are in the $600 range. The trip there is about nine hours, and nearly 10 coming back (the return flight goes over southern Greenland). Remember that the Netherlands is seven hours ahead of Central Standard Time.
If you plan to sight-see, buy an I Am AMsterdam Card from the Information Center at the Centraal Station. It comes in 24-, 48- and 72-hour packages. The card gets you unlimited rides on the metro, trams and buses, plus admission to most of the museums (Anne Frankhuis excluded), one-hour trips on two canal cruise lines, plus discounts and special offers for many restaurants (including Pancake Bakery) and attractions. Our 48-hour pass proved to be a money-saver.
Dutch is the official language, but English is widely spoken, and you will find that anyone working at ticket booths, restaurants and even kiosks speaks it. Holland is surrounded by a lot of countries, so don't be surprised to hear German, French, Italian or Spanish spoken frequently, too, not to mention Swedish, Czech, Arabic and many other languages.
Learn the rules of the bicycle culture. There are special bike lanes, and if you're walking and not paying attention, you will get hit by one. Bikes are equipped with bells, so in most cases, there's a warning.
Do not take photos of prostitutes or any drug activity. That will likely introduce you to a cop, who will take your camera.