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The charm of Amsterdam is hard to beat. With all the perks of a major city, but the feel of a friendly, laid-back village, Amsterdam has everything from world-class museums to characterful coffee shops, all bound up by pretty cobbled streets and canals.
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Nightlife in Amsterdam varies from traditional pubs to live music places to nightclubs. The typical Amsterdam pub is known as the Brown Cafe (Bruine), which have booths and wood-panelled walls. These aren’t the same as coffeeshops, in which you can buy soft drugs. Nightclubs tend to open around 11pm, getting going at 1am and closing at 4-5am. Most aren’t pretentious and have little in the way of a dress code, and entrance prices are rarely high.
De Melkweg (Lijnbaansgracht 234a) and Paradiso (Weteringschans 6-8) are both very popular live music venues – be prepared to queue. At the top of the scene is Jimmy Woo (Korte Leidsedwarsstraat 18), harder to get into than most, so dress up. To get away from house music, try The Sugar Factory (Lijnsbaansgracht 238) for some soul and funk.
For something a little more cultural, look for what’s going on at the Concertgebouw (Concertgebouwplein 2-6) which regularly hosts international orchestras; or the Muziektheater (Amstel 3) houses the Dutch National Opera.
The food of the Netherlands may not be world famous, but Amsterdam holds a surprising variety of cuisines due to the multicultural nature of the city. Affordable Dutch restaurants with large portions are plentiful, but you’ll also find excellent Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Indian and Surinamese cuisine. Dinner is the main meal in Amsterdam, so for lunch head to eetcafés for something small.
For some serious French gastronomy in luxurious 17th-century splendour, check out the Vermeer restaurant at the NH Barbizon Palace Hotel (Prince HendrikkaDe 58-72), or in the same league but more international is Restaurant Vinkeles (Keizersgracht 384) – sit out in the lovely courtyard when the weather’s good.
For something a bit more local and affordable, take advantage of the pancake scene – try the Pancake Bakery (Prinsengracht 191). Café Toussaint (Bosboom Toussaintstraat 26) in the museum quarter is good for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike; while Café Bern (Nieuwmarkt 9), near the Red Light District, is popular with the locals and does great Swiss cheese fondues.
The standard high-street fare is all to be found in Amsterdam, but you’ll find the trendier, smaller boutique shops on side streets off the main canals such as Prinsensgracht or Herengracht, and in the Jordaan area of the city.
There are several good markets in Amsterdam: in Albert Cuypmarkt (Albert Cuypstraat/Ferdinand Bolstraat) you’ll find food galore and plenty of cheap clothes; the Noordermarkt in Jordaan (Noodermarkt) is a flea market on Monday mornings and a food market on Saturdays; and for a full-on flea market experience head to Waterloopleinmarket (Waterlooplein) from Monday to Saturday.
For Amsterdam’s answer to Harrods, head to Dam Square, where you will find De Bijenkorf (“The Beehive”), a vast chocolate-box of a building dating to 1870. It is the flagship of twelve stores of this name across the country, and is definitely the most interesting. Like Harrods, shopping here is less about what you buy and more about the experience.
Top 5 sights for first-timers
De Oude Kerk
Nothing gives a sense of Amsterdam’s history like De Oude Kerk (‘The Old Church’), which dates back to about AD1250. The name contrasts nicely with Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk (‘New Church’) on Dam Square, a mere 15th-century baby. You can visit both of these in the afternoons.
If you’re only going to see one art gallery in Amsterdam, this should be it. The fabulous neo-Gothic building from 1885 houses by far the best collection of Dutch art in the world. From Avercamp to Vermeer, the collection is extraordinary.
De Wallen – Amsterdam’s Red Light District
Both seedy and cheesy it may be, but Amsterdam’s red light district is one of the most famous sites in the city. The alleys that make up De Wallen are lined with full-wall windows, behind which sit the prostitutes selling their wares – looking rather bored.
Anne Frank House
Visit the poignant and unassuming house of Anne Frank, the German Jew who went into hiding with her family in Amsterdam and lived in a secret annex for more than two years before being discovered and sent to concentration camps. The house preserves her hiding place and is also an exhibition space to highlight persecution and discrimination.
Famous for being the world’s only permanent floating flower market, Bloemenmarkt is on the southern canal belt and supplies Amsterdam with a large chunk of its flowers. Though the market attracts tourists, the stunning array of vibrant colours on offer is beautiful and well worth seeing.
Top 5 sights for old hands
Van Gogh Museum
If you’re going to visit another art gallery after the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum certainly merits your attention. The artist’s younger brother collected 200 paintings and 500 drawings created by Van Gogh, and these, along with hundreds of his letters, are all on display. Buy tickets online beforehand to avoid the queues.
Paulus Potterstraat 7 (Amstel 51 until 25 April 2013)
Amsterdam is a known hub for exquisite diamond work and is home to several high-end diamond factories. A couple of these, including Gassan and Coster, offer free tours, explaining the cutting and polishing process from rough diamond to fabulous jewels.
Coster Diamonds, Paulus Potterstraat 2-6
Gassan, Nieuwe Uilenburgerstraat 173 - 175
Vondelpark might be Amsterdam’s most famous green space, but Wertheim Park, dating back to 1812, is the oldest in the city and the only one in the city centre. It’s a beautiful, English-style garden which is perfect for relaxing with a picnic, and it contains a very moving Holocaust memorial.
The Willet-Holthuysen Museum is housed in a building dating from 1685 and is decked out to give visitors a glimpse into luxury merchant life from the Dutch Golden Age. It is a fascinating place, and its collection of paintings, ceramics, glass and silverware are excellent. Restoration is continuous and the museum is open daily.
The Begijnhof (Beguine’s Court) is a peaceful inner courtyard surrounded by historic buildings that were lived in by members of a Catholic sisterhood who lived like nuns, though took no vows. The courtyard includes Amsterdam’s oldest house, dating to about 1420. No big groups, and no talking when you visit.
Written by World Travel Guide