Amsterdam’s three main grachts (canals) – Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht – embrace the city centre in a horseshoe shape. At its northern head lies Centraal Station. Main street Damrak leads to Dam Square, flanked by the Royal Palace. Eastwards are the old docklands and west is the diverse Jordaan neighborhood, a former working-class area now crammed with shops, bars and eateries. Southwards are the tourist hubs of Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein squares, leading to Vondelpark and the Museum Quarter.
There are few places on earth with as many Old Masters per square metre as Amsterdam’s Museum Quarter. You might think you know Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Rembrandt’s dramatic Night Watch from countless posters and postcards, but nothing can compare to seeing them in the flesh. Cultural gems lurk behind the façades of Amsterdam’s canal houses like the 17th-century rooms in Amstelkring near the Red Light District. Amsterdam’s cultural calendar includes the summertime music Canal Festival and theatre and music during December’s Winterparade.
Lazy evenings in lounge bars, supper clubs, and old-style pubs characterise an Amsterdam short break. The old quarter by Oude Kerk (Old Church) near Dam Square is home to the Red Light District, one of Europe’s most unlikely tourist sights. Amsterdam’s ‘brown bars’, so-called for their nicotine-stained decor, dot Zeedijk near Centraal Station, Jordaan and along Utrechtsestraat, near Rembrandtplein. In De Pijp and Jordaan you’ll find everything from Syrian to Surinamese cuisine. During summer, Vondelpark hosts free musical events.
Get a glimpse of 17th-century Amsterdam’s Golden Age in the Amsterdams Historisch Museum. In Anne Frank’s House, a 10-minute walk from Dam Square, memories of the Second World War come to life in the Secret Annexe where she wrote her diary. A stroll through Jordaan shows its transformation from a working-class neighborhood into a creative cosmopolitan community.
Food-lovers flock to Saturday’s Farmers’ Market in Jordaan for smoked mozzarella and crêpes. Across town, Bloemenmarkt’s barges on the Singel canal make up the world’s only floating flower market. One-off boutiques pack De 9 Straatjes (the 9 Streets) in Jordaan. Shop for Dutch fashions in Van Ravenstein or try Yvette Riemersma’s trendsetting footwear at Antonia.
The ship-shaped Nemo building houses a hands-on science centre next to Centraal Station, with city views from the rooftop café. A hop-on, hop-off canal trip is entertaining and all-weather-friendly, as is Artis park, with the oldest zoo in mainland Europe, a planetarium and aquarium. Sunny days call for a picnic in Vondelpark – rent a tandem, kids’ bikes or in-line skates.