There is a fairy-tale quality to the tree-lined canal streets of Amsterdam. Boutiques, cafes, apartments and hotels may hide behind the facades of the gabled townhouses, but the look of this beautiful old city has not changed since its 17th-century Golden Age. Some 7,000 historic buildings remain -- many of them beautiful merchants' mansions, 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 on 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 and the masses of blooms in the colorful, floating flower market. Shops offering antiques or avant-garde art beckon everywhere. Outdoor markets for everything from postage stamps to 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 and has recently added a 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 and the National Ballet.
The canal streets of the old city are protected by ordinance and will never change, but Amsterdam is growing and architecture buffs will find modern as well as historic neighborhoods to explore. Though quite close to the old city, the new cruise terminal -- known as "the wave" for its free-form facade -- is the part of the Eastern Docklands area where shipping docks have given way to neighborhoods of striking contemporary design now housing over 10,000 people. A new concert hall for jazz and modern music recently opened adjacent to the terminal, and ongoing construction will bring many more amenities, including hotels.
With so much to see and do, Amsterdam makes for a rewarding stay before or after cruising.
Amsterdam Quick Facts
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 1/2 hours and depart frequently from the harbor in front of Central Station.
The Rijksmuseum: This world-class museum is being renovated, but its most famous works can still be seen in a special wing. The exhibit, aptly named The Masterpieces, displays favorite paintings by Hals, Vermeer, Steen and Rembrandt, including Rembrandt's "Night Watch" as well as highlights of the Golden Age such as silver, delftware and exquisitely furnished dolls' houses. The exhibit will remain until the museum reopens in the summer of 2008. The Rijksmuseum also maintains a gallery well worth visiting at Schiphol Airport.
The 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, 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."
The 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.
Shopping: 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. Frozen Fountain (Prinsengracht 645) and Droog Design (Staalstratt 7b) are good places to see some of the best work of new interior designers. Post Amsterdam also showcases contemporary furniture design; it is in the same building that houses the temporary Stedliijk Museum and has a top-floor restaurant with fabulous city views.
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 16 shopping areas around town.
Editor's Note: If you spend more than 137 euros (about $177) in a store, you are entitled to a refund of the value-added tax, which amounts to 13.5 percent of the bill (shop where you see the Global Refund Tax-Free Shopping sign and remember to ask for the Global Refund Cheque). When leaving the country or the European Union, show your purchases, receipts and passport to customs officials and have your Global Refund cheques stamped.
Dutch is the official language, but English is the second language of the Netherlands and is spoken everywhere.
On Foot: For visitors who plan to explore on their own, much can be done on foot -- and when you tire, trolleys cover the main areas of the old city and buses go almost everywhere, including the new Docklands area (the tourist office opposite Central Station is a convenient place to get maps and information and purchase tickets).
The city's central point is Dam Square, just a five-minute walk from Central Station via Damrak, a busy tourist street. The canals form five circles around Dam Square, and several other squares will help you get your bearings as you study the city map. Lively Leidseplein and Rembrantsplein are lined with sidewalk cafes that are ideal place to rest and watch the passing scene.
Major museums and the classic Concertgebouw concert hall are near the Museumplein, just beyond the canals. Waterlooplein is home to the Jewish Museum, the Muziektheater, the city's handsome new concert hall, and Amsterdam's biggest flea market; the Hermitage museum and Rembrandt's House are nearby. The Jordaan, a bohemian neighborhood with unusual shops and galleries, can be found by looking for the Westerkerk Church and the Anne Frank House.
The adventurous can join the Dutch on their bicycles; rentals are available at MacBike at Central Station, about $11 a day.
By Bus: The #326 bus headed to Central Station stops right in front of the cruise terminal; the #16 trolley travels from the passenger terminal to the city center. The CanalBus, a cruise boat traversing the canals with stops at all the city's main attractions, is a sightseeing trip as well as an easy way to get around; you can get on and off all day for about $21.
By Taxi: Taxis are readily available, but can be expensive ($10 and up); fares are best negotiated in advance to avoid problems.
Where You're Docked
The Amsterdam cruise terminal is busy in season, hosting some 100 ships from spring through fall. The terminal, near the start of the new Eastern Docklands development, is a 10-minute walk or a five-minute ride from Central Station, where all of the city's bus, trolley and boat lines can be boarded.
Staying in Touch
Major hotels in Amsterdam have in-room Internet connections, and this cosmopolitan city has many cyber cafes. You can also check your e-mail or access the Internet at the Passenger Terminal or at easyInternetcafe, where two locations are open 24 hours a day, at Damrak 33 and Reguliersbreestraat 22 (near Rembrandt Square).
Near Leidseplein: Cafe Americain (American Hotel, 97 Leidsekade, 020-556-3232) is an Art Deco rendezvous, one of the city's most popular spots for everything from reading a cup of coffee to a full dinner. There's a big outdoor terrace on Leidseplein in summer. Open 10:30 a.m. until midnight daily.
De Oesterbar (Leidseplein 10, 020-623-2988) is the city's longtime favorite seafood restaurant in a setting of white tiles and fish tanks. Fish is delivered fresh twice daily, and used in indigenous preparations such as sole Danoise with the tiny Dutch shrimps and sole Veronique with Muscadet grapes. Open noon until 1 a.m. daily.
Along the Canal Belt: Dutch pancakes are a treat that should not be missed, and the Pancake Bakery (191 Prinsengracht, 020-625-1333) is one of the classic places to sample delicious dinner-plate-size crepes with fillings like ham and cheese as a main dish or fruits for dessert. Open noon until 9:30 p.m. daily. This is a great choice for families, but large groups should make reservations in advance.
If you are in town late enough for dinner, sample a Dutch specialty, an Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table), at Tempo Doeloe (Utrechtsestraat 75, 020-625-6718). Inspired by the days of the Netherlands East Indies company, it consists of a dozen or more small meat and vegetable dishes served with condiments and rice. Open Monday - Saturday, 6 p.m. until 11:30 p.m.
City Center: Haesje Claes (Spuistraat 273-275, 020-624-9998) serves typical Dutch dishes at moderate prices in an Old World setting, complete with traditional Dutch hanging lamps. Menu items to try include stampot (mashed potatoes and cabbage) and hutspot (stew). Open noon until 10 p.m. daily.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Netherlands is part of the European community and the euro is the official currency.
Bank hours are Tuesday to Friday, 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., Monday 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. ATM's are plentiful; a machine can be found just to the left as you exit the cruise terminal, as well as at the airport and the train station and dozens of banks. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Though vendors usually appear in the terminal when a ship arrives, there is far more to do, see and buy nearby in town. The Amsterdam Tourist Bureau has an office in the terminal where you can buy the I Amsterdam card, which grants access to all public transportation, and free or reduced admission to almost all museums and many other attractions. A 24-hour card costs 33 euros (about $43); passes good for 48 and 72 hours are also available.
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