With a serene canal system that dates to the Middle Ages and a radically permissive set of laws, Amsterdam is a study in contrasts. It's where Europe comes to party, yet at the same time it's well suited for quiet, contemplative walks along meandering waterways flanked by tall, gabled row houses. A heady nightlife and some of the world's most celebrated museums make it one of Europe's most popular short-distance destinations.
High season is during July and August, with another popular period during the tulip season in April and May. The city's compact tourist areas make a car unnecessary and most attractions are easily reachable via foot, bike, trams or canal cruise.
As Amsterdam is a major world destination for both the high-flying jet set and backpacking bohemians, lodging on all levels is plenty. At the top end is the Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam, located in a former convent from the fifteenth century. A more boutique-y version of luxury with cutting-edge amenities can be found at the seventeenth-century Dylan Hotel on Keizersgracht.
DAY 1: CANAL CRUISE, NIEUWMARKT AND BEGIJNHOF
Dubbed "Venice of the North," Amsterdam is best viewed from the water. By daytime the canals are charming and by night, downright enchanting, as many waterside houses and bridges are beautifully illuminated. Start getting up close and personal with a down-home Dutch breakfast of ham and eggs at Koffiehuis De Hoek on Prinsengracht canal, then hop on a cruise with Canal Company. With nearly 7,000 landmarks from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries to see, Canal Cruise conveniently makes fourteen stops to hop off and back on all day long, allowing you to break up your cruise time.
Next, take advantage of Amsterdam's nearly five centuries of diamond expertise by visiting Gassan Diamonds, perhaps the most tourist-friendly diamond-polishing factory of the Amsterdam Diamond Group. At this factory, see how diamonds are cut and polished on a free guided tour (and receive complimentary chocolate with a voucher from I Amsterdam Card or Holland Pass). It's the best place to shop for sparkly souvenirs as well.
For lunch, try herring and frites (fries), the best street food, available almost everywhere. The fish is usually served with onions and gherkins on a plate or in a small roll, while frites are presented in paper cones with choice of sauce (mayo is the top pick, but there's also a Dutch-style peanut sauce). Another cheapie at which the Dutch excel is "food out of the wall," found behind glass-door automats called FEBO (look for the big yellow signs the Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein or Dam Square). Just slip the money in the slot and hot, tantalizing bites like potato kroketten or little broodje (sandwiches) are yours.
Maneuver your way about ten blocks southeast to the Begijnhof, a calm courtyard of buildings originally built to house a lay Catholic sisterhood who lived like nuns. The courtyard has two arched entrances located on Spui and Gedempte Begijnensloot and includes the city's oldest house, Het Houten Huis (1420), at number 34. This is one of only two houses with wooden façades that are still standing in the city.
Because of former Dutch colonial ties, Indonesian food is extremely popular in the Netherlands, achieving its acme at the rijsttafel (rice table) restaurants in Amsterdam. Tempo Doeloe is one of the best Indonesian restaurants in Europe, with a lovely, tiny dining room, to which you gain entry by ringing a bell. The restaurant offers an array of prix-fixe menus of traditional dishes from Java, Bali, and Sumatra as well as a Grand Rice Table with up to 25 choices of curries, pickles, and veggies to ladle on top. Think you can handle the incendiary chilies? Try the grilled skewers of goat with hot soy or the steamed mackerel in a hot chili pepper sauce, (don't worry, the Indonesian beers can temper the fire). Reservations are a must.
* Images courtesy of The Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions