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An old city of tree-lined canals, cobbled streets, and gabled 17th Century houses, Amsterdam is magnificently beautiful.

Renowned for its progressive social policies, Holland’s famously liberal first city is one of Europe’s great cultural treasures.

A relaxed feeling pervades this city of paradoxes, whether you’re travelling around the intersecting waterways in a boat taxi, stopping on a bridge to admire the glittering lights and beautiful Dutch buildings reflected in the water, or taking a break at any of the bars, cafés or coffee houses that line the streets, spilling tables and chairs onto the pavement.

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Known for its windmills, tulips and dikes, Holland is among the world’s most accessible foreign countries, not least because the Dutch are a friendly people who speak English (and several other languages) happily and well.

Amsterdam is easy to traverse on foot, with most of the streets radiating out in a circular pattern from the city centre, anchored by Dam Square and the Royal Palace. Though efficient electric trams run along many of the main thoroughfares, cycling is the chief mode of transport for Amsterdam natives,
as evinced by the hordes of pedalers on ancient black-and-white one-speeds, often with passengers riding side-saddle on the back. Pedestrians should avoid the ubiquitous red bike paths, as cyclists are ruthless about tourists mistaking them for pavements.

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The city has several stunning museums, with Rembrandt and Van Gogh among the great artists on display. The grand Rijksmuseum, with its superb examples of Dutch masters and Delftware porcelain, is a must, as is the Anne Frank House, the famous dwelling that served as the teenage diarist’s hiding place from the Nazis during WWII. Amsterdam also has shrines to its less refined culture, with both the Hemp Museum and the Sex Museum being popular stops on the tourist circuit.

Amsterdam’s splendid architecture is especially beautiful at night, when the bridges and buildings are aglow with lights. One can’t help but marvel at the old, narrow houses with death-defyingly steep interior staircases and staggeringly large windows (through which furniture is moved in and out by pulleys affixed to the top of each building). Curtains are generally left open at night-time, in the Calvinist tradition of having nothing to hide, enabling nosy strollers to peer at the often lavish displays inside.

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The colourful Bloenmarkt, where all types of blooms and bulbs are for sale, acquaints the visitor with Holland’s rich flower tradition, as does a visit to the nearby Keukenhof Gardens, one of the world’s great horticultural wonders (see our Gardens feature), while a walk through the verdant Vondelpark offers a slice of Amsterdam’s more pastoral pleasures. The Leidseplein is alive with vibrant cafés, music and nightlife venues. The Rembrandtsplein and Waterlooplein are two fine squares to stop for a drink at an outdoor café table. And shopping in Amsterdam is varied and reasonably affordable, whether you head for any of the trendy shops along the Spui, or for the Thorbeekeplein contemporary art market on Sundays or the much pricier Speigelkwartier antiques market.

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Amsterdam’s cosy beer pubs are well worth a visit for their huge variety of delicious Dutch and Belgian brews served in specially shaped glasses. Dutch gin is a also a popular aperitif, offered in a shot glass for sipping along with your beer. True beer connoisseurs should visit the Heineken Brewery, whose tours culminate in a 45-minute all-you-can-drink session.

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The city’s famous coffee houses can be found virtually everywhere. Each has a unique ambience and style, with some serving liquor, others food, and still others only coffee, tea and soft drinks. All have a variety of marijuana available for purchase from a menu and offer a comfortable setting and the necessary paraphernalia to enjoy it openly. The city’s so-called smart shops take the coffee-shop idea one step further, selling ‘natural’ psychedelics and stimulants, from mushrooms to herbal ecstasy to Red Bull.

Of course, no visit to Amsterdam would be complete without a night-time visit to the famous Red Light District. One of the oldest and most beautiful parts of the city, the narrow, cobbled streets of this quarter fill with hordes of tourists on weekends and holidays. All come to gawk at the surreal display of scantily clad women who pose in the purply-red glow of their black-lit shop windows. Not unlike a bizarre zoo, the Red Light District is an unmissable experience, as attested by the packs of roving young men, couples holding hands, giggling groups of women, and busloads of Japanese tourists toting cameras. Spectacle notwithstanding, real business is done here at a steady pace, and those seeking a slightly more authentic experience should head for the area on a weeknight.


I’m Matteo (Matt in English) But Italians naturally throw in an ‘0’ where ever possible, especially in the bedroom. When embarking on a new trip, I worry when opening my backpack, in case my mother has climbed in. Want to know more? Click Here

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