Amsterdam is a city that doesn’t just talk about freedoms, arts culture, and self-expression. It puts them in action all year round, sometimes 24 hours a day. It is a city brimming with museums, festivals, food, fun, and a little bit of vice. I’m partial to Amsterdam as an international city because you can get lost among the nationalities moving through its streets and over its canals, but never feel threatened. Quite the contrary, actually. People are open, eager for conversation, willing to tell you just where to go (that is, in a good way), and they don’t back down from a good-natured argument. All this happens for the right reasons: cultural diversity is expressed in every corner of the city.
The first thing you want to do when you reach Amsterdam (or any city) is to pick up a visitors guide at the airport, from your hotel or hostel, or the train station. Yeah, do some research on the Web before you go, but when on the ground each person in your party should have a guide in pocket for the most updated sites & festivals information.I imagine you’ll find yourself in Amsterdam’s city center often. This is where some famous buildings are, including the Paleis (Dutch Palace), Damrak Square, and the national monument. It’s also a great introduction to AmDam’s canals. Some good restaurants are here, but better restaurants are away from this purely tourist areas. The Red Light District is also in city center, and you won’t want to miss this cultural demonstration of the manufactured flesh trade. Yet for all its draw, the best of Amsterdam is in the neighborhoods surrounding city center and the red light district. These outer rings, as I like to call them, are where you’ll find Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s great recreation park that draws visitors from all over the city; Museumplein, the wide and flat field of lush green grass between the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum; and Oosterpark, where outdoor festivals are summer highlights, but you can easily find solace on a forested walk.
I am convinced that the best walking area and canal sites can be found in Jordaan, west and southwest of city center. Jordaan has a hip, young feel to it because this is where Amsterdam’s students and artists live. That means there are some great restaurants, outdoor cafés, houseboat restaurants, and funky shopping.
Jordaan is clean, bright, airy, with lots of 16th and 17th century architecture. You can walk up and down the streets for hours just taking it all in—stop for a coffee, rummage through vintage clothing stores, and hit at least one important historical site. Anne Frank Huis is at Prinsengracht 267. The rooms have been mostly cleaned out, but the display of Anne’s diary entries and other memorabilia are sublime, particularly as you walk through the very small space where eight people hid from the Nazis for more than two years.
AmDam is a flat-out fun city to spend more than just a few days. The festival season doesn’t start or end—it simply moves through to the next phase. Bring your walking shoes, because flip-flops won’t cut it here, and your group will pillage you—possibly even leave you for dead—if you attempt to slow the party for your festering blisters.
The city is made for walking and exploration. However, most people come to AmDam for just a couple days, so my advice is to buy a day-ticket for the water taxi service (okay, this is the 3rd or 4th time I mention this…but not everyone goes to all pages of a site!). For €17 (@ $20) you get hop-on/off privileges all day and up to 12 the next day. The 3 routes take you to or very near every major Amsterdam tourist attraction, museum, and the Red Light District. The service is faster than trams, and audio tours entertain you (in multi-languages) with highlights of architecture & history on every leg of a journey.
The other way to get around quickly is on the city tram system. It’s a bit more involved, and possibly confusing, but you can always ask directions of an Amsterdynomite standing at a tram stop.
Festival season begins in January with Chinese New Year celebrations and ends December 31 with New Year’s parties around the city. Yeah, 12 months, something for every ear and taste—a never-ending celebration of who Amsterdynomites are and how you can join in. There are at least 21 festivals held throughout the year.
(read more about Amsterdam’s highlights here)