Amsterdam is one of those 'must-do' places for avid European travelers -- it is a unique experience, both for its glistening (and clean) canals and its tremendous culture (and subcultures, more on that later). I dare say that nowhere else in Europe shares Amsterdam's character.
Without question, the first thing most people associate with Amsterdam are the canals. The canals are the lifeblood of the city, used primarily for transportation of cargo and people -- chiefly tourists. There are three main canals built in concentric arcs around the IJmeer (AYE-mair) on the north side, plus a host of connecting canals, set up like spokes on a wheel. The canals are artificial and sealed from the North Sea, so they aren't affected by tides, and they are flushed three times a week, so they aren't filled with sewage and garbage like canals of other cities.
The canals are also the site of many potentially awesome photo opportunities, such as the below (I believe this is de Krijtberg from the Leidesgracht, but I failed to note the location).
If Amsterdam has a second draw, it is the museums. After all, as the home of the works of so many famous Dutch artists (Rembrandt and Van Gogh coming to mind), Amsterdam has much to offer the cultural enthusiast. And the works are exquisitely housed, such as in the beautiful Rijksmuseum, pictured below. The Rijksmuseum features the works of Rembrandt (including his famous painting, the "Nightwatch"), but has a massive display of paintings covering five centuries, plus incredible displays of sculpture, medieval art, and Dutch history.
Speaking of Dutch history, the most fascinating museum to hit must be the fabulous Scheepvaart Museum (the National Maritime Museum), located at the confluence of the IJmeer and the Amstel River, right next to the Amsterdam Centraal train station. This museum has hundreds of model boats on display, showing nearly every variety of boat used by the Dutch from the 15th century to modern times. Much emphasis is placed on the glory days of the Dutch East India company, which shipped goods from southeast Asia for nearly two centuries.
Another special museum, strongly recommended, is the Anne Frank House in the western side of town. Anne Frank was a Jewish girl who, with her family, spent two-plus years hiding from the Nazis in the 'secret annex' of her father's business, jotting down entries in her diary (which was later published). The story is compellingly told through a tour of the secret annex and videotapes and other displays that describe life in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation.
Certainly, sightseeing is another draw, and Amsterdam is loaded with beautiful buildings. The following picture shows the Magna Plaza, one of the most picturesque shopping malls one will find around...
Nearby are two other main draws, shown below. On the left is the Royal Palace. On the right is the Nieuwekerk, the "New Church" (although it's really one of the oldest buildings in town, and no longer used as a church!). The Nieuwekerk is an exhibit hall -- at the time of this picture, it was housing a photo display titled "Our Dutch Heroes".
Those interested in architecture will also be interested in the buildings lining the canals, and their celebrated gables that capture the history of the many peoples that migrated to Amsterdam. Each gable is unique, and catalogued (and it is worth noting that nearby every housefront is registered as a historic landmark, which should guarantee their preservation over the long term).
Finally, Amsterdam is loaded, and I mean LOADED, with places to eat! From sidewalk pubs, to classy cafés, to superb restaurants -- Amsterdam won't let you leave hungry. Beef is commonly on the menu (now that it appears the hoof-and-mouth scare is over), but seafood is king! If you don't believe me, look at my dinner... nearly every variety of clam, shrimp, snail, and oyster was somewhere on this plate... mmmmmmm!
There is another side of Amsterdam that one must carefully consider when planning a trip. Amsterdam (and the Netherlands in general) is famous for its tolerance of individual liberties to an extent not often found elsewhere. The result is a very open attitude towards drugs, prostitution, homosexuality, etc., and these are all very pervasive throughout the city. I recommend that if you are going for the first time, go with someone who is already familiar with the area. If that's not possible, I recommend doing some research to gather information about what types of places to avoid and how to avoid them (establishing a fixed itinerary with places recommended in reputable tour guides is a good strategy).
Trip taken 6-9 September 2001 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin