No place in the Netherlands is more than 170 miles (274 km) from Amsterdam, the country’s capital, commercial center, largest city, and second-largest port. Amsterdam is the capital of European counterculture. It’s relaxed atmosphere (cafes openly sell soft drugs) attracts large numbers of young visitors.
The city is built on piled sunk in sand and mud along the banks of the Amstel River. The old city was built mostly from 1650 to 1720. It is laid out in the shape of an opened fan, with the base along the harbor and the framework made-up of three large horseshoe-shaped canals. The canals are connected by hundreds of smaller waterways. The Central Railway Station is in the middle of the horseshoe. Everything within the circle is called the Centrum. The main street, the Damrak, leads from the station to Dan Square, the city center.
The city has some 6,800 architecturally significant houses and buildings dating from the 16th century. The Dutch built tall, narrow gabled houses along the canals, with many windows and beams by which they hoisted goods into upper stories. Families lived on the middle floors, the ground floor served as a workshop, the attic was a store place. The prosperous merchants graced their walls with paintings. They especially liked paintings that idealized their daily lives. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was among the artists who moved to the city to satisfy the demand.
Amsterdam has more than forty museums. Its compact size makes sightseeing easy. The best way to become oriented is to take a canal cruise aboard a boat with a glass roof.
Things to See and Do in Amsterdam
- Dam Square, with the World War II National Monument, a tall obelisk that is a memorial to the country’s liberation. Also on the Dam are the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace) and the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) begun in 1408.
- Rijksmuseum (State Museum). Visitors can see Rembrandt’s huge painting, Night Watch – which many say is the greatest painting of all time – an a selection of Vermeers.
- Van Gogh Museum with the artist’s paintings and other works of the time.
- Diamond-cutting workshops. The city’s famed tolerance attracted Jews expelled from Portugal in the 1500s and they made Amsterdam a center of the gem trade.
- Anne Frank House, Amsterdam’s most popular museum. When Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl, hid in an attic for 2 years until she was discovered and transported to a concentration camp, where she died. Her diary vividly describes the horror of those times.
- Bruin cafes, or brown bears, named for their nicotine-stained walls. These pubs serve snack-type meals.
- Rosse Buurt (Red Light District). In the windows at canal level, women (and some men) wait for their customers. They are registered, regulated, taxed, and represented by a union. The famous area can be shocking, but during the day, it is generally safe.
The city boasts a variety of charms for every type of traveler: From the art buffs to those looking to party, to anyone simply looking to enjoy the unique aesthetic and charm of this quintessential European city. The center of it all is in the district known as the Old Center where the majority of things to see and do are located, especially surrounding Dam Square. The canals and inner city of Amsterdam are actually deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to beauty, culture and history. Beyond the relatively small tourist district, which is very easily accessible on foot or bike, the outer ring of suburbs surrounding the city include the nearby Jordaan and Plantage, and the further out North, West, South and East districts.
- U.S. travelers: Valid passport needed for entry
- Official language: Dutch (English is widely spoken)
- Official currency: Euro
- Climate: The average temperature from April to October is 68° F, with the warmest temperatures in August, and the average temperature from November to March is 40° F, with the coolest temperatures in January.