Amsterdam is one of those rare places that puts you instantly at ease. It’s a city drawn carefully to human scale, with neat 17th-century houses, a maze of cobbled streets and an elegant ring of concentric waterways. Known for its liberal attitude and its showpiece Red Light District, it's nevertheless a sophisticated sort of place. The average local is surprisingly straight-laced, the streets are litter-free and, with most people riding around on old-fashioned bicycles, there’s a welcome lack of car fumes. Those who settle in Amsterdam tend to stay put, seduced by its blend of history and modernity, by its maturity, and by the beauty of its canals, which twinkle with fairy lights after dark.
Like any great European city, Amsterdam is packed with world-class museums - the enormous Rijksmuseum, with its Golden Age treasures; the excellent Van Gogh and Rembrandthuis museums; and the haunting Anne Frank House, where the queue often snakes around the block (book in advance for guaranteed entry). It's an outdoor city too, with plenty of parks (including the vast green lung of the Vondelpark), plus revamped docklands brimming with hip waterside bars and cafés.
Set in an imposing merchant’s house on the Herengracht, the Grachtenhuis (Canal House Museum) charts the fascinating history of Amsterdam’s canal ring, from the 17th-century expansion project that led to its development to its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010. There’s a series of interactive multimedia exhibits, plus models revealing how wooden piles were used to construct houses on the soft sand which lies under most of the city.
This renowned design emporium could easily occupy half a day. There’s a shop stocking stylish homeware and fashion; a contemporary art gallery; a café serving excellent brunches, lunches and cakes; and a quirky ‘Fairy Tale Garden’ decked out with giant toad stools and a mix of real and faux plants. Design aficionados can even stay on site in a snazzy penthouse apartment furnished with prototype Droog products.
This enclosed courtyard in the centre of Amsterdam was constructed in the 14th century and was once home to a beguinage - a religious sisterhood who lived like nuns without ever taking formal vows. Today it’s a beautiful lawned garden that’s so peaceful you’ll soon forget you’re in the middle of one of Europe’s busiest cities. It’s flanked by historic buildings, including the 15th-century Engelse Kerk (the English Church) and Het Houten Huis, Amsterdam's oldest surviving house.
Designed by Viennese architectural firm Delugan Meissl Ass and opened in 2012, the striking EYE Film Institute is a temple to cinema. The cavernous space encompasses permanent exhibitions on the history of cinema, 4 screens showing a selection of classic movies, a bar and restaurant with sweeping city views, and a vast auditorium that frequently hosts Dutch film premieres. There are even interactive quiz booths should you wish to test your cinematographic knowledge. It’s set on the riverfront in Amsterdam Noord and is easily accessible via the free ferry which departs from Central Station.
Amsterdam’s food and drink scene spans everything from traditional ‘brown cafés’ (so called because of their smoke-stained wood-panelled interiors) to chic Michelin-starred dining spots. Here are some of our favourites:
Internationally renowned FOAM (Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam) sits in a beautiful canal house on Keizersgracht and hosts rotating exhibitions from some of the leading names in photography, as well as shows by up-and-coming artists. The interior is almost as impressive as the work on display - a sleek mix of chrome and glass, with large windows looking out over the water.
The former workers’ quarter of Jordaan is a lovely area for a stroll, with a multitude of canalside cafés and independent galleries. Particularly appealing is the area dubbed 'Nine Streets' (De 9 Straatjes in Dutch) - actually a trio of streets around the Herengracht and Keizersgracht canals, whose trendy boutiques, bookshops and vintage clothing stores have become the place to shop in Amsterdam.
This quirky little museum occupies a 1914 sailing barge that’s moored on Prinsengracht in Jordaan. It offers a fascinating insight into life on the water - you can poke around the sleeping, living and cooking quarters, watch a presentation on houseboat design through the ages, and then enjoy a coffee on the flower-filled deck up top.
In recent years the dockland islands of the River Ij, which runs alongside Amsterdam, have been colonized by young professionals and hipsters. Old warehouses have been transformed into bold new developments, and bars and restaurants have sprung up all over the place. The area is also home to the excellent NEMO (Museum of Science and Technology), which sits in a stunning prow-shaped building designed by Renzo Piano, and the Scheepvartmuseum (Dutch Maritime Museum).
Many visitors make a beeline for the famous floating flower market on the Singel canal, but we’d recommend skipping its rather tacky souvenir stands and heading instead to the Albert Cuyp street market in the trendy district of De Pijp. This mile-long stretch of colourful stalls sells everything from cheap vintage clothing to farm-fresh produce; break up your browsing with coffee and a delicious cake at delightfully kitsch patisserie De Taart van m’n Tante. Also well worth a visit is the Sunday market in Westergasfabriek, where local artists and designers sell fashion, prints and food.
Largely undiscovered by tourists, the cluster of man-made islands which make up the residential neighbourhood of De Westelijke Eilanden are among the most beautiful spots in the city. There’s a relaxed, village-like feel to the cobbled streets, which are perfect for lazy strolls. You'll find a striking mix of contemporary architecture and converted warehouses to admire, along with a few second-hand stores to browse and some excellent cafes for pit stops.