Amsterdam is like a magic brew. Its bewitching blend of flavours produces a spell filled with intoxicating images and its powers of seduction are potent. Moreover, the compelling character of Holland’s capital is largely defined by the people who populate it. A culture imbued with a unique spirit, Amsterdammers work hard, play hard and enjoy a particular passion for life.

The Netherlands may indeed be one of the most underrated countries in Europe and its capital one of the most fascinating. It’s a centre of culture with a proliferation of museums filled with masterpieces by Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Van Gogh, and its intricate web of canals and cobblestone streets is lined with 17th century mansions, cafes and store windows filled with Delft china. By contrast, Amsterdam’s “red light” district is an accepted part of the city’s live-and-let-live culture. Five days spent exploring this 13th-century town that began with a dam on the Amstel River provide a wealth of unexpected pleasures.

Day 1

The best place to launch a visit is Dam Square, the heart of the city around which all else revolves. Dominating this huge cobblestone plaza ringed with stately buildings is the imposing Royal Palace and, day and night, the Square is a busy spot with the comings and goings of Amsterdammers, street vendors and tourists. However, many treasures lie beyond the plaza and one of the best ways to get around is a canal boat tour. There’s little in the capital that can’t be reached by taking one of these popular cruises. Gliding along the waterways and cruising under one quaint bridge after another, what unfolds is more than 7,000 fine examples of ancient architecture–tall gabled canal houses that once belonged to rich merchants, plus museums, churches and a dungeon builtn the foundation of a bridge.

Day 2

Possessing more than 40 museums, Amsterdam is a culture buff’s dream. The city’s premier art repository is the Rijksmuseum, the national museum of Holland containing an extensive collection of 17th century Dutch Masters paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Jan Steen and others. Founded in 1798, the Rijks collection includes more than 500 paintings, 30,000 sculptures, 17,000 historical objects and nearly a million prints and drawings.

This is one of Europe’s most significant museums that can take a full day to explore. One of the best ways to visit Amsterdam’s other museums is aboard the Museumboat. Cruising through the canals, it makes regular stops at the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, the Historical Museum, Kindermuseum, Rembrandt House, the Maritime Museum and several others.

Day 3

After a day of museums, a pleasant diversion is an organized outing to some of the communities and attractions that lie beyond the city’s borders. Numerous tour companies offer various excursions to suit a host of tastes. Holland is a small country, hence it’s possible to see a great deal of its landscape in a single day.

Day trips abound and good choices are a visit to the charming town of Delft and one of its famous porcelain factories or tours of a wooden shoe factory, tulip fields, windmills and the town of Edam, home of the famous Dutch cheese. Not to be missed is a day trip to Scheveningen, a popular seaside beach community on the North Sea where the Dutch go to play during summer.

Day 4

Conveniently, there’s a water taxi stop in front of one of the most moving attractions in Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House.

More than 650,000 people a year visit this typical canal house where the 13-year-old Jewish girl hid from the Gestapo during the Second World War. Her ordeal provided the inspiration for the worldwide bestseller, The Diary of Anne Frank. This is a museum unlike all others where a reverent quiet pervades–where people are brought to tears as they move from room to room and remember the suffering and ultimate death of a little girl caught in the grips of an enemy gone mad.

After the Anne Frank Museum, plan a visit to one of Amsterdam’s many diamond factories. For more than 400 years the city has been known for its diamond industry where many world famous stones have been cut and buffed.

Day 5

A fifth day in Amsterdam can be spent exploring the more than 25 markets selling everything from antiques to books, coins, stamps, clothing, jewellery, china and flowers.

A city guide, widely available from tour operators and tourist offices clearly set out market locations including the site of the only floating flower market in the world. For traditional shopping, any of the cobblestone streets leading off Dam Square have a variety of shops selling sweets, toys, jewellery, fashions, china and souvenirs.

Nights on the town

When evening descends Amsterdam takes on a different personality. Nightlife centres around the Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein districts where a concentration of cafes, restaurants, nightclubs and theatres is located. The city is famous for its “brown cafes,” traditional gathering spots so named for their dark interiors. These cafes present the true meaning of the Dutch word gezelligheid (conviviality). Brown cafes exist throughout the city and visitors are typically given a Dutch welcome in any of them.

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