Amsterdam's first inhabitants began building on the banks of the rivers Amstel and IJ in the 13th century, and succeeding generations structured a city of islands set amid a web of canals.
These waterways are the basis of Amsterdam's ambience, well known as a cosmopolitan village. A word commonly used to describe Amsterdam is not easily pronounced by any but the Dutch, but visitors may readily discover the meaning of "gezelligheid" by taking a walk or cycle ride in any direction. In Amsterdam, all roads lead, sooner rather than later, to a picturesque canal lined by houses that look as if made from gingerbread. Amsterdam reveals its old-world charm to strollers in terms like cosy, quaint, amicable, tolerant even in the city's seedier side.
I've spent many days zigzagging along the canals and over bridges, every time discovering some new mini-museum or intimate "brown café" (local pub). Following are a few itineraries I've done, each one taking me farther out of the historic core either on foot, or bicycle or on a train to cities beyond Amsterdam: to Haarlem, Amersfoort, and Naarden. These nearby places let you experience a bit of the real Holland.
Total round-trip walk approximately 5 km. Chances are, as a solo tourist, you will arrive at Amsterdam Centraal Rail Station, either directly from Schiphol Airport or from other European cities. The station is at the hub of historic Amsterdam and the start of these day trips. You can pick up tourist information, maps, and rent a bike right at the station.
Getting oriented is easy if you watch for signs pointing to major sights. Gold-lettered brown signs are for pedestrians; red-lettered white signs are for cyclists, and white-lettered blue signs are for cars. Keep in mind these suffixes: straat signifies a roadway, plein a square, and gracht a canal.
Five main U-shaped canals (gracht) fan out from the station with The Dam, the city's huge main square, roughly in the center. The Dam is about a 5-minute walk from the Centraal Station, along Damrak, the axis street.
Behind the palace look for Raadhuisstraat and head west about five minutes to the Westerkerk, the church whose bells Anne Frank must have heard all those years in hiding from the Nazis. The bells still toll at noon on Tuesdays. Just behind the church is Anne Frank House where Anne documented her family's plight, as Jews, during German occupation of Amsterdam in World War II.
Lots of people hop on a boat tour here, but if you continue on foot north along the Prinsengracht (canal) and turn left on the first bridge, you'll be in the Jordaan neighborhood, famous for its lively atmosphere, artsy shops, cafés, and markets. Exploring the grid-pattern streets of the Jordaan is one of the most pleasurable things to do in Amsterdam great for pictures and lunch in any of the small restaurants.
Five blocks up from the bridge is the atmospheric Noordermarkt, which has been operating since 1616. It has a farmers market on Saturdays, retro clothes on Mondays, and the adjacent Noorderkerk (church) hosts concerts every Saturday at 2pm, from mid-September to mid-June.
Heading back south along the Prinsengracht, three bridges after the Westerkerk tower, look for the Houseboat Museum. Owner Vincent van Loon is happy to welcome guests and answer questions about living on the canal.
The Prinsengracht then crosses under three more bridges to Leidsestraat, one of the main shopping streets of Amsterdam. Turning right there leads to the Leidseplein after two blocks. This square is a hive of activity on the weekends with terrace cafés and street entertainers.
If you want a break in a green setting, continue across the square, over the bridge, following the water to the left. Immediately on your right are the black and gold gates into Vondel Park. This is gorgeous in the summertime, and it is home to a Film Museum.
At this point, you'll turn back towards the center, staying on the Leidsestraat. You might also want to meander onto the parallel canals, Keizersgracht or Herengracht to get a peek at the grand Golden Age houses.
Leidsestraat ends with the wonderful fragrances of the flower market at Bloemenmarkt, the place to stock up on seeds and bulbs. Walking the length of the flower market and crossing the street busy with trams and cyclists takes you to Reguliersbreestraat.
Reguliersbreestraat has Amsterdam's first Art Deco Theatre, now a cinema the Tuschinski Theatre, built in 1921. At the end of this street is Rembrandtplein, the square named for Holland's most famous artist. Rembrandt's 17th century home on Jodenbreestraat, now a museum, is about ten minutes away from the square on foot, but it's probably best to leave a visit for another day.
I've spent many evenings in this square people watching from a terrace facing the central green. Side streets off this square have nightclubs, while Thorbeckeplein, adjacent on the north side, caters to the thirty-something crowd. By the way, from here you get the best view in the city: seven bridges in a row, their outlines lit up with white lights.
From Rembrandtplein, aim north into the short Halve Maanstraat; cross over the Amstel River to Kloveniersburgwal, and in 15 minutes you'll be at the Nieuwmarkt photographing its fairy-tale medieval gateway. Not so fairy-tale, this medieval weigh house also housed a Theatrum Anatomicum (Theatre of Anatomy) human dissections for anyone who paid to watch.
At this point you are almost back to where your started on Damrak, heading towards Centraal Station. You may (or may not) want to sidetrack a little to check out Amsterdam's famous Red Light District where sex trade workers freely advertise themselves from their windows. It's about a five-minute zigzag walk northwest from Nieuwemarkt. It's known to be quite safe because the area is always busy with tourists and street police. In the evenings, use common sense; stick to the illuminated areas, though in summer the evening light actually lasts until 10 or 11pm.
Nearby is the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam's oldest church with great views from its tower. The district is also a little bit Chinatown, with some excellent Chinese restaurants; the cosy atmosphere of Nam Kee on Zeedijk is especially attractive for solo travelers.
One of my favorite secret spots, which isn't a secret but still feels secretive, is on the main canal (Oudezijds Voorburgwal): The Museum Our Lord in the Attic was a canal house where 17th-century Catholics held secret church services, which were forbidden during the Reformation.
>> Evening options along the route: Boom Chicago Comedy Club, just off Leidseplein, in the Pulitzer Hotel (Prinsengracht 315-331) for drinks in a classy piano bar ambience.
>> Movies in Holland are always shown in their original language, so usually English is the norm.
>> The cheapest places to grab a bite are the so-called "bite out of the wall" places like Febo fast food dispensed from a tiny window.
>> August is the best time in Amsterdam for its free evening events: Canal Parade (Gay Parade), the Prinsengracht canal concerts, and the historic coaches and carriages parade.
There is a lot more to Amsterdam than ancient buildings and canals, and the city's more modern side quickly becomes evident in the docklands district.
Just behind Centraal Station a street named De Ruyterkade runs along the waterfront. With the water to your left walk towards Piet Heinkade until you start to see and feel the pulse of the regenerated neighborhood of Oostelijke Handelskade, Amsterdam's hip new eastern docklands. This mixed-use area of converted harbor warehouses once stored goods from distant lands like Indonesia and Africa.
All the parallel and connected islands are built up in modern style without losing an intimacy of scale. Furthest out, Java-eiland (island), is the most residential with charming little bridges, boats with private landings, and innovative urban planning. KNSM-island has galleries and plenty of cafés.
The Entrepot docks are Europe's largest regeneration project. Some of the old warehouses nearer the center are still under redevelopment or are temporarily colonized by artists.
Continuing on to Oostelijke Handelskade there's the Lloyd Hotel, which is not just a hotel but also a "Cultural Embassy," with free music, art, film, and events. Next to the Lloyd is an old coffee house with Saturday and Sunday night band performances. There's been an explosion of good restaurants here over the last few years.
Explore the rest of the harbor area and its eclectic modern architecture at your leisure, then cross back under the rail tracks at any point. Follow the pedestrian signs either to Tropenmuseum (Royal Tropics Museum) or Artis, Amsterdam's historic zoo and botanical gardens located in a green way called Plantage aan het Water (Gardens on the Water), about a half-hour walk from the docklands.
You're back in town when you reach the Portuguese Synagogue and Waterlooplein, home to Amsterdam's second-hand market
As you return to the starting point you'll see a big green slanted structure just east of Centraal Station. This is the NEMO. Among its many interactive exhibits is a rooftop beach where you can cool off and get a great overview of both the docklands and old Amsterdam.
Round-trip 30 km. At Centraal Station, you can rent a bike and get a route map. When cycling be sure to stick to the bike paths and be careful not to get stuck in the tram rails they're a perfect squeeze for bicycle tires.
At the south side of Dam Square get on Rokin and continue for about 10 minutes to the Blauwbrug (Blue Bridge) where you cross the Amstel River unless you get slowed down exploring some lovely antique shops en route.
In Rembrandt's time this is where the countryside started, so it's easy to imagine yourself following a route that many artists of the day took to sketch the windmills, boats, and landscapes beyond Amsterdam.
Here you might want to detour a bit to Herengracht, the first side canal past the Blue Bridge. Just around the corner is a museum house once owned by Golden Age patrician Willet-Holthuysen. It gives a really good picture of life in the 17th century.
Continue south on the right bank of the Amstel past the Skinny Bridge, then the locks. Across the river note the Royal Carré Theater, which sometimes has international or English language theater something to keep in mind as an evening option.
After two more long blocks turn away from the river to cross over a major road and then you have a choice of heading back to the riverside right away, or making a stop for picnic fixings at the Albert Cuyp Market just a few blocks west of the river. This is Amsterdam's largest market, selling everything from food to fabrics, Mondays to Saturdays.
Once back on the Amstel Dike, you'll pass an elaborate Neo-Renaissance building, once the town hall of the village New Amstel.
About 5 km out from the start, you come to the Martin Luther King Park where there is a tropical indoor swimming (Mirandabad) pool. Think about registering for the next day so you can go and loosen the kinks out of tired legs. For now continue on to Zorgvlied, a beautifully landscaped, 19th century cemetery and the final resting place for many famous Dutch writers and artists.
Having passed under the highway, Amstel Park offers a nice, shaded rest stop. Where the park ends there's a windmill and a statue of a sketching Rembrandt positioned in the curve of the river for the best views.
From this point it's all flat farmlands with the occasional country house until you reach Ouderkerk aan de Amstel. This charming village is a popular stop to enjoy the picturesque views from a waterfront café.
It's easy enough to head back to Amsterdam (about 10 km) using the Amstel as your guide. Or you can continue a little way south along the water until the Langs de Akker vineyard with its pleasant sculpture garden.
I usually take Ouderkerkerlaan west, then Amsterdamseweg north back to the city, but any road heading northwest will do. At the city limits is the Amsterdam Forest with a lot of activities to try: an animal farm, bird paradise, rowing, open-air theater, historic tram, and even cheese making demonstrations.
The easiest route back to the center is along the Amstelveenseweg, which also gives you a look at the 1928 Olympisch Stadion (Olympic Stadium). It now houses a sports museum.
Following the red and white bike signs into the center eventually leads you to the Museumplein and Amsterdam's top-notch art museums, including the Rijksmuseum with its World class collection of Dutch masters; the Stedelijk Museum, and the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, featuring the history and works of the artist as well as a varied collection of other 19th-century art. But these I advise you to leave for another day, allowing time enough to really appreciate the masterwork collections. You might have time and energy enough for a stop at Coster Diamonds to see the craftsmen cutting and polishing the stones.
Follow the bike signs and tram tracks back to Centraal Station and drop off the bike. End the day watching the sunset from the rooftop beach called Amsterdam Plage on top of the NEMO building. As mentioned above, it's the green, slanted structure just east of the station.
The direct train from Amsterdam Centraal Station to Haarlem delivers you to the beautiful Haarlem station in 15 minutes. Return Fare: 7.10. The immediate area outside the station may be in some disarray as it has been undergoing redevelopment. A nice start to your walk is to head left, then turning left into the second street (Parklaan) until you get to the Spaarne River about ten minutes.
Follow the river south, spotting the reconstructed windmill on the opposite bank and behind that the great dome of the old jail, still in use.
Eventually you'll reach the Teylers Museum, Holland's oldest museum (1784), housing a fascinating collection of scientific instruments, geological artefacts, a library, and art exhibitions.
Continuing down the riverbank, the views of bridges and buildings along the winding course are exceptional. At the corner of the Damstraat is a grey stone weighing house where ships once unloaded their goods. Turning in here, away from the river, brings you to the Sint Bavokerk (St Bavo Church), seen from far and wide and on those famous landscape paintings by Golden Age painter Ruisdael. It's famous organ was played by a very young Mozart. Today it holds concerts on Tuesday evenings as well as various lunchtime concerts.
Without stopping along the way, it's about 20 minutes on foot thus far from the station, and if in need of a break, you'll find several good restaurants in the shadow of the Sint Bavo. Here, on Saturdays, the Grote Markt (big market) is noted for flowers and fish, and the square itself is one of the best preserved Renaissance squares in Holland. The Meat Hall, Fish Hall, and Town Hall exemplify the architecture of the period.
Turning right (south) onto Grote Houtstraat, leads to Haarlem's main shopping district. Instead, art lovers could aim for the Frans Hals Museum by going south on Lange Veerstraat, which becomes Kleine Houtstraat.
If you've headed north on the shopping street, at the end of the pedestrian zone you'll come to one of the many famous hofjes of Haarlem intimate courtyards originally built for widows.
In the spring, the best place to see the tulip fields is on the train between Haarlem and Leiden. You can also return directly from Leiden to Amsterdam Centraal in 35 minutes.
Haarlem is fascinating enough that you could spend the whole day there, but you can also take the same train all the way to Zandvoort by the sea (another 11 minutes). It's particularly lively in the summer, but there are fish stalls to visit and lots of people walking the windy beach all year round.
If you walk a kilometer up the coast to Bloemendaal aan Zee, the weekends always feature beach parties and music for the 20s-30s age group.
35 minutes. Return Fare: 14.70. Head left as you leave the train station and follow signs for Centrum. Within five minutes you'll come to Stadsring, the ring road that takes a circular path around this medieval town.
Having turned right onto Stadsring, the first gateway you'll see on the left is the medieval water gate Monnikendam, built in 1430.
On the bridge you'll get a fantastic view of the center with the Onze Lieve Vrouw bell tower marking the center of town. You can climb to the top of the tower later (July and August only).
Continuing along by the water, you see more remnants of the wall, most impressively the Koppelpoort, where the circle meets the tangent of the railway tracks. On the corner, inside the wall, is the Three Rings Brewery. Amersfoort is renowned for its beer. In 2009, the brewer introduced a new beer called "1259" to celebrate the city's 750th anniversary.
If you head into the center by following the canal, you can visit the historical museum Flehite housed in the Renaissance style building, or you could walk an older, inner circle that was built with so-called muurhuizen (wall houses) in the late Middle Ages when the city outgrew its smaller ring. In any case, the streets around Markt are a beautiful collection of historic buildings.
Amersfoort is also the birthplace of painter Piet Mondrian, and his family home and museum is on the Kortegracht, the other side of the shopping street Langestraat.
Fridays and Saturdays are market days in the Markt square. You can tour the canals by barge boat, getting a ticket at the office on Krommestraat.
Alternatively, if you go right out of the station instead of left, you can stroll through the lovely Bergkwartier, an early 20th century neighborhood planned on a hill (a rarity in Holland). At the edge of town is a zoo, Dierenpark. Bus 9 or 10 also takes you there. Just south of the zoo is the Cavalry Museum in a 19th century military barracks.
You could spend all day in Amersfoort, even go to the excellent Repertoire Cinema opposite the bell tower, but if you're interested in seeing a traditional fishing village, hop on bus 76 to Spakenburg, situated on the former Zuider Sea now a lake because the north end has been dammed by a highway.
Remarkably, the women of this village still wear traditional clothes: a black dress under a patterned apron and broad, stiff shoulder pieces. Either of the two local museums will show you the folklore and history of the fishing community and their costumes. Special folklore days featuring music, crafts, dances, and a market are held Wednesdays in July and August. Any of the fish restaurants would be an excellent choice for dinner.
Twenty-five-minute train ride plus 15 km walk. Return Fare: 8.20 (buy the return ticket because you're getting on again at Weesp).
From the train station Naarden-Bussum, take bus 110 to Naarden-Vesting. You'll get dropped off at the entrance of this garrison town, a complete star-shaped fortification. It's full circumference is about 7 km, but spend your time within the walls to enjoy the antiques and historic feel of the place.
Naarden was the bastion built in the 17th century to protect Amsterdam. In times of war all land east of the fort would be inundated with water. The earth scraped away was actually reused to build Amsterdam's canal infrastructure. You can visit the Fort Museum, and, in the summertime, the church has free photography exhibitions. Or, you can canoe on the moat, or visit the Comenius mausoleum and museum; the humanist scientist died here.
When you're finished in Naarden you can start on the South Sea Route, a marked walk along the former coastline. In town you'll have seen green and white signs for LP23 illustrated with a cyclist, or the red and white horizontal stripes for Zuiderzeepad 8. Outside of town these become roughly parallel paths. The route will take you toward the Zuider Sea.
You'll walk on the 7-meter-high dike with sheep browsing on the one side and the lake on the other. Eventually you'll see Muiderslot, a 13th century moated castle famous in Dutch history for its resident Count Floris V who was murdered by his rival.
The village around the castle has several places to eat and a lovely little harbor with boat excursions of all kinds, including a trip out to Pampus Island, a man-made fort built for the same defense system as Naarden.
To get back to Amsterdam either take bus 110 from Muiden, just inland from the castle (look for the bus stop at the fire station) or, if you still feel energetic, follow the river Vecht inland for about 3 km into Weesp. From here it's a 15-minute train ride back to Amsterdam.
Narden: Hollands Midden.
VVV signs stand for tourist information. It's always handy to pick up a free city map at the VVV's, always in or near the station.
Money: Euro, July 2010. 1C$ =.75 EUR; 1US$ = .80 EUR.
Rail Travel: Nederlandse Spoorwegen operates an excellent rail system. The yellow trains scoot through the whole country, with fast (sneltrein) and slow (stoptrein) services. Try to buy tickets from the automatic dispenser (choose English), as buying from a ticket office costs extra. Many stations also have bike rentals either in the station or just a street or two away.
GVB (Gemeentevervoerbedrijf) operates Amsterdam trams. One to seven-day
GVB passes are available at VVV offices. Also ask about options for the
new OV-chipkaart (PT Smartcard).
A GVB Stop/Go minibus runs every 12 minutes, 7 days a week, following the Prinsengracht between Waterlooplein via Centraal Station, Ruijterkade Oost (east dock), and Oosterdok. Flag it down anywhere along the way. Tickets are available from the driver, but GVB day passes are also valid.
TIP! While Holland is attractive all year round with many towns putting up skating rinks in their main squares for example, you'll find that outside the urban conurbation of Amsterdam, some sights are only open from April to October.
TIP! In the evenings, just use common sense: stick to the illuminated areas, though in summer the evening light actually lasts until 10 or 11pm. Even the red light district is pretty safe because it's always busy with tourists and street police.
>> Christian Focht: "I am going on a fairly long trip by myself and will spend a week of my vacation in Amsterdam. I have been to Amsterdam before and have read every guide book known to man, and I can tell you this is an excellent article."