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Amsterdam is a city built on a human scale. Few tall buildings mar the sky's clarity, and most of the populace walks or rides bicycles. The oldest part of town recalls the city's 17th-century Gouden Eeuw (Golden Age), a period when it was the hub of a vast trading network and colonial empire. It was then that wealthy merchants constructed gabled residences along neatly laid canals.

A delicious irony is that these placid old structures now host brothels, smoke shops, and some extravagant nightlife. The city's inhabitants, proud of their pragmatic, live-and-let-live attitude, have decided to control what they cannot effectively outlaw. They permit licensed prostitution in the Red Light District -- as much a tourist attraction as the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh Museum -- and the sale of hashish and marijuana in designated "coffeeshops."

But don't think most Amsterdammers drift around town trailing clouds of marijuana smoke. They're too busy zipping around on bikes, in-line skating through Vondelpark, sunning on their porches, browsing arrays of ethnic dishes, or watching the parade of street life from a sidewalk cafe. A new generation of entrepreneurs has revitalized old neighborhoods like the Jordaan, turning some of its distinctive houses into offbeat stores, bustling cafes, hotels, and restaurants. Along the waterfront, old harbor installations have either been put to bold new uses, or swept away entirely in favor of cutting-edge architecture.

The city will quickly capture you in its spell. At night, many of the more than 1,200 bridges spanning 160 canals are lined with tiny lights, giving them a fairy-tale appearance. Some mornings, the cityscape emerges from a slowly dispersing mist to reveal its enchanting form. Amsterdam doesn't merely have style; it has substance too (and not merely substance abuse). Besides the many canals and bridges, antiquarian bookstores, brown cafes (the Dutch equivalent of neighborhood bars), gin-sampling houses, and chic cafes and nightclubs, it offers up treasures such as the Jewish Historical Museum, the Rembrandt House Museum, and the modern-art Stedelijk Museum. Perhaps its greatest asset, though, is its inhabitants. Many speak English fluently and virtually all are friendly to visitors. Plop yourself down amid the nicotine-stained walls of a brown cafe to enjoy a beer or a jenever (Dutch gin), and you'll quickly find yourself chatting with an amiable local.

Much of Amsterdam's pleasure arises from just being in it, so toss out any "miles and miles to go before I sleep" mindset. Between dips into artistic and historic treasures, take time to simply absorb the freewheeling spirit of this vibrant city.

Amsterdam isn't hard to get to grips with even if you arrive there cold (in the preparedness sense). The local tourist organization, VVV Amsterdam, prides itself on being able to answer any conceivable travel question any conceivable traveler might have, excepting only those who are illegal or of doubtful moral worth. The city is foreign, of course, but not impossibly so; many Dutch speak English.

To really put your best foot forward, you'll want to know how much the essentials will cost; how you're going to get there; what documents, clothing, and other travel necessities you should bring; and when you should go to best take advantage of special events. This guide provides the information you need to plan your trip before leaving home.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.