Amsterdam affords sightseers an embarrassment of riches. There are miles of canals to cruise, hundreds of narrow streets to wander, 7,000 historical buildings to see in the heart of town, around 40 museums of all types to visit, and diamond cutters and craftspeople to watch as they practice generations-old skills. The list is as long as every tourist's individual interests, and then some.
The first thing you should do is join the 2.5 million people every year who take a canal ride on a tour boat. Why? Because the water-level view of those gabled canalside houses and the picturesque bridges lends meaning and color to everything else you do in Amsterdam.
Yet most of Amsterdam's attractions are hidden, and they're not even attractions in any conventional sense. They're part of a fabric of life, a special but elusive atmosphere that's been slowly evolving for centuries. There are few open vistas or bombastic buildings; rather, the city is enclosed within itself. You'll need to dig a certain amount to get at these hidden-in-plain-sight features. Above all, maintain that certain attitude: A willingness to slow down, open up, and mentally unbutton.
Amsterdam would not be the same without its canals. There might still be Golden Age architecture, trams, "brown cafes," and museums, and maybe locals would retain their iconoclastic outlook on life -- but without a mirror of water to reflect its soul, the city would be a shrunken glory. The city has 160 canals -- more than Venice -- with a combined length of 76km (47 miles), spanned by 1,281 bridges.
The best-known canals are those of the 17th-century Grachtengordel (Canal Belt, or Canal Ring): Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht. To these three, UNESCO in 2010 added the 15th-century Singel when it inscribed the Grachtengordel on the list of World Heritage Sites.
To get up close and personal with Amsterdam's canals, you could start out by taking The Golden Age Canals tour. Or sail forth on a DIY "cruise," by pedaling your way around the canals on a water bike (pedalo) from Canal Bike. Or stroll along the canals after dark, when they're lit up.
The Big Three
Two of Amsterdam's big three attractions -- the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum -- are around Museumplein ("Museum Square"), just south of the oldest part of town. Most of the "square" consists of open green areas bordered by avenues of linden trees and gardens and crisscrossed by walking and bike paths. At Museumplein's north end is a long pond that serves as a handy foot-cooler in summer and has served as a skating rink in winter. The third attraction of the top trio, the Anne Frankhuis, is in the historic Centrum (Center) district, on Prinsengracht.
By no means should you hit all three in a single day. You'll wind up emotionally battered by the Anne Frankhuis, bedazzled by the Van Gogh Museum, and, well, Rijksmuseum-ed by the Rijksmuseum. One per day is enough.
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