Amsterdammers will tell you it's easy to find your way around their city. However, when each resident offers you a different pet theory of how best to maintain your sense of direction, you begin to sense that the city's layout can be confusing. Some of the natives' theories actually do work. If you try to "think in circles," "follow the canals," or "watch the way the trams go," you might be able to spend fewer minutes consulting a map or trying to figure out where you are and which way to walk to find the Rijksmuseum, a restaurant, or your hotel.
When you step out of Centraal Station's main entrance, you're facing south toward the Centrum (Center). From here, the city is laid out around you along four concentric semicircles of canals, the Grachtengordel (Canal Belt): Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. Along these canals, 16th- and 17th-century merchants lived in elegant homes, most of which are still standing. The largest and most stately canal houses are along Herengracht. Connecting these canals are many smaller canals and streets radiating out from the Center, and effectively dividing the city into an archipelago of tiny islands linked by bridges. The area inside the Singelgracht canal, a fifth concentric waterway forming an outer rim to the canal belt (and not to be confused with Singel, the inner concentric canal), is considered the Old City -- and it's so compact that a fit person should be able to walk across it in around 30 minutes.
A heavily touristed street, Damrak, leads from Centraal Station to the main central square called the Dam. In the 17th century, Damrak was a canal, its quays jammed with cargo boats and lined with mapmaker stores and ships' chandlers, coopers and ropemakers. Narrow side streets like Haringpakkerssteeg and Zoutsteeg recall the herring packers of yore (haring means "herring") and where ships used to unload salt (zout means "salt"). In the late 19th century, Damrak was lined with fancy stores and filled with elegant shoppers. Today, it's a brash thoroughfare of souvenir stores and noisy cafes. Houses on the bank stand in water, Venice-style.
To the east of the Dam, where the original Amstel River dam stood, and where the Royal Palace is now, is the (in)famous Red Light District, where government-licensed prostitutes sit behind windows, waiting for customers. A block to the west of Damrak is Nieuwendijk, a pedestrians-only shopping street that becomes Kalverstraat on the far side of the Dam. Follow Kalverstraat to the end, and you're at Muntplein beside the old Mint Tower. Cross over Muntplein and continue in the same direction to reach Rembrandtplein, one of the city's main nightlife areas, beyond which lies the old Jodenbuurt (Jewish Quarter).
The other main nightlife area is Leidseplein, on the outer, Singelgracht canal. Leidseplein is close to the end of Leidsestraat, a car-free (but not tram-free) shopping street leading from Singel to Singelgracht.
The wide, green Museumplein, site of the city's three most famous museums -- Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum -- is a 5-minute walk along Singelgracht from Leidseplein (note that much of the Rijksmuseum is closed until 2013 for refurbishment, but the Stedelijk should be re-opened by 2011.
An area worth a special mention is the Jordaan (pronounced yor-daan), an old neighborhood filled with inexpensive restaurants, offbeat stores, and small galleries. The Jordaan lies between Brouwersgracht, Prinsengracht, Looiersgracht, and Lijnbaansgracht. To get there, turn right off Damrak at any point between Centraal Station and the Dam, then cross over Prinsengracht.
Returning to Centraal Station -- and everybody winds up back there eventually -- if you exit the station at the rear you'll be standing on the city's fast-changing Waterfront, which is the setting for much of the city's redevelopment effort for years to come.
The Principal Squares
There are six major squares in central Amsterdam that will be the hubs of your visit:
The Dam is the city's heart and the site of the original dam across the Amstel River that gave the city its name. Encircling the square are the Royal Palace, the Nieuwe Kerk national church, and department stores, hotels, and restaurants. On the square is the Nationaal Monument of World War II.
Leidseplein and the streets around the city's signature nightlife square glitter with restaurants, nightclubs, music venues, a casino, and movie theaters. It's a fun scene even if hustle and bustle reigns over style.
Rembrandtplein is another entertainment scene, and bustles with eateries and places to grab a drink.
Museumplein is the main cultural center, containing the Rijksmuseum, Concertgebouw, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum, all in close proximity.
Waterlooplein, another cultural focal point, is home to the Muziektheater and a superb flea market.
Muntplein is a busy transportation hub, easily recognizable for its crown-topped 17th-century Munttoren (Mint Tower), one of the city's original fortress towers.
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