Amsterdam trip planner

The Dutch capital of canals and "coffee" bars, Anne Frank and the Red Light District, Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt van Rinj


Why Amsterdam?

As far as great European cities go, Amsterdam is pretty young.

Founded in 1200 as a fishing village at the mouth of the Amstel River, it rapidly grew to become the western world's trading powerhouse.

Its cityscape is one of the most elegant and cohesive anywhere, with 250-year-old town houses (see right) lining well-planned and scrupulously well-kept canals.

The 17th century was the Dutch Golden Age, when tulips were literally worth their weight in gold. A vast trade network and the American colony of Nieuw Amsterdam (later renamed New York) filled the Dutch coffers, while painters such as Rembrandt filled the country's cultural life.

Amsterdam has...
• 727,095 inhabitants
• 400,000 bikes
• 165 canals
• 206 Van Gogh paintings

After a bout with strict Protestant laws, Amsterdam became an exceedingly tolerant city in a continent of prejudice. It welcomed religious and other dissidents from across Europe, such as Jews and the English Puritan Pilgrims (a stuffy but devoted bunch who eventually set sail from here to Massachusetts).

Wealthy, 17th-century Amsterdam dug itself a slew of new canals, built stacks of townhouses, and welcomed in the artists.

The art & museums of Amsterdam

These traditions of encouraging high art and tolerance and discouraging prudish morality laws have endowed the city with its greatest attractions.

Amsterdam has some of the world's top museums; in addition to the Rembrandts at the peerless Rijksmuseum, the Dutch arts can claim native masters such as Frans Hals, Jan Vermeer, Jan Steen, Vincent van Gogh, and Piet Mondrian.

There's an entire museum dedicated to Van Gogh, and another—the Stedelijk Museum—to other modern artists from the Impressionists on.

The famously seedy side of Amsterdam—sex, drugs, etc.

Why are the houses so narrow?
The canals of Amsterdam, a city of 7,000 gables, are lined with elegant 17th-century row houses that often look impossibly tall and skinny.

For years property was taxed on the width of the frontage, so everyone built as narrowly as possible.

In order to get maximum square footage out of such skinny property, Amsterdammers extended their structures very high and very deep.
The Dutch leniency toward drugs and prostitution has produced a huge tourism industry that draws students and other mellow types to the city's "smoking coffeehouses" and visitors of all stripes who gawk at the houses of ill repute in the (in)famous Red Light District.

All of this might soon change.

Citing the seediness into which parts of Amsterdam has sunk—and the less than savory types (not to mention crime) it has been attracting—the city council has begun shuttering large sections of Red Light District—not closing it entirely, but certainly reducing it.

In May, 2011, the Dutch government announced plans to ban foreigners from toking on marijuana in those famous smoking cafes (they will be turned into membership-only clubs, and only the Dutch will be eligible to become members).

But Dutch tolerance and liberalism is historically as famous for its virtues as its vices:

Anne Frank and beyond

Nazi occupation during World War II threw the light of Dutch tolerance into sharp, shadowed relief as, despite the efforts of many locals, thousands of Amsterdam Jews were tracked down and deported.

Among them was Anne Frank, a teenager whose hiding place still stands and whose diary remains one of the most powerful and enduring pieces of Holocaust literature.

No other city has such a radical mix of sights, from the basest and most titillating of pleasures to the most somber reflections on human cruelty.

Dutch strength in the fine arts spans from the Renaissance to the modern period, but just as many visitors come to shop for diamonds, drink Amsterdam beers such as Heineken and Amstel in brown cafes (so called because the best of them are stained a uniform pale brown from decades, if not from centuries, of smoke), or head out from the city for tulip fields and windmills.

Tips & Links

How long should I spend in Amsterdam?

You can't really appreciate Amsterdam in less than two full days—for many people, the museums alone will take at least that long.

Three days would be better.

Useful links & resources
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Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs © the Amsterdam Tourism & Convention Board

This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in June 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.