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There is a fairytale quality to the tree-lined canal streets of Amsterdam. Boutiques, cafes, apartments and hotels may hide behind the facades of the gabled townhouses, but the look of this beautiful old city has not changed much since its 17th-century Golden Age. Some 7,000 historic buildings remain, many of them beautiful merchants' mansions, located along canals that are laid out in five concentric circles, connected by bridges and intriguing small streets. No matter how many times you walk along the canals, they are enchanting to see, even when traffic and whizzing bicycles dispel the Old-World illusion. On a silent Sunday morning or on a summer evening when the old facades are floodlit, the city is magical.
Amsterdam is small enough that much of the city can be covered on foot, allowing visitors to savor sights such as the charming no-two-alike gables atop the houses, houseboats bedecked with potted greenery and masses of blooms in the colorful, floating flower market. Shops offering antiques and avant-garde art beckon everywhere. Outdoor markets, selling everything from postage stamps and parakeets to "junk-tiques," are another intriguing facet of the city.
Considered one of Europe's major art capitals, Amsterdam boasts three great Dutch museums as well as a branch of the Hermitage, the famous trove of art treasures in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Anne Frank House and Rembrandt's home are also popular attractions. In the performing arts, the city has two international stars: the National Ballet and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. (A 2008 poll from classical music magazine Gramophone called the latter the world's best.)
The canal streets of the old city are protected by ordinance and will never change, but Amsterdam is expanding outward and architecture buffs will find both modern and historic neighborhoods to explore. Though quite close to the old city, Passenger Terminal Amsterdam (PTA), known as "the wave" for its free-form facade (shaped like a whale), is the part of the Eastern Docklands area where shipping docks have given way to neighborhoods of striking contemporary design that now house more than 20,000 people. Muziekgebouw aan het IJ, a concert hall for jazz and modern music, is adjacent to the terminal, and ongoing construction will bring many more amenities, including hotels.
With so much to see and do, Amsterdam makes for a rewarding stay before or after cruising.
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Delicate Delft china is one of Holland's best-known products; it can be found both in traditional blue and white and in multi-color designs. Gardeners will want to order famous Dutch tulip bulbs, which are shipped to buyers at the proper planting time. Delicious Dutch cheeses can be bought at the airport, as well as in town. The hand-worked, aged Gouda is a special treat. Amsterdam is also an international diamond-cutting center, with many showrooms offering competitive prices on diamonds.
Dutch is the official language, but English is the second language of the Netherlands and is spoken everywhere.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Netherlands is part of the European community, and the euro is the official currency. For up-to-the-minute conversions, visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
Bank hours are typically Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.; on Mondays, some banks are open only in the afternoon. ATM's are plentiful; a machine can be found just to the left as you exit the cruise terminal, as well as at the airport, train station and dozens of banks. When out and about, look for the ubiquitous lion symbol (IMG ATM's). Credit cards are widely accepted.
Where You're Docked
The Amsterdam cruise terminals are busy in season, hosting more than 200 oceangoing vessels and more than 1,500 river ships that carry more than 650,000 passengers from spring through fall.
If you're on an ocean cruise, you'll dock at one of two areas. The Passenger Terminal Amsterdam (PTA), near the start of the new Eastern Docklands development, is a 10-minute walk or a five-minute ride from Central Station, where all of the city's bus, trolley and boat lines can be boarded. The second terminal area is Felison Terminal, which recently added a second berth. This area is located just in front of the locks.
The city's multitude of river cruise vessels dock behind the Central Station on the River IJ, along a long street called de Ruyterkade.
Though vendors usually appear in the terminal when a ship arrives, there is far more to do, see and buy nearby in town. The port offers a welcome market in the terminal, where you can buy access cards for various attractions. You can also purchase an iAmsterdam card at the tourist office in front of Central Station. The card will give the holder discounts on bus tickets, museum admission and entrance to other places of interest.
On Foot: For visitors who plan to explore on their own, almost everything can be done on foot -- and when you tire, trams cover the main areas of the old city, and buses go almost everywhere, including the Docklands area. (The tourist office, opposite Central Station, is a convenient place to get maps and information and purchase tickets.).
The city's central point is the huge Dam Square, just a five-minute walk from Central Station via Damrak, a busy tourist street. The canals form five circles around Dam Square, and several other squares will help you get your bearings as you study the city map. Lively Leidseplein and Rembrantsplein are lined with sidewalk cafes that are ideal places to rest and watch the passing scene.
Major museums and the classic Concertgebouw concert hall are near the Museumplein, just beyond the canals. Waterlooplein is home to the Jewish Museum, the Muziektheater, the city's handsome concert hall, and Amsterdam's biggest flea market; the Hermitage museum and Rembrandt's House are also nearby. The Jordaan, a bohemian neighborhood with unusual shops and galleries, can be found by looking for the Westerkerk Church and the Anne Frank House.
The adventurous can join the Dutch on their bicycles; rentals are available at MacBike at Central Station.
By Bus: The #326 bus, headed to Central Station, stops right in front of the cruise terminal; the #16 trolley travels from the passenger terminal to the city center. The Canal Bus, a cruise boat traversing the canals with stops at all the city's main attractions, is a sightseeing trip, as well as an easy way to get around; you can get on and off all day.
By Taxi: Metered taxis are readily available, but they can be expensive. There are also human-powered Tuk Tuk taxis. Pricing is based on "zones."
Watch Out For
The Red Light District can get a bit rowdy at night, with the mobs coming out to pay their respect for various reasons. Amsterdam visitors should also be aware that the term "coffee shop" has a different meaning here; these are places where no hard liquor is sold, but the sale of marijuana is officially tolerated.
A Canal Boat Cruise: A cruise aboard a glass-topped canal boat is the best overview of the fine gabled homes and many picturesque bridges that make this city unique. Boats also take you into the busy harbor. The ride is romantic on nights, in season, when the bridges and facades are lit. Tours last about 1.5 hours and depart frequently from the harbor in front of Central Station.
The Rijksmuseum: This world-class museum reopened in 2013 after several years of renovations. It houses paintings by Hals, Vermeer, Steen and Rembrandt (including his "Night Watch"), as well as highlights of the Golden Age like silver, delftware and exquisitely furnished doll houses.
The Van Gogh Museum: The world's largest collection of works by the Dutch master is found here, along with paintings by Van Gogh's contemporaries -- Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Sisley and others. Highlights are 18 paintings from the two years when Van Gogh lived in the south of France. It is generally considered his best work, with familiar images such as "The Yellow House," "Vincent's Bedroom at Arles," "Sunflowers" and "Self Portrait with Pipe and Straw Hat."
The Anne Frank House: Many decades after World War II, a line still forms almost every day with visitors waiting to view the small, hidden rooms where 13-year-old Anne Frank wrote her famous diary. Eight people, family and friends, lived in this space, hardly daring to speak aloud for more than two years, hoping in vain to escape the Nazis. The bare rooms have lost none of their impact or poignancy with the passage of time.
Shopping: Amsterdam has shops to appeal to everyone. Traditional, large department stores, such as the Bijenkorf, are near the Dam Square, and Magna Plaza (just behind the Royal Palace) is a historic building that has been converted to a luxurious shopping center. Exclusive designer fashions are found on P.C. Hooftstraat and other streets near the Rijksmuseum, while Rokin Street and the Spiegelkwartier are centers for the city's many antique shops. The Nine Streets, close to Royal Palace, are also great for fun finds.
Most fun for browsing are the small streets between the main canals, lined with intriguing little shops and galleries that have made the city increasingly known for its young, cutting-edge fashion and design. Frozen Fountain (Prinsengracht 645) and Droog Design (Staalstraat 7a/b) are good places to see some of the best work of new interior designers.
Many of the diamond dealers offer demonstrations of how a diamond is cut and polished, fun to see even if your budget doesn't allow for a solitaire on this trip. The "Shopping in Amsterdam" brochure available at the tourist office offers a plan of numerous shopping areas around town.
Editor's Note: If you spend more than 50 euros in a store, you are entitled to a refund of the value-added tax (VAT), which amounts to 19 percent of the bill. (Shop where you see the Global Refund Tax-Free Shopping sign and remember to ask for the Global Refund Cheque.) A lower rate of 6 percent applies for certain goods and services, such as food products, books, medicines, art, antiques, entry to museums, zoos, theaters and sports. When leaving the country or the European Union, show your purchases, receipts and passport to customs officials and have your Global Refund cheques stamped.
For More: Virtual Tourist's Things to Do in Amsterdam
Been There, Done That
Rembrandt's House Museum: This is an atmospheric reconstruction of the 1639 home built when Rembrandt was at the height of his fame, furnished with items and works of art from the master's time. Rooms include his kitchen, his studio, the workroom where he did his meticulous etchings and a gallery displaying dozens of them. Demonstrations show how pigments were ground into paint in earlier days, and a modern-day master is on hand to show the painstaking techniques of etching, guaranteed to leave you with a greater appreciation of this art.
Royal Palace: This one-time city hall, built in the mid-17th century, was transformed into a palace by Napoleon Bonaparte's brother, Louis, when he was king in the early 19th century. Though it is the official royal palace, no one lives there; it is used today only for ceremonial events, and it's open to the public.
The Red Light District: You've heard about it, so you might as well see the blocks, just behind the Oude Kerk (old church), where ladies of the night dressed in scanty underwear are sitting in the windows, waiting for customers. Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam -- the ladies pay the same taxes and enjoy the same police protection as all other residents. While more unsavory at night, the narrow streets are safe to walk in daytime, and the windows seem to be occupied around the clock. Just watch for pickpockets, and remember that taking pictures is forbidden. Those interested in learning more about the district can book a tour, day or night, through a private operator. This is also the area where you'll find tattoo shops, piercing parlors and "adult" stores. But, those interested in the less-seedy side of the district have options, too; it's also a great place to find stellar food and fashion.
Other Museums: It would take at least a month to visit Amsterdam's more than 50 museums, but depending on your interests, there are several more major attractions. The Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, which has a new home after taking up temporary residence in an old post office, continues to offer provocative exhibits. Along with interesting displays, the Jewish Historical Museum has a beautiful setting, a restored building that is the oldest public synagogue in Europe. The Hermitage often brings rare traveling exhibits from its home museum in Russia. The Amsterdam Museum, housed in the 17th-century buildings of the former city orphanage, illustrates how a small fishing village became a world power and offers paintings by many Dutch masters in the context of their time and place, complete with interactive exhibits. Paintings also are hung in the covered street between buildings; this passage is free and also connects to a fascinating little enclave of 14th-century homes, the Begijnhof, which is also free.
Historic Churches: Three of the city's oldest churches are worth looking into. The Oude Kerk dates to the 13th century and has beautiful stained-glass windows. The 14th-century Nieuwe Kirk -- which means "new church" -- is anything but! The late-Gothic-period church has many features of note, including a handsome pulpit, and hosts revolving modern art exhibits and music concerts. Westerkerk, built between 1620 and 1630, is considered a masterpiece of Dutch Renaissance style, and is the scene of summer concerts played on a 300-year-old organ. Visitors can go up into the tower, a landmark in the shape of a crown, for a clear city view.
Markets: The Floating Flower Market on the Singel Canal is a colorful sight, packed with fresh-cut flowers year round. The Kunst & Antiekcentrum de Looier is a big indoor market, held on Saturdays in old warehouses along the canals in the Jordaan section. The Sunday Art Market at Thorbeckeplein offers a mix of paintings, sculpture and jewelry by local artists. The Book Market on Fridays at Spui features second-hand books, the stamp market on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal takes place on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, the bird market at Noordermarket is a colorful sight on Saturday mornings, and the Waterlooplein Flea Market has a little bit of everything, including junk; some vendors are out almost daily, but summer Sunday mornings are the time to snag better antiques and books.
The Aalsmeer Flower Auction: The world's largest flower auction takes place Monday through Friday in Aalsmeer, not far from Schiphol Airport, from 7 a.m. to noon. Get up early to see the best of the action. Thirteen mammoth bidding clocks go at once in five buildings as millions of tulips and daffodils are wheeled by; buyers must be quick, as the first bid stops the clock. Bus #172 from central station will take you to Aalsmeer; allow an hour for the trip.
Keukenhof Gardens: Especially in April and May, this 79-acre park, maintained by an association of Dutch bulb growers, is one of the world's most glorious gardens, featuring some seven million colorful tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other bulb flowers in artistic array. Tours from Amsterdam are usually available to the garden, located about an hour away in Lisse. If you are in Amsterdam in season, don't fail to ask the tour director about arrangements.
Cafe Americain (American Hotel, 97 Leidsekade, 020-556-3232) is an Art Deco rendezvous, one of the city's most popular spots for everything from a cup of coffee to a full dinner. There's a big outdoor terrace on Leidseplein in summer and it's open from 10:30 a.m. until midnight, daily.
De Oesterbar (Leidseplein 10, 020-623-2988) is the city's longtime favorite seafood restaurant in a setting of white tiles and fish tanks. Fish is delivered fresh twice daily, and used in indigenous preparations like sole Danoise with tiny Dutch shrimps and sole Veronique with Muscadet grapes. It's open noon until 11 p.m., daily.
Dutch pancakes are a treat that should not be missed, and the Pancake Bakery (191 Prinsengracht, 020-625-1333) is one of the classic places to sample delicious dinner-plate-size crepes with fillings like ham and cheese as a main dish or fruits for dessert. The bakery is open from noon until 9:30 p.m., daily. This is a great choice for families, but large groups should make reservations in advance.
If you are in town late enough for dinner, sample a Dutch specialty -- an Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table) -- at Tempo Doeloe (Utrechtsestraat 75, 020-625-6718). Inspired by the days of the Netherlands East Indies company, it consists of a dozen or more small meat and vegetable dishes served with condiments and rice. It's open Monday through Saturday, 6 p.m. until 11:30 p.m. Another solid rijsttafel option is Sampurna (Singel 498 1017), open from 12 to 5 p.m. for lunch and 5 to 10:30 p.m. for dinner.
Haesje Claes (Spuistraat 273-275, 020-624-9998) serves typical Dutch dishes at moderate prices in an Old World setting, complete with traditional Dutch hanging lamps. Menu items to try include stampot (mashed potatoes and cabbage) and hutspot (stew). It's open noon until 10 p.m., daily.
Closest to the Port: Movenpick City Centre Hotel Amsterdam (Piet Heinkade 11, 1019 BR Amsterdam) is located very close to port. There's also the NH Barbizon Hotel (Prins Hendrikkade 59-72), a five-star contemporary hotel behind the restored facades of 19 Amsterdam townhouses. Both are located near Central Station.
Five-Star Splurge: Hotel Pulitzer (Prinsengracht 315-331) consists of 25 canalside residences combined with charm into a luxury hotel that offers contemporary comforts in multi-level corridors and original beams that maintain the Old Amsterdam feel.
Stylish and Convenient: MGallery's Convent Hotel Amsterdam (Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 67) is another townhouse conversion that offers warmth, attractive guest rooms, a comfortable sitting room/lobby and an obliging staff.
Historic: The Grand Hotel Amrath (Prins Hendrikkade 108 - 1011 AK), built in 1914, offers luxurious Art-Deco style and was the recent winner of a TripAdvisor Travelers' Choice award.
Contemporary Chic: College Hotel (Roelof Hartstraat 1) is a former school that's been converted to a sleek, modern, 40-room hotel near the Museumplein, intended as a training ground for the best students at the Amsterdam Hotel School.
Budget Option: Hotel Atlas (Van Eeghenstraat 64) is a pleasant, family-run, 23-room budget hotel in an Art Nouveau building near a city park and within walking distance of museums.
Staying in Touch
Major hotels in Amsterdam have in-room Internet connections, and this cosmopolitan city has many cyber cafes. You can also check your e-mail or access the Internet at the Passenger Terminal or at easyInternetcafe, where two locations are open 24 hours a day, at Damrak 33 and Reguliersbreestraat 22 (near Rembrandt Square). Many coffee shops also boast free Wi-Fi.
Best for First-Timers: For the first-timer, a canal boat cruise in a glass domed vessel is a great way to get an overview of the city. There are some 60 miles of canals -- more than you'd find in Venice. The standard tour takes you past landmarks like the Anne Frank House, countless houseboats and Amsterdam's famous gabled homes, built by merchants during the city's golden age in the 17th century.
Best for Art Aficionados: For the art aficionado, don't miss the chance to take a guided tour of the Van Gogh museum, which features a massive collection from the Dutch master (and from his contemporaries). Just as fascinating as the art is the artist himself, whose tumultuous life story culminated with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Best for Outdoor-Lovers and History Buffs: Get outside the city to Zaanse Schans, an open-air "recreation" museum that showcases 17th century Dutch life. The wooden shoes, cheese and windmills are all there. A visit to the nearby city of Edam -- well-known for its red-wax covered cheeses, flower markets and canals -- is almost always included in the excursion.
For More Information
On the Web: iAmsterdam's Portal to Amsterdam, Netherlands Board of Tourism, Passenger Terminal Amsterdam or Amsterdam Cruise
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--Updated by Dan Askin, Cruise Critic contributor, and Ashley Kosciolek, Associate Editor
All photos appear courtesy of the Netherlands Board of Tourism.