|Amsterdam Travel Guide|
Hidden behind the busy Spui shopping strip, it's a surreal oasis of peace, with tiny houses grouped around a well-kept courtyard. The Begijnhof was formerly a convent inhabited by the Beguines, a Catholic order of unmarried or widowed women from wealthy families who cared for the elderly and lived a religious life without taking monastic vows; the last true Beguine died in the 1970s.
One of the houses here dates from 1465, making it the oldest maintained wooden house in the country.
There are numerous tourist boats doing the rounds, and it's also possible to rent a pedal boat, if you're feeling energetic. Of course, if the canals freeze over in winter, the boats get stuck and there's skating to be had. Amsterdam frozen over is a wonderful place: the locals dust off their ice skates, children and dogs scramble around, and vendors sell hot chocolate, glühwein and soup. Watch out for thin spots in the ice, especially under bridges and at the edges: people die under the ice every year.
Anne Frankhuis, west of the centre, draws over half a million tourists each year. Visitors file through the achterhuis (annexe) pilgrim-style; it was here that the Jewish Frank family went into hiding to try to escape deportation during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The Franks and four others hid in the part of the house concealed behind a revolving bookcase from July 1942 to August 1944, when they were betrayed to the Gestapo. Anne's diary was found among the litter in the annexe and has since been translated into 55 languages. It's worth getting here early as the queues can be exasperating.
Many of Amsterdam's museums have a lighter side. The Seksmuseum near Dam Square has a bizarre collection of pornographic materials. The Hash and Marijuana Museum in the red-light district may appeal to those with a special interest. The Amsterdams Historisch Museum, housed in an old orphanage, has creative displays about the city, and the Nederlands Scheepvaartmuseum has an engaging collection of maritime memorabilia.
Southern Canal Belt
Amsterdam's centre is embraced by five circular waterways called the Grachtengordel (canal belt). The three main waterways - the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht - were reserved for the houses of the wealthy, and the distinctive canal architecture makes this a superb place to begin an extended stroll.
Along the Herengracht (Gentleman's Canal) sit the city's largest private mansions. This was the first of the three main outer canals to be built; it was begun in 1670, and is named after its original investors.
South of the Herengracht are the Keizersgracht (Emperor's Canal, named for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I)and Prinsengracht (Princes' Canal, after the House of Orange.) The houses here are less imposing, but arguably less pretentious.
It's a great place to wander around, get lost and soak up the atmosphere of people going about their daily business. Houses here are tiny but tidy, with lace curtains and window boxes, and spionnetje (little spy) mirrors attached to the windowsills so auntie Greet can see who's coming and going.
The Jordaan has a high concentration of hofjes (courtyards), many of them with beautifully restored houses and lovingly maintained gardens. In theory, they're closed to the public, but if you do come across one of the unobtrusive entrances, and it is unlocked, most residents won't mind if you sneak a peek.
Red Light District
It draws in visitors, regardless of moral rectitude or erotica-induced need for smelling salts. It is, in fact, more of a brand name than a call to louche arms. These days everyone knows about Amsterdam and its sex industry.
But you needn't worry about your hormones staging a coup d'etat on your brain - for all its subject matter and worldly denizens it's an oddly unerotic place, albeit an extremely fascinating one.
The district's foundations were laid by the glories of the Dutch empire, reliant on soldiers and their testosterone. When ships came in, the port would get an injection of sea-weary sailors with gold to splash about, and the area - known as the Walletjes - was where women who were willing to soak it up were to be found.
These days, crowds clog the alleyways, peep-shows and alleyways while
buxom but mostly-bored sex workers beckon from pink-lit windows. There
are 450 of these windows and a street specialising in every taste - Latinos
on Oudezijds Achterburgwal and Molsteeg, Asians on Stofstraat, and the
'high-end' glamour pusses along tiny Trompettersteeg by the Oude Kerk.
Hoge Veluwe is accessible by bus from Arnhem, which is one hour's train ride east of Amsterdam. White bicycles are available free of charge once you're inside the park.
Other Randstad attractions include the stately mansions, palatial embassies and prestigious art galleries of The Hague, the country's seat of government; the distinctive blue-and-white pottery of Delft; the experimental postwar architecture and crackling energy of Rotterdam; and the vibrant and attractive city of Haarlem.
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