Amsterdam Travel Guide


The Begijnhof is an enclosed courtyard dating from the early 14th century.

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.

Many of Amsterdam's canals were filled in around the start of the 20th century, mainly for sanitary reasons. The remaining waterways are still pretty filthy, but there's nothing like seeing Amsterdam by boat - just keep your eyes up and don't trail your eating hand wistfully in the water. Amsterdam becomes even more picturesque from a duck's perspective: the houses look impossibly higgledy-piggledly, leaning, looming and jostling on both sides of the canal; bridges arch over the water, some of them opening for tall water traffic; and you get to spy on all those magnificent houseboats, ranging from restored barges overflowing with tomato plants and cats peeking from the portholes to sleek purpose-built 'arks' with feature windows and sundecks.

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.

The gateway to Amsterdam's museum quarter is the Rijksmuseum, the country's premier art museum and an easy place to overdose on old masters. As well as works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and Steen, there are dollhouses, delftware, Asiatic art, changing displays of prints and drawings and special travelling exhibitions. The Van Gogh Museum nearby houses about 200 paintings by Vincent, including famous works like The Potato Eaters and The Yellow House in Arles. Japanese prints that influenced the old ear-slicer are also on display. The Stedelijk Museum next door focuses on art from 1850 to the present. It's one of the world's leading museums of modern art and has an eclectic, provocative collection.

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
The Southern Canal Belt is Amsterdam at its most gracious, with the tall, narrow canal architecture reflected in the water.

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.

Off the Beaten Track

Amsterdam Noord
Before it was inhabited, Amsterdam North was a seedy marshland area with shifting contours; executed criminals were dumped out here to be devoured by crows and dogs. But as Amsterdam spread, a thriving Dutch working-class neighbourhood developed out of these inauspicious beginnings. Amsterdam Noord is a good place to get a glimpse of traditional Dutch life well away from the crowds in the old town, and there are large public markets here on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday that rarely see any tourists. A free pedestrian ferry crosses the IJ behind Centraal Station to the Noordhollands Kanaal.

The Jordaan was a working class district during the huge canal belt project in the early 17th century: it was where the canal-diggers, bridge-builders, carpenters and stonemasons lived. Now it's colonised by yuppies who are drawn to the good pubs, offbeat shops, enchanting restaurants and weird little art galleries.

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
There's something oddly compelling about the throbbing red light district, where scantily-clad and often utterly bored women beckon from their windows to the passers-by.

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.

Other Netherlands Attractions

Hoge Veluwe

Hoge Veluwe is the country's largest national park and home to the wonderful Kröller-Müller Museum. The park itself covers 5500 hectares (13,500 acres) and is a strange mix of forests and woods, shifting sands and heath moors that provide a sense of isolation (if not actual isolation) found nowhere else on the Dutch mainland. Red deer, wild boar and mouflon (a Mediterranean sheep) roam here. The Kröller-Müller Museum has 278 works by Van Gogh, as well as smaller collections of Picasso and Mondriaan. Out the back is Europe's largest sculpture garden, with works by Rodin, Moore, Giacometti and many more.

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.

One of the Netherland's oldest towns, Maastricht sits between Belgium and Germany and has a lively international feel. Its history stretches back to 50 BC, when the Romans set up camp there. Fortification walls still partly surround the city, and you can explore a labyrinth of tunnels on the city's western outskirts.

The Randstad
The Randstad translates as 'Urban Agglomeration'. It's the Netherlands' most densely populated region, spreading in a circle from Amsterdam, incorporating the Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, and smaller towns like Haarlem, Leiden and Delft. The area's most spectacular sight is the bulb fields near Leiden which explode into colour between March and May. Even from the window of a train they're intoxicating, but a back-roads bicycle trip is the best way to enjoy the sights and smells. The Keukenhof, south of Haarlem, is the world's largest garden. It attracts a staggering 750,000 people during its eight-week season each year, but its beauty is something of an enigma. Nature's talents are combined with Dutch precision to create a garden where millions of tulips and daffodils bloom every year, perfectly in place and exactly on time.

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.

Delta Region
The province of Zeeland (Sea Land) makes up most of the Delta region. It was once a solitary place where isolated islands and medieval towns were battered by howling winds and white-capped seas. After the tragic 1953 flood, Zeeland was defended from the sea by the monumental Delta Project, but it's still a bit of a wild spot.

Wadden Islands
The country's five northern isles in the shallow Waddenzee are important bird-breeding grounds and provide an escape for stressed mainlanders who want to touch roots with nature. Texel, the largest and most poulated has 24km (15mi of beaches). Schiermonnikoog, the smallest and most serene of the islands, is perfect for getting away from it all. Ferries connect the islands to the mainland.

Visit these other interesting sites!

Hosted in