Whether you're travelling by boat, by bike or on foot, it is only by adopting a more relaxed, slower pace that you can feel yourself being enveloped by the beauty of the Netherlands, a country that reveals a true sense of simplicity, yet also a surprising complexity. The plethora of canals that criss-cross the city create a mysterious, lyrical backdrop to the most famous flower market in the world, prestigious diamond merchants and a daring creative scene. Amsterdam also epitomises the history of a constant battle against the sea, with extension after extension, and houses with their sometimes curved backbones using their stilts to fight back against the tides. Studded with thousands of majestic dwellings dating back to the Golden Age which are now listed historic monuments, the urban landscape is structured around the old town, with a network of winding canals which spread the libertarian, artistic and entrepreneurial spirit that have made the capital what it is today.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the rectangular Dam Square is the historic heart of the city. It was here that a dam was built in around 1270, marking the very beginning of this prosperous future port. To the east, the neon-lined windows and marijuana smoke rings mark the contours of the Red Light District, De Wallen. With its old medieval port, its huge expanse of light and its Sunday flea market, Nieuwmarkt presents a whole other more festive side of the city. Packed with restaurants, bars and clubs, the Leidseplein, southwest of the historic centre, is similar. In the summer, the terraces here are overflowing, and street artists are the icing on the cake of this charming tableau.
On the avenue that crosses this bustling square, Leidsestraat, there are plenty of international brands to choose from, and slightly more prestigious labels can be found on P.C. Hooftstraat. Further west, the pretty neighborhoods of Negen Straatjes (the 9 Streets) and Jordaan are graced with charming independent stores and cool designer boutiques.
For a breath of fresh air, visit the Oosterpark and discover the wild parrots which live there. More centrally, the Vondelpark combines large expanses of water with rose gardens and lawns, making this the perfect setting for a picnic before you soak up some culture in the nearby museums. Choose between the amazing Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Museum and the Van Gogh Museum, next to the famous Concertgebouw concert hall. Spread across the city, there are plenty of other amazing cultural venues to choose from, starting with Anne Frank’s House, a moving reminder of Nazi brutality. Then there’s the National Maritime Museum, the Amsterdam Museum, the Hermitage Amsterdam, the Eye Film Institute… no fewer than 50 cultural institutions fill this pocket-sized capital which have made a huge impact on the international arts scene.
In memory of its past as a major port, Amsterdam has held on to its thirst for foreign flavors and spices. From fermented herring (“maatje”), eaten standing up in the street, to the cheeses that decorate many a shop window, the city is fiercely proud of its cuisine. Its love of quality ingredients and subtle combinations have helped to establish a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Ciel Bleu, Aan de Poel and Bord'Eau, and nurtured unique foodie destinations such as De Kas. Set within a conservatory in which the food that adorns your plate is grown, the restaurant gives an explosive insight into an inventive new scene that reminds you that Amsterdam is first and foremost a land of audacity and liberty.