Given its larger-than-life reputation as one of Europe's great cities, as well as a bastion of free-spirited tolerance, Amsterdam is surprisingly compact, orderly, and cozy. It's also resplendent in the springtime, when tulip markets thrive and colorful barges ply its regal canals.
The Netherlands' capital mixes such classical images as Rembrandt and Gilded Age mansions with unpretentiously urbane pleasures, including a bounty of edgy boutiques and arty cafes. Amsterdam’s greatest treasures, however, lie well beyond the touristy areas, from the cobblestoned paths of the Jordaan district to the narrow, tree-shaded canals around Zuiderkerk. Often the only difference between the well-trodden and off-the-beaten-path is a mere 50 feet, so explore Amsterdam with a curious eye.
5…Rice to the occasion
The culinary scene in Amsterdam reflects the potent influences of the city's many international residents, particularly immigrants from Indonesia, which was a Dutch colony from 1800 until World War II. Among the dozens of laudable Indonesian eateries here, centrally located Restaurant Selecta (Vijzelstraat 26, 020-624-8894, www.restaurantselecta.nl) stands out for its exemplary rijstaffel (literally "rice table") feasts. These multicourse meals incorporate as many as a dozen vegetarian and meat dishes, harmonizing both sweet and savory flavors. Popular are the nasi goreng (fried rice), pisang goreng (fried banana fritters), chicken satay with peanut dipping sauce, stir-fried vegetables in coconut milk, and babi kecap (pork belly braised in sweet soy and star-anise sauce). You will not walk away hungry from one of these elaborate spreads.
A bit less ubiquitous but also worth searching for is cuisine from another former Dutch colony, Suriname, which gained its independence in 1975. Head to the funky outdoor Albert Cuyp Market (www.albertcuypmarkt.com) for one of the city's best sources of Surinamese food, Tjin's (van Woustraat 17). This tiny takeout stall specializes in roti (grilled flatbread), lentil stew, spicy-meatball sandwiches, and other treats reflecting Surinam's vibrant fusion of European, Asian, and Caribbean flavors.
4…Seek out stylish Staalstraat
It's easy enough to follow the crowds in Amsterdam to the major sights and busiest thoroughfares and city squares, but when you've tired of superstar museums and the forgettable clichés of the Red Light District, take a stroll along the eminently charming, independent-spirited, and relatively peaceful Staalstraat. This short, unassuming lane spans three scenic canals in the Nieuwmarkt section of the city center, one of them, Groenburgwal - crossed by a picturesque drawbridge - offering a stunning view north toward Zuiderkerk (South Church). Staalstraat is lined with neatly restored vintage brick houses, most containing smart boutiques and design shops.
Gadgets and modern gifts fill the shelves of &K (Staalstraat 11, 020-463-6163, www.klevering.nl), while neighboring Droog Design (Staalstraat 7A & B, 020-626-9809, www.droog.com) has become renowned for its sleek housewares and furnishings. Puccini Bomboni (Staalstraat 17, 020-626-5474, www.puccinibomboni.com) crafts celebrated artisan chocolates with delectable fillings - try the rhubarb or ginger varieties. De Beestenwinkel (Staalstraat 26, 020-623-1805, www.beestenwinkel.nl) carries a wonderful, whimsical variety of animal-inspired toys and games, from tiny rubber frogs to big furry cheetahs. When you're done window-shopping, relax at one of the cozy tables inside Frenzi (Zwanenburgwal 232, 020-423-5112, www.frenzi.nl/restaurant.html), a homey trattoria on the corner of Staalstraat serving deftly prepared pastas and grills; the pork loin stuffed with pistachios and smothered with rosemary gravy is noteworthy.
3…Find out where old Russia meets new Amsterdam
One of the city's newest and most exciting attractions, the Dutch branch of Russia's vaunted Hermitage Museum (Amstel 51, 020-530-8751, www.hermitage.nl) opened in June 2009 and has helped invigorate the east bank of the Amstel River. The enormous, stately brick building that houses the Hermitage, called the Amstelhof, dates to 1682 and previously contained a retirement home. One of the permanent exhibits explores the building's history, architectural design, and dramatic adaptation into a museum. A second ongoing exhibit traces the sometimes chummy, other times tenuous relationship between the Netherlands and Russia over the past few centuries.
The Hermitage's main draws, however, are its rotating exhibitions, which sample impressive works from the original Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Through mid-September 2010, "Matisse to Malevich: Pioneers of Modern Art from the Hermitage" presents paintings by some of the creative luminaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This show is followed by "Alexander the Great: The Road to the East," on exhibit through spring 2011 and showcasing art from the countries consumed by Alexander's litany of conquests, from Persia to Mongolia.
2…Pedal with the pack
Hey, if seemingly every Amsterdammer gets around on two wheels, why not try it yourself? Indeed, it's a quick and fun way to tour the city - easy once you get the hang of navigating amid the throngs of fellow cyclists and avoiding the occasional tram. You can hire bikes and get your bearings in the historic Jordaan, a leafy neighborhood of narrow lanes, modest 17th-century houses, peaceful canals, and charming sidewalk taverns. Bike City (Bloemgracht 68-70, 020-626-3721, www.bikecity.nl) rents bikes and can suggest some perfect routes for a tour, as well as point you toward such nearby attractions as the poignant Anne Frank House museum and the stately, nearly 400-year-old Westerkerk (West Church), whose tower you can climb for a panoramic view of the city center.
Stop for sustenance at the unabashedly romantic Cafe 't Smalle (egelantiersgracht 12, 020-623-9617, www.t-smalle.nl), where you can knock back a beer to the accompaniment of bountiful salads and tasty sandwiches; try for a table at the sunny canal-side terrace. A short ride northeast, shop for the heartiest, stinkiest, and most delicious aged gouda - one of nation's most celebrated foods - at Kaasland Singel (Haarlemmerstraat 2, 020-422-1715, www.kaasland.com) a century-old dairy wonderland stocking more than 180 varieties of cheese.
1…Go green in Vondelpark
Elbow room is slightly hard to come by in densely settled Amsterdam, but not if you meander through the city's biggest expanse of greenery, the beautiful Vondelpark. The 120-acre sanctuary abounds with blooming gardens and trees, verdant meadows, serene ponds, and paved walkways popular with joggers, inline skaters, and parents pushing strollers. Kick back with a lazy lunch at the open-air Cafe Vertigo (Vondelpark 3, 020-612-3021, www.vertigo.nl); try the sandwich of carpaccio, parmesan, basil-arugula salad, and truffle oil.
A perfect spot for soaking up rays, Vondelpark also makes a logical base for visiting some notable cultural venues. In summer you can attend concerts in the park's open-air theater, and the adjacent Museum Quarter is a trove of high-octane attractions. Just steps from Vondelpark you can tour the vast repository of Dutch masterworks and Golden Age furnishings at the Rijksmuseum (Stadhouderskade 42, 020-674-7047, www.rijksmuseum.nl), which remains open while parts of the building undergo an ambitious redesign. Also close by is the Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7, 020-570-5200, www.vangoghmuseum.nl), which contains more than 200 paintings and 500 drawings created by the tortured yet brilliant postimpressionist painter who was born in the Netherlands in 1853.