AMSTERDAM – The Dutch capital has plenty to celebrate this year, most notably the April 13 reopening of the magnificent Rijksmuseum after 10 years of renovations and, after a shorter facelift, the May 1 reopening of the neighboring Van Gogh Museum. You have to pay to get into those museums, but most of downtown Amsterdam looks like one huge open-air museum and strolling its streets costs you nothing. Renting a bike is not free, but if you want to go native, it's the only way to travel. Just watch out for the traffic and tram rails.
It's not only the Rijksmuseum celebrating in 2013: Amsterdam's canals are 400 years old this year, but strolling along the waterways never gets old. The scenery includes Golden Age mansions dating to the 17th century, converted warehouses and narrow buildings that sometimes look like they're ready to topple over sideways. The ring of canals starts with the Singel, which boasts a floating flower market. Then come the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and finally the Prinsengracht. Once you've worked up a thirst pounding the cobbled sidewalks, stop off for a drink in one of the "brown cafes" — small bars named for their dark wooden interiors — along the canals or in the web of narrow alleys that interconnect them. If you visit the Red Light District (and most tourists do), you'll discover that it's also built around two historic canals, the Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal.
The clatter of trams and ringing of bicycle bells can be an assault on the ears, but there's a hidden oasis of peace in the heart of Amsterdam if you need a little quiet time. The Begijnhof is a small grassed courtyard surrounded by beautiful 17th- and 18th-century houses that were originally built for pious Catholic single women. It's right in the middle of town and reachable by a gateway at the end of a lane leading off one of the city's busiest shopping streets, but it is almost eerily silent. The courtyard also holds a small English Reformed Church and a Catholic chapel. If you don't manage to get into the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandt's "Night Watch," right around the corner from the Begijnhof is another hidden (and free) gem of the city, the Schuttersgalerij, or Civil Guard Gallery, of the Amsterdam Museum. This short covered passageway is home to — among other things — a handful of much smaller portraits of civil guards similar in style, if not size, to Rembrandt's famous work.
The city's most famous park is just a stone's throw from Museum Square and a great place for a picnic. The 116-acre park (47 hectares) has ponds, tree-lined pathways, kids' playgrounds, an open-air theater and cafes. You can rent inline skates, but it's mainly just a great place to lay down a blanket and sit for an hour or two watching the world go by. Look out for the Picasso sculpture of a fish in one of its meadows.
One of Amsterdam's newest landmarks is a stark, white film institute, called the EYE, perched on northern bank of the Ij waterway. While you have to pay to take in a movie, the cafe and its terrace are open to all who are prepared to buy a cup of coffee or light meal and offer a front-row seat to watch barges chug along the Ij against a backdrop of the city skyline. Remember that Amsterdam, at its heart, is a busy port. Getting there is another of the city's unsung pleasures — you squeeze onto a free commuter ferry usually crammed with cyclists from behind Central Station.
Amsterdam's wealth began in its port with the merchants who bought and sold everything from tulip bulbs to spices from the East Indies. A little of that mercantile past can still be seen at the city's many markets. The most famous is the Albert Cuyp food market in the Pijp neighborhood, which sells, as the city website puts it, everything from cheese to bicycle chains, six days a week. The prettiest is the Noordermarkt, a sort of grower's market that sets up each Saturday outside the historic Noorderkerk church, next to the Prinsengracht canal. The best flea market is at Waterloo Square every day except Sunday close to the Amstel River.