Amsterdam - Attractions
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.