This is the only place in town with really, really high fashion!" Ileen tells me as she wraps up my Dries Van Noten dress. I've been in Amsterdam just two hours, and I've already bought something at Van Ravenstein, a boutique with a reputation so cutting-edge, I'd heard about it in New York. Ileen, who has a halo of angelic curls and speaks five languages, engages me in a lively conversation about the rest of Van Ravenstein's stock: the stringy Balenciaga bags; the curious coats, courtesy of Holland's avant-garde duo Viktor & Rolf. When I ask her where else in town I should go to shop, she laughs and says, "All of it is right around here! Nine Little Streets is full of great places. Oh, and I suppose you must also go to P.C.," by which she means Pieter Cornelis Hooftstraat, a three-block stretch near the Rijksmuseum that is Amsterdam's answer to Madison Avenue.
I've planned on P.C. for first thing tomorrow, but right now, near death from jet lag, I drop into Café Luxembourg on Spui Square. This place is everything a European café should be: it has a vast wooden counter spread with international newspapers, and round tables outside where you can linger for hours over a single aquavit. I button my coat a little tighter, take my place at one, and watch the passing scene: A stream of well-dressed commuters pedaling home on bicycles (even more numerous here, it seems, than in China). A troupe of acrobats who suddenly arrive and put on a show in the middle of the street. The line of cars that waits patiently as the performers twist and leap.
Next morning, I'm out early to explore the Nine Little Streets, which fan out around three of Amsterdam's most heart-stoppingly lovely canals. The waterways are bordered by rows of stately town houses; their gabled roofs give the neighborhood a storybook quality. I never quite succeed in counting nine streets, but I do find the jaunty shops Ileen promised. I also make the gaffe, more than once, of trying to enter a private home that I've mistaken for a store; the Dutch eschew curtains and fill the tall windows of their town houses with everything from slick kitchen appliances to goofy toys.
Amsterdam's designers, I quickly realize, have a talent for combining the practical with the whimsical. My first stop is the handbag store of Hester Van Eeghen, who excels at unlikely color-pairings: her purple leather rugby bag sports lime piping($243); a short-handled calfskin satchel weds milk chocolate to raspberry($457). On the same block, ML Collections offers leopard-covered stools where you can perch as you contemplate the goods, which include roomy, fuzzy black winter coats cheered up with startling blocks of red, just the thing to brighten northern Europe's abbreviated winter days.
Across the street, BLGK stocks the resolutely postmodern efforts of a collective of jewelers. The shop's name is composed of the original owners' initials—"Only B has left," the proprietress confesses. Here, an unembellished square ring combines three silver bands with one gold($213); a pearl necklace ($545) is further romanticized with a cameo pendant.
The more I dig, the more the quirkiness surfaces: at Klamboe Unlimited, the entire stock consists of canopies made from mosquito netting. These have been dyed orange and pink and enhanced with silvery charms, and are meant to hang in stylish bedrooms that have never seen a fly (from $35). At Art & Fashion, the owner declares proudly that she and her husband built the beamed space practically with their bare hands, then adds, "At first we wanted only art here, but art is difficult, so I thought, Why not art and fashion?" Why not, indeed?Now the whitewashed walls hold rotating exhibitions by emerging modern artists, and the racks display clothes by French, Italian, Dutch, and Brazilian designers, including embroidered net blouses and a denim jacket whose back has been replaced by a lattice of crystals and chains ($160). Perhaps my favorite outpost just off Nine Little Streets is Trunk, with its mix of beaded Moroccan slippers, mirrored picture frames, Indonesian faux-coral bracelets, vintage Dutch tablecloths, and pink flowerpots, all of which spill into the tiny Rosmarijnsteeg out front.
Among the shopping capitals of Europe—and I've made their delectation my specialty—Amsterdam shines in exceptional ways: the stores are charmingly varied (chains have yet to eclipse stand-alone shops); the people are unbelievably friendly and speak perfect English; and, perhaps most appealing, you can walk everywhere. I set off, on foot, toward P.C. On the way, I stop at the Frozen Fountain, Amsterdam's temple of contemporary interior design. Although the idea of shipping home the red-and-black metal Art Moderne armoire ($1,942) is briefly tempting, I content myself with a set of marbleized egg cups ($5.50) that I could have sworn were porcelain until I touched them and realized: they're rubber.
Just past the Rijksmuseum I find P.C., even before I check the map; there's a Cartier on the corner. After playing that fun travel game, seeing how much my favorite Cartier watch costs in every corner of the globe (no cheaper, alas, here), I troll P.C., which turns out to be full of familiar faces—a Louis Vuitton, a Ferragamo, a Gucci—and one wonderful homegrown addition, Shoebaloo, a store with a space-age interior straight out of The Jetsons. The floor gleams with a greenish glow, and though the undulating shelves yield the usual suspects—Dior heels, Prada boots—there is also a pair of iridescent green Dirk Bikkemberg sneakers, more evidence of Amsterdam's enthusiasm for Belgian fashion designers (Antwerp is less than two hours away).
En route to my hotel, I walk down Nieuwe Spiegelstraat and Spiegelgracht, where flags reading ANTIEK fly in front of nearly every store. I cannot resist stopping in at Ans Hemke-Kuilboer, where a Victorian diamond-and-sapphire fleur-de-lis brooch wants to come home with me; sadly, it is tagged at $12,500, which means we won't be traveling together anytime soon.