At once quaint and edgy, Amsterdam is a place that’s utterly at ease with its multiple identities. Looking for the picturesque views and pealing church bells of a typical European capital? You’re good to go. Want to explore the world’s most vibrant contemporary furniture and product designs, or the most venerable portrait and landscape painters of the 17th century? Great, you’re in the natural habitat of both. Always been curious about the amiably gritty realities of an “open society”? Head for the source—there’s only one Red Light District, after all. And perhaps best of all, this thriving metropolis with world-class museums often seems like an overgrown village, a place where the whoosh of bicycle tires on asphalt still overpowers the hum of car traffic during rush hour.
The flower market (bloemenmarkt), which starts on the Singel canal at the Leidsestraat, is a zany village of its own, whose caste system of stands and shops ascends from the crustiest bulb seller up to the fanciest floral artists.
Take a walk through the Red Light District, where narrow streets and canals are hemmed in on either side by picture windows showcasing ladies of all types—tall and short, lean and zaftig, shyly flirtatious and domination-ready. Do take a moment to look up from those vitrines at some of Amsterdam’s oldest buildings; just don’t break out the camera (photography is discouraged—sometimes aggressively—by the local pimps).
Enjoy a canal cruise at dusk on one of the many independently run lines like Rondvaarten Rederij Kooij (011-31-20-623-3810), or book one through your hotel. Then sit back and stare up at the moving peep show of architecture and interiors ranging from Golden Age splendor along the Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht canals to the 21st-century pomp of Renzo Piano’s NeMo Building on the Amstel River.