With its cute streets and loose morals, Amsterdam has long been considered the San Francisco of Europe. But in recent years, the city has also been recognized as a new home of hipster style. A big fan of both versions, American fashion designer John Bartlett tries to stop by on his way to or from Italy (which he visited 14 times last year, working on his own collections and the ones he designs for Byblos). "Amsterdam is that perfect place in the middle," he says, "where I can decompress from the stress of Italy before returning to the stress of New York. It unfolds in such a natural way. All you have to do is relax into it."

IT'S A LOVE AFFAIR THAT BEGAN, AS SO MANY DO, with money: "I was at the airport, changing some currency," says designer John Bartlett of his first trip to Amsterdam two years ago. "I was amazed that even something as simple as money could be so beautiful and expressive. I realized that this city has such a particular voice, one that's eccentric, singular, and strong."

That's as good a description as any of the career Bartlett has carved out for himself. Born and raised in Cincinnati, he majored in sociology at Harvard, then studied at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. After designing men's wear at WilliWear and Ronaldus Shamask, he headed out on his own in 1992.

Bartlett quickly proved himself to be one of America's most dynamic designers. He picked up a pair of awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America—the Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent, in 1994, and the Menswear Designer of the Year for 1997—and launched a women's collection in 1997. Last year, he was also named creative director for Byblos. Favored by such actresses as Jennifer Lopez, Julianne Moore, Ashley Judd, and Halle Berry, Bartlett's clothes are unapologetically sexy. His inspirations have ranged from Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz to underground seventies illustrator Tom of Finland. "I find people really attractive when they have a lot of character," he says.

As serious as Bartlett is about his work, he also—and this is a greater rarity in fashion than a degree from Harvard—refuses to take himself too seriously. For today's tour he's wearing a luxurious cashmere sweater by Lucien Pellat-Finet, its back boldly emblazoned with a huge pot leaf.

Bartlett is convinced that Amsterdam's freewheeling vibe—the coffee shops, the working girls—only makes the city more appealing. "Without going into details, I happen to think it's very sexy," he says, smiling. "There's a sense of danger, a sense of not knowing what could happen. People experience things they may not be able to in their own hometown."

Around the time Bartlett discovered the city, Amsterdam was turning itself into "the new Antwerp" (meaning it had become a center of avant-garde excitement). Leading the fashion wave are photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, the magazine Dutch, cutting-edge couturiers Viktor & Rolf, and a good part of the creative team behind sportswear giant Diesel.

In what seems to be confirmation of its new fashion-forward status, Amsterdam now has its first aggressively stylish hotel. Anoushka Hempel, creator of Blakes and the Hempel, just opened Blakes Amsterdam. "I can't wait to stay there," Bartlett exclaims. "I'm a big fan of both of her London places." Occupying a series of early-17th-century town houses, the hotel is marked only by a pair of black-clad doormen. An entrance courtyard—unusual for a canal house—leads to the front doors. Public rooms, including a dramatic elevated gallery with brick floors and black lacquered ceiling beams, sit around an oversize central courtyard.

The hotel is certainly well situated for the designer: it's in Jordaan, his favorite neighborhood. "I tell everyone to stay in Jordaan," he explains. "For me, it's the West Village of Amsterdam."

A working-class neighborhood since the early 1600's, Jordaan has become a magnet for artists and intellectuals in recent decades. Everything's convenient here: Binderij De Zon, a perfect little corner florist for pale Dutch tulips and vivid South American roses; Bartlett's health club, A Bigger Splash; and a quintessential Dutch bakery, across the Prinsengracht canal from the gym, that makes breakfast rolls stuffed with raisins, apples, and cinnamon.

Jordaan is also home to two of the designer's favorite galleries. The innovative Torch sells works by such international artists as Tracey Moffat and Cindy Sherman. Back on the Prinsengracht is Frozen Fountain, a great location for tracking down funky Droog furniture.

On every visit, Bartlett makes one of his first stops at an unassuming vintage clothing shop named Zipper. Earlier this year, he loaded up on yellow shirts in an attempt to convince his team that the difficult color could actually be worn. This trip, he tries on a few pairs of tight seventies polyester coach's shorts. Too shy to check himself out in the mirror, which is outside the dressing room, he buys them anyway. Another important fashion stop is Van Ravenstein, right down the street. "This is the one store in Amsterdam that I really wish would carry our clothes," Bartlett says. But owner Gerda van Ravenstein stocks only Belgian designers.

Not one to live by fashion alone, Bartlett looks for more intellectual pleasures in the local bookstores. Architectura & Natura carries only titles on architecture and nature; Pied-À-Terre sells maps and travel guides. Bartlett's preferred spot for new books is Athenaeum Boekhandel, a sparkling Art Nouveau boutique on a leafy square across from the University of Amsterdam. The area around Athenaeum is also a haven for rare books. Two of the best sources are Egidius, a small shop specializing in art and photography, and Antiquariaat, which concentrates on film, photography, and fashion. Each Friday, the Spui plaza, opposite Athenaeum, is the site of a book market, with more than 50 stands selling all kinds of new and used volumes. "I haven't gone yet, but apparently it's straight out of Dickens," Bartlett says.

He also loves browsing for antiques. Ingeburg Ravestijn—one of the 70 dealers with shops on Nieuwe Spiegelstraat—sells 18th- and 19th-century silver, objets, and glass, as well as sparkling chandeliers with long tapered candles. Ravestijn calls her approach "table couture."

Another of Bartlett's favorites is a restaurant that doesn't even have tables. At the Supper Club, in an out-of-the-way alley near the Royal Palace, guests ring a bell and are ushered up a short flight of stairs into a cavernous loftlike space. Lining both sides of the rectangular room are cushioned banquettes (think 75-foot-long oversize beds) scattered with silver platters and candelabra. At one end of the room is a DJ spinning dance and world music, while the other end is dominated by an open kitchen. Guests kick off their shoes, prop themselves up with pillows, and order from the menu. One night a tarot card reader may be working the room; another evening, a 20-foot column of televisions becomes a video installation. "The Supper Club could never exist in the U.S.," Bartlett says. "It would become too trendy too quickly, and then it would be finished."

As strongly as he feels about the Supper Club, Bartlett does like restaurants that are somewhat more traditional. Lof, which means "praise," is popular with Amsterdam's young and hip. It has exposed brick walls and a menu that changes nightly. Just across the street is a sparkling lunch spot called New Deli. The impeccably modern interior, by local architect Ronald Hooft, is all clean white lines, plate-glass windows, and light polished woods. Then there's Café Restaurant Amsterdam, in an enormous former water-pumping station on the outskirts of town. The soaring space holds more than 300 diners, with a terrace overlooking a canal. Gigantic machinery is still in place, while the high-tech spotlights that hang from the ceiling come from a local soccer stadium.

When Bartlett turns his attention to sightseeing, he heads straight for the aptly named Museumplein, the neighborhood where Amsterdam's three leading museums are found. The Rijksmuseum, an imposing 19th-century neo-Gothic and Dutch Renaissance structure, has the world's most important collection of works by Dutch masters, including Rembrandt's Nightwatch and Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. (Bartlett wryly notes that the strong, simple frames could have come from the Calvin Klein home collection.) Down the block is the Van Gogh Museum, whose pristine Gerrit Rietveld building has just reopened after a two-year renovation. And Bartlett goes to the modern Stedelijk Museum, next door, especially for paintings by Mondrian (and the well-stocked bookstore).

But Bartlett insists on finding a balance between the high and the low, the old and the new. "Those two posters sum up Amsterdam for me," he says, pointing out an announcement for a Van Dyck exhibition abutting an aggressively abstract ad. "There's a lot of juxtaposition here that I love—and it's very natural. You walk down the street and there'll be some kid wearing the latest slasher fashions, with a face straight out of a Rembrandt portrait."

As for how best to discover the city, Bartlett suggests doing as the natives do and riding a bike. (Amsterdam is home to 720,000 people and 400,000 bikes.) "That way," he says, "you really get to appreciate the scale of Amsterdam." But the designer is also a fan of the touristy canal boats. "Looking at the buildings from the canals changes everything completely—you feel like you're seeing the city the way it was meant to be seen."

Ultimately, Bartlett is convinced that laid-back Amsterdam deserves a laid-back approach. "In Paris or London, there's the one restaurant you have to be at, the one new exhibit you have to see. But here there isn't any one trendy or happening place, so you don't feel that pressure. It's not about having an agenda.

"Unlike London or Paris," he continues, "life in this city is not about being seen. It's about seeing."

John Bartlett's Amsterdam Address Book

Amstel Intercontinental 1 Prof. Tulpplein; 31-20/622-6060, fax 31-20/622-5808; doubles from $406.
Blakes Amsterdam 384 Keizersgracht; 31-20/530-2010, fax 31-20/530-2030; doubles from $263.
Sheraton Hotel Pulitzer 315-331 Prinsengracht; 31-20/523-5235, 31-20/626-2646; doubles from $280.

Antiquariaat 383 Singel; 31-20/622-0461.
Architectura & Natura 22 Leliegracht; 31-20/623-6186.
Athenaeum Boekhandel 14-16 Spui; 31-20/622-6248.
Binderij de Zon 1 Reestraat; 31-20/627-2213.
Binnenhuis 3-5 Huidenstraat; 31-20/638-2957.
Egidius 334 Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal; 31-20/624-3929.
Frozen Fountain 629 Prinsengracht; 31-20/622-9375.
Ingeburg Ravestijn 57 Nieuwe Spiegelstraat; 31-20/625-7720.
Pied À Terre 393 Singel; 31-20/627-4455.
A Bigger Splash 26-30 Looiersgracht; 31-20/624-8404.
Torch 94 Lauriergracht; 31-20/626-0284.
Van Ravenstein 359 Keizersgracht; 31-20/639-0067.
Zipper 7 Huidenstraat; 31-20/623-7302.

Café Restaurant Amsterdam 6 Watertorenplein; 31-20/682-2666; dinner for two $48.
In de Waag 4 Nieuwmarkt; 31-20/422-7772; dinner for two $67.
Lof 62 Haarlemmerstraat; 31-20/620-2997; dinner for two $52.
New Deli 73 Haarlemmerstraat; 31-20/626-2755; lunch for two $24.
Supper Club 21 Jonge Roelensteeg; 31-20/638-0513; dinner for two $91.

Rijksmuseum 42 Stadhouderskade; 31-20/674-7000.
Stedelijk Museum 13 Paulus Potterstraat; 31-20/573-2737.
Van Gogh Museum 7 Paulus Potterstraat; 31-20/570-5200.