Once the sun sets, Amsterdam loosens up and gets down

Amsterdam is famous as a sinner's paradise—more on that later—but underneath is the cherished concept of gezelligheid, a word done an injustice when translated as "cozy." Remember the last time you sat down with friends, feeling that the things separating you were insignificant compared to what brought you together?That's gezelligheid, and you can find it just about anywhere here, from grand cafés to sizzling nightclubs.

Het Molenpad 653 Prinsengracht; 31-20/625-9680. Sort of like neighborhood living rooms, the so-called brown cafés—originally named for their wood-paneled walls—are principal purveyors of gezelligheid. Het Molenpad is a prime example: irregularly shaped and impossibly narrow at points, with chiaroscuro lighting, tables of rough-hewn wood or faux marble, and simple, tasty food. Throughout the day it's peopled with a mix of young mothers, university students, businessmen, and the unemployed (who seem nonchalant to American eyes). The best time to go is 6 p.m. to join the post-work crowd. Try a kopstootje, or "head banger": a glass of pilsner with a shot of jenever (smooth Dutch gin) either on the side or thrown into the beer itself.

Kapitein Zeppos 5 Gebed Zonder End; 31-20/624-2057. Belgians have their own brand of gezelligheid, and Kapitein Zeppos, named after a sixties Belgian TV character, is one of the best places in Holland to sample it. The room is light and bright: scrubbed wooden floors, tiled tabletops, Ella singing Cole Porter in the background. Order a Belgian beer such as Palm, the more potent Westmalle Dubbel, or, if you're hoping to see visions, Westmalle Tripel. The crowd gravitates toward jeans, the perfect white shirt, and scrupulously polished shoes; there's nary a pierced eyebrow to be seen.

Café Gallery Dante 320 Spuistraat; 31-20/638-8839. Looking to meet a rich Dutchman?This is where you'll find one. Want him sober?Go early. On Thursdays in particular, investment bankers and traders stand at the bar, drink enough to poison themselves, then show up without fail at the office the next day because everybody is in the same condition and they've all brought their "illness" upon themselves. (The Dutch expression "A man at night, a man the next day" sums it up nicely.)

Wildschut Roelof 1-3 Hartplein; 31-20/676-8220. During World War I, local architects came up with a style known as the Amsterdam School. The materials are wood and brick but the forms are flowing and organic; many of the buildings are in Zuid, the city's comparatively new southern section. On the ground floor of a particularly curvaceous Amsterdam School structure is Wildschut, another bankers' favorite.

The main drag of the famous red-light district begins at the intersection of the Oudezijds Achterburgwal and Dam Straat—you'll know you're in the right place when you spot the neon legs erupting from the roof of the "live theater" Casa Rosa—and peters out around the Zeedijk. Prostitution, while not technically legal, is taxed, and its practitioners have been represented by a union since 1984. Erotic activities take place well out of view: all you'll really see is scantily clad women waiting in windows, some beckoning seductively, others knitting or filing their nails to pass the time. Business owners and police have made the area less dangerous than it was 10 years ago, but pickpockets still abound. You'll feel more comfortable accompanied by at least one other person; by no means should you wear expensive-looking jewelry. And remember: The prostitutes do not like having their pictures taken. If you want a souvenir, buy a postcard.

De Jaren Nieuwe 20 Doelenstraat; 31-20/625-5771. Grand cafés are a dime a dozen these days in Amsterdam, but this one's an original: the bar is an Art Deco lollapalooza that looks like something Hitchcock might have used as the backdrop to an assignation between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Because De Jaren is next door to the University of Amsterdam's drama department, you may well find yourself breathing in some secondhand thespian intensity along with the fumes of shag tobacco. If you're around in summer, try for a table on the riverside terrace, where you can admire the gabled houses that resemble a row of crooked teeth.

In de Waag 4 Nieuwmarkt; 31-20/422-7772. The 510-year-old building has been many things: a fortified gate to the city, a weighing house, the setting for Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. Its current incarnation combines old and new to striking effect. While you log on at a computer, light will be provided by the candles of a medieval chandelier. Order something warming to drink, such as Calvados—even remodeled fortresses can be chilly.

West Pacific Westergasfabriek 8-10 Haarlemmerweg; 31-20/581-0425. This former gas factory—now a restaurant—is a magnet for artists and design students. At 10:30 tables get pushed back and the place morphs into a disco. It's a bit out of the way, so be prepared to cab home (trains stop running at midnight). Play your cards right and you might be offered a lift on someone's bicycle.

Café Lux 403 Marnixstraat; 31-20/422-1412. Young music, film, and advertising types pack Café Lux Thursday through Saturday. On those nights, the music is drum-and-bass, and it's mixed live (even if it's far too crowded to dance).

Then go to a café. While they tend to serve coffee, Amsterdam's "coffee shops" are for smoking marijuana (and eating it in brownies). Though against the law, marijuana and hashish are tolerated, and one may buy and carry up to five grams "for personal use." The poetically named varieties available (Northern Light, White Widow) are strong stuff: locals tend to mix it with tobacco. Kadinsky (9 Rosemarijnsteeg; 31-20/624-7023) is serene and airy, while the matchbox-size Tweede Kamer (6 Heisteeg; 31-20/627-5709), perversely named after one of the houses of parliament, is crammed with coffee-drinking backgammon players. In coffee shops, as at bars and restaurants, patrons come from all walks of life.

Roxy 465 Singel; 31-20/620-0354. To get past the bouncer, try to look like butter wouldn't melt in your mouth. (Arriving early, around 11 p.m., also helps.) Wednesdays are the raunchy all-male Hard nights; Thursdays are ruled by Dimitri, Holland's number-one DJ export; Fridays are Real Audio, Roxy's version of techno; and on Saturdays things get completely out of hand during Erick E's marathon Swet sessions, when dancers appear to be trying out for amateur night in the red-light district.

Escape 11 Rembrandtplein; 31-20/620-2080. With a capacity of more than 2,000, Escape, home to weekly Chemistry parties, is big by local standards. Still, the line stretches around the block. Too suburban for the Roxy crowd, Chemistry is nonetheless one of the city's top nights out, with unbeatable people-watching and diabolically danceable music. The door policy is democratic, but dress to impress.

Gary's Muffins 53 Reguliersdwarsstraat; 31-20/420-2406. Unless you love french fries with mayonnaise (most Dutch do), when it comes to food Amsterdam is slim pickings after midnight—in fact, most restaurants close at 10 p.m. Thank goodness for Gary's, which serves bagels, brownies, muffins, and strong coffee until 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 3 a.m. other nights.

Pata Negra 142 Utrechtsestraat; 31-20/422-6250. A dash of Spain in the heart of Holland, this tapas bar is like a vacation within a vacation. The kitchen stays open until midnight, seven days. Sample the sublime patatas bravas, pan-fried potatoes in a zesty sauce.

Café Welling 32 Jan Willem Brouwersstraat; 31-20/662-0155. In the building behind the Concertgebouw, with an atmosphere reminiscent of a grandmotherly piano teacher's living room, Welling is where musicians gather to conduct post-concert appraisals. Curiously, there's no music.

Café Cox 427 Marnixstraat; 31-20/620-7222. Chances are you won't recognize any of the Dutch actors around you, but the air is still charged with drama after performances at the adjacent Stadsschouwburg.

Dantzig 15 Zwanenburgwal; 31-20/620-9039. Housed in the building nicknamed the "Stopera"—it contains both the city hall (Stadhuis) and the national opera—Dantzig is a favorite watering hole for audience members. Sit by a window so you can admire the 17th-century canal houses and the Blauwbrug (Blue Bridge).

Tuschinski Theater 26 Reguliersbreestraat; 31-20/626-2633. The Tuschinski has changed little since it was built in 1921. Given the neighboring peep shows, it's a poignant reminder of glamour days gone by. Step inside, and the only trace of the outside world is the Grolsch sign glowing behind the bar. (Pulp Fiction got it right: the Dutch do serve beer at the movies.) American films are screened with Dutch subtitles, which partly explains why everyone in Amsterdam speaks such good English.

The smooth-tasting Dutch gin called jenever comes in two basic varieties, jong (young) and oud (old), with jong being sharper in taste and oud being smoother and of a more golden hue. It's stored in the freezer and served either in delicate thimble-size glasses or on the rocks, never mixed. As with vodka, there are many variations in taste achieved by adding pepper, lemon, and so on. Jenever is available at any café or bar, but if you really want to immerse yourself, head for a proeferij (tasting house) such as Wijnandt Fockink (31 Pijlsteeg; 31-20/639-2695; open 3-9 p.m.).

AUB 26 Leidseplein; 31-20/621-1211. Tickets for performances at all the city's cultural centers are on sale at the local visitors' bureau, or AUB—the abbreviation of alstublieft, which means "if you please"—as well as at the individual box offices.

JOHANNA STOYVA, a former editor of Time Out Amsterdam, contributes to London's Radio 963 Liberty and is an organizer of Amsterdam's annual Dance Valley Festival.