I have to admit that Amsterdam is my favorite city in Europe. While not a bustling metropolis like Rome, London, or Paris, Amsterdam oozes charm. I love its relaxed atmosphere, beautiful buildings, excellent modern international cuisine, and cute canal houses.
I’m also quite fond of the Dutch, who are famous for being friendly and engaging. There’s no doubt that American foreign policy is unpopular throughout much of Europe at the moment, but I found that the locals I met were more likely to engage in a spirited debate about the U.S. government’s actions than to criticize all Americans outright. They seek to find common ground and discuss areas of disagreement.
Communication is easy because an astounding number of locals in Amsterdam speak near-perfect English. In fact, if you politely ask someone whether they speak English, they’ll most likely give you a dismayed look for even asking.
To get around, rent a bike, or just walk. Taxis and trams are also options, but the city is built for a pleasant stroll. Visit the Leidseplein, Jordaan, and Dam Square neighborhoods. I also recommend taking a canal tour, which is a great way to see the mansions and sights. Some of the places I always return to include the Van Gogh Museum, Vondelpark, the Heineken Brewery, and the Anne Frank House, which chronicles the horror of the Nazi occupation and reveals the extraordinary steps the city took to protect its population (www.vangoghmuseum.nl; www.heinekenexperience.com; www.annefrank.org).
The Netherlands are famous for its progressive culture. Marijuana and prostitution are legal, and “coffee shops” (used more often for buying pot than lattes) are sprinkled around town, while the famous red-light district offers a concentration of other sorts of entertainment.
Staying in Amsterdam opens up some terrific options, including the Seven One Seven, a canal house with eight suites (I once organized a birthday party in its library followed by dinner in a charming private room); the Ambassade Hotel, a great value; and Hotel Pulitzer, another luxury value option (www.717hotel.nl; www.ambassade-hotel.nl; www.pulitzer.nl). When dining, I always enjoy The Five Flies, traditional Dutch cuisine in one of Amsterdam’s oldest houses; Casa di David, simple Italian; Dynasty, pan-Asian; and Brasserie Harkema, contemporary Dutch, but basically Continental (www.thefiveflies.com; www.casadidavid.com; www.dynasty.orientalrestaurants.nl; www.brasserieharkema.nl). Café Luxembourg is one of my favorite spots for just relaxing along charming Spui Straat (www.luxembourg.nl).
For an easy day trip consider visiting a lovely town like Utrecht. If you can’t fit it all in, don’t worry, you’ll surely want to return.