During its Golden Age, in the 17th century, Amsterdam was the world’s wealthiest city, an economic and financial hub that spawned the world’s first stock exchange, still in existence. Today, the capital of the Netherlands displays evidence of its time as a world capital of commerce and the arts, most notably in its architecture and numerous world-renowned museums. Known as the “Venice of the North,” Amsterdam actually boasts nearly three times as many bridges as its southern rival, with structures spanning the city’s numerous famed canals. The last tulip blooms have long faded away by the time of the high season (June through August), when temperatures range from 20-27C/68-80F; while winters are mild, it can still get below freezing. Most residents, particularly the younger ones, are bilingual, speaking both Dutch and English.
Amsterdam is known as a bastion of liberalism, a city where most anything goes—or is, at least, tolerated. Local coffee shops allow pot smoking, and prostitution is legal throughout the country. But that’s not why the city continues to top lists of the world’s best cities to live in. A low crime rate, laidback atmosphere, and the local passion for spending time outdoors all combine to create a high quality of living. Residents prefer biking or boating to mass transit, although the city’s transportation is both efficient and affordable. Add to that a long history of world-class arts and offbeat festivals and it’s no wonder Amsterdam scores so highly with visitors and residents alike.
At the top of most every visitor’s list is a trip to the Anne Frank House, the last residence of the teenage diarist who perished in the Holocaust. The arts are also a huge draw. Artist Rembrandt van Rijn’s former home is now open to the public, while the Van Gogh Museum holds the world’s largest collection of works by the Sunflowers artist. For beer lovers, The Heineken Experience provides an interactive tour of the world-famous brewery, capped off with a tasting session. Boat trips offer different perspectives of the myriad waterways, including the river Amstel, or make like a local and rent a bike to pedal between the sights, including the city’s few remaining windmills.
The Old Centre, the city’s most visited neighborhood, is not only central but contains the bulk of the main attractions, including the Amsterdam Dungeon and not one but two torture museums, as well as more enlightened fare such as the Royal Palace and the world’s only floating flower market. Just west of the main train station lies Jordaan, Amsterdam’s best-known neighborhood, with its warren-like streets overflowing with outdoor markets, cafes, and bars with a long tradition of hosting sing-alongs. The city’s Red Light District attracts even those who just want to experience the area’s notorious streets—just remember: No photographing the windows. Traditional Dutch windmills can be found within the city limits, but just a short train ride away lies the Zaanse Schans, a colorful collection of eight working structures, as well as museums exploring the area’s maritime history, artisans demonstrating the art of clog-making, and a nearby cheese farm.