What is the capital of the Netherlands? – is a question that has long been a source of argument between team-mates on quiz night: The Hague? Amsterdam?
Well if your guess was Amsterdam, you were absolutely right. The Hague is the seat of the Dutch parliament and government, along with the Supreme Court and the Council of State, but Amsterdam is the official capital of the Netherlands.
Guides often say that the city grew up around a dam on the River Amstel at Dam Square, but historians might prefer to tell you there was already a settlement on the banks of the river.
Legend also has it that Amsterdam was founded by two fishermen trying to escape a storm in the Zuiderzee (South Sea). According to the story, their dog apparently jumped ashore and was immediately sick on the spot where the city later developed.
Although nobody knows whether this is fact or fiction, you might still see an old emblem of Amsterdam showing two fishermen in a boat with their dog.
When considering your trip to ‘The Venice of the North’, the first thing that probably springs to mind is its canal network – but whether it is night-life; the diamonds; Anne Frank’s house; the flower-market; the notorious red-light district; its infamous marijuana-selling coffee shops or its delicious restaurants; there is always so much to explore and learn about in this picturesque cosmopolitan city.
Rain or shine, the lively buzz accompanies you wherever you go and treasures await you around every corner.
Amsterdam Canal tours
Probably the best way to kick off your visit to Amsterdam is to embark upon one of the many tours of the complex, concentric-arc, canal system that encircles the city.
That way, you will have a good idea about what you want to see and where to look for it, whilst learning a great deal about the city’s history from your well-informed tour guide.
There are many tours to choose from. Should you fancy a romantic candlelit evening, why not catch a later cruise and admire the city’s twinkling lights as you sip your wine and nibble your Dutch speciality cheese?
In the darker months, see the fabulous light art on the delightful Light Festival trip; take a burger and brownie cruise or simply hop-on and hop-off to see the sights of the city. Whichever trip you choose to do will be well worth your while.
Anne Frank’s house
One of the most poignant reminders of Second World War Amsterdam is the Anne Frank House, Anne Frank Huis, where the tragic wartime diarist tried to hide for more than two years, along with the rest of her family, from Nazi menace.
Although open every day apart from Yom Kippur, when it closes in respect for the Jewish community, it is still advisable to book tickets online two months prior to your visit, to avoid disappointment on the day.
Located on the Prinsengracht canal, near the Westerkerk in the centre of the city, the museum gives a sober biographical record of Jewish life in wartime and personal details of Anne Frank’s life.
If museums are on your agenda, three of the main Dutch museums are located conveniently in the same large open space of the Museum Square, Museumplein.
To save doubling back on yourself, it might be best to begin with the Rijksmuseum, which first opened its doors in its present location in 1885.
This beautiful building, designed by Petrus J H Cuypers and built in Dutch neo-Rennaissance style with Gothic decoration, is the national museum of arts and history. It contains many masterpieces, from Rembrandts ‘Night Watch’ to works by Vermeer, Jan Steen and Van Dyck, as well as Dutch antiques, prints, photographs and drawings.
From there pass along towards the Cobra cafe in a tree-lined pedestrianised area, where you might sit with a glass of Heineken, watch the world refreshing their feet by paddling in the man-made lake and even contemplate joining them.
Continue down towards The Van Gogh Museum which, as you might well imagine, exhibits artworks mainly of the great man himself, as well as displaying those of his contemporaries.
A short walk away from here and you come across the Stedelijk Museum or simply Stedelijk, as the Dutch people lovingly call it, which contains one of the most plentiful modern art collections in the world. Presenting styles, including Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism, it shows off its many creations by modern artists such as Picasso, Warhol and Matisse, to name but a few.
If you are partial to a bit of precious sparkle, you might like to pay a visit to the Diamantmuseum, with its 400 years of diamond history and imagine what it feels like to be rich and famous even if you are not. It is a good idea to pre-book tickets for all the museums well in advance if you want to skip the line.
Created in the 13th century, Amsterdam’s popular Dam Square, is a short walk down the Damrak from the Centraal Station.
Bisected by the continuation of the Damrak, this attractively cobbled square offers tempting highlights on each of its pedestrianised halves.
One of the most significant squares in the country, it is a place where people meet, sit and chat; a place where important events and ceremonies are carried out; where the former home of the Dutch royal family, still used for official receptions, is to be found, not to mention the present home of most of Amsterdam’s pigeon population.
So-named, rightly or wrongly, for when a dam was built on the River Amstel to prevent the waters of the Zuider Zee from swamping the city, Dam Square – with its controversially phallic National Monument paradoxically surrounded by designer shops, cafes and hotels – is an absolute must to visit on your Amsterdam trip.
If you go there in October, you will surely see the funfair located in front of the imposing 17th century Royal Palace, Koninklijk Paleis, or why not have a go on the ferris wheel in the Spring, when you come again to visit the out-of-town Keukenhof.
Wander around the flagship De Bijenkorf Magna Plaza and the Amsterdam Diamond Centre, visit Madame Tussaud’s, the stores of Louis Vuitton and Gucci or view the art exhibits in the Niewe Kerk.
Or why not grab a seat, if you can, in one of the cafes and simply take in the atmosphere over a cup of hot chocolate; listen to buskers or watch a mime artist or two?
If you have a penchant for touchy-feely Science, then the Nemo Museum on the Eastern Dock, Oosterdok, in Amsterdam-Centrum is right up your street.
You will find it situated between Eastern Dock Island, Oosterdokseiland, and Kattenburg, and you cannot fail to spot its huge, bulky ship-like structure seemingly rising up out of the water.
Once inside, unlike in other types of museums, you will be encouraged to touch everything and discover for yourself.
Whether you are young or not-so-young, you will enjoy experimenting with light, shape, energy, life, sound, the mind, machines; in fact a whole profusion of scientific facts are just waiting to be explored.
The world will never quite seem the same again. The museum is open every day of the week except Monday; it closes for three other days in the year: King’s Day (April 27) and Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Because of the nature of the museum, be prepared for lots of noisy children to be there at the same time as you are. If this is the case, you might prefer to visit the Heineken Museum instead!