Amsterdam is a city on human scale. Few skyscrapers mar the sky's clarity, and most of the populace walks or rides pedal-bikes. Amsterdam's historic center recalls the city's Golden Age, when it was the hub of a vast trading network and colonial empire. It was then that wealthy merchants constructed gabled residences along neatly laid canals.
Amsterdammers are zipping around on bikes, inline-skating through Vondelpark, sunning on their porches, browsing arrays of ethnic dishes, or watching the parade of street life from a sidewalk cafe. A new generation of entrepreneurs has revitalized old neighborhoods like the Jordaan, turning some of its distinctive houses into offbeat stores, bustling cafes, hotels, and restaurants. Along the waterfront, old harbor installations have either been put to bold new uses, or swept away entirely in favor of large-scale modern developments.
The city will quickly capture you in its spell. At night, many of the more than 1,200 bridges spanning 160 canals are lined with tiny lights, giving them a fairy-tale appearance. Some mornings, the cityscape emerges from a slowly dispersing mist to reveal its enchanting form.
Amsterdam doesn't merely have style; it has substance too. Besides the many canals and bridges, antiquarian bookstores, brown cafes (the Dutch equivalent of neighborhood bars), gin-sampling houses, and chic cafes and nightclubs, it offers up treasures such as the Jewish Historical Museum, the Rembrandt House Museum, and the modern Stedelijk Museum.
Perhaps Amsterdam's greatest asset, though, is its inhabitants. Many speak English fluently and virtually all are friendly to visitors. Plop yourself down amid the nicotine-stained walls of a brown cafe to enjoy a beer or a jenever (gin), and you'll soon find yourself chatting with an amiable local.
Much of Amsterdam's pleasure arises from just being in it, so toss out any "miles and miles to go before I sleep" mind frame. Between dips into artistic and historic treasures, take time to simply absorb the freewheeling spirit of this vibrant city.