Amsterdam combines the unrivaled beauty of the 17th-century Golden Age city center with plenty of museums and art of the highest order, not to mention a remarkably laid-back atmosphere. It all comes together to make this one of the world's most appealing and offbeat metropolises.
Built on a latticework of concentric canals like an aquatic rainbow, Amsterdam is known as the City of Canals—but it's no Venice, content to live on moonlight serenades and former glory. Quite the contrary: on nearly every street here you'll find old and new side by side—quiet courtyards where time seems to be holding its breath next to contemporary shopping streets like Kalverstraat, and scantily clad women in red-lighted windows by the city's oldest church. Indeed, Amsterdam has as many lovely facets as a 40-carat diamond polished by one of the city's gem cutters. It's certainly a metropolis, but a rather small and very accessible one. Locals tend to refer to it as a big village, albeit one that happens to pack the cultural wallop of a major world destination.
There are scores of concerts every day, numerous museums, summertime festivals, and, of course, a legendary year-round party scene. It's pretty much impossible to resist Amsterdam's charms. With 8,500 registered monuments, many of which began as the residences and warehouses of humble merchants, set on 165 man-made canals, and traversed by 1,700 bridges, Amsterdam has the largest historical inner city in Europe. Its famous circle of waterways, the grachtengordel, was a 17th-century urban expansion plan for the rich and is a lasting testament to the city’s Golden Age. This town is endearing because of its open, easygoing nature—but a reputation for championing sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll does not alone account for Amsterdam's being one of the most popular destinations in Europe. Consider that within a single square mile the city harbors some of the greatest achievements in Western art, from Rembrandt and Van Gogh to Mondrian. Not to mention that this is one of Europe's great walking cities, with much to discover along the way: tiny alleyways barely visible on the map, curtainless windows offering glimpses of daily life, floating houseboats, hidden hofjes (courtyards with almshouses), sudden vistas of church spires, and gabled roofs that look like so many unframed paintings.
Along the way, keep an eye out for joyful detail here and there—a bronze breast hidden among cobblestones, or witty stone tablets denoting the trade of a previous owner. And those "XXX" symbols you see all over town are not a mark of the city's triple-X reputation. They're part of Amsterdam's official coat of arms: three St. Andrew's crosses, believed to represent the three dangers that have traditionally plagued the city—flood, fire, and pestilence. The coat's motto ("Valiant, determined, compassionate") was introduced in 1947 by Queen Wilhelmina in remembrance of the 1941 February Strike in Amsterdam, the first time in Europe that non-Jewish people openly protested against the persecution of Jews by the Nazi regime.