Old City Centre
Most tourists reach Amsterdam by rail. The railway nerve centre of the city, indeed the whole country, the magnificent Centraal Station, completed in 1889, stands in the heart of the bustling Stationsplein. The station's north exit leads directly to the seafront and looks out on the port of Amsterdam, famously immortalized in song by Jacques Brel.
Underwater until the 18th-century construction of the famous dike that diverted the Amstel River's waters, Dam Square is the cultural centre of the city and one of the best-known places in the Netherlands. It harbours several historic buildings, including the Royal Palace, a former town hall built in the 17th century, and De Nieuwe Kerk (New Church, www.nieuwekerk.nl), the site of Queen Beatrix's coronation in 1980 and now home to religious art exhibits.
Kalverstraat, a pedestrian street and Amsterdam's main shopping thoroughfare, runs from Dam Square to Muntplein, a small square on which stands the Munttoren (Mint Tower), built in the 15th century. Right nearby is Amsterdam's famous floating flower market, set up on barges on the Singel Canal.
Beurs van Berlage (Stock Exchange) (Beursplein 1, www.beursvanberlage.nl), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was designed by Hendrik Petrus Berlage, a great 20th-century Dutch architect.
Rembrandtplein and Leidseplein
These particularly lively squares draw hordes of tourists. Lined with restaurants, cafes, pubs and shops of all kinds, Rembrandtplein and Leidseplein are overrun in summer with tourists who come here to enjoy a drink outside and watch street performers entertaining passersby. These squares are also popular nighttime spots, chock-full of trendy bars and dance clubs. Near Leidseplein is one of the entrances to Amsterdam's largest park: Vondelpark.
Red Light District
Amsterdam's Red Light District is a hotbed of (legalized) prostitution that gives "window shopping" a whole new meaning. Delimited by Warmoesstraat, Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal streets, it abounds in "window brothels" and sex shops, and is now a must on every tourist's to-do list.
Between two of the district's famously red-lit windows, behind which sex workers show off their charms, looms the Orde Kerk, or Old Church (Oudekerkplein 23, www.oudekerk.nl), one of the oldest places of worship in Amsterdam.
Located west of Centraal Station, Jordaan is a former working-class neighbourhood that has since become one of the hippest in Amsterdam. Visitors will find scores of shops, art studios, cafes and second-hand clothing stores here, as well as several open-air markets, including a very popular one that offers organic produce. This district is also home to the Westerkerk, a grand Renaissance-style church that was built in 17th century. Visitors can take in the breathtaking view of the city from atop its bell tower, the highest in Amsterdam.
North of the Westerkerk, tragically famous Anne Frank spent the last years of her life in what is now known as the Anne Frank Huis, or Anne Frank House (267 Prinsengracht, tel. 31 (0) 20-556-7100, www.annefrank.org). The Frank family and a few German-Jewish refugee friends lived in hiding in this modest home from 1942 to 1944. Young Anne's Diary, written during these two years of confinement, would later achieve worldwide fame.
The Museumplein district comprises three of Amsterdam's most prestigious museums. First is the Rijksmuseum (Hobbemastraat 20, tel. 31 (0) 20-674-7000, www.rijksmuseum.nl), the Dutch National Museum.Although its main showrooms are under renovation, the Philips Wing, which houses the bulk of the museum's collection, namely 17th-century paintings and sculptures, is still open to the public. Second is the Van Gogh Museum (Postbus 75366, tel. 31 (0) 20-570-5200, www.vangoghmuseum.nl), which features the most comprehensive collection of works by the illustrious painter, as well as drawings and letters written to his brother Theo. Last but not least is the Stedelijk Museum (Oosterdokskade 5, www.stedelijk.nl), which boasts a great modern art collection. The museum is closed for renovations until 2010, but organizes various events and exhibits throughout the city in the meantime.
"Venice of the North"
Amsterdam owes its moniker to the countless canals that criss-cross the city. A boat ride on one of the four main canals (Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Singel) that wind through the city centre may seem a clichéd tourist trap, but it nonetheless allows visitors to fully appreciate its waterside charms. You can even glide beneath the Megare Brug (Skinny Bridge), which spans the Amstel River.
Located slightly outside the city centre, the Tropenmuseum (Linnaeusstraat 2, tel. (0) 20-568-8200, www.tropenmuseum.nl) features ethnological and artistic exhibits dedicated to the various countries that were colonized by the Netherlands.