Amsterdam has history, but it sure isn't old. Hip and happening, the art enclave and adult playground has a knack for fusing its rich past with liberal pursuits.
Here, centuries-old churches are converted into cultural centres and scenic canals weave their way past 17th-century, gabled buildings that look surprisingly similar to their portrayal in golden-age masterpieces.
While many folks think of Europe as a summer destination, winter will reward you with smaller crowds and illuminating activities to brighten up gloomy days.
For an enlightening winter fix, consider going Dutch.q
Culture vultures can pitch a pannenkoek (pancake) in any direction and likely hit an Old Master. Home to some of the world's most prestigious museums, the city is chock-a-block with Golden Age treasures and contemporary exhibits.
After a massive 10-year renovation, the Rijksmuseum is itself a masterpiece, appearing like a Dutch Vatican. Inside its sacred walls, divine Dutch Masters are worshipped, particularly Rembrandt's Night Watch.
The Van Gogh Museum houses the world's largest collection by the tortured Dutch painter and Hermitage Amsterdam is an outpost of the famed Saint Petersburg museum, revealing jaw-dropping artifacts from its three-million piece collection.
Contemporary art in all its forms is found a free ferry ride away from Centraal Station at the NDSM-werf. Twenty years ago artists took over the abandoned shipyard, turning it into Europe's largest studio. Spend some time perusing the workshops, visiting its quirky cafes, or sussing out the docked Greenpeace and pirate radio ships.
Bikes and Boats
You can't venture anywhere in the city of bikes (600,000 at last count) without hearing the clang clang of bells urging you to get out of the way. You'll not want for routes with 400 kilometres of dedicated bike paths, and a plethora of bike rental shops make it a snap to get going on a fixie.
Surprisingly for some, Amsterdam has more waterways flowing through it than Venice. There are many opportunities to drift under these UNESCO World Heritage-listed canals that recently celebrated their 400th year anniversary. Boats line the waterways around Centraal Station (and many other parts of the city), offering one of the best ways to get up close and personal with bobbing houseboats and canal houses that tilt at impossible angles.
Northern Europeans have long tried to outwit the darkest days of the year, and the Amsterdam Light Festival is a prime example. Taking advantage of early winter sunsets, more than 30 light sculptures and projections by international artists illuminate the historical centre from early December to the end of January.
From projections on the sides of monuments to intimate interactive displays, visitors can ramble along the walkways with a guide, or take to the canals to marvel at the dazzling installations during the festival's five-week run.
Amsterdam is a trove of hidden gems and modern day treasures in seriously bijoux shops. More than 70 art and antique dealers line the historic Spiegelwartier district. Situated opposite the Rijksmuseum, crooked canal houses are crammed with archeological finds, Dutch Delftware and, of course, art.
For contemporary, eccentric finds, venture through the trendy Nine Streets neighbourhood. Comprised of nine picturesque streets lining the canal belt, cafes, curiosity shops and ateliers compete for your euros. For luxury goods, make a beeline for De Bijenkorf (a.k.a. the Beehive), a high-end department store in Dam Square.
Even if you're not on the hunt for a sparkler, don't miss the bling education at Gassan, the city's renowned diamond jeweller. Take a tour, watch diamond cutters polish rough stones to perfection or select your own bauble and walk out with a custom piece within hours.
The scent of mature Gouda mixed with cloves simmering in gluhwein makes for an intoxicating day trip when wandering through the warren-like maze of cobblestone streets of Haarlem.
A mere 45 minutes outside of Amsterdam, picturesque Haarlem offers an eclectic mix of artisanal goods and vintage finds that draw shopaholics, while craft brew connoisseurs wet their whistle at Jopen, a traditional brewery (naturally, housed inside a church), that boasts 25 original beers and tasting classes.
Historically, Amsterdam has been a lenient centre, valuing trade more than ideology. When it comes to prostitution and drugs, the Dutch feel it's better to legalize and administer, than turn a blind eye.
A recent campaign in the capital has improved security and diversified the historic city centre, while still retaining its unique character. Meaning: the pulsating red-light district and coffee houses (that didn't earn their notoriety for serving up substantial brews) have cleaned up their act. Coffee shops are allowed to sell up to five grams of cannabis to patrons over the age of 18. Bizarrely, smoking tobacco inside a coffee shop is illegal.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014