[ 3 DAYS IN... ]

Clockwise from top: Damrak houses: Some of the town's oldest buildings are at the boat basin, leaning as their wooden piles sink into the mud. Royal Palace: Located on Dam Square in the heart of town, it is open to the public. Tram: The many tram lines provide a great way to get around. Some creative graffiti. Red Light District: Working ladies sit at their windows, waiting for customers. Van Gogh self-portrait: One of 200 paintings by him in the Van Gogh Museum.

Old-world canals crisscross
this high-tech city

A list of places to stay, eat and play

By Dennis Callan
Special to the Sun Press

Three C-words can sum up Amsterdam's allure: canals, cobblestones and coziness. Amsterdam is often compared to Venice because of the rings of canals that wind through the city, and the size of the historic district. Its officials claim Amsterdam has more historic buildings and sites -- 6,936 at last count, mostly private houses -- than any other city.

The oldest part of town, and the Rijksmuseum

Canals, boat ride, the Jordaan, shopping and Van Gogh

More canals, museums and shopping

A harmonious similarity among these five-story brick buildings projects a unified appearance, yet each is unique, with variations of gables, statues and molding. Architecture created by master craftsmen three centuries ago is different from today's uniform glass boxes. But the city is no fragile relic. High-tech Amsterdam thrives with a mixed economy, a half-million residents and one of the world's highest standards of living.

There is a small-town coziness created by the quiet cobblestone streets and the canals. Holland is the world's second most densely populated country. Nearly half the dry land is man-made, pumped from beneath the sea and surrounded by dikes and dams to keep the water at bay. Amsterdam is below sea level and would be flooded if the dams broke, but that won't happen, thanks to sophisticated Dutch technology, not just that fabled kid with his thumb in the dike.

Amsterdam is a quirky town. The typical citizen is a well-educated yuppie earning good money, but there are also plenty of scruffy drug dealers and hookers conducting business in this tolerant society.

For centuries there has been a live-and-let-live attitude, ever since Protestants and Jews arrived to escape persecution in the rest of Europe. During the '60s and '70s this was Europe's hippie center, filled with long-haired free spirits and political provocateurs who staged street demonstrations.

The result is a vibrant social mix, including Indonesians who have come from the colonies, helping to make for a vigorous society and a varied cuisine.


The oldest part of town, and the Rijksmuseum

First impressions count for a lot, so start with a walk along a canal; just find the one closest to your hotel. Take a walk before sunrise, with the golden light shimmering on the water, while the city sleeps and boats have not yet stirred the canals' glassy surface. Then find your way to the town center, Dam Square.

>> Dam Square: Several landmarks are centered at this busy hub, with a vast cobblestone plaza and the biggest street in town, Rokin, rumbling by. This is where the first dam was built across the Amstel River in 1270, which gave the city its name.

The Royal Palace (Koninklijk Paleis), with its baroque façade, dominates the Dam. Built as Europe's largest town hall in the mid-17th century, it became a royal residence in the 19th century when Napoleon's brother moved in. You may visit the vast Citizens' Hall, but there is not much else to see. Monarchs have never played a large role in running this country. There is still a royal family, headed by the much-loved Queen Beatrix, but they have no power and don't live here.

Next door is the square's other main attraction, the New Church, or Nieuwe Kerk, which dates to 1408. Like the rest of Amsterdam, it was made of wood, but after burning down a few times it was rebuilt in brick and stone. Take a look at the baroque wooden altar, stained glass and burial monuments.

Madame Tussaud's wax museum features reconstructions of 17th century life, along with contemporary celebrities. The department store, Bijenkorf, is also on the square. Just behind the palace is the Magna Plaza shopping mall, built inside an old post office and worth visiting to see the atrium design that provides a look through the whole mall.

In the middle of Dam Square is the Nationaal Monument, a 72-foot obelisk dedicated to World War II victims and to peace.

>> The Old Side: Walk down Damstraat into the oldest part of town, featuring a mix of cobblestone lanes, crooked old brick houses built centuries ago, and several blocks of prostitutes behind glass displays.

Red lights strung across the canal create a festive atmosphere. If you can get past the sex shops and the scantily clad women sitting under red lights advertising their services, you will find the Red Light District a charming neighborhood.

Visit the Old Church ("Oude Kerk"), a huge 14th century Gothic structure surrounded by shops and cafes -- an island of tranquility in this frenetic district. And stop by the Amstelkring Museum, a restored 17th-century canal house that was a secret Catholic church during the 18th century.

Walk three blocks to Zeedijk, another odd mix of sleaze and history, and return along the next canal to your starting point of Oude Hoogstraat.

>> University: Many of the old buildings, formerly private homes and shelters for the poor, form part of the University of Amsterdam.

One, the Oudmanhuis, has a lovely courtyard and a mysterious arcade lined with second-hand bookstalls. Shops have operated in this hallway since 1757. Another oddity is the "House on Three Canals."

The canal on the eastern edge, Kloveniersburgwal, is a beautiful place. Near the corner with Oude Hoogstraat is the elaborate 1605 façade of Oostindisch Huis, former headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, the private corporation founded 400 years ago, that ruled the empire.

Two more famous houses on this canal are the Poppenhuis at No. 95, built in 1642, and the Trippenhuis at No. 29, finished in 1664 -- so large it can be considered a palace, decorated with military emblems reflecting the owner's occupation as an arms merchant.

A couple of blocks east to Waterlooplein is one of the biggest street markets in town, with more than 300 stalls.

Rembrandtplein, a block from the Amstel River, is a popular park with a statue of the great painter in the center. It is bounded by cafes and becomes an entertainment center by night.

>> Rembrandtplein and two mansions: One block south of the Amstel River is the Rembrandtplein, a small park bounded by cafes. At night this is an entertainment hot spot, with live music in several clubs and hundreds of people about. At midday it offers numerous choices for lunch, such as the Art Deco Café of the Schiller Hotel, the Opera Café or De Kroon Royal Café, with a balcony overlooking the square.

Two mansions have been converted into museums that provide a glimpse into the 19th century life of the mercantile upper class. The Museum Willet-Holthuysen, built in 1685 and occupied until 1895, has 10 rooms on two floors filled with original furnishings and art work. Upon exiting, walk a block to the canal, Reguliersgracht, cross the bridge and count the 15 bridges you can see in each direction.

Two blocks away is the Museum van Loon, with its formal rose garden and period rooms, filled with furniture, porcelains, paintings and sculpture.

This neighborhood is elegant, with the four major ring canals -- Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht -- running through it in concentric semi-circles. Each canal is nearly 3 miles long.

>> Rijksmuseum: The nicest approach is along the narrow street filled with antique shops called Neuwe Spiegelstraat, passing five canals in as many blocks, leading to the fantastic Rijksmuseum.

This collection focuses primarily on 16th and 17th century Dutch paintings. It has a lot to show, thanks to the genius of three native painters, Frans Hals, Jan Vermeer, and Rembrandt, whose masterpiece "The Night Watch" is the collection's main prize.

Entering the main gallery you will be struck by the theatrical focus on "The Night Watch." Many canvases by this greatest of all Dutch painters are here, but also note the four works by Vermeer, who only produced about 30 in his career.

The building is a work of art, designed by P. H. J. Cuypers, who also built the Central Train Station, both completed in the 1880s. The façade is adorned with statues, decorative stripes, reliefs and ceramic plaques, in a mix of medieval and 19th century styles.

>> Leidsplein: Just four blocks away is Leidsplein, a busy party square.

Dutch beer on tap is one of life's great pleasures, but you could also visit one of the 800 coffee shops where pot is legally sold. The sign out front will say "coffee shop," and you can order from a menu of different kinds of weed to go with your coffee.

A more traditional institution is the "brown cafe," which has simple meals to accompany drinks. The modern counterpart is the "white cafe" where only the very hip go. Some brown examples are De Prins, Het Molenpad and Hoppe, or try the white cafes at Morlang, De Jaren or Café American.

Make it a point to sample Indonesian cuisine. Good places are Lembur Kuring and Bojo. Other restaurants can be found along Leidsestraat, one of the best streets for shopping.

Many clubs around town feature live music, or you could take in a show at one of the major concert halls. The Bimhuis is the best place for jazz, featuring some of the world's great stars in 150 concerts annually; or for classical, try the Concertgebouw, with perfect acoustics and performances nearly every afternoon and evening.

A view through an old picture frame at the lively flea market in Jordaan, an intriguing area with a Bohemian atmosphere.


Canals, boat ride, the Jordaan, shopping and Van Gogh

Start your day with a bird's-eye view of the city at Westkerk, the West Church, where you can climb the ancient staircase 272 feet up the town's tallest tower for a stunning panorama. This grand old church, built in the 1620s, was the burial place of Rembrandt, but his tomb has disappeared.

Next door is one of the most popular attractions, the Anne Frank House. This small home, where the Frank family hid for two years from the Nazis during WWII, draws long lines, so arrive early.

There are beautiful sections of the canal ring to walk along to reach Damrak, where the tour boats are based. Wander through this neighborhood of canals by strolling along the Leliegracht cross-canal that will bring you across the Keizersgracht to Herengracht. These canal intersections are always fun to look at, with bridges and water views in all directions.

>> Canal boat ride: The boats offer an informative one-hour ride through the canals, a definite must. The route will take you in a complete circle around the historic center, shifting from one canal to another to show you a section of each of the four major canals and the broad harbor.

Clear windows curve up to the roof. You can slide the glass back for an unobstructed view. Some boats have a small open deck in the rear.

There are some boat tours at night that serve dinner or wine by candlelight. Even if you have taken a boat ride in the day, it is worth doing it again at night, with bridges outlined by thousands of tiny white light bulbs.

Another location where you can catch the boats is at the Rokin canal, a few hundred yards south of the Dam.

>> Damrak and shopping alleys: It will be time for lunch after the boat ride, and the Damrak and the honeycomb of pedestrian alleys behind it are loaded with places to eat. Damrak connects the train station with Dam Square and is the noisiest, most garish place in town, packed with fast-food joints, souvenir shops and cheap hotels. It is a major piece of the downtown experience.

There is a wonderful, pedestrian-only shopping district a block from Damrak along Nieuwendijk, which is lined with stores, with nine side alleys home to chain stores and one-of-a-kind boutiques.

Be sure to sample the traditional snack -- patat, or frites -- french fries prepared as only the Dutch and Belgians know how, with a richly flavored mayonnaise sauce.

Walk west to the Singel canal. Cat lovers will want to make a visit to the Poezenboot, the Cat Boat, in the Singel canal in front of No. 40. It's a floating hotel for dozens of strays. Admission is free, but they appreciate donations toward feline care.

Toward the Singel's north end, breweries have been converted into houses. Beer has always been important in Amsterdam, for in the old days water was often polluted or frozen. We'll steer guzzlers to the Heineken Brewery tomorrow.

Red Light District. In a charming neighborhood of crooked old houses built centuries ago, several blocks of prostitutes sit behind glass under red lights, advertising their services.

>> Jordaan: At the far side of Prinsengracht, you arrive at the Jordaan, a working-class neighborhood that has become popular in recent decades. The five-story buildings date to the 17th and 18th century in an environment that offers amenities such as restaurants and markets. In the 1890s, 85,000 people were crammed into 11,000 apartments, but now the population is one-fourth that number. It has a Bohemian atmosphere that attracts hip residents, with the yuppies and urban trendies following in great numbers, supporting the gallery-cafe scene, quirky boutiques and other cultural attractions. There is a lively outdoor market Saturday and Monday mornings.

Jordaan's buildings are humbler than in the rest of the center since it was conceived as a village for laborers who built the city. Only a few canals slice through what is a filled-in urban zone, with seven former canals converted to streets. You can enjoy nice canal views by sticking to the Prinsengracht, then turning on the Eglantiersgracht canal to the Lijnbaansgracht, then over to the Bloemgracht, which will take you back to Prinsengracht in a scenic eight-block circuit.

You cannot get lost because the area is bounded by canals and has streets that are easy to navigate.

>> Van Gogh Museum: Art lovers will want to spend the afternoon in the Van Gogh Museum, housing the world's largest collection of works by the popular painter. The museum is a mile from Jordaan, so the best way to go is by tram.

The museum is housed in a building that opened in 1973 and was expanded with a modern curved wing that doubled the display area and created room for special exhibits. The main Van Gogh collection is still in the original building and includes more than 200 of his paintings and many more drawings. There are also works by his contemporaries.

>> Stedelijk Museum: This modern art museum, next door to Van Gogh, focuses on the 20th century. The Stedelijk offers a small collection of works by Mondrian, Man Ray, Matisse, Picasso and others, but the main attraction is the changing roster of exhibits. The museum is to undergo a renovation to add a building and bring the main building back to its 1890s grandeur. When you are done with the museums, stroll in the Vondelpark and say hello to the ducks.

>> Spui: Returning to the center by the same tram that brought you to the museums, get off at Spui, a small square with two popular bars, Hoppe, an old brown cafe dating from 1670, and Luxembourg Café, with décor from the 1930s. Friendly people spill into the broad sidewalks with beers in hand, making for some of the liveliest conversations in town.

A block away at 291 Spuistraat you will find Kantjil & de Tijger, a personal favorite restaurant that offers the renowned Indonesian rijsttafel dinner in which a variety of meats and vegetables -- up to 25 dishes as mild or spicy as you want -- are served along with piles of rice that give it the name "rice table." This is one of life's great eating experiences and should not be missed. A dozen excellent Indonesian restaurants are famous for this preparation, brought back from the former Dutch East Indies during colonial days.

Canals winding throughout the city prompt comparisons to Venice. Walk along any one of the many canals for tranquil views of the water and to see the historic houses alongside.


More canals, museums and shopping

>> Canal ring: The main canals of the west ring will keep you busy today, with time for shopping, another museum and the Heineken Brewery. Starting from Dam Square, today's goal is to explore three miles of canals. The best time to appreciate these sublime waterways is early or late, so do half in the morning and half at day's end.

You will experience the heart of the city with this excursion, focusing on the wealthiest part of 17th century Amsterdam. The beautiful homes were built by some of the world's wealthiest businessmen.

In the early 1600s the city needed to expand, so three canals were dug just beyond the Singel between 1610 and 1660, with rapid construction quickly building up this new part of town. Unlike the huge country mansions in the rest of Europe, most homes here are narrow and deep because they were taxed according to the amount of canal frontage. The egalitarian spirit of the Dutch expressed in these small facades lives on today in a social system that takes care of the disadvantaged.

By the 14th century, merchants were establishing fortunes by trading in beer, herring and grains with neighboring Germany and Scandinavia.

The first two canals were dug in the center of town, and expansion continued in the 15th century with three more canals, including the Singel. However, the 16th century was a setback because the country was conquered by the Spanish, who waged a war of religious persecution and economic exploitation, ending with the death of Phillip II in 1598. This liberation led to the era of great expansion, in which the population increased from 70,000 to 220,000 in the first half of the 17th century, making Amsterdam the third largest European city after London and Paris.

During this Golden Age, little Holland sent its ships to the Far East and monopolized the spice trade from Southeast Asia. It brought in silk, sugar, tea and porcelain from Japan and China. The Dutch were also busy in the New World, sending ships to colonize parts of Brazil and founding the first settlement in New York. The Dutch navy even reached into the Pacific to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, named after the voyage captain, Abel Tasman. Dutch merchants ruled the oceans and with immense empires around the world, all the profits came back to the area you are about to explore.

To see these canals in their best light, take an early stroll along the Singel canal just behind Dam Square. At the south end of Singel canal you will find the pretty floating flower market, with thousands of fresh blooms for sale. The Netherlands is world-famous for flower production, and while tulips are the best-known, there are countless other varieties at the lively Bloemenmarkt.

Swing around to the "Golden Bend" section of the Herrengracht, the next canal. This two-block section between Vijzelstraat and Leidestraat has some of the widest homes, with beautiful ornamentation befitting powerful occupants. These days the real estate is too expensive so there are few private residences, but the original buildings have been restored and converted into offices for professionals, banks and businesses. One curious little museum at No. 497 on this bend is the Cat Cabinet, or "Kattenkabinett," the world's only museum dedicated to cat art, featuring paintings, posters, photos and sculpture.

Dozens of homeless cats are cared for on the Poezenboot, their floating home on the Singel canal. Cat lovers can visit free, but donations are appreciated.

>> Begijnhof and Historic Museum: Finish up the canal stroll by turning on Koningsplein and walking to Heiligeweg. Now you are in the pedestrian zone that leads through Spui and into Kalverstraat, a main shopping street.

A nice surprise awaits in the Begijnhof, a secret village hidden in the heart of town. You can enter through a closed doorway from the Spui. Inside you will find a peaceful world of ancient houses arranged around a tiny town green with a central church. Built as a refuge for lay nuns in the 15th century, it is now home to elderly citizens. Amsterdam's oldest house is here, built in 1420, one of only two left that are made of wood.

Next door is the Amsterdam Historisch Museum, with an outstanding collection that covers the area's history with multi-media displays. Three floors of exhibits include suits of armor, ceramics, household utensils, paintings, statues, tapestries, and everything else that makes up the story of Amsterdam. There is also a courtyard cafe in the middle of this 16th century building, which used to be an orphanage.

>> Shopping and more canals: It's easy to find a resting spot on the Kalverstraat. Beer lovers will want to go to the Heineken Brewery (Brouwerij). It used to be the main brewery until a few years ago, and now is a museum and visitor center.

Peek at the one section of town you have not yet seen, the Prinsengracht and Keisersgracht canals, in the four-block area between Leidsegracht and Raadhuisstraat. There are no crucial historical landmarks here -- just pleasant buildings and unusual houseboats. The only thing left is to find a great restaurant, which is never hard here, and reflect on your visit while enjoying a gourmet feast.

Dennis Callan is the president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and produces the "World Traveler" TV series that airs 8 p.m. Mondays on 'Olelo, channel 52. He frequently leads tours through Europe, and writes "Three Days in ..." the first Sunday monthly, explaining how to get the most out of three days in the world's great places.


If you go

Here's a list of places to stay, eat and play in Amsterdam:


>> Hotel Estherea, Singel 303-309. Call 31-20-624-5146. My favorite; three blocks from Dam Square on the Singel Canal.
>> Die Port van Cleve, Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 176-180. Call 31-20-6244860. Behind the Royal Palace on Dam Square.
>> The Grand Hotel, 197 Oudezijds Voorburgwal. Call 31-20-555-3111. One of the best, in a magnificent old building.
>> American Hotel, 97 Leidsekade. Call 31-20-624-5322. On the Leidseplein.
>> Radison SAS Hotel Amsterdam, 17 Rusland. Call 31-20-623-1231. In the old city.
>> Canal House Hotel, 148 Keizersgracht. Call 31-20-62205182. On a quiet canal.
>> Swissotel, 96 Damrak. Call 31-20-626-0066. Next to Dam Square.
>> Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, 9 Dam Square. Call 31-020-554-9111. Five-star hotel.


>> Bojo, Lange Leidsedwarsstraat 49-51, Leidseplein, 20-622-7434. Indonesian
>> Die Port Van Cleve, 178 Voorburgwal, 20-624-0047. Dutch
>> D'Vijff Vliegen ("The Five Flies"), 294 Spuistrat 20-624-8369. Dutch
>> Indrapura, 40 Rembrandtplein, 20-623-7329. Indonesian
>> Jayakarta, 16 Rembrandtplein, 20-625-5569. Indonesian
>> Kantjil & de Tijger 291 Spuistraat, Spui 20-620-0994. Indonesian
>> Lembur Kuring, Lijnbaansgracht 256, Leidseplein, 20-623-9375. Indonesian

Bars and cafes

>> Café American, American Hotel, Leidseplein
>> De Jaren, 20 Nieuwe Doelenstraat
>> De Kroon Royal Café, Rembrandtplein 7
>> De Prins, Prinsengracht 124
>> Hoppe, Spui 18
>> Morlang, 451 Keizersgracht
>> Schiller Café, Rembrandtplein 26


>> Amsterdam Historisch Museum, 92 Kalverstraat; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 6 euro.
>> Anne Frank House, 263 Prinsengracht (Westerkerk); 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; 6.50 euro.
>> Heineken Brewery. 78 Stadhouderskade. Once a brewery, now a museum; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; 5 euro.
>> Kattenkabinett, 497 Herengracht; 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
>> Madame Tussaud Scenerama, 20 Dam, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily; 8 euro
>> Museum Van Loon, 672 Keizersgracht; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays to Mondays; 4.5 euro
>> Museum Willet-Holthuysen, 605 Herengracht; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 4 euro
>> Netherlands Scheepvaart-museum: 1 Kattenburgerplain; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 7 euro.
>> Rijksmuseum, 42 Stadhouderskade; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; 8 euro
>> Stedelijk Museum, 13 Paulus Potterstraat; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; 5 euro.
>> Van Gogh Museum: 7 Paulus Potterstraat; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; 7 euro.

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