How to see Amsterdam: head to the canals

For an inside view of Amsterdam, head for the canals. Picture: Shutterstock
For an inside view of Amsterdam, head for the canals. Picture: Shutterstock

Amsterdam is a city best seen from the water. Steve McKenna takes a canal tour.

It may seem like a cliché, but the best thing to do when you arrive in Amsterdam is hop on a canal sightseeing cruise. It's a wonderful way to admire the intricate layout and beauty of the waterway-spliced Dutch capital.

As you drift along, passing under decorative brick and iron bridges and peeking at tall, slim centuries-old townhouses with flamboyant gables, you'll hear audio commentary of Amsterdam's enthralling history and you'll no doubt find plenty of inspiration for later on (you'll pass a canal-side terrace cafe or two that looks a delight in which to take a seat outside and watch the world go by).

Sightseeing boats depart from a few points in the city, but I embark one that launches from the cruise port, near where the river cruise vessels and ocean-going ships call in (and close to Amsterdam Centraal railway station).

You'll be struck by the cutting-edge contemporary buildings that have mushroomed beside the water here, from new offices, apartments and hotels to cultural attractions such as the Eye Filmmuseum and the green Renzo Piano-designed NEMO Science Museum, which is shaped like a ship's hull.

Berthed outside the nearby city's National Maritime Museum, meanwhile, is a replica of the Amsterdam, an 18th-century three-masted vessel that sailed between the Netherlands and the East Indies. It was cargo ships like this that imported the exotic Asian spices which fuelled the Dutch Golden Age, when Amsterdam emerged as the heart of a booming global empire, and bankers, merchants and seafarers grew fabulously rich from the spice trade.

We glimpse some of their ostentatious mansions on our cruise along the canals, which were constructed, in a concentric fashion, in the 17th century and now boast World Heritage status.

Rustic houseboats and other notable waterfront sights steal our gaze, such as the Westerkerk, one of the grand spired churches soaring above the city, and Anne Frank House, where you can hear the heart-breaking story of the Jewish girl who famously wrote a diary while in hiding during the city's Nazi occupation in World War 2. A new extension has been added to the house to cope with interest from visitors, who must now pre-book a timeslot online.

Another alluring canal-side draw is Rembrandt House Museum, which grants a fascinating insight into the life and work of the premier painter of the Dutch Golden Age.

To see Rembrandt's most iconic work - The Night Watch (1642) - you need to visit the Rijksmuseum, one of a cluster of world-class art attractions in the Museumplein quarter, a short walk south of the canal belt.

The area is also home to the Stedelijk Museum, a haven of contemporary art and design, and the Van Gogh Museum, which has the world's largest collection of works by the legendary Dutch post-impressionist.

The museums are fringed by a leafy green space where Amsterdammers and tourists like to hang out when the weather's good. An even better option is the Vondelpark, a 10-minute walk away. Etched with lakes, semi-wild meadows, woods and grassy, tree-shaded lawns, it's a lovely place for a stroll or a picnic and there are often events such as free open-air theatre and concerts (where the music can be anything from classical to Dutch techno).

At 47 hectares, the park is actually a nice size to pedal around. Cyclists will love Amsterdam - more than 400 kilometres of bike paths crisscross the city and there are convenient rental options. Just beware the trams clattering by and other cyclists, who whizz confidently along, frantically ringing their bike bells.

Amsterdam is a rewarding place to potter around on foot, especially in the backstreets springing off the canals. While some visitors can't resist the lure of the notorious red-light district De Wallen and the "coffee shops" that emit strong marijuana aromas, I'm drawn to the Jordaan, a gentrified formerly working-class neighbourhood to the north-west of the central canal belt. Ambling along its peaceful tree-lined streets, you'll see handsome houses, art galleries, boutiques and florists with vivid displays out front (especially tulips in the peak April-May season).

There are lots of enticing spots for food and drink, too (the Jordaan is popular for culinary-themed walking tours). Cosmopolitan choices abound, from Argentinian grills to Gallic fine dining, and if you're looking to go Dutch, there are joints serving fries with mayonnaise and sweet and savoury pancakes, and cheesemakers plying top-notch gouda (seek out the deliciously pungent Reypenaer Proeflokaal at Singel 182).

You'll also stumble across traditional taverns - called "brown bars" because of their dark wooden interiors and cosy feel. Cafe Sonneveld (Egelantiersgracht 72) is good for beers and bar snacks like bitterballen (crumbed beef balls).

Prefer gin? Head to De Blauwe Parade, situated where the Jordaan blends into De Wallen. Jenever - a juniper-flavoured Dutch spirit, a precursor to modern gin - is a speciality at this gorgeous 19th-century bar, which flaunts dark-wood furnishings and a stunning Delft-tile mural.

If you're looking for somewhere to stay, the bar adjoins Hotel Die Port van Cleve, which spreads over three historic buildings, including the site of the first Heineken brewery. Oozing charm, the hotel is ideally located for exploring this beguiling city.

Fly: Flight Centre has return fares to Amsterdam from $1129 (ex-Melb), $1153 (ex-Syd) and $1219 (ex-Bris).

Stay: At Hotel Die Port van Cleve, a low-season double room starts at $240.

Tours: I Amsterdam's flexi ticket is valid at all major Amsterdam canal cruise operators for $26/$13 child.

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