Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands. With more than one million inhabitants in its urban area, it is the country's largest city and its financial, cultural, and creative centre. Amsterdam is colloquially known as Venice of the North, because of its lovely canals that criss-cross the city, its impressive architecture and more than 1,500 bridges. There is something for every traveller's taste here, whether you prefer culture and history, serious partying, or just the relaxing charm of an old European city.

The "Amsterdam" that most visitors experience is the city centre, the semi-circle with Central Station at its apex. It corresponds to the city as it was around 1850. Five major concentric canals ring the Old Centre; the Singel, the Herengracht, the Keizersgracht, the Prinsengracht, and the Singelgracht, together forming the Canal Ring. Other districts inside the city centre are the Jordaan, a former working-class area gone upmarket, and Plantage, a leafy and spacious area known for its zoo and botanical gardens. The roads Nassaukade, Stadhouderskade, and Mauritskade surround the centre and mark the location of the former city moat and fortifications. Almost everything outside this line was built after 1870.

Many people choose to visit Amsterdam because of its reputation for tolerance, although part of this reputation is attributable to cultural misunderstandings. Prostitution is legalised and licensed in the Netherlands, and in Amsterdam it is very visible (window prostitution), and there are large numbers of prostitutes. The sale, possession, and consumption of small quantities of cannabis, while technically illegal, is tolerated by authorities (the policy of gedogen). This does not mean that you can get away with anything in Amsterdam. In any case, public attitudes and official policy have hardened in recent years.

Amsterdam has an amazing collection of museums, ranging from masterpieces of art to porn, vodka and cannabis. The most popular ones can get very crowded in the summer peak season, so it's worth exploring advance tickets or getting there off-peak.

The locals spend their summer days in Amsterdam opening a red wine in the Vondelpark — and so should you. Every district in Amsterdam has at least one park, but the Vondelpark in South stands out for its size and convivial atmosphere. The neighbourhood best known for its greenery is the Plantage. Besides its leafy boulevards and grand mansions, it also features the botanical gardens of the Hortus Botanicus. Finally, Artis Zoo is a good attraction for the kids.

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