The Dutch know citymaking. Their historic capital, Amsterdam, is a product of 17th-century merchant capitalism, widely considered to be the first age of globalization, and its structure was heavily influenced by Europe's trade with the wider world. The concentric ring of canals that make up the old city are extensions of the routes that led to China, India, and the southern tip of Africa. Mokum (the Yiddish nickname for the city) has managed to remain accessible even as it has modernized. An efficient tram system links peripheral neighborhoods to the core around Central Station, and because of its relatively small size, it is one of the most walkable capitals in Europe.
Touring: A beguiling warren of narrow lanes, canals, and tiny bridges, Amsterdam is perfect for a meandering stroll. For the complete tour, choose from two options: bicycle or boat. Almost everyone rides a bike in Amsterdam, and renting one is easy. The city is as cycling-friendly as they come, with a network of designated lanes and parking, and the old prewar-style bicycles that dominate the lanes will take you back to another time. Mac Bike can put you in the saddle at any one of their numerous locations.
The Netherlands' capital is a watery place, nestled well below sea level, and touring by water provides a great way to view the rows of 17th-century canal-side homes and warehouses. Forgo the cumbersome cruise-boat tours that crowd the major waterways and take a more pleasant, personalized journey through the backwaters. The St. Nicolaas Boat Club is a little-known gem that offers daily tours on their small fleet of quaint, authentically Dutch canal boats. Bring a picnic and a bottle of wine, and see one of the most beautiful European cities from its most unique vantage point. For the pleasure, your ship captain will accept donations at the end of your voyage, and tours can be arranged only by visiting Boom Chicago, a comedy club and bar in the Leidseplein square.
Museums: Amsterdam has almost as many museums as bicycles. Seeing as how the national Rijksmuseum is still in the long slumber of its renovation, the Van Gogh Museum is the best major art gallery to spend time in. The museum houses some of the best-known works by Vincent and his contemporaries, and a separate building reserved for special exhibitions has a reputation for hosting provocative exhibitions that stretch well beyond the thematic confines of the Netherlands' most famous and tormented artist.
If you haven't read "The Diary of Anne Frank" since secondary school, then spend some time with the book on the way over. Walking through the empty rooms at the Anne Frank House will bring to life the families that hid behind the secret bookcase when Hitler occupied Amsterdam. Especially since its 1999 extension into a new, adjacent building, the museum tells a powerful, human story about the Holocaust. Nearby is the heart of the Jordaan, at one time a rough-and-tumble Jewish and immigrant neighborhood at the edge of the city proper; it's now a trendy, bourgeois area of bars and restaurants.
Markets: The Jordaan remained a working-class enclave late into the 20th century. A statue in the neighborhood's Noordermarkt pays tribute to the labor riots that occurred there during the Depression, and the square now hosts one of the city's finest open-air food and flea markets. While smaller than the more famous Albert Cuyp market, you'll find local shoppers and tourists crowding the rows of bakers, cheese makers, and green grocers. Street musicians play at nearly every turn, and on the far side of the square you can peruse a menagerie of second-hand treasures, from books to house wares.
The Netherlands lays claim to one of the more famous, if short-lived, economic bubbles in history: tulipmania. In the early 17th century, rare tulip bulbs traded on local stock exchanges at values that reached multiples of the average person's yearly salary. Nowadays you can purchase a bouquet for less than ten euros at the floating Bloemenmarkt off Muntplein square.
Shopping: The Dutch are known for their simple yet witty design sensibility, and two of the most forward-thinking design galleries carry a range of furniture, lighting, and other curiosities. Droog is one of the country's best-known showcases for innovative designers. Their flagship store in the old center is more museum than retail outlet. And without the same hallowed austerity, Frozen Fountain is a large, two-storey design house packed with all that Dutch design has to offer.
Drinks: Whether you're in the mood for a relaxing drink or a quick pick-me-up, Amsterdam doesn't lack for atmospheric cafes and bars. 't Blauwe Theehuise is an endearing hangout, serving alcohol, coffee, and, of course, tea. Located in the little circular blue building at the center of Vondel Park, perhaps the most beloved green space in all of Amsterdam, the outdoor patio and balcony seating allows for an enjoyable respite, and the city's resident parakeets can be heard chattering away in the trees above.
Down a small back alley behind Dam Square is an antiquated jenever bar known as Wynand Fockink, an original 17th-century distillery and tasting room. Jenever, also known as Dutch gin, is a traditional, locally made alcohol, and this 300-year-old establishment is a fitting place to experience the spirit for the first time. Like Champagne, authentic jenever is the provenance of the Netherlands and Belgium. When the bartender sets the pretty glasses on the counter and fills them to the brim, it's customary to lean forward and take a sip.