It's hard to put a finger on exactly what makes Amsterdam one of the best cities to visit in Europe. It might be its picturesque canals, its storied past, or perhaps even its world famous Red Light district. But either way, the Venice of the North has something for everyone - whether you consider yourself an art aficionado, history buff, partier or jack of all trades. It's a city layered with complexity and cultural gems at every turn.
At the heart of the city, the 116-acre central Vondelpark is a wonderful place to while away an afternoon, come grey or shine. In addition to duck ponds and an outdoor theatre with free shows when the weather's nice, you'll find kids' playgrounds and coffee houses like the Groot Melkhuis (Big Milkhouse). In summer, take a bike ride, skate around, or simply laze in the afternoon sun with a picnic like the locals.
If you want to skip the raw fish - raw herring covered in onion is a thing (and not everyone's cup of tea) - you can't fail to fall in love with the local pancakes. Amsterdam is packed with pancake houses, but even better are the "mini pancakes" or "poffertjes" doused in butter and sugar glaze. They can be ordered as desert in most pancake houses, but in winter, they're served warm from food trucks around the city. The perfect afternoon snack! Also worth a taste are the apple pies and of course, the Gouda cheese.
Take in the Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam is practically synonymous with art and the Van Gogh Museum is one of the city's top attractions. Home to the largest collection of Van Gogh's paintings and drawings in the world, you're bound to recognize at least a few of these iconic impressionist masterpieces -- a wonder to gaze at in real life. It is located in Museum Square, right next door to the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseum which are also worth a peek.
Wander the Canals
Amsterdam's famous canals stretch over 60 miles and boast a whopping 1,500 bridges. Needless to say, it's easy to get lost in the aquatic maze, but that's all part of the fun. The three main "rings" Herengracht, Prinsengracht and Keizergracht, circle the city center, making them likely Amsterdam's main attraction. The heart and soul of the city, put on some comfortable shoes and get to bridge hopping. Don't miss the Flower Market and Dam Square as you go.
Shop the "Nine Streets"
The neighborhood locals call Negen Straatjes or Nine Streets (just off Prinsengracht, Keizergracht and Herengracht) has emerged as the hip shopping area over the last few years. The streets are packed with quaint, charming boutiques, coffee houses and restaurants, and are the best place to find local charm (and a few souvenirs!).
Visit the Anne Frank Museum
One of Amsterdam's most popular sights, the Anne Frank museum is actually the real house she and her family hid in during the Nazi persecution. A chilling reminder of the horrors of World War II, you can see firsthand the tiny spaces she had to survive in. Legendary, her diaries touched the heart of millions.
See the City on Two Wheels
Beyond the tram that circles the city, cycling is the primary method of transportation in Amsterdam. Parking a car is near impossible without re-mortgaging your home, so adopt a bike for the duration of your trip and do as the locals do. Most bikes come with a child seat in the back, but if that makes you nervous, book a cargo-tricycle called a "Bakfiet," which comes with seats and belts that fit several little ones. Cycle along the 400-year-old canals, watch the houseboats, visit the flower market and the docks – all without the hassle of parking or walking!
Go to the Zoo
Artis Zoo dates back to 1838 and is one of the oldest in Europe. It's also one of the most beautiful, with stunning period buildings that make it as much an architectural tour as a place to peruse the animals. Also on-site is an aquarium, planetarium and cool coffee carts for a latte while you walk.
See the Red Light District
Controversial, smutty and not for prudes, the Red Light District is an inherent part of Amsterdam’s scene. Take a self-guided tour if you dare. The area is packed with bars, pubs and clubs, giving the Dutch capital its reputation as one of Europe's hottest party cities that can be as x-rated as you choose.
Explore the Jordaan neighborhood
A charming walk away or tram outside downtown, Jordaan is both hip and authentic and a great place to wander. It’s home to a couple markets like the Lindenmarkt (lime market) on Saturdays and a flea market at the Noordermarkt on Mondays.