By Robert Selwitz
To fully appreciate Amsterdam, it's essential to understand where its name came from. A 13th-century document called it "Aemstelredamme," or "dam on the river Amstel." As centuries passed and commerce grew, Amsterdam expanded inland, requiring new defensive moats to protect its growing population.
Ultimately, the old moats became new inner waterways, routes that smaller cargo-carrying boats easily sailed to reach the city's harbor, which was usually packed with oceangoing vessels. As business swelled, these resulting canals also became the sites of warehouses for trading goods and elegant homes for merchants. Today, the most enjoyable things to do here include strolling alongside those canals and taking boat tours that navigate them.
Equally appealing are Amsterdam's world-class art collections, particularly the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum on and near Museumplein. The Van Gogh has the world's largest collection of its namesake's works. These include 200 paintings, mostly created in the decade before his death at the age of 37 in 1890.
A short stroll away is the Rijksmuseum, a repository for the 17th-century paintings of Rembrandt van Ryn, including his massive "The Night Watch." Also here are major works by Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals and Jacob van Ruisdael. Morning is the best time to visit these museums, as crowds tend to swell and even exceed capacity by midday. Timed-entry advance purchase is available online.
Also on Museumplein is the Stedelijk Museum, featuring the works of 20th- and 21st-century artists including Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning.
If you seek superb classical music performances, a short walk from Museumplein is the home base of the world-renowned Concertgebouw Orchestra. Or take in a cleverly staged and well-sung performance by the Dutch National Opera.
Other city highlights include the wildly popular Anne Frank House, Dam Square and the Bloemenmarkt (flower market). If you've got more time, check out some of the other intriguing museums such as the Amsterdam Museum, which traces the city's history; the Rembrandt House Museum; and the Hermitage Amsterdam, a branch of its namesake in St. Petersburg, Russia.
For a delightful sitting-down change of pace, partake in a cheese tasting and wine sipping session. But when your touring day is truly done, don't miss devouring a grand multicourse Indonesian rijsttafel. Indonesia was once a Dutch colony, and locals now claim this "rice table" with toppings as their own.
An hour's train ride or less from Amsterdam are several fascinating cities that make perfect day trips. Delft, where Vermeer worked and is buried, features a grand main square, miles of canals and walkways and is the home of Royal Delft pottery. The Hague, capital of the Netherlands, is home to the extraordinary Mauritshuis museum and the famous Madurodam miniature park. Haarlem highlights include the Keukenhof Gardens and the Frans Hals Museum.
Wherever you go in the Netherlands, it is vital to stay alert while walking. Sidewalks are frequently narrow and challenging, and strolling in designated bike lanes can be dangerous. Bicycles are a serious business here, and you don't want to cause — or become entangled in — an accident.
WHEN YOU GO
The I amsterdam City Card provides discounts to many museums and attractions, plus free transportation on Amsterdam's street cars. Passes are priced according to the number of consecutive days they are valid: www.iamsterdam.com.
The Van Gogh Museum: www.vangoghmuseum.nl
The Rijksmuseum: www.rijksmuseum.nl/en
The Stedelijk Museum: www.stedelijk.nl/en
Reypenaer Cheese Tasting Room: www.reypenaercheese.com/en
Dutch National Opera: www.operaballet.nl/en
Restaurants specializing in rijsttafel: Kantjil & De Tijger, www.kantjil.nl; and Puri Mas, www.purimas.nl
Robert Selwitz is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is one of the Netherlands' -- and the world's -- greatest treasuries of art. Photo courtesy of Barbara Selwitz.