The best way to explore Amsterdam: Get deliberately lost

Amsterdam is a city best seen on two feet - or two wheels.

Flat, compact, and blessed with a low-rise skyline, this "cozy town," as one cab driver affectionately describes it, is a walker's and biker's delight. With more canals than Venice and more bridges than Paris, it rewards low-speed explorers with an abundance of richly detailed sights not available to those who tour the city on four wheels.

One ardent Amsterdam walker, art historian Max Put, offers this advice: "Wander around in the central city and get lost," he says cheerfully. "Let yourself be guided by the things you see. Then try to find your way back to your hotel." A map tucked in your pocket offers a reassuring backup, just in case.

That map can also help first-time visitors find the Amsterdam Historical Museum, the best starting point for an overview of the city. Located in the busy Kalverstraat shopping street, this 17th-century building once housed a civic orphanage. Today the museum traces the city's history chronologically from its humble beginnings in the 13th century, when herring fishermen settled on the River Amstel.

Fittingly for 21st-century walkers, one exhibit features a collection of well-worn medieval shoes, reclaimed during excavations over the centuries. Although the secrets of the wearers' lives were buried in the mud with the shoes, visitors can imagine 14th-century residents making their way over cobblestone streets. No wonder their toes rubbed holes in the brown leather and their soles came unstitched.

By the 17th century, Amsterdam reigned as the wealthiest city in Europe, a world cultural and trading center whose glory was unmatched. Evidence of that glory, that famous Golden Age, still abounds in its architecture and art.

Perhaps nowhere is the outdoor visual feast more impressive than on the grand crescent-shape canals that ring the old city. Even their names, conveniently arranged in alphabetical order - Herengracht, Kaisersgracht, Prinzengracht - are regal: Gentlemen's Canal, Emperor's Canal, Prince's Canal.

Here wealthy 17th-century merchants built majestic mansions with tall windows, handsome shutters, and steeply gabled roofs reaching for the sky. At the time, a standard plot of land was 26 feet wide. Since canal houses were taxed by width, only the rich could afford double or triple lots.

Amsterdam's 160 canals also serve as home to an estimated 2,400 houseboats and barges, many of them colorfully painted and whimsically decorated.

A small guidebook, "Canal Walks of Amsterdam," by Jos Smit and Ernest Kurpershoek ($4), available in local bookstores, brings canals alive historically. It charts two pleasant walking routes around the central canals.

When skies turn leaden or damp, Amsterdam offers more than 50 museums - enough to keep visitors happily occupied for days. Huge institutions like the Rijksmuseum rightly show up on every list of don't-miss attractions.

But the city also boasts an abundance of small museums that spotlight specific periods and subjects. Here the crowds are thinner, the scale is more manageable, and the mood more intimate. Some of my best vacation memories over the years center around small museums in various cities, including Amsterdam.

One gem is the Museum Willet-Holthuysen, the only completely furnished canal house open to the public. This 17th-century double-fronted mansion on Herengracht gives a rare view of patrician life in 17th- and 18th-century Amsterdam. The kitchen even includes the original plumbing. Don't miss the view of the topiary-lined French-style formal garden, seen through an exquisite leaded-glass window upstairs.

Another vest-pocket museum, Rembrandt's House, features the three-story, red-shuttered canal house where Rembrandt and his family lived for nearly 20 years. It was restored in 1999. The furnishings and objects did not belong to him - his possessions were sold after he declared bankruptcy - but his presence looms large in the collection of his etchings on display.

Also memorable is the Museum Amstelkring, on the edge of the Red Light District. In the late 16th century, a Protestant city council closed all the Catholic churches in the city. In defiance, a wealthy merchant built a clandestine 200-seat church, complete with organ and folding altar, on the top floors of an inconspicuous canal house. Today it stands as a quiet reminder of religious persecution everywhere.

Amsterdam remains a city of quirky contrasts. At one lofty extreme, parks carry the names of poets (Vondel), philosophers (Erasmus), and artists (Rembrandt). Elsewhere, reflecting the city's tolerant social attitudes, sex shops in the Red Light District cluster bizarrely in the shadow of the 14th-century Oude Kerk, or Old Church.

Orange-suited street cleaners add more contrast in this cosmopolitan city as they sweep up litter with simple rush brooms that look like castoffs from an earlier era.

To walk just a few blocks from the bustling crowds outside Central Station or Dam Square, the symbolic heart of the city, is to enter a slower, quieter world. Small cafes and pastry shops silently beckon: "Stop and relax." Fruit fit for a Dutch still life fills the window of a produce market. In another shop window, a black- and-white hen and three baby chicks busily scratch for food, surprising passersby.

And blooming everywhere are fresh flowers. They're visible through the curtainless windows of canal houses, in window boxes, shops, and above all at the Bloemenmarkt on the Singel Canal. Here permanently moored barges serve as open-air floral shops. A bunch of 50 tulips? Just $10.

At the end of a day of exploring on foot, hop on one of the trams that circle the city and head back to the hotel. After dinner, consider an evening ride in a canal boat. At night, the arched bridges are outlined in small white lights, giving the waterways a festive air.

And tomorrow? There's always the promise of more canals, more art, more architecture - and another chance to get deliberately, happily lost in this appealing "cozy town."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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