Not only are the Dutch people freakishly nice (maybe I've spent too much time in Paris...or New York City for that matter) but the city itself is fabulous. Super easy to navigate, great museums and parks, and, personally, I loved the Dutch architecture.
Here's a quick rundown of my recommendations, sights to see, where to stay and some photos from my trip!
I found Hotel La Bohème through booking.com, and honestly I couldn't have been happier with it. It was affordable, clean, very centrally located yet not in the crazy part of town where you would hear drunken teens on the streets at 4am (gosh I'm getting old.) Plus, we got a delicious free breakfast, free wifi, AND they have an adorable hotel cat named Mimi (who, I just discovered, has her very own Facebook page.) The staff was extremely friendly and gave us great recommendations of things to see in the city.
If you can only see one museum: Van Gogh Museum
This is actually one of the best museums I've ever been to. They lay it out chronologically and geographically, so you can explore Van Gogh's work from beginning to end and watch his mind slowly unravel through his art work. The museum also provides tons of interesting facts about Van Gogh's personal relationships, and have several excerpts from his own personal journal. I left with a far better understanding of Van Gogh as a person as well as the amazing artist that he was.
If you can see two museums: it's a toss up.
If you like Dutch history and Rembrandt, then you should stop by the Rijksmuseum, which focuses on paintings and artifacts from the Dutch Golden Age. I personally found the museum a bit underwhelming, but, it was a great way to learn a bit more about Dutch history, since, you know, you're in the Netherlands and everything.
I personally loved, and would highly recommend, FOAM, a small photography museum in downtown Amsterdam. I was lucky enough to stumble upon it when they had a great exhibit of paparazzo photos by Ron Galella, one of the pioneers of the paparazzi movement, who photographed everyone from Mick Jagger to Jackie O. This museum is a must for anyone interested in photography or more experimental art.
Historical Visit: Anne Frank House
I'm assuming most of you read The Diary of Anne Frank in middle school/high school. Well the original house where Anne spent two years in hiding is in Amsterdam, and is definitely worth a visit. Anne's father Otto Frank, the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust, helped the museum re-create the house as it was during World War II. Although the furniture has been removed, there are photos and audio guides to describe how the house once was and the family's experience in hiding. It's not the most upbeat tour you'll ever take, but it's truly fascinating.
Note: the house has a limited capacity, so lines are often long. I highly recommend booking tickets online, in advance. I didn't know this was option at the time, so we ended up waiting about 20-30 minutes to get into the museum. And apparently that's considered a SHORT wait...
Debauchery in Amsterdam: Red Light District and Coffee Shops:
Amsterdam is such an anomaly - it's so clean and quaint compared to the rest of Europe (and compared with most of the U.S.) and yet they have legalized both prostitution and marijuana - neither of which are considered clean OR quaint.
The Red Light District is worth going to, but unless you're trying to sample some of the goods, you won't need more than 30 minutes of walking around to get a feel for the place. I actually went during the day and it was quite calm - I can only imagine that it's much more, um, lively at night. But it's definitely just a culturally interesting place, unlike any place else I've been, so unless you're touring the town with your grandmother, it's worth passing through.
Coffee Shops are not hard to find in Amsterdam (duh.) What IS somewhat difficult is scouting out one that's not full of loud tourists, giddy to get high.
The Bulldog is the oldest coffee shop in Amsterdam, but is also the most touristy. It's big, it's loud, it sells weed...might be worth swinging by the gift shop or the over-priced restaurant for quick smoke. But honestly I'd recommend a more low key place, like La Tertulia, at a cute corner on Prinsengracht, one of the main canals in the city. This place is much smaller than The Bulldog, has a nice patio area, and seemed to be more of a local spot rather than a tourist trap.
As far as I could see, it was legal to smoke inside and outside all coffee shops, and while walking along the canals and in the streets. When I asked some of the locals about it, most of them said that smoking (marijuana) was more of a teenager/tourist thing, and that a lot of the more "mature" citizens in Amsterdam didn't partake quite as often. Who knows if that's actually the case for the majority of Amsterdamians, but I thought it was an interesting observation regardless.
Outdoor Activities: Canal Tours and Vondelpark
The canals of Amsterdam are one of the most beautiful and unique parts of the city. A great way to see them all, and do some leisurely sightseeing, is by taking a canal boat tour!
Boom Chicago, a comedy club downtown, now offers canal boat tours, that are targeted toward a more "laid-back" crowd. You can purchase wine and beer on board, and it definitely seemed to attract a younger clientel. That being said, I didn't feel like our tour guide was THAT well informed about the history of the city. We found out some interesting facts about day-to-day life in Amsterdam, but I wouldn't say it was a highly educational experience.
So if you're in the mood for a relaxing ride around town, give this one a try. But if you want something a little more substantial in the history department, maybe check out one of these canal tour companies instead.
You can also rent a boat yourself - if you have a Dutch friend, or any friend who knows the city well, that could be a fun way to get a "private" tour. Just make sure the driver knows the traffic rules - canal traffic jams are known to occur!
And like any major city, Amsterdam has a lovely park right near the Rijskmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. Vondelpark is the most famous park in the Netherlands and hosts up to 10 million visitors a year. Stroll on through if you want a nice spot to relax in between visiting museums, or if you're in the mood for some fun people watching.