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Whether you¹re coming for canals and architecture, or sex and drugs, Amsterdam is a delight at any time of year. In high summer, the city parks are packed and every pavement, doorway and stretch of canalside becomes a choice spot for lazy hanging-out. Spring and autumn are particularly beautiful, with mist hanging over the canals until late morning and low sunlight piercing through the cloud cover. The flatness of the surrounding countryside means that the weather is always changeable, and it¹s common at any time of year for heavy morning clouds to be blown away to reveal a sunny afternoon. It¹s never too hot, though, and, save for January and February, when icy winds blow off the canals, the weather is rarely so relentlessly miserable as to ruin a visit the persistent winter rain can give the city a romantic cast, with wet cobbles glistening under the street-lights and the canals rippled by falling raindrops. But whatever the time of year, you should bear two things in mind: firstly, there are plenty of remarkably hardy mosquitoes living on the canals, at their friskiest in the hot summer evenings, although still a nuisance as late as October; and secondly, the few square kilometres of central Amsterdam comprise one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world space is at a premium, and you should always book accommodation before leaving home.GETTING OUT OF AMSTERDAM
Finally, don¹t fall into the trap of thinking that there¹s nothing to the Netherlands beyond Amsterdam. Although Amsterdam utterly disproves the theory that a capital city is a microcosm of the nation, there is plenty to see and do outside the city. In spring and early summer the famous bulbfields are in full bloom, and the Randstad cities to the south of Amsterdam, such as Haarlem and Leiden, are worth a visit at any time of the year. Although there isn¹t much wild nature to be found in the Netherlands, there¹s some pleasant hiking to be had in the dunes near Bloemendaal-aan-Zee, and it¹s a quick train ride to the popular beach resort of Zandvoort. Indeed, just about everywhere can be reached quickly and painlessly by public transport where the trains fizzle out the buses take over.
Amsterdam is a compact, instantly likeable capital. It¹s appealing to look at and pleasant to walk around, an intriguing mix of the parochial and the international; it also has a welcoming attitude towards visitors and a uniquely youthful orientation, shaped by the liberal counterculture of the last three decades. It¹s hard not to feel drawn in by the buzz of open-air summer events, by the intimacy of the clubs and bars, or by the Dutch facility with languages: just about everyone you meet in Amsterdam will be able to speak near-perfect English, on top of their own native Dutch and fluent German and French.
The city¹s layout is determined by a web of canals radiating out from a historical core to loop right around the centre: these planned, seventeenth-century extensions to the medieval town make for a uniquely elegant urban environment, with tall, gabled houses reflected in their still, green water. With its tree-lined canals, cobbled streets, tinkling bicycle bells and stately architecture, Amsterdam is a world away from the traffic and noise of other European city centres modern and quiet, while still retaining a perfectly preserved 400-year-old centre.
The conventional sights are for the most part low-key the Anne Frank House being a notable exception but, thanks to an active and continuing government policy of supporting the arts, Amsterdam has developed a world-class group of museums and galleries. The Van Gogh Museum is, for many people, reason enough to visit the city; add to it the Rijksmuseum, with its collections of medieval and seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, the contemporary and experimental Stedelijk Museum, and hundreds of smaller galleries, and the quality and range of art on display is evident.
However, it¹s Amsterdam¹s population and politics that constitute its most enduring characteristics. Celebrated during the 1960s and 1970s for its radical permissiveness, the city mellowed only marginally during the 1980s, and, despite the inevitable gentrification of the last decade, it retains a laid-back feel. It is, however, far from being as cosmopolitan a city as London or Paris: despite the huge numbers of immigrants from former colonies in Surinam and Indonesia, as well as Morocco and Turkey (among other places), almost all live and work outside the centre and can seem almost invisible to the casual visitor. Indeed there is an ethnic and social homogeneity in the city-centre population that seems to run counter to everything you might have heard of Dutch integration.
This apparent contradiction embodies much of the spirit of Amsterdam. The city is world famous as a place where the possession and sale of cannabis are effectively legal and yet, for the most part, Amsterdammers themselves can¹t really be bothered with the stuff. And while Amsterdam is renowned for its tolerance towards all styles of behaviour and dress, a more prim, correct-thinking capital city, with a more mainstream dress sense, would be hard to find. Behind the cosy cafés and dreamy canals lurks the suspicion that Amsterdammers¹ hearts lie squarely in their wallets. And while newcomers might see the city as a haven of liberalism and tolerance, Amsterdammers can seem just as indifferent to this as well.
In recent years, increasingly hard-line city mayors have taken this conservatism on board and seem to have embarked on a generally successful if unspoken policy of quashing Amsterdam¹s image as a counterculture icon and depicting it instead as a centre for business and international high finance. Most of the inner-city squats which once defined Amsterdam¹s people-power for locals and visitors alike are now either empty or legalized. Coffeeshops are now forced to choose between selling dope or alcohol, and, if only for economic reasons, many are switching to the latter. Such shifts in attitude, combined with alterations to the city¹s landscape, in the form of large-scale urban development projects on the outskirts and an almost continuous modernization of buildings and infrastructure in the historic centre, together generate an unmistakeable feeling that Amsterdam and its people are busy reinventing themselves, writing off their hippyish adventures and returning to earlier, more respectable days.
Perhaps mercifully, this hasn¹t happened yet, and Amsterdam remains a casual and intimate place, modern and innovative yet comfortably familiar. Amsterdammers themselves make much of their city and its attractions being gezellig, a rather overused Dutch word roughly corresponding to a combination of "cosy", "lived-in" and "warmly convivial". The city¹s unparalleled selection of gezellig drinking places is a delight, whether you choose a traditional, bare-floored brown café or one of the many designer bars or "grand cafés". Amsterdam¹s unique approach to combating hard-drug abuse embodied in the effective decriminalization of cannabis has led to a large number of coffeeshops, which sell coffee only as a sideline to high-quality marijuana and hashish. The city¹s wide range of entertainment possibilities means you need never wonder what to do: multimedia complexes like the Melkweg are at the forefront of contemporary European film, dance, drama and music, while dozens of other venues present live music from all genres (the Dutch have a particular soft spot for jazz), and, resident in the world-famous Concertgebouw concert hall, Amsterdam has one of the world¹s leading classical orchestras. The club scene, on the other hand, is subdued by the standards of other capital cities, dominated by more or less mainstream house music, and with the emphasis far more on dancing than on posing. Gay men, however, will discover that Amsterdam has Europe¹s most active nightlife network, although women might be disappointed at the exclusivity of the proclaimed "Gay Capital of Europe".