There is a fairy tale quality to the tree-lined canal streets of Amsterdam.
Boutiques, cafes and hotels may hide behind the facades of the gabled townhouses, but the look of this beautiful city hasn't changed much since its 17th-century Golden Age. Some 7,000 historic buildings remain -- merchants' mansions located along canals laid out in five concentric circles, connected by bridges and intriguing small streets. No matter how many times you walk along the canals, they are enchanting to see, even when traffic and whizzing bicycles dispel the Old World illusion. On a silent Sunday morning or a summer evening when the old facades are floodlit, the city is magical.
Amsterdam is small enough that much of the city can be covered on foot, allowing visitors to savor sights such as the charming no-two-alike gables atop the houses, houseboats bedecked with potted greenery and masses of blooms in the colorful, floating flower market. Shops offering antiques or avant-garde art beckon everywhere. Outdoor markets, selling everything from postage stamps and parakeets to "junk-tiques," are another intriguing facet of the city.
Considered one of Europe's major art capitals, Amsterdam boasts three great Dutch museums as well as a small branch of the Hermitage -- the famous trove of art treasures in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Anne Frank House and Rembrandt's home are also popular attractions. In the performing arts, the city has two international stars -- the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (a 2008 poll from classical music magazine Gramophone called it the world's best) and the National Ballet.
The canal streets of the old city are protected by ordinance and will never change, but Amsterdam is expanding outward and architecture buffs will find both modern and historic neighborhoods to explore. Though quite close to the old city, the cruise terminal -- known as "the wave" for its free-form facade (shaped like a whale) -- is the part of the Eastern Docklands area where shipping docks have given way to neighborhoods of striking contemporary design that now house more than 20,000 people. A concert hall for jazz and modern music opened in 2005, adjacent to the terminal, and ongoing construction will bring many more amenities, including hotels.
--written by Eleanor Berman and Dan Askin