Think narrow canals, gabled houses and old-fashioned street lanterns, and it is not difficult to imagine yourself centuries back in time. Add houseboats moored at a tiny drawbridge, a fish stall where customers hold up a herring by its tail and let it slowly slide down their throat, the sound of a Dutch tearjerker rising up from an old-fashioned street organ, and grandmother-style bicycles being skillfully maneuvered through Amsterdam's dense traffic by young and old....and you realize: there is simply no place like Amsterdam!
The Dutch capital's web of downtown canals known as the "grachtengordel" (girdle of canals) with its charming 17th and 18th century canal houses, mansions, and former warehouses, all still largely in tact, is by far the most attractive and impressive part of this beautiful city. In the evening, romantic street lanterns along the curving canals, narrow side streets, and interconnecting bridges light up and turn the district into an enchanting, magical place.
If you have but a few days to spend and want to experience the full flavor of the historic centre, settle for one of the quaint, lesser-known and more affordable canal hotels right in the middle of the action – then visit places where mainly locals hang out. Bring along comfortable walking shoes and be prepared to go almost everywhere on foot. Feeling adventurous? Then why not try out a bike and become a real Amsterdammer!
Dam Square, in the middle of downtown, was and still is an international meeting place. This once marshy area at the mouth of the river Amstel was dammed in the 13th century and became an important trading place for the whole country. It is connected by Damrak to the still existing harbor Het IJ, and via the Zuiderzee (South Sea) to the rest of the world. In the 16th century, when Holland was at the top of its maritime strength and prosperity, the Singel canal, south of Dam Square, was Amsterdam's fortified boundary. With a rising number of citizens, came the need for a large-scale urban expansion. This led to the development of the famous Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht, dug in the same concentric shape as the Singel. The wealthiest people would live on these four major canals, whereas the more modest folks like shopkeepers, artisans, and workers would house in the smaller dwellings on the interconnecting radial canals and streets.
East of Dam Square is The Red Light District and the Rembrandt House where the famous painter spent a considerable part of his life. A few steps from there are the old Weigh House on the Nieuwmarkt, the University at the Oudemannenhuispoort, the flea market on the Waterlooplein, and the Old Jewish quarter with the Jewish Historical Museum South East of the square.