Image: Royal Palace
Rick Steves
The Royal Palace in Amsterdam is re-opening after a three-year renovation.
Tribune Media Services
updated 2/18/2009 10:58:06 AM ET 2009-02-18T15:58:06

When I'm updating my guidebooks, one of my favorite places to visit is rollicking Amsterdam. This Dutch metropolis is ever changing — and ever crowded with fun-loving sightseers.

Throughout the year, visitors line up to see its three top sights: the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum (with Rembrandts, Vermeers and more), and the compelling Anne Frank House. The lines at the sights are generally for buying tickets rather than getting in. To avoid the wait, simply buy your tickets online on the museums' Web sites.

The Van Gogh Museum offers the world's finest collection of Vincent's paintings. But from now through June, it's filled with even more. The special “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night” exhibit gathers together the artist's nighttime works from other museums, including the world-famous “Starry Night.”

If you want to complement your Dutch art appreciation with some Dutch alcohol appreciation, gin drinkers can learn the fine points, create their own blend and then have a bartender mix it on the spot at the new House of Bols: Cocktail & Genever Experience. This modern distillery, designed to give tourists an appreciation of Dutch gin, just opened across the street from the Van Gogh Museum. (And a few blocks away, beer lovers can soak up the recently re-opened Heineken Experience, located at the site of the former Heineken brewery.)

On sunny summer days, the Rijksmuseum offers a fun “lunch-box-with-a-blanket-in-the-park” deal (about $17 with museum entry or about $6 for just the boxed lunch and a loaner blanket). There are plenty of picnic spots on the pleasant museum grounds between the Rijks and Van Gogh museums.

Across town, on the park-like square called the Rembrandtplein, you can now experience Rembrandt's masterpiece, “The Night Watch,” in 3-D by checking out a new, kid-friendly statue based on the painting.

Image: Ann Frank House
Rick Steves
Behind the plain facade of this Amsterdam house, Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis for two years.
If inspired by your visit to the Anne Frank House, buy their new pamphlet, “Persecution and Resistance in Amsterdam” (75 cents), which leads you on a self-guided walk to the Dutch Resistance Museum and its impressive World War II exhibits.

Fans of handbags, and perhaps even their reluctant spouses, will enjoy the hardworking Tassenmuseum Hendrikje (Museum of Bags and Purses), which fills an elegant 1664 canal house with artifacts from 500 fascinating and creative years of bag and purse history.

The Royal Palace on Amsterdam's Dam Square re-opens to the public in June after three years of extensive renovations. When constructed in 1648, this sumptuous building was one of Europe's finest. Today, it's the official (though not actual) residence of Queen Beatrix (she lives in The Hague).

In Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District, a number of the windows that once displayed prostitutes now showcase the latest fashions — lit by lights that aren't red. The city government is trying to rein in the sex trade and give the area — so popular among certain “window-shopping” visitors — a little elegance. It's taken over the window leases from landlords and rented them to local fashion designers instead.

Amsterdam's Central Train Station is being renovated and will remain a messy construction project that's expected to inconvenience travelers through 2012. You can save lots of time by getting train tickets and information in a small-town station (such as Haarlem) or at Schiphol Airport's station (where there's wonderful service).

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Amsterdam's towering yet relaxed Central Library, a short walk from its train station, offers hundreds of fast Internet terminals and welcomes tourists as well as locals to get online for free. While you're there, enjoy the dramatic views from its terrace and a reasonable meal from its slick top-floor cafeteria.

Or, perhaps you'd like to check your e-mail in a fog of marijuana smoke at one of the city's many “coffeeshops.” The Dutch use this English word to describe places that sell cannabis. While indoor tobacco smoke was banned in 2008, pot smoke is no problem in these shops. In a twist that would seem strange to Americans, Dutch coffeeshops can actually lose their license if they allow tobacco smoking inside their premises.

South of Amsterdam, idyllic Delft — dreamy as a painting by hometown artist Johannes Vermeer — now offers a fine Vermeer Center. While it doesn't have any of the Dutch master's 30-some originals (though Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum has several), the center does a good job tracing the creative mind of Delft's favorite resident, and its shop is the ideal place to buy some “sou-vermeers.” For about $13, the tourist office offers a two-hour walking tour of the town that includes a canal boat trip — just right to savor the place that inspired so much fine art.

Offering new sights and old masterpieces, the Dutch do a dandy job of making this little country a delight for travelers.

(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2009 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: A European tour

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  1. Venice, Italy

    Gondolas line the bank near Venice's grand canal with the San Giorgio Maggiore church in the background. (Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rome, Italy

    The Colosseum is one of the best-known attractions in all of Italy, and is the largest elliptical amphitheater built in the Roman empire. (Tiziana Fabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. London, England

    The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben clock tower, located along the River Thames, are seen at dusk from Westminster Bridge. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Berlin, Germany

    Tourists take pictures of themselves at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The memorial, designed by U.S. architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in May 2005, is made up of more than 2,700 concrete steles that form a curved landscape in the heart of Germany's capital. (Barbara Sax / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Granada, Spain

    The Alhambra palace in Granada, although one of 21 finalists, missed out on being named one of the new seven wonders of the world. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Paris, France

    This bird's-eye view of Paris at dusk, with the Eiffel Tower and L'Hotel des Invalides prominent, show why the capital's nickname is the "City of Light." (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lindos, Greece

    The ancient town of Lindos is famous for its Acropolis, which stands on a 380-foot-high hill overlooking Lindos and the Aegean Sea and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Eyeswideopen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dublin, Ireland

    People walk past The Temple Bar, which should not be confused with its neighborhood, also called Temple Bar, in central Dublin. Ireland's capital has been voted one of the top 25 cities of the world to live in. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lisbon, Portugal

    Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as a ceremonial gateway to the city, and to serve as a defense at the mouth of the Tagus River. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Sebastiano Scattolin / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barcelona, Spain

    Columns and arches of the Sagrada Familia rise high in this Roman Catholic church, which has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Florence, Italy

    A woman looks over Florence from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on the city's cathedral church began in 1296 and finished in 1462. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. County Mayo, Ireland

    Ashford Castle, which dates back to the 13th century and sits on 350 acres of manicured gardens and land, now ranks among the finest hotels in Ireland. About a two-hour drive from Dublin, the castle has played host to myriad high-profile events, including actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding. (Tourism Ireland via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kaag, Netherlands

    A cyclist pedals along rows of tulips near the village of Kaag, outside of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Dutch often use cycling to get around, and Amsterdam is considered one of the most bike-friendly large cities in the world. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands

    A tourist smokes at a coffeeshop "de Dampkring," or "Atmosphere," where a part of the "Ocean's Twelve" movie was filmed, in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The city is famous for its nightlife, cultural activities and red-light district. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Stockholm, Sweden

    Boats line up on the shoreline in Stockholm, the capital and largest city in Sweden. The city is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Krakow, Poland

    The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in Krakow, Poland, is one of the most well-known tourist spots in the city and noted for its gothic, medieval architecture. However, most people come to Krakow because of its proximity to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi's concentration camps, which is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. (Jon Hicks / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nice, France

    Hundreds of people enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice on the French Riviera. (Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Brussels, Belgium

    The Grand Place in the heart of Old Town in Brussels, Belguim, is marked by many 17th-century buildings and flower markets. (Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Greek islands

    Oia, on the island of Santorini, Greece, is on a clifftop village filled with white structures and gorgeous sunsets. Santorini offers seaside tavernas, cliffside paths, black volcanic rocks and of course, sunshine and the Aegean Sea. (Saundra Virtanen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pamplona, Spain

    Revelers hold up their red scarves during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. The annual festival is best known for its daily running of the bulls. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Prague, Czech Republic

    The buildings in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, are constructed in many architectural styles from Romanesque to gothic to art nouveau and modern. (Michal Cizek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Reykjavik, Iceland

    Tourists stand in the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Iceland. The Blue Lagoon's waters come from natural hot water springs flowing through rocks of lava. Many also believe the mineral-rich waters may have health benefits. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. St. Petersburg, Russia

    The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is seen on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitry Lovetsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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