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City of surprises

Dope fiends, street walkers … and brave tykes with thumbs stuck in dykes. For those who’ve never visited Amsterdam those three images just about sum up the city. The truth is much more complex.
Two people look at paintings 22 February
Two people look at paintings Feb. 22, in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where works of painters Rembrandt (L) and Caravaggio (R) are exposed. Rick Nederstigt / Afp - Getty Im / AFP
/ Source: Special to

Dope fiends, street walkers … and brave tykes with thumbs stuck in dykes. For those who’ve never visited Amsterdam those three images just about sum up the city. The truth is much more complex. Yes, Holland’s legendary tolerance does mean that it’s possible to indulge one’s naughty side, consorting legally with prostitutes and smoking weed. Parts of the city are downright seedy. But Amsterdam is far greater than its red light district. This is the city of Rembrandt, after all, and as such is one of the greatest art cities in the world, boasting world-class museums and architecture. Increasingly multi-cultural, it’s also becoming a hub of world cuisine and nightlife. In 24 Hours you’ll have just enough time to see its highlights (and if you’re so inclined, a couple of its lowlights as well).

7:30 a.m. - 8:30 a.m.: Before leaving your hotel, head to its dining room where a huge Dutch breakfast will undoubtedly be waiting for you. Several types of cheeses, cold cuts, soft boiled eggs and coffee are the norm; if you’re traveling on a budget, make yourself a sandwich from the buffet spread for lunch!

9 a.m. - noon: If it weren’t for the line out the door and down the block, the would be indistinguishable from the row houses that surround it. And that’s its power. In this faceless little building, a young woman lived out her last years on earth, hiding in this painfully cramped collection of rooms and expressing herself fully only to her diary, creating in that little book a testament to the human spirit that is unsurpassed to this day. It’s impossible not to be moved by a visit to the Anne Frank House. Since the wait to get in can sometimes be as long as an hour, come as early in the day as possible.

Hop on a canal boat for a tour of the city. Yeah, they’re touristy, but there’s no better way to view of Amsterdam’s glorious 17th century architecture than from this watery vantage point. Amsterdam has more canals than Venice, and you’ll float around a good many of them, taking in the skinniest house in town, the Haarlemmersluis floodgates, the mayor’s house and dozens of beautiful bridges.

Noon - 2 p.m.: Stew, herring, cream sauces and all that hearty, heavy Dutch fare is what’s for lunch at , a traditional and tremendously gracious little eatery in the center of the city. For a laugh, to watch the restaurant’s hopped up promotional video. The restaurant itself, with its delftware, wood-paneling and traditional shaded lamps, is much more dignified and serene than this odd little movie suggests.

2 p.m. - 5 p.m.: Due to ongoing renovations, much of the famed is closed until 2008. However, you will be able to see some of the museum’s masterworks in the Phillip’s wing, most notably Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch which was brutally attacked and slashed in 1975 (it’s since been restored). Stop briefly at the Rijksmuseum to pay your respects to these works, and then head to the , which contains over 200 paintings and sketches, donated by the artist’s brother Theo to the Dutch government. Set forth in chronological order, the museum chronicles both the maturation of Van Gogh’s talent, and his sharp descent into madness. There are few museums in the world as compelling.

You’d have to grab lunch and eat it along the way, but it’s easy enough to take a quick side trip from Amsterdam to , just 11 miles west of the city. You come here primarily to visit one of Holland’s greatest museums, , which is set in a 1608 merchant’s home, like so many of the ones Hals was paid to adorn. Here you’ll find 11 of the master’s works, portraits primarily, as well as a topnotch collection of housewares from the period.

6 p.m. - 8 p.m.: Just as curry has replaced fish and chips as the real national dish of the UK, when the Dutch want a celebratory meal they go out for rijsttafel. A multi-course Indonesian feast, it achieved popularity in the 17th century when Holland was still a major colonial power and Indonesia was one of its many overseas “fiefdoms”. Meaning literally “rice table”, a rijsttafel meal consists of 17 to 30 small dishes -- spicy meats, vegetables in peanut sauce, fried bananas, egg rolls, rice and more -- which hit the table all at once. The diner then gingerly picks his way through this smorgasbord of sterno-heated little plates. is arguably the most popular restaurant in town for rijstaffel, which is served here in a very Indonesian, batik-laden setting.

8 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Admit it: you know you want to see Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light district. I recommend making your way here earlier in the evening rather than later, and keeping a sharp watch on your pocketbook, as pickpockets are a problem in this part of town.

Prostitution, as you probably know, is legal in Holland, and in Amsterdam much of it centers around the Oudezijds Voorburgwal (and as far north as the Oude Kerk), where women stand in windows, scantily clad, and tap or pound on the glass when potential customers pass by. There are also peep shows, video stores, dark bars and lots and lots of neon lights. Depressing, alluring, outrageous…whatever your take on the scene here, it’s unique to Amsterdam and a sight to behold. Marijuana is also widely available in Amsterdam, and many enhance their evening stroll with a trip to a smoking coffeehouse where they either ingest a “space cake” (a Dutch form of “pot brownie”) or smoke hash or cannabis.

10 p.m. - on: End the day in a bruine kroeg or “brown café”, the genial, historic bars where Amsterdam residents have been going for centuries (some have been around since Rembrandt’s day) to kick back and converse with friends. You’ll know them by the lacy half-curtains in the window; the grimy, brown interiors (from all of the tobacco smoke); and the sounds of laughter and conversation echoing out the door. Down a foam-topped beer (the bartender will slice off the top with a wet knife before handing it off) and you’ll fit right in.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer Guidebooks which debut in bookstores this summer.

Anne Frankhuis,  Prinsengracht 263 at Westermarkt; phone 020/556-7105; Open: Apr-Aug daily 9 a.m. - 9 p.m.; Sept-Mar daily 9 a.m. - 7 p.m. 

Admission 7.50€ ($9.40) adults, 3.50€ ($4.40) children 10-17, children under 10 free.

There are a number of canal boat companies plying the waters of Amsterdam, most of which pick up customers from rondvaart or “excursion” piers at regular locations around town. The easiest areas to pick up a boat are along Damrak and Prins Hendrikkade near Centraal Station, on Rokin near Muntplein, and at Leidseplein. Tours leave every 15 to 30 minutes during the summer season (9 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.), every 45 minutes in winter (10 a.m. - 4 p.m.). A basic 1-hour tour is around 8.50€ ($11) for adults, 5.75€ ($7.20) for children ages 4 to 12, and free for children under 4 though prices will shift, company to company.

Haesje Claes, Spuistraat 273-275at Spui, in the center; phone 020/624-9998;

Rijksmuseum, Jan Luijkenstraat 1 at Museumplein; phone 020/647-7000; Open daily 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.. Admission 9€ ($11) adults, under 19 free.

Van Gogh Museum, Paulus Potterstraat 7 at Museumplein; phone 020/570-5200; Admission 13€ ($16) adults, 2.50€ ($3.10) children 13-17, children under 13 free. Open Sat-Thurs 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Fri 10 a.m. - 10 p.m.

To get to Haarlem, hop a train from the Centraal Station. The trip will take just 15 minutes (making it much faster than the bus) and trains depart on the hour and half hour. The Frans Hals Museum is located at Groot Heiligland 62; phone 023/511-5775; It’s open Tues-Sat 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Sun and holidays 1-5 p.m. Admission is 5.40€ ($6.75) adults, 4€ ($5) seniors, free for those under 19.

Sama Sebo, Pieter Cornelisz Hooftstraat 27  close to the Rijksmuseum; phone 020/662-8146. Closed Sundays.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer Guidebooks which debut in bookstores this summer.