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Amsterdam’s Historic Canals

The first time I visited Amsterdam was six years ago. I had this idea that the city only offered the Red Light District and illegal substances, neither of which I had interest in. So I hadn’t made the effort to get here earlier.

What I discovered is a city that I love to explore and get to know!

Now that I split my time between San Diego, Amsterdam, and the road, I try to always make time to continue my exploration of Amsterdam. To uncover the places which still hold the Dutch Golden Age charm.

(For those not inclined to remember historical time periods and details and random factoids… the Dutch Golden Age was during the seventeenth century. During that period they were the political and trading super power of the world. They ruled the seas, bankrolled kings, and lavished money on art and luxury.)

People often ask me to give them a list of must-sees when in Amsterdam. That list, of course, is long AND depends on your areas of interest. But here are five of my favorites that will help you get the ball rolling:

Taking a canal boat ride can be a fun way to see the city!

Number 1: Amsterdam!

Okay, that’s a cheat…  sigh. But it’s not that far off! Especially right now, in the summer. The colors, the architecture, the canals, the bridges, the people. Amsterdam is a beautiful town.

The heart of the beautiful town is the Canal Ring – a ring of man-made canals created when the city needed to expand in the sixteenth century. Known in Dutch as grachten, these canals are considered a historical monument onto themselves. (Recently awarded that status by UNESCO.) The buildings that line these waterways, with lyrical names like Prinsengracht and Herengracht, are typically Dutch architecture with gables and gorgeous brickwork. The area is actually not big – in few hours you can explore all the major canals and wind down to shop in the “Nine Streets” – an area of little boutiques and cute shops along the canals.

It’s one of the best parts of the city – to wonder these circular canals, stare at the buildings, notice the hooks where goods used to be hauled from the ships directly into what was then warehouses, cross the bridges, and revel in a walk into the past.

Number 2: The Begijnhof

Located just off one of modern Amsterdam’s busiest and bustling shopping streets, this incredibly peaceful and tranquil courtyard is a lovely spot to come for contemplation, quiet escape, and a moment away from the crowds.

Nestled in one of the oldest part of the city, this courtyard was built for the Beguine nuns (hence the name). The Beguine nuns were non-ordained nuns who focused their lives on good works and kindness to others. Often wealthy widows, the homes built for these single ladies all face the square, allowing us to see the charming details. To this day, to live in the square, you have to be a single woman. Men are not allowed to spend the night. The entrances to the Begijnhof are locked each evening to keep the ladies safe.

In the center of the square is a gorgeous church dating from the fifteenth century. Originally Catholic, it was closed during the Reformation, and re-opened later by English-speaking Protestants who lived in the neighborhood. They have celebrated more than four hundred years of services there in English.

Make sure to keep an eye out for the ‘hidden’ Catholic church that sits directly across from the Protestant church! (During the Reformation, Dutch Catholics were allowed to continue worship without fear of persecution, as long as it was not visible or ‘public.’ This led to the building of many ‘hidden’ churches.)

View from Cafe Doelen

Number 3: Café Doelen (Kloveniersburgwal 125, Amsterdam)

Cozy, comfy, cute – a café synonymous with the Dutch idea of gezelligheid (which roughly translates to cosy, fun, welcoming, warm. It’s a word with many meanings!)

Located on a corner that would have been outside the old city in the sixteenth century, it overlooks a beautiful antique metal bridge, the buildings of the University of Amsterdam, and one of the prettiest of the city’s grachten.

A great spot to sit outside during the warmer days and enjoy a beer while watching the crowds roll by, a lovely place to sit by the fireplace and enjoy a mint tea on the cooler days, eat a tosti and drink a beer on any day ending in ‘y’ – this is a café where you can slowly unwind. And the apple tart is a must!

Vondelpark on a sunny day

Number 4: Vondelpark

For those wanting a green break, a fun place to bike around, and a beautiful spot to have a pancake and a coffee – Vondelpark is perfect! Amsterdam’s version of Central Park, the park is over a hundred acres in the center of the city. There are biking and jogging paths, picnic areas, cafes, a theater, a film museum and towering trees. And don’t miss the late nineteenth-century houses that line the park! A ride around the park perimeter will make you dream about your next home purchase! (For more on Vondelpark, Click here!)

Puccini Chocolates :)

Number 5: Puccini’s (Staalstraat 17, Amsterdam)

Puccini’s – It may not officially be a sight to see, BUT here you will find my favorite chocolate shop! Delicate handmade bonbons as well as huge slabs of pure chocolate, beautiful displays and a lovely setting– this is a chocolate lover’s heaven! Be adventurous and try innovative flavors like dark chocolate with licorice. Not only is the shop charming, it’s a on an adorable pedestrian (read “bicycles allowed”) street lined with unique shops, cafes and restaurants. (This is just a couple blocks from Café Doelen – so stop here after your tosti and beer lunch for dessert!)

For more to see, more spots to eat, and more on Amsterdam itself, click here!)

This article was originally published in the Del Mar Times, October 2011

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