When you stroll through the Rijksmuseum, 17th-century burghers peer at you, self-assured and dressed soberly, mostly in black. The first impression these portraits of the superrich give is that their subjects did not much care for ostentatious display. A closer look, however, reveals that their clothes are made of choice materials, embellished with the finest embroidery and dripping with precious pearls. Amsterdam is a bit like these portraits. The city centre, scored by a concentric system of canals, has no majestic squares. You will not find imposing avenues built for pomp and processions, or boulevards for sauntering about in your finery. The long and narrow facades and lean bridges are charming, but obviously planned with space-saving functionality in mind. But take some time to get to know it, and, within its modest and pragmatic proportions, Amsterdam yields a lavish variety of riches.

Canal boat © Jenny Camilleri
Canal boat
© Jenny Camilleri

Because of its size, it is possible to explore much of the city on foot or by short tram and metro rides. Hiring a bike is another option, provided your reflexes are swift enough to handle distracted tourists, impatient taxi drivers and daredevil cyclists. Whatever your means of transport, be sure to take in the sundry architectural styles, from the Golden Age canal houses, to the Renaissance Revival exemplified by the Central Station building, to the rounded corners and “ladder” windows of the Amsterdam School. Visiting one of the canal houses, such as the mayoral Willet-Holthuysen Museum, gives you a glimpse into the opulent rooms and gardens concealed behind the pretty gabled facades. In Amsterdam the ambience can change in seconds. One moment you’re part of the throng in Dam Square, taking in landmarks such as the Royal Palace, where no royals live, or Berlage’s Commodities Exchange. A few minutes later you find yourself tempted by the idiosyncratic shops in the Negen Straatjes (Nine Streets). Are you not at all in need of a pair of vintage Jackie O sunglasses or a jade amulet? You’ll probably find them here. Or forget shopping and sit down with a coffee and a scrummy pastry.

Plantage is a green and spacious neighbourhood with a genteel air. Leafy oases Artis Zoo, which is ablaze with flowers in spring and summer, and the botanical garden Hortus Botanicus, are located here. Tourists flock to the Museum Quarter for the Big Three art museums: the Rijksmuseum (Dutch Masters), the Van Gogh (Vincent and his coevals), and the Stedelijk (modern and contemporary art). This city is museum heaven. There are dozens of state-funded and private museums, displaying everything from Rembrandt (Rijks) to reticules (Museum of Bags and Purses). Visitors queue up daily to get into the house where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis. Book a time slot online a couple of weeks ahead if you don’t want to miss this emblematic Holocaust site. For photography and film buffs there are, respectively, FOAM and the EYE Film Institute. If you like your house to resemble a museum, head to Nieuwe Spiegelstraat for some antiques browsing.

De Pijp © Jenny Camilleri
De Pijp
© Jenny Camilleri
You can crown a day spent sightseeing with a gourmet dinner at one of Amsterdam’s Michelin-star restaurants. Of course, you can also eat well further down the price range. De Pijp (The Pipe), an ex-working class neighbourhood, now gentrified, offers affordable and ethnically diverse dining. Chances are the ingredients on your plate come from the nearby Albert Cuyp Market, which also offers street food to tame your lunchtime munchies. The Dutch are not big on warm lunches, preferring sandwiches at midday, but lunch options in the city keep increasing. Museum restaurants offer some of the best lunch menus, and many are accessible without an entrance ticket. The ones at EYE and NEMO Science Museum have spectacular views. Amsterdam also has a small-scale Chinatown, around Zeedijk Street, where you can enjoy dim sum and other Chinese food.

Besides being a city of museums, this is also a city of music. Whatever genre and vibe you prefer, there’s a venue for you: pop concerts and dance events at notable halls such as Melkweg and Paradiso, big-scale pop concerts at the Ziggo Dome and the Heineken Music Hall, and jazz and improv at the Bimhuis. The queen of classical music temples is the Concertgebouw, home base of the celebrated Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and one of the busiest concert halls in the world. The Main Hall, in clean neo-classical style, has a smaller sister, the Recital Hall, an intimate space for chamber music and song recitals. When checking classical events listings, do not overlook the Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ, which is architecturally welded to the Bimhuis. Performances there span most classical genres, with a big dose of contemporary music, plus jazz, electronic and world music.

Nemo rooftop © Jenny Camilleri
Nemo rooftop
© Jenny Camilleri
Another beautiful theatre is Carré, which opened in 1887 as a winter circus theatre. It presents plays, musicals and stand-up comedy (in Dutch) and pop concerts, but also opera and ballet. The national opera and ballet companies perform mostly at Dutch National Opera and Ballet. Thanks to its capacious glass-walled foyer, patrons can gaze on the Amstel river during intermissions. Every June these venues and others buzz with the excitement of the Holland Festival. Expect important artists, world premieres, genre fusing and cutting-edge performances in a programme that comprises theatre, music, opera, dance and visual arts.

Amsterdam is a year-round tourist magnet, and it seems that public works projects are always in progress somewhere.  Its streets hum with traffic and an endless fleet of boats and barges cleaves its canals. Ambling tourists and hurrying locals have to skirt the café tables clogging the pavements. Yet it is also possible to savour the city in repose. There are hidden refuges, such as the Hoftuin courtyard on Nieuwe Herengracht. Early birds are rewarded with a peaceful Vondelpark, the city’s most popular green spot, and half-empty museums. The quiet lasts longest on Sunday mornings, the best time to watch the city wake up slowly. Once it’s up and about, you can decide which facets of its rich personality you want to encounter.