Why go now?
This most human of cities is at its most appealing right now, without the crowds that begin at Easter and stay through the summer. Spring is tulip time in Holland, and even the capital gets in on the act: the blooms are starting to appear at the fascinating Hortus Botanicus (1) at Plantage Middenlaan 2a (00 31 20 625 9021; en.dehortus.nl; 10am-5pm at weekends, from 9am on weekdays, admission €7.50). On 15 April an exhibition called "The Tulip, wild and tempting", opens here.
Amsterdam Centraal station (2) is just over four hours from London St Pancras, on Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) to Brussels Midi, where you change to a high-speed Thalys train; from £116 return. Eurostar also offers a ticket from £89 return connecting in Brussels to the conventional trains to Amsterdam.
Alternatively, fly from one of 19 UK airports to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, 10 miles south-west of the city centre. Trains from here to Centraal station (2) take about 20 minutes; €3.70 one-way, €6.30 return.
Get your bearings
The ancient heart of Amsterdam, developed from medieval times, is contained within an oval south-west of the river Ij, at the point where it meets the river Amstel. Built on an artificial island on the northern edge of the old city is the Centraal station (2), the arrival point for most visitors to the city, and the starting-point for many of the city's trams, buses and tourist boats. In a semi-circle around the old city is a series of canals; to the east are the docks, to the south-west, just beyond the outer, Singelgracht canal, is the Museum District; to the west Jordaan, a working-class district now popular with artists and students.
The main tourist office (00 31 20 201 8800; iamsterdam.com) is located opposite the station's main entrance; it opens 9am-6pm daily, until 5pm on Sundays.
This is the place to buy the I amsterdam card (iamsterdam.com), which offers unlimited public transport, a canal cruise and admission to 36 of Amsterdam's main museums. It costs €39 for 24 hours, €49 for 48 hours.
You can also buy an OV Chipcard ( ov-chipkaart.nl) here – the equivalent of London's Oyster stored-value card,making public transport cheaper.
At The Toren (3), a 17th-century canal house on one of Amsterdam's loveliest waterways (Keizersgracht 164; 00 31 20 622 6033; thetoren.nl), each of the 38 guest rooms is different – and although some feel cramped, they are all stylish. Doubles start at €147, with an extra €12 per person for an excellent buffet breakfast. It has a sister property, the three-star Hotel Sebastian's (4) (00 31 20 423 2342; hotelsebastians.nl) further along the same canal at number 15; here, doubles start at €80, and breakfast costs €10. Both these hotels require a minimum stay of two nights if you plan to stay on a Saturday. If you are not travelling as a couple, Hotel Belga (5), at Hartenstraat 8 (00 31 20 624 9080; hotelbelga.nl), has a good variety of rooms, some with shared bathrooms and others ensuite. Single rooms are available from €35 while a room for up to five people costs €125; the rates include breakfast.
Start early to beat the crowds. Amsterdam's Museum District has establishments devoted to diamonds, film, and even bar-tending: the House of Bols (6) is the world's oldest distillery ( houseofbols.com). But most people come to this part of the city to see three art museums – two of which, unfortunately, are in the midst of interminable refurbishment.
The finest Dutch masterpieces of the Rijksmuseum (7) (00 31 20 674 7000; rijksmuseum.nl; 9am-6pm daily; €12.50) are on display in the Philips Wing while the main building is renovated.
The contemporary Stedelijk (8) (00 31 20 573 2911; stedelijk.nl; 10am-5pm daily except Monday, to 10pm on Thursdays; €10) is also mid-refurb, but a temporary exhibition of works from its permanent collection has just opened.
The Van Gogh Museum (9) (00 31 20 570 5200; vangoghmuseum.nl) boasts the largest collection of the artist's work anywhere in the world, as well as work by other 19th-century painters. The temporary exhibition "Stepping out in Montmartre" is a collection of posters and prints evoking Paris at the time Van Gogh was painting there. The museum opens 10am-6pm daily, until 10pm on Friday, and admission costs €14.
Lunch on the run
In the old city there are lots of "brown cafes" – cosy bars that serve a full menu rather than merely snacks – so it's never hard to find somewhere for a quick lunch.
Try De Gaeper (10), at Staalstraat 4 ( degaeper.nl), for a choice of soup, omelettes, home-made meatballs and light fare.
The Negen Straatjes – "nine streets" – is a charming area between the canals that is full of boutiques, vintage stores, bookshops and other small emporia that are perfect for browsing in.
On the banks of the Singel, the daily flower market (11) is a good place to stock up on bulbs to take home.
If you prefer to do all your shopping under one roof, the smart Bijenkorf department store (12) on Dam Square has plenty of high-end brands and designer homewares.
Two minutes' walk from Dam Square is Bubbles and Wines (13) at Nes 37 ( bubblesandwines.com) – serving nearly 60 reasonably priced wines by the glass, plus plates of tapas. Next door but one is the Nes-cafe (nes-cafe.nl), a noisier establishment serving beer – and not an instant coffee in sight.
Dining with the locals
Head to the Jordaan district for a good choice of places to eat. Try 't Smalle Eten (14) at 24-26 Egelantiersstraat (00 31 20 625 5306; t-smalle.nl), a recently opened companion to 't Smalle bar on the same street. The menu is small, featuring simple dishes (French onion soup, steak Béarnaise), but prepared and served with panache.
Sunday morning: go to church
The Westerkerk (15) on Prinsengracht ( westerkerk.nl), one of Holland's oldest Protestant churches, was where the present Dutch queen married in 1946. It was built in the early 17th century by the then-city architect, Hendrick de Keyser, in a combination of stone and brick that is typical of Dutch Renaissance style. Rembrandt was buried here in a pauper's grave, although no one knows exactly where. A Sunday service in Dutch is at 10.30am.
Take a hike
Start at the Westerkerk (15) and explore the district known as the canal girdle, the 17th-century extension to an overcrowded medieval city. Wrapping around the city centre like threads of a spider's web, the three main canals – Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht - offer a fascinating snapshot of the city's history.
Close by is the Anne Frank House (16), a moving reminder of the impact of the Nazi occupation during the Second World War (00 31 20 556 7700; annefrank.org; 9am-9pm daily; €8.50). The young Anne Frank hid for two years in a secret annexe to the house.
Stroll by the water past the red-brick Bartolotti House (17), built in the Dutch Renaissance style in the 17th century for a wealthy merchant. Notice how the facade bends in parallel with the canal.
To find out what life is like on board one of the many houseboats moored on the canal, pop into the Houseboat Museum (18) at Prisengracht 296, a freighter-turned-home (houseboatmuseum.nl; 11am-5pm daily, €3.50).
De Bazel (19) stretches along Vijzelstraat from Herengracht to Keizersgracht – a striking Art Deco building that was once the home of the ABN-AMRO bank and now houses the city archives. Take the lift to the third floor and walk down again, admiring the wood-panelled staircase, stained glass and period tiles.
Contrast this with the Van Loon Museum (20) (00 31 20 624 5255; museumvanloon.nl; 11am-5pm daily except Tuesday; €8), built as a private house on Keizersgracht during the 1670s and furnished as it would have been during the 18th century. Behind is a formal garden, and beyond that is a coach house scheduled to open to the public this summer. End your walk on the Amstel river at the Magere Brug (21), the "skinny bridge".
Out to brunch
The walk ends close to the Art Deco surroundings of the Bar Lempicka (22) (00 31 20 622 0209; barlempicka.com) at Sarphatistraat 23. While the €11 breakfast of eggs, cheese, toast, croissant and orange juice is served only 10am-noon, you can order smoked salmon and cream cheese rolled in a copious Swedish flat bread (€7.75).
For a lighter alternative, head along the canal and order pastries at the Cafe Neva in the Hermitage (23) (00 31 20 530 7483; hermitage.nl) on the banks of the Amstel river. Then wander around the new exhibition, "Splendour and Glory", which opens today and showcases the artistic treasures of the Russian Orthodox church.
Take a ride
End your visit by getting one final perspective: exploring the city from the water. Holland International (00 31 20 625 3035; hir.nl) boats depart from Prins Hendrikkade (24) every 15 minutes between 9am and 6pm, then every half-hour until 10pm; trips cost €13. Alternatively, tickets for the glass-roofed, hop-on, hop-off Canal Bus (canal.nl) cost €22 for 24 hours, and you can stop as many times as you like.