Why go now?
The Dutch capital may be small, with just a tenth of the population of London, but it packs a powerful cultural punch. Amsterdam is emerging from deep midwinter with a fresh, creative boost in the shape of new hotels and attractions and two ambitious new exhibitions at the Rijksmuseum (1).
Amsterdam Schiphol has better links with the UK than anywhere else on the planet, with connections from two dozen airports from Exeter to Inverness. The main carriers are KLM (klm.com), easyJet (easyJet.com) and Flybe (flybe.com). Frequent trains (€4.70 each way) from Schiphol airport take 18-24 minutes to reach Centraal Station (2). But be warned, the queue for tickets can be very long and there's no way for tourists to buy in advance online. The fast solution is to find the Holland Tourist Information office (hard to find, between the train station and baggage belt 8) and buy a transport pass valid for one, two or three days for €15, €20 or €25 respectively. It is valid for the airport train link and all public transport in Amsterdam.
Get your bearings
Centraal Station (2) is planted north of the city's heart, on the south bank of the broad IJ river. The main tourist office (00 31 20 201 8800, amsterdamtourist.nl; open 9am to 7pm daily) and transport office (open weekends 10am to 6pm, weekdays 7am to 9pm) share a building opposite the main entrance. The original medieval city straggles south from here to scruffy Dam Square (3). But Amsterdam owes its unique shape to the Canal Ring, a ripple of artificial waterways flanked by handsome townhouses, with cobbled streets united by bridges. To the west, is the former Huguenot district of Jordaan; to the south, the cultural concentration of the Museum Quarter; and to the east, the rejuvenated docklands.
For decades, new arrivals at Amsterdam Centraal faced a row of unappealing places to stay. While the area is still a touch seedy, step inside the Art'Otel (4) at Prins Hendrikkade 33 (00 33 20 719 7200; artotelamsterdam.com) and you find a high-style, hi-tech oasis of indulgence. Besides enticing bedrooms (€278 double for two weekends' time, with breakfast at the adjoining 5&33), the public areas are a joy with one of Amsterdam's smartest bars, and the hotel's own art gallery.
On the Canal Ring, there's the Pulitzer (5) which relaunched this month at Keizersgracht 224 (00 31 20 523 5235; pulitzeramsterdam.com). Twenty five canal houses have been made into a chic, character hotel with hidden gardens. Even the (temporary) lobby is dressed with Golden Age art. In the historic heart of Amsterdam, rooms are a mix of shapes and sizes; a prepaid “Classic” double costs €234 per night for next weekend; breakfast €25 for two.
If you wish to be first in line for museums, consider the friendly Owl Hotel (6) at Roemer Visscherstraat 1 (00 31 20 618 9484; owl-hotel.nl), where doubles start at about €140, room only (better deals may be had).
Take a hike
Behind St Nicholas Basilica (7), start along Zeedijk from its northern entrance. This is the city's oldest street and marks the first successful attempt to keep the water at bay, with a dam on the Amstel river. Today, it is flanked by small businesses with a world's worth of cuisines.
While a touch tawdry these days, there are surprises such as the He Hua Buddhist temple (8), which welcomes visitors. The street joins Nieuwmarkt, dominated by De Waag (9) – the oldest surviving city gate.
Continue along St Antoniesbreestraat, looking up at the menacing arch that leads to Zuiderkerk (10). Pause for a coffee at the Café de Sluyswacht (11). Across the road is the Rembrandthuis (12), where the master painter lived for 19 years (Jodenbreestraat 4; 10am to 6pm daily; 00 31 20 520 0400; rembrandthuis.nl; admission €13).
On the west side of the house, follow the canal and cross Waterlooplein to the modern City Hall (13), which has a long internal boulevard with an impressive timeline about the city's rise, decline and rise again. It also has the “datum line” for Amsterdam's water level, which is now a global reference, and a 26m-long relief showing the height of various parts of the Netherlands.
The open spaces outside the City Hall (13) host the Waterlooplein flea market, which is at its busiest, and most fascinating, on Saturday mornings when the souvenir stalls are augmented by antiques vendors, booksellers and household junk.
At the other end of the retail spectrum, stand on the corner of Van Baerlestraat and P C Hooftstraat (14) and you'll see dozens of designer stores down both streets.
Lunch on the run
De Laatse Kruimel (15) at Langebrugsteeg 4 (00 31 20 423 0499) translates as The Last Crumb. In a crowded bakery, with fixtures created from pallets, delicious sandwiches and fruit shakes (both from €3.50) are served with flair and friendliness. The signature sandwich is a stolwijker (old Dutch cheese, with hazelnut pesto and tomato, on spelt bread, €5.10).
Take a ride
From the northern exit of Centraal Station (2), cross to the terminal for the IJ Buiksloterweg Ferry. Every few minutes, it sails across to Waterland – a serene area, steeped in tradition, with an eyecatching attraction in the shape of Eye (16), subtitled the New Film Museum in Amsterdam (00 31 20 589 1400; eyefilm.nl; 10am to 7pm daily, Fridays to 9pm; €10). It includes four cinemas, and all kinds of tricks to entertain and enthral the eye.
The Eye Bar Restaurant (00 31 20 589 1402; eyebarrestaurant.nl), part of the Eye (16), has a wide-screen view over the river to the city, to be enjoyed with a very good house wine (€3.95).
Back on the other side of the IJ, you can retreat into the Golden Age of the 17th and 18th centuries, when the city grew rich, powerful and indulgent. The Café Papeneiland (17), at the corner of the Prinsengracht and the Brouwersgracht (00 31 20 624 1989) is an original “brown café”, so-called because of an interior deeply stained by centuries of smoking.
Dine with the locals
Restaurant Anna (18) at Warmoesstraat 111 (00 31 20 428 1111; restaurantanna.nl; 6pm to midnight daily, except Sunday) was created from a pair of back-to-back houses, and is now the longest restaurant in Amsterdam, at 40 metres, end to end. Despite its location in the Red Light District, the interior is chic and the dishes exquisite.
The best deal is the chance to sample four dishes that the chef chooses for you for €47.50, combined with four set wines for €27.50; formidable gastronomy for a total of €75. Book in advance.
Sunday morning: go to church
The buds are beginning to open at the Begijnhof (19), a polygonal oasis in the city with gabled houses – and two impressive churches. It was created for pious Catholic women who cared for the elderly. You can reach it from a doorway on Spui or through the entrance on Begijnenstraat.
The Begijnhofkapel, built in 1671, has deliberately anonymous doors (Catholicism was oppressed in the 17th century) but, once inside, the area fans out to reveal an opulent interior. Sunday mass at 10am in Dutch (11.15am in French).
Directly opposite stands one of the city's finest Protestant places of worship: the Engelskerk, which was adopted by Presbyterians in 1607 and is now part of the Church of Scotland. The pulpit has panels decorated by a young Piet Mondriaan. Sunday service is at 10.30am.
Out to brunch
ArtDeli (20) occupies a magnificent series of rooms at Rokin 93 (00 31 20 370 5624; art-deli.com; from 10am daily except Mondays). The divides between café, restaurant and gallery are divinely blurred. You can choose from soups, sandwiches and salads, as well as cold-pressed juices (€5.50).
A walk in the park
While the flower market (21) is mostly occupied selling bulbs and seeds (from tulips to marijuana), the best green space to enjoy is the Museumplein – where the spectacular new architecture of the Stedelijk and Van Gogh museums is complemented by the 19th-century might of the Rijksmuseum (1).
Pre-book your €17.50 ticket for the Rijksmuseum (1) online (rijksmuseum.nl). The highlight of the permanent collection is the breathtaking Gallery of Honour, where The Shooting Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq – better known as Rembrandt's Night Watch – is flanked by other Old Masters.
Starting this weekend are two superb new exhibitions. Catwalk, designed by the Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf, features fashion from William III's housecoat to a post-war austerity dress made from aviators' fabric maps. The second exhibition is Breitner: Girl in Kimono, in which all 14 of George Hendrik Breitner's portraits of Geesje Kwak, painted between 1893 and 1896, are together for the first time.
Take a view
The new Bibliotheek Centrale (22) (Central Library; 10am to 10pm, free) has a splendid café on the seventh floor. Though the outdoor deck is closed until the end of March, you still get an excellent panorama and a sense of how the city defies the power of water.