Always a popular choice for a quick city break, the Netherlands' cultural hot spot is now abuzz with all the colour and excitement of the Gay Pride festival

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Summer in Europe's most tolerant and indulgent city is about to become even hotter. Tomorrow, the annual Gay Pride festival begins. Thousands of beautiful men and women will converge on the self-styled "gay capital of Europe" to celebrate their sexuality. For details of events, call 00 3120 620 8807 or visit www.amsterdampride.nl.

The city will be full of life until the closing ceremony on Sunday evening. Most events are open to visitors of any persuasion, with a few exceptions, such as Sunday night's Tea Dance at It (Amstelstraat 24, from 8pm, admission €15/£11). Whatever your orientation, a visit to Amsterdam will refresh you: grand canals and noble courtyards coexist with cool locals and visitors.

DOWN PAYMENT

Amsterdam is easy to reach from almost anywhere in the UK. You can fly on Basiq Air (00 3120 206 8490, www.basiqair.com) from Stansted; British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester; BMI (0870 60 70 555, www.flybmi.com) from Heathrow; Bmibaby (0870 264 2229, www.bmibaby.com) from East Midlands; easyJet (0870 600 0000, www.easyJet.com) from Belfast, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Liverpool and Luton; FlyBE (08705 676 676, www.flybe.com) from Southampton; Jet2 (0870 737 8282, www.jet2.com) from Leeds/Bradford; KLM UK (08705 074 074, www.klmuk.com) from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heathrow, Humberside, Leeds/Bradford, London City, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich and Teeside; and MyTravelLite (08701 564 564, www.mytravellite.com) from Birmingham. Fares start at around £60-£80 return, though at weekends prices rise sharply.

Trains run frequently from Schiphol airport to Amsterdam's Centraal Station, taking 20 minutes and costing €3.10 (£2.30) each way. For the rail option from London, see "Deals of the Week" on the opposite page for details of the £69 ticket.

INSTANT BRIEFING

Centraal Station is the hub of the semi-circular ripple of concentric 17th-century canals that define the heart of Amsterdam: Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. The main gay areas are in the centre: the northern end of Warmoesstraat, the western half of Reguliersdwarsstraat, and Kerkstraat on either side of Leidsestraat.

There is a pair of tourist offices at the station, one on platform two (open 8am-7.45pm from Monday to Saturday), the other in a wooden building opposite the main station entrance, open 9am-5pm daily; for advice on going Dutch, call 00 3170 370 5705 or visit www.holland.com.

The city has a good network of trams, plus a fairly useless underground railway, but the area covered by this guide is compact and walkable.

REST ASSURED

Amsterdam is chronically short of hotels. At weekends - especially when special events are taking place - beds are scarce and prices are high. Blakes, created by Anouska Hempel at Keizersgracht 384 (00 3120 530 2010; www.blakesamsterdam.com), is the most indulgent central hotel; a double room costs €387 (£280), with breakfast an extra €8 (£5.70) per person. A cheaper and equally interesting location is the Hotel de Filosoof. It occupies a series of townhouses at Anna Vondelstraat 6 (00 3120 683 3013, www.hotelfilosoof.nl). Each of the 38 rooms is individually decorated; a double, with breakfast, starts at €111 (£80).

Of the hotels aimed at gay visitors, the Aero at Kerkstraat 49 (00 3120 622 7728, www.aerohotel.nl) has a good location, friendly staff and reasonable rates: starting at €70 (£50) for a double with shared facilities, increasing to €100 (£72) with own bath/shower; these include breakfast downstairs at the Camp Café from 8am-noon. The Aero is a preener's heaven, since it has an absurd number of mirrors.

MUST SEE

Few cities are as rich in art as Amsterdam, which has three magnificent collections in the Museum Quarter and dozens of smaller galleries. At the first museum you visit, you can opt to buy a Museum Year Card for €35 (£25). This earns you free admission to many museums in the Netherlands for a year (though you may need to pay extra for special exhibitions). You begin to show a profit after visiting about half-a-dozen museums.

Start at the Rijksmuseum (00 31 20 674 7047, www.rijksmuseum.nl) to make the most of the place before it shuts for five years in December. Rembrandt's Night Watch is the centrepiece of the collection, but the breadth of Old Masters is staggering. Even Vincent van Gogh gets a look in, with The Cornfield and an 1887 self-portrait. The museum opens 10am-5pm daily, admission €9 (£7).

Close by, at Paulus Potterstraat 7, the Van Gogh Museum (00 3120 570 5252, www.vangoghmuseum.nl) is the biggest draw in the Netherlands. To enjoy Irises and more than 200 other works in relative solitude, get there late in the day; it's open 10am-6pm daily, admission €9 (£7),

The third great museum is the Stedelijk, almost next door to the Van Gogh at Paulus Potterstraat 13 (00 3120 573 2911, www.stedelijkmuseum.nl). This contains some of the most challenging contemporary art in Europe, including works by Damien Hirst, Gilbert & George and Tracey Emin. It opens 11am-5pm daily, admission €6 (£4.50). If you don't have time for all this, make up for it at the airport on the way home; the Rijksmuseum has a branch at Schiphol, after passport control between piers E and F.

Gay Pride events will be staged all over the city centre, but the main highlight is likely to be the Canal Parade that takes place on Saturday afternoon from 2-6pm. The banks of the eastern portions of Prinsengracht and the Amstel will be crowded, with about 250,000 spectators watching a series of floats that really do float. There is also a weekend-long Cultural Festival centred on the Homomonument at Westermarkt - a triangle of pink granite based on the symbol that gay men and women were made to wear during the Nazi occupation.

MUST BUY

Two short streets, each stuffed with intriguing retail opportunities, stand out. On Hazenstraat, Cats and Things (at No 26, 00 3120 428 3028) often has a real, sleeping feline in the window, guarding a cornucopia of cat accessories; elsewhere on the street, there are art galleries and delicatessens. On Runstraat, amid some top-class bakeries and cheese-makers, TandenWinkel on Runstraat 5 (00 3120 623 3443) is distinguished by a miniature big wheel, on which the "passengers" are toothbrushes. This shop stocks all your dental desires.

Usual shopping hours are 11am-6pm from Monday to Saturday, though some stores open at 10am during the week, and/or close on Monday mornings.

MUST EAT

For a quick lunch, Amsterdam has many truly terrible snack bars. Bagels & Beans, at the corner of Keizersgracht and Leidsegracht (00 3120 330 5508, www.bagelsbeans.nl), is not one of them. It also has amusing opening hours: 9.59am-6.02pm at weekends, 9.28am-5.31pm the rest of the week. The beans in question are of the coffee variety.

The Dutch tend to dine relatively early; restaurants are busiest between about 7-8pm, and few kitchens remain open much after 10pm. Many places close all day on Sunday.

For fish on any day of the week, visit Lucius, a long, narrow and bustling seafood bistro at Spuistraat 247 (00 4420 624 1831, www.lucius.nl); open 5pm-midnight daily.

For indulgence, try Le zinc... et les autres, a rustic restaurant at Prinsengracht 999 (00 3120 622 9044, www.lezinc.nl), where you can enjoy French country cooking in beautiful surroundings; 5.30pm-11pm daily, except Sundays.

One of Amsterdam's more intimate restaurants is Zabar's at Van Baerlestraat 49 (00 3120 679 8888), close to the main museums. The Mediterranean menu features seafood and vegetarian dishes, with the odd Galician adventure. It is open daily from 5.30pm-11pm.

The 17th-century Amstel church on the square known as Amstelveld 12 has become Moko, a stylish bar/restaurant with a sizeable gay clientele (00 3120 626 1199, www.moko.nl); open 12.30am-1am daily.

INTO THE NIGHT

The visitor, whether straight or gay, is spoiled for choice. Close to the station at Zeedijk 20, the collection of male dolls in natty outfits in the window of the Queen's Head (00 3120 420 2475, www.queenshead.nl) gives the flavour of the place. For those on a budget, this is also one of the cheaper venues at which to sip Heineken. There are two big clubs facing each other on Reguliersdwarsstraat: many people start at April at No 37 (00 3120 662 9958) and later move across to Exit at No 42 (00 3120 625 8788).

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