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Amsterdam: Brothels, barges, bikes and more

As the second leg of Matt's Where in the World tour takes him to the capital of the Netherlands, TODAY travel editor Peter Greenberg takes you there, too.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, calls itself the “Capital of Inspiration.” There are perhaps a few hundred destinations around the world that may hold claim to that title. But what I especially like about Amsterdam is how manageable it is, and if that creates inspiration to see more of a great city, then Amsterdam definitely qualifies for that title.

It’s an extremely navigable city by walking and via the intricate canal system. Cultural icons include tulips, windmills, marijuana and hashish, but this city has a lot more to offer than that. The city boasts several can’t-miss experiences such as the Anne Frank House and the Rembrandt and Van Gogh museums, and of course, you must at least stroll by the red light district just to say you did.

Getting thereThe peak of tourist season is June through August, which is exactly when you shouldn’t go. Smart travelers go in March/April and November/December, when there are fewer crowds. (One of the great advantages of going around the holiday season is the Christmas markets.) And because of the city’s temperate climate I’ve never been truly cold there.

The other good thing about Amsterdam is how easy it is to get there. Kayak.com’s best price for nonstop flights in mid-September from JFK to Schiphol: $804 on Icelandair, $820 on Swissair/United, $888 on Alitalia — but those fares will almost certainly come down in early August when the airlines announce their fall fare sales. Even then, no one says you have to fly there nonstop.

From Europe, you can fly EasyJet to Amsterdam from Belfast, Edinburgh, Geneva, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Nice. (Competitor Ryanair goes way outside of the city to Eindhoven.) Or buy a Eurailpass and take the train to Amsterdam, and use the city as just one of your many stops during your trip.

TransportationOne important note: Taxis can be very expensive in Amsterdam, and the good news about flying into Schiphol (an excellent airport) is that there's a train station within the airport — so you can hop downtown without having to get a bank loan. There’s also an inexpensive airport bus that will take you downtown as well. But once in the city, do as the locals do — hop on a bike. It’s one of the best ways to see the city.

Check out a company called Bike Tours Direct. This company doesn’t operate its own tours, but represents European bike tour companies — the good news is that the prices tend to be lower than U.S.-based tour companies. They offer several bike-and-boat tours of Holland and Belgium (both guided and self-guided). For example, you can do an eight-day cycling tour from Amsterdam to Brussels, starting at roughly $968. Or you could opt for an eight-day tour of Brussels to Amsterdam by bike and boat, sailing through Flemish cities like Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges, and then biking to Amsterdam along the banks of the river Vecht (from about $1,180).  877-462-2423; biketoursdirect.com

You can also sail into Amsterdam. There’s the “Tulips and Windmills” 10-day package cruise, which take you past tulip fields and other Dutch landmarks and into Belgium, returning to Amsterdam. Starts at $2,562 (only offered in the springtime). 800-304-9616; vikingrivercruises.com

LodgingYou can find some affordable hotels in the city's central area (Centrum), but also check out

the red light district (it’s so much a part of Amsterdam life that staying there does not represent a safety risk) and the working-class-yet-trendy neighborhood of de Pijp. Avoid the expensive Museum Quarter. Important note: If you’re staying in an older, non-chain hotel, keep in mind that they can have very steep staircases with no elevators.

Golden Tulip Amsterdam Center: This hotel is located very centrally, with 239 rooms and free Wi-Fi. Starting rates: mid-May, about $328 per room; mid-September, about $278 per room

Hotel Aalborg: This is a family-owned hotel with 36 rooms. Recently renovated, it is located in the de Pijp neighborhood and has plenty of restaurants and shops nearby. Starting rates: mid-May about $227; mid-September, about $295. Sarphatipark 106; 31-20-676-0310; aalborg.nl

Lloyd Hotel Amsterdam: This hotel is located close to the city center in the Eastern Docklands Area, a trendy part of town known for its architecture and nightlife. The hotel has 117 rooms ranging from one to five stars (and a big variety in price). Starting rates, all dates: one-star shared bathroom, about $172; two-star about $266; three-star, about $375; five-star, about $563

CultureThe Rembrandt museum: Yes, there are some iconic must-sees, like the Rembrandt museum. Although the museum houses masterpieces by artists other than Rembrandt, in my experience you go there to see "The Night Watch," Rembrandt’s stunning work. As you walk past the huge painting, I challenge you to keep your eyes on the eyes on the face of the painting. As you move, the eyes magically seem to move with you and the stare is, well, locked. Pretty amazing.

Electric Ladyland: But that is by no means your only museum stop. Head to Electric Ladyland, a funky museum of fluorescent art, where everything glows in black light. You’ll find paintings and sculptures created from luminescent minerals — these materials appear to be dull gray under normal light, and burst into brilliant colors under UV lighting. Tweede Leliedwarsstraat 5, 1015 TB; 20 42 03 776; electric-lady-land.com

Het Concertgebouw: If you’re in Amsterdam on a Wednesday, then you’re in luck. Go to the Het Concertgebouw concert hall for a free lunchtime concert. These are usually orchestral rehearsals for that evening’s performance that are open to the public. These take place from September to June and tickets are available on the day of the concert.

The Singel Floating Flower Market: This market is open all four seasons, and dates back to 1862. If you can’t make it to the Keukenhof Gardens (although you should!), this is a place to find your favorite flowers in one of the oldest canals in Amsterdam. Corner of the Singel canal and the Koningsplein

The Albert Cuyp Market: This stop has more than 300 stalls offering everything from fruits and vegetables, cheese, spices and dry goods such as clothes and makeup. You’ll have to dig around to find the real gems, but prices are incredibly low. Open Monday-Saturday; Located on Albert Cuypstraat in de Pijp

The canalsYou can literally stray off the beaten path by cruising around Holland’s extensive canal system on a barge. Sail through the city’s canals, or venture even further into coastal villages, the “cheese towns” of Edam or Gouda, or to the world-famous Keukenhof Gardens. These small boats (they usually sleep between four and 12 people) meander at about four miles an hour; you can walk or bike along the canal, or head deeper into the countryside.

Self-drive barges aren’t nearly as difficult as they may sound — no license is required, and you can get basic instructions on how to navigate the barge and maneuver through the locks (which regulate water levels). The barges are equipped with bedding and utensils, plus maps and guidebooks on interesting sites, restaurants and shops.

Crown Blue Line charters self-drive barges in Holland from mid-March through the end of October. During the low season (April-May and September-October), you can rent out the barge for as little as two days; during the high season (July and August), barges are available for a week or more. Prices range from $930 a week for a small barge that sleeps four, to $4,640 during the high season for a barge that sleeps up to 10. 888-355-9491; crownblueline.com

Or, you can take all the work out of it and hop on a luxury “hotel barge,” which is fully crewed. Though not as family-friendly as a self-drive barge (the luxury aspect tends to exclude young kids), this is an easy way to indulge in top-notch food and wine while sailing through the country. The Barge Connection has weeklong barge cruises ranging from $2,390 to $4,800 per person. 888-550-8580, bargeconnection.com

FoodEvery time I go to Amsterdam I stop at a restaurant called Dynasty for great Indonesian food. But Amsterdam is also about drinking. Try the Café ‘t Arendsnest, which serves only Dutch beer. And it’s not all about Amstel and Heineken … there about 150 different types of local beers here. If you’re lucky enough to see the owner Peter there, make sure you stop him for a chat — he’s a certified beerologist. Herengracht 90, 1015BS Amsterdam; 20 421 20 57

Noordermarkt (Northern Market) is Amsterdam’s longtime local tradition (it dates back to the 1600s!). On Monday morning it’s a flea market; on Saturdays it’s an organic farmer’s market, with organic fruits and vegetables, candles, oils and more. Westerstraat 30, Centrum

The Pancake Bakery is located in the middle of three 17th-century warehouses. Try out traditional treats like pancakes filled with jam or Nutella, or more exotic flavors like bacon and banana. Prinsengrach 191, pancake.nl

Words of wisdom
Remember what I said about taxi costs in Amsterdam? I’m serious. Instead, invest in the I Amsterdam Card — it includes public transportation, a canal cruise and free admission to 24 museums, including the Van Gogh Museum. But it costs more than $50 per person for a 24-hour pass and $64 for a 48-hour one, meaning that you’ll have to pack in plenty of activity for it to pay off. (Although it pays off the minute you avoid that taxi ride in from the airport!)

If you’re a first-time visitor, then log on to Like-a-local.com. Founded in Amsterdam, this organization hooks up visitors with locals for experiences such as a home-cooked dinner, visiting galleries, spending a day sailing the canals, or strolling through markets and then cooking a meal together. Experiences cost about $30-$50 per person.

One important caution about the red light district as well as drugs: The city is has more than its fair share of prostitutes, marijuana and hashish. Amsterdam distinguishes itself — so to speak — in that all three are tolerated by the government. But that doesn’t mean that you should immediately embrace the “when in Rome” approach. These are all personal judgment calls based on your own code of ethics/morality.

Should you decide to indulge, don’t assume there aren’t rules — there are — and let’s not forget a healthy dose of common sense. So consider yourself warned for all three: If you’re so inclined, buy only in controlled zones, and be sure to leave your camera back at the hotel.

And here’s another little secret: On the way out, if you happen to be flying home, there’s mini-museum at Schiphol.