There's no charge to wander past the stalls of the city’s wonderful floating flower market, the Bloemenmarkt (daily 9am–5pm, some stalls close on Sun), which extends along the southern bank of the Singel. Popular with locals and tourists alike, the market is one of the main suppliers of flowers to central Amsterdam, but its blooms and bulbs now share stall space with souvenir clogs, garden gnomes, Delftware and similar tat.
On the northeast edge of the city centre, Zeeburg has become one of the city’s most up-and-coming districts. Actually a series of artificial islands and peninsulas connected by bridges, the docks here date back to the end of the nineteenth century. By the early 1990s, the area was virtually derelict so the city council began a massive renovation, which has been going on for the past fifteen years or so. As a result, this is the fastest-developing part of Amsterdam, with a mixture of renovated dockside structures and new landmark buildings that give it a modern (and very watery) feel that’s markedly different from the city centre. The best way to explore is by bike.
A little gateway on the north side of the Spui leads into the Begijnhof, where a huddle of immaculately maintained old houses looks onto a central green. This is one of the city centre’s most beguiling sights, and totally free. It was founded in the fourteenth century as a home for the
– members of a Catholic sisterhood living as nuns, but without vows and with the right of return to the secular world.
Just wandering the length of the city’s best (daily except Sun 10am–5pm) is a fine way to pass the time. It stretches for over 1km between Ferdinand Bolstraat and Van Woustraat and is the largest in the city, with a huge array of stalls selling everything from raw-herring sandwiches to saucepans. Check out the ethnic shops that flank the market on each side, and the good-value Indian and Surinamese restaurants down the side streets.
Amsterdam is short of green spaces, which makes the leafy expanses of the Vondelpark, the city centre’s main park, one of its best attractions. The park possesses a wide variety of local and imported plants, an excellent rose garden, and a network of ponds and narrow waterways that are home to many sorts of wildfowl. There are other animals too: cows, sheep, hundreds of squirrels, plus a large colony of bright-green (and very noisy) parakeets. During the summer the park also regularly hosts free concerts and theatrical performances, mostly in its own specially designed open-air theatre.
The Amsterdam Museum, which occupies the rambling seventeenth-century buildings of the former municipal orphanage, surveys the city’s development from its origins as an insignificant fishing village to its present incarnation as a major metropolis and trading centre. You have to pay to enter the main museum, but this gallery, with its portraits of civic guards, is free.
Trapped in her house, Anne Frank liked to listen to the bells of the Westerkerk, just along Prinsengracht, until they were taken away to be melted down for the German war effort. The church still dominates the district, its 85-metre tower – without question Amsterdam’s finest – soaring graciously above its surroundings. The church was designed by Hendrick de Keyser and completed in 1631 as part of the general enlargement of the city, but whereas the exterior is all studied elegance, the interior is bare and plain.
Before World War II, many local Jews worked as diamond cutters and polishers, but there’s little sign of the industry hereabouts today, the Gassan Diamonds factory being the main exception. Daily free guided tours include a visit to the cutting and polishing areas, as well a gambol round Gassan’s diamond jewellery showroom.