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Off the Brochure: Amsterdam, Netherlands

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Dutch clogs wooden shoesWhen you think of Amsterdam, what comes to mind?

Tulips, windmills and wooden shoes … or pot and prostitution?

Whatever your interest, Amsterdam is a warm and welcoming city that appeals to all types of travelers … and yes, it can be a family-friendly destination.

What better way to immerse yourself in a city than to, well, live like a local?

World traveler Marcela Swenson, a longtime friend of PeterGreenberg.com, recently returned from a jaunt to Amsterdam and tipped us off to a program called Like a Local. This uniquely European experience (there are also branches in Paris, Lisbon and Madrid, among others) pairs up travelers with locals who share the secrets of their home city.

With Eat! Like a Local, you actually can dine at the home of an Amsterdam resident—just talk to Dafne and Sanne, local graphic designers who prepare three-course meals for visitors in their 1930s home, while sharing insider secrets to Amsterdam’s hipster arts scene. If that’s not enough, Sanne also leads his own private city tours.

Or, if you’d prefer to hear the sweet sounds from a Dutch guitarist, spend an evening at Richard’s place, where he serves up a full meal and shares his knowledge of Amsterdam’s music scene. Prices vary by host but start at about $30 per person, plus a booking fee.

Already have dinner plans? You can also visit www.like-a-local.com to find locals who will take you out for the day, whether it’s a canal cruise, a gay pub crawl or shopping tour.

CAFÉ CULTURE

Amsterdam Green CafesWe can’t talk about Amsterdam without mentioning the coffee shops, so here goes. Contrary to popular belief, marijuana isn’t legal in Amsterdam; it’s simply tolerated in quantities less than five grams. And, the big news is that all public outlets are officially going smoke-free as of next April.

That’s right– you’ll still be able to buy pot in the coffee shops, but you can’t smoke (tobacco) in them! So, that’s reason enough for us to recommend a couple of coffee houses that don’t sell drugs.

If you’re simply looking for a cup of coffee, you want to head to a koffiehuis.

If you want a side of marijuana with your coffee, you want to find a koffie shop. Amsterdam boasts plenty of little cafés that are warm and inviting, without a bong on your table.

If you can’t get enough café culture, check out Geels & Co Koffie en Theemuseum, a tea and coffee museum where you’ll learn the history of the Dutch East India Company and the region’s relationship with these products. Warmoesstraat 67; 20 624 0683

Got a craving for something harder than coffee? Just ask for a “brown café” (bruine kroeg), a cozy, traditional Dutch pub, or a “beer café.”

Check out 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. The traditional wooden décor and friendly bartenders who happily offer beer tasting sessions make this a favorite haunt for both visitors and locals. The bar’s name translates into “the eagle’s nest,” which is a riff off the owner’s name, Peter van der Arend (he chose it in honor of his grandparents). If you’re lucky enough to see Peter there, make sure you stop him for a chat—he’s a certified beerologist. Herengracht 90, 1015BS Amsterdam; 20 421 20 57

DUTCH DINING

While the weak dollar isn’t making budget travel very easy for us Americans, there plenty of cheap eats in Amsterdam. In fact, there’s even a restaurant that is housed in a former soup kitchen!

At Keuken van 1870, you’ll have to brush off the waiters’ often snarky attitudes (it’s all in good fun) and set your sights on the prix-fixe, three-course meal for just about $10. There’s even a table set aside where those who can’t afford can get one on the house. The fare is super simple and tasty—we’re talking meatballs made of beef and pork (gehaktbal of worst) and mashed potatoes. Spuistraat 4, 1012 TS Amsterdam; 20 620 40 18

When we say Amsterdam is family-friendly, we mean it. Just check out Kinderkookkafe, a tiny little café that’s run entirely by children. We’re talking cooking, serving, bringing the check, and washing up (there are grown-up sous chefs on hand). Meals are affordable (just about $14 a plate), and there’s a lot more choice than just grilled Gouda. Be sure to make reservations, as the place tends to fill up—especially for Saturday dinner and Sunday tea. Vondelpark 6 Aan Het Kattenlaantje, Aan Het Kattenlaantje; 20 625 32 57

ARTS AND CULTURE

Amsterdam Flower MarketYou’ve spent the day gazing at Van Gogh and Rembrandt, and now you’re in the mood for something a little more offbeat. That’s when you 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, www.electric-lady-land.com

You can’t miss NEMO, an interactive science and tech museum—it’s housed in a gigantic, green boat-shaped building. The museum itself is on every hotel brochure, but what you may not know is that on sunny summer days, the deck turns into an urban beach. Hipster locals flock to the sandy deck for tapas-style snacks, drinks and music. Oosterdok 2, www.e-nemo.nl (click on the British flag for English)

And while it’s definitely ‘on the brochure’, the Van Gogh Museum is a can’t-miss for anyone with even a passing interest in the master Impressionist …

GETTING AROUND

Amsterdam Canal BikesYou can also get around by cruising on a barge using Holland’s extensive canal system. You could venture even further into coastal villages, the “cheese towns” of Edam or Gouda, or to the world-famous Keukenhof Gardens. Floating down a canal is one of the most pleasant ways to truly explore Holland, puttering along at about four miles an hour.

Then there are the so-called “self-drive barges.” Fortunately, these aren’t as difficult as they may sound—after all, no license is required by Dutch authorities to drive/float them through the country. Most of the renters of these barges will offer basic instructions on how to navigate the barge and get through the canal locks. Most of these barges come with bedding and utensils, plus maps and guidebooks on interesting sites, restaurants and shops along the canals.

Crown Blue Line charters self-drive barges in Holland from mid-March through the end of October. During the low season (March-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 generally only 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, www.crownblueline.com

If you prefer simply floating to working, hop on a luxury “hotel barge,” which is fully crewed. It is an easy way to indulge in the pleasures of Dutch food and wine, while getting an eyeful of the country. The Barge Connection has week-long barge cruises ranging from $2,390 to $4,800 per person. 888-550-8580, www.bargeconnection.com

So whether it’s barge trips on the canals, or a visit to the Electric Ladyland, Amsterdam has plenty of fun for everyone.

By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com.

Amsterdam was a stop in “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” segment. So check out Matt’s take on the city of windmills and wooden shoes.

Don’t miss the rest of our Off-the-Brochure Travel Guides.

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