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>Easygoing, liberal Amsterdam has never entirely shed its reputation as a hippie haven, even with an economy that has moved far beyond this cliché. It's surprising how many people still think of the city as caught in some rose-tinted time warp of free love, free drugs, free everything. The heady heyday of the '60s and '70s--if it ever existed to the extent legend and the soft-focus afterglow of memory would have us believe--has given way to new millennium realities.

Prosperity has settled like a North Sea mist around the graceful cityscape of canals and 17th-century town houses. A tour of the burgeoning suburban business zones provides evidence enough of the new priorities. The city government has worked assiduously to transform Amsterdam from a hippie haven to a cosmopolitan international business center, and there seems little doubt it is succeeding.

Fortunately, it has not been completely successful. Amsterdam is still "different." Its citizens, bubbling along happily in their multiracial melting pot, are not so easily poured into the restrictive molds of trade and industry. Not only do free thinking and anything goes still have their place, they are the watchwords by which Amsterdam lives its collective life. Don't kid yourself, though. All this free living is fueled by the wealth a successful economy generates, not by the combustion of semi-legal exotic plants.

A side effect of the city's concern with economics and image is that youthful backpackers who don't wash much, stay in cheap hostels, and think smoking hash is the high point of the city's cultural life, are no longer quite as welcome as they once were. When they come back in 10 years with a salary that allows them to stay at a good hotel, buy tickets for the Concertgebouw and the Muziektheater, eat in a Japanese restaurant, and pick up a diamond or two, why then, everything will be different.

Still, all is far from lost: You can smoke hash all the livelong day if that's what you want. More important, you can enjoy Amsterdam, its culture, history, and beauty, without stretching the limits of your credit cards.

Amsterdam has been drawn to a human scale. Few skyscrapers mar the clarity of the sky and the populace mostly walks or bikes from place to place. The historic center recalls Amsterdam's Golden Age as the command post of a vast trading network and colonial empire, when wealthy merchants constructed gabled residences along neatly laid-out canals. A delicious irony is that the placid old structures also host brothels, smoke shops, and some extravagant nightlife. The city's inhabitants, proud of their pragmatic, live-and-let-live attitude, have decided to control what they cannot effectively outlaw. They permit licensed prostitution in the Red Light District--as much a tourist attraction as the Rijksmuseum or the Stedelijk Museum--and the sale of hashish and marijuana in designated "coffeeshops."

But don't think most Amsterdammers drift around town trailing clouds of marijuana smoke. They are too busy zipping around on bikes, rollerblading through Vondelpark, browsing arrays of ethnic dishes, or simply watching the parade of street life from a sidewalk cafe. A new generation of entrepreneurs has revitalized old neighborhoods like the Jordaan, turning some of the distinctive houses into offbeat stores and bustling cafes, hotels, and restaurants.

Amsterdam doesn't merely have style, but content too. The city will quickly capture you in its spell, especially at night, when many of the more than 1,200 bridges spanning the 160 canals are lit with tiny lights that give them a fairy-tale appearance; or on a morning when the cityscape slowly emerges from a dispersing mist to reveal its treasures. Besides the many canals and bridges, Amsterdam offers up such delights as the Van Gogh Museum, the Rembrandthuis Museum, the Waterlooplein flea market, the floating flower market, antiquarian bookstores, brown cafes (the Dutch equivalent of a neighborhood bar) and tasting houses, and chic cafes and nightclubs.

Perhaps Amsterdam's greatest asset is its inhabitants. Many speak English fluently and virtually all are friendly to visitors. Plop yourself down amid the nicotine-stained walls of a brown cafe to enjoy a beer or a jenever (gin), and you'll soon find yourself chatting with an amiable Amsterdammer.

Between dips into artistic and historical treasures, be sure to take time out to absorb the freewheeling spirit of Europe's most vibrant city.

Things to do in Amsterdam

Cruising the Canals: Hop aboard a glass-topped canal boat for a cruise through Amsterdam's beautiful canals, where you get the best possible view of all those gabled Golden Age merchants' houses--and ignore anyone who tells you it's a tourist trap.

Seeing the Old Masters: Stand in front of Rembrandt's The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, where 200-plus rooms display works by Dutch and other European masters.

Visiting with Vincent: Visit the Vincent van Gogh Museum, where you can trace the artistic and psychological development of this great, unfortunate painter. Then head next door to the always challenging Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art.

Remembering Anne Frank: Spend a reflective moment in the tragic world of Anne Frank, amid the surroundings of her family's World War II hideaway, now the Anne Frankhuis, where she wrote her famous diary.

Treating Your Ears: Take in a classical music concert at the Concertgebouw, one of the most acoustically perfect halls in the world (the musicians are quite good too).

Taking a Tiptoe Through the Tulips: Pick up a bunch of tulips at the floating Flower Market on the Singel, if only to brighten up your hotel room.

Hunting for Antiques: Four hundred years of Amsterdam history, including a piece of the city's Golden Age, is there for the taking in the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat antiques quarter. All you need is a (big) fistful of guilders.

Shopping for a Steal: Pick up bargains at the Waterlooplein Flea Market and the Albert Cuyp Markt.

Cycling the City: Rent a bicycle and join the flow of cyclists for one of the classic Amsterdam experiences--but go carefully.

Riding a Canal Bike: Amsterdammers scoff at this. Let them. Peddle yourself through the water for an hour or two on your own private boat and tour the canals in style (not much style, I admit).

Skating the Canals: Strap on long-bladed Noren skates and join Amsterdammers in their favorite winter outdoor activity.

Crossing Bridges: Cross over as many of the city's 1,200 canal-spanning bridges as you can: The views are great.

Going American: Join tout Amsterdam for coffee, tea, and gâteau in the stunning art nouveau ambience of the Café Américain in the American Hotel.

Beaching About Zandvoort: Come rain, hail, or shine, take the train for the short hop to Amsterdam's brassy seaside resort and let the bracing North Sea air blow you away.

Popping a Herring: Okay, raw herring is an acquired taste. But the only way to acquire the taste for it is to try, and the only way to eat it is whole, holding the fish by the tail with your face to the wide Dutch sky.

Eating a Rijsttafel (Rice Table): Anything from 15 to 30 little Indonesian dishes, some of them as fiery as a Space Shuttle launch.

Sinking a Jenever (Gin): Spend a leisurely evening in a brown cafe, the traditional Amsterdam watering hole. Your first sip of jenever must be a "look, no hands" effort, leaning over the bar.

Boosting Ajax: Shout yourself hoarse for Amsterdam's soccer hotshots, Ajax, at their high-tech new stadium in the suburbs.

Walking on the Wild Side: Stroll through the Red Light District to examine the quaint gabled architecture along its narrow 16th-century canals--oh, yes, and you might also notice certain ladies watching the world go by through their red-fringed windows.

Visiting a "Coffeeshop": Yes it's true--smoking marijuana is officially tolerated in Amsterdam's very special "smoking coffeeshops." These places aren't your neighborhood cafes, and they're not for everyone, but they're an established part of Amsterdam's alternative tradition. You'll be able to buy and smoke marijuana inside, and no law-enforcement agency is going to hassle you.

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