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The Herengracht, one of the main waterways in Amsterdam's city centre, is crossed by a series of bridges that are lit romantically at night.
The Herengracht, one of the main waterways in Amsterdam's city centre, is crossed by a series of bridges that are lit romantically at night.

Amsterdam is more than just a stopover

My kind of place With both clubbing and culture galore in the Netherlands' capital, Lizette van Hecke says there's no time to lose.

People's eyes light up when I tell them where I'm from. Sure, the city is infamous for its red-light district and progressive policies, but it's so much more than that. Amsterdam is one of Europe's most beautiful historical cities with a long tradition of art, trade and tolerance. Amsterdam has a myriad of big city possibilities dished up in a bite-sized village atmosphere, from internationally acclaimed exhibitions to serious vintage clothing shopping in the intimate little streets criss-crossing the city's centre. The easy accessibility adds layers of charm: everyone can get around and feel welcome. There's no way of describing what it feels like to cycle the tree-lined streets in the posh southern district, stroll over a picturesque dimly lit bridge in the middle of the night and hop on a noisy tram next to a centuries-old house. The city can lift your spirit even if it's raining.

For the true budgeteer with an adventurous streak there's the Winston, a unique art hotel amid the city's hustle and bustle. Every space is different, including a manga room, a Billy the Kid room and a green room. It's also conveniently located near all major public transportation including central station which is only a five-minute walk away. Expect troops of loud tourists at your doorstep, though. The hotel's motto isn't "party hard, sleep easy" for nothing. The outside private beer garden and the locally famous, built-in nightclub Winston International, will prove a great start to a long night. Single rooms booked online cost as little as $21 (Dh80) and double private rooms start on $81 (Dh300). The Winston is situated at Warmoesstraat 129 (www.winston.nl; 0031 20 623 1380).

For variety, make your way to the Lloyd Hotel, which stands on the waterfront in Amsterdam's Eastern Docklands. The hotel was originally built for migrants in 1921 and converted by MVRDV architects in 2004. The 117 rooms differ widely in size, quality and design and the eclectic restaurant is open 24 hours a day (www.lloydhotel.com; 00 31 20 561 3636). Prices vary from $144 to $674 (Dh529 to Dh2,478) per night. You'll find the most exquisite of beds in the heart of the lively Nine Streets shopping district where the city's best luxury boutique hotel is housed in a 17th-century landmark. Double rooms at the Dylan Hotel Amsterdam at Keizersgracht 384 (www.dylanamsterdam.com; 0031 20 530 2010) cost from $697 (Dh2,560) per night.

Get lost. Amsterdam is a city for wanderers and you'll end up discovering cosy cafes in hidden courtyards with split pea soup and osseworst (raw beef sausage) on the menu. Pick up a copy of Geert Mak's Amsterdam: a brief life of the city at the Atheneum bookstore on Spui. It's a book for visitors and native Amsterdammers alike who want to learn more about the city's roots. Mak walks you through the city and shares the history of buildings, people and public spaces.

For a glance at Rembrandt's world famous painting The Night Watch, you'll have to visit the Rijksmuseum. Currently only partially open, it's still showing the finest oil paintings of the Golden Age, including works of Vermeer and Frans Hals. The world-famous museum is conveniently situated next door to the Van Gogh Museum and near the contemporary photo institute FOAM on the Keizersgracht.

Cycle the city and head for the Vondelpark on a Sunday afternoon where you can catch a movie in the film museum or have a sandwich at the Blauwe Theehuis in the middle of the park. Don't wait for service; this is a very traditional order-at-the-bar kind of place. Pick a seat somewhere outside and prepare for some brilliant people-watching - people with dogs or little children, people getting together or breaking up, on a day off or coming from a business meeting - it will give you an idea of the life of the average Amsterdammer.

If you like rubbing shoulders with an artsy crowd, I recommend Paradiso, the Sugar Factory and BitterZoet for some shake, rattle and roll. Wednesdays and Thursdays are the busiest nights, Sundays and Mondays are hit or miss but see some of the strangest of the city's denizens who have been clubbing right through the weekend. For drinks the Nieuwe Zijds Voorburgwal is the go-to strip, including Bep, Diep and the Getaway. More fancy drinks and a bit of boogie are found at the Woo, a pretentious spot where football stars and Dutch celebs hang.

Breakfast, lunch or dinner, de Balie is cheap, tasty and conveniently central (www.debalie.nl). Beside being a platform for politics, culture and media, the cafe also sports the best melted cheese sandwich in town: Goudse belegen on Turkish bread, with chorizo for $6.80 (Dh25). The free Wi-Fi and humungous windows are merely added bonuses. Another must-have-eaten is Tempoe Doeloe in the Utrechtstestraat, a residential area with charm and plenty of local "brown bars" - the equivalent of neighbourhood pubs. The small living room-like restaurant is a great place to try Indonesian rijstafel - a selection of small dishes ranging from sweet to (very) spicy. Don't forget to reserve ahead (0031 20 625 6718) and ring the doorbell to get in. Meals start at $40 (Dh150).

Give the main shopping strip Kalverstraat or the posh PC Hooftstraat a miss and instead visit the Monday's market on the Noordermarkt with its high standard vintage clothing and scrumptious apple pie at cafe de Winkel. After your morning coffee, stroll towards the funky Haarlemmerstraat, littered with the oil&vinegar store, candy shop Papa Bubble, tee and skate shops and creative hangouts like cafe Harlem.

Tourist traps like Dam Square and the red-light district are overpriced, overrated and dirty. If you want to see what the fuss is about, have a quick look and get out fast - the best time is at night. The Anne Frank house is another box you might want to tick. If you don't feel like queuing up with every foreigner in town, however, visit the Amsterdam Historical Museum instead. It's cheaper, highly informative and right in the city centre. Also, don't try to squeeze in Amsterdam as a stopover destination, and don't book a hotel near Central Station. Do purchase a map, but don't be afraid to ask for directions. You'll get lost for sure - the city is a big circle - but everybody speaks English and likes to practice it.

The website www.iAmsterdam.com because it provides tips and tricks for all the city has to offer and forwards them to your mobile. And rent a bicycle; it's the superior way to get around and there are MacBikes rentals all around the city. If you don't have the nerve or stamina, buy a weekend tram pass at Central Station.

lhecke@thenational.ae

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