"If you only have a short time in Amsterdam,” said our guide, “this is the place to come to experience its essence.” I was standing on the stone bridge over the Singel canal that links tacky-touristy Nieuwendijk in the Old Centre with westbound Haarlemmerstraat, a long street of three-storey gabled brownstones known for its eclectic range of shops and bars.

In front of me was a tulip stall, behind me was a herring stall, to my left was a cheese stall and I could see a coffeeshop with a mural of cannabis leaves in the window and a bar advertising Heineken beer. On cue, two cyclists hurtled past and almost knocked me over, ringing their bells manically.Welcome to Mokum.

Mokum is a nickname for the Dutch capital and derives from theYiddish word meaning “safe haven”. Jews from across Europe began moving to Amsterdam from the 15th century, as the city was known for its religious tolerance. It’s mainly thanks to the Jewish immigrants, many of whom were successful merchants and traders, that Amsterdam became one of the world’s most important ports, as well as a centre for diamonds and finance, in the 17th century; in fact, the world’s first stock exchange was founded here in 1602.

Mee in Mokum (www.meeinmokum.nl) is the name of a group of English-speaking residents who lead guided two-hour tours around Amsterdam for a very reasonable 5 euros. Along with some other English tourists, I’d met our guide Jan, a retired librarian, in the cafe at the Amsterdams Historisch Museum (www.ahm.nl), which takes visitors through 800 years of the city’s fascinating history and where you’ll learn how the city got its name.

museums

The Historisch Museum is one of more than 50 museums in Amsterdam, ranging from big guns such as the Van Gogh Museum (www.vangoghmuseum.nl) and the recently-opened Hermitage(www.hermitage.nl), which portrays Russian history and culture, to smaller, specialist museums such as the Museum of Bags and Purses (www.tassenmuseum.nl) and the Amstelkring, a Catholic church hidden in the attic of a 17th-century home on canal street Oudezijds Voorburgwarl.

The city’s oldest church, and indeed oldest building, is 14th-century Oude Kerk (www.oudekerk.nl) in the heart of the Red Light District. As well as a few bars and an infants’ school, the church square is dotted with floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing immigrant prostitutes in their underwear. But not for much longer.

Jan explained: “The council launched a project a couple of years ago to clean up this area by buying properties that are rented to prostitutes, as many of these ‘businesses’ are fronts for money laundering. The premises are being rented to bars, restaurants and boutiques. The aim is to reduce the Red Light District to a couple of streets, although some people argue that this will destroy Amsterdam’s character.”

Where there’s sex for sale there’s usually drugs and you won’t go far inAmsterdam without seeing (and smelling) a coffeeshop, which isn’t the place to go for a drink. The coffeeshops have been selling cannabis since the 1970s but they, too, haven’t escaped the council’s clean-up projectand plans are afoot to get rid of about 25. One of the most popular with visiting Brits and celebrities, and knownfor its potent offerings and funky interior, is Cannabis Cup winner Greenhouse (www.greenhouse.org)

Cyclists in Amsterdam tlm the travel & leisure magazine escape to Amsterdam

canal belt

The most attractive part of Amsterdam is, without doubt, the canal belt. The canals, lined with beautiful mansions, were built in the 17th-century – the GoldenAge – to provide housing for the wealthy merchants. To see what one of these houses was like in its heyday, head to the MuseumVan Loon (www.museumvanloon.nl), which was home to the founder of the Dutch East India Company.

The western canal belt is a great place for shopping as it’s here that you’ll find the Nine Streets, a fashionable area crammed with designer boutiques, delis and cafe-bars. De Kaaskamer (address: Runstraat 7) has more than 200 types of cheese while Frozen Fountain (Prinsengracht 645) is the place to go for contemporary Dutch home deco.

Lunchtime beckoned and we stopped at De Prins (Prinsengracht 124), one of Amsterdam’s “brown cafes”, so-called because of the years of accumulated smoke stains on the walls – although these day public places are no-smoking zones. Jan informed me that this was one of the best cafes to sample good-value Dutch cooking and we ordered some traditional meat and potato croquettes followed by a great big slab of apple tart.

Put off by the queue outside Anne Frank House the preserved home of the young Jewish wartime diarist who wrote about her family’s persecution by the Nazis; best to get there early – we headed to the Tulip Museum (www.amsterdamtulipmuseum.com) a few doors along from De Prins. The first tulips innHolland were grown in the Hortus Botanicus (www.hortus-botanicus.nl), the world’s oldest botanical gardens, in the Plantage district. The flowers bloom in April and May and if you’re in town at that time the Bloemenmarkt (between Muntplein and Koningsplein), the world’s only floating flower market, is the place to go to see colourful displays. If not, buy some bulbs to take home.

nightlife

Amsterdam is culturally rich and there’s no shortage of nightlife to cater for all tastes, whether you’re looking for a hip gay bar, karaoke, English-language comedy, live music or a cosy corner to sip a jenever (Dutch gin), such as legendaryWynand Fockink (www.wynand-fockink.nl), a 17th-century tasting room with an interior graced by the likes of Churchill and Chagall. But I was exhausted and caught the free shuttle bus from Centraal Station back to Hotel Mövenpick (www.moevenpick-amsterdam.com), next to the ferry terminal in the regenerated eastern waterfront.

Gazing out of my window on the 18th floor, watching the free ferries cross the River IJ to the residentialislands, envying the music fans getting ready for a classical/jazz/world music concert at the futuristic Muziekgebouw and marvelling at the child-friendly NEMO science museum which resembles a big, green sinking boat, I was reminded that there is so much more to this vibrant city than its sleazy reputation; it deserves more than a fleeting visit.

amsterdam facts

when to go

Amsterdam is a great place to visit at any time of year but winters tend to be cold and wet. Come in spring to see the tulips or autumn to avoid the crowds. Be sure to book well in advance if you visit in high summer.

getting there

Several airlines fly from London to Amsterdam so check out www.skyscanner.net for the best deals. By train from London takes 4 hours 16 minutes; a standard return fare starts at £116 from www.raileurope.co.uk.Take the car by ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland; single fares start at £49 from www.stenaline.co.uk.

accommodation

For a luxury break try The Dylan (www.dylanamsterdam.com) or rent a houseboat (www.houseboathotel.nl) for independence. Stayokay Amsterdam Zeeburg (www.stayokay.com) is great modern hostel for families on a budget. Lastminute.com has good deals on upmarket accommodation in its ‘top secret’ hotels section.

tour operators

Thomson (www.thomson.co.uk), Co-operative Travel (www.co-operativetravel.co.uk) and My Amsterdam (www.myamsterdam.co.uk) offer short breaks by air.You can book train travel plus accommodation with Eurostar (www.eurostar.com). Superbreak (www.superbreak.co.uk) offers city breaks in Amsterdam with extras including an attraction pass, but transport is not included.

getting around

The best way to see Amsterdam is on foot. A good way to admire the architecture is from a canal boat; I like Holland International (www.hir.nl). Make like the locals and hire a bike – but keep your wits about you.Trams, buses and the metro will take you across town – a two-day travel card costs €11.50. Amsterdam’s taxis are unregulated so make sure you agree a fare with the driver before getting in. Aim to use TCA, the city’s biggest taxi firm.

tourist information

Amsterdam Tourism Board: www.iamsterdam.com

Netherlands Board of Tourism: www.holland.com

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to Amsterdam.