On several counts Amsterdam is an illusion. It seems to float, but in reality it stands solidly enough on hundreds of thousands of piles driven deep into the soft soil beneath it. Because it's the site of the Royal Palace, it's officially the capital of the Netherlands. But the Government offices, legislative chambers, and foreign embassies are all located in The Hague.
The city wears its air of antiquity gracefully, yet it's the diamond center of the world, and its stock market is one of the most active and sensitive in Europe. Amsterdam is a modern, commercial city, yet relaxed and colorfully historical. The easiest way to get there is to check out http://www.cheapflights.co.uk/flights/Amsterdam/.
The city fans out from a great broad plaza called the Dam, which stands on the canals which join the Amstel River to the IJsselmeer, and thus the name, Amstel Dam or Amsterdam. From the Dam radiate two main thoroughfares, the Damrak and the Rokin. And around the Dam, in concentric half-circles that join the Amstel River at either end, are the five canals that with their connecting waterways mark off the city's historical center. Most of the people of modern Amsterdam live beyond the outer canal, the Singelgracht. Within its sweep lies most of the historical city.
A good handful of the memorable buildings are on, or near the Dam itself — the Monument to the Liberation, the Royal Palace, the Nieuwe Kerk, as well as less monumental structures which house the central post office, the city's leading department store, de Byenkorf or the Beehive), and the Bourse, the stock market.
The soaring Monument to the Liberation, dedicated in 1956, dominates the Dam. Enshrined in it are 12 urns containing earth from the 11 provinces of the Netherlands and from Indonesia, all soil on which Dutch people lost their lives during World Wars I and II.
Off to one side of the Dam is the Koninklijk Paleis, a huge building that was once the town hall but was reconstructed at the beginning of the 19th century to house the court of Louis Bonaparte, who from 1806 to 1810 ruled the Netherlands in the name of his brother Napoleon. You'll get some idea of the ponderous mass of the Royal Palace — and some conception, too, of the problems of building over this yielding marshy land — when you learn that the palace, noted especially for its fine ceremonial great hall, stands on more than 13,000 wooden piles. Unfortunately, it's open to the public only during the month of August.
Beside the Royal Palace stands the Nieuwe Kerk, the "New" Church, which dates back to the early 15th century. Though it has been much damaged and frequently restored since then, it is still pure Gothic with a splendid vaulted wooden ceiling, a handsome feature often employed in Dutch ecclesiastical architecture because of its relatively light weight. Built originally by Catholics, the Nieuwe Kerk was taken over by the Pr9testants at the time of the Reformation and has become the national shrine of the Netherlands, the Dutch equivalent to Westminster Abbey, where the country crowns its royalty and buries its heroes. For that reason, perhaps — and unlike so many of the Protestant churches in Holland — it's usually open to visitors.
A broad avenues, called the Damrak, runs between the old central square of the Dam and the Central Railway Station. Along its length are the wharves that service the handsome slender power boats that tour the canals of old Amsterdam. The trips, which take a little more than an hour, run both during the daylight hours and at night. After you have had a daytime orientation tour, you should also take one of the after-dark trips, for they have a special quality of their own. Floodlights illuminate many of the historical buildings and towers floodlights, and strings of lights festoon many of the boats and bridges all along the canals. No matter how pressed you are for time, you should not miss either of these trips.
So much for a brief look at the sights of Amsterdam. There are many more, all easily accessible. But those above will provide you with an essence of this fascinating city.