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Visiting Holland's capital doesn't have to be reefer madness and the beast with the two backs while you can absorb culture without resorting to Van Gogh and Anne Frank. Words: Miles Fielder and Mark Robertson

We went to Amsterdam in search of hats. Woolly hats to be exact, it’s very cold in Amsterdam during January. In fact, we left Schipol Airport in a snow shower. Imagine the city’s canals frozen over with swans strolling about on the ice and the many humped- backed bridges white with snow and lit up with fairy lights; a magical city, even in the bleak mid-winter.

Nevertheless, say the word Amsterdam and most people think of two others: drugs and prostitution. Cannabis cafés and the red light district. Though most people don’t go to Amsterdam to binge on sex and drugs, you’d be ignorant not to take a stroll round the Old City’s infamous sex district. There, you can dodge the drug dealers as they murmur ‘coke, ecstasy’ in your ear as you walk by, and explore venues such as the Marijuana Museum or one of the many ‘Live XXX Sex’ shows. You may be curious about some of the porn shops, where you’re likely to meet a hen party from Newcastle browsing the extensive bondage wear selection (‘Him indoors’ll love this’). The things to marvel (ogle?) at, though, are the red-lit parlours lining the streets, where scantily clad women (and transsexuals) shake their booty at you. And for a few guilders you can have fast, efficient, completely impassionate sex.

Most nights, though, the red light district degenerates into a rowdy, seedy morass, resembling Lothian Road or Sauchiehall Street on a Friday night. Do better for yourself, explore the 16th century city’s waterways and backstreets. There’s far too much beautiful architecture, too many wonderful shops, museum and galleries and cosy cafés and bars to get through during a single visit.

And sit still too; watch the city go by. We sat in Goodies Café on Runstraat where all the sandwiches, bagels and toasties are named after famous celebrity duos. Try a Cagney and Lacey, a Tom and Jerry or even a tasty BA and Murdoch. The café is to be found in the

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Grachtengordal district (the girdle of canals, built in the 17th century which form a ‘U’ shape around the Old City) perfect for catching the locals cycle by with the most serene expressions on their faces.

Everyone cycles in Amsterdam, you can too; there are numerous hire shops around town. We were refuelling with coffee and toasted sandwiches after a morning perusing some of the district’s top notch speciality shops: Lambiek, the store/gallery with a superb selection of international comics, on Kerkstraat; Record Palace, where vinyl junkies go to ‘shoot up’, on Weteringschans opposite one of Amsterdam’s premier live music venues, the Paradiso; and an array of second-hand clothes emporiums Runstraat, including Zipper (specialising in 505, 60s and 70s) and Jojo (suits, overcoats and shirts from the last 50 years).

It’s exhausting wandering around a gorgeous city all day, so that night we treated ourselves to steaks at Iguazu, an Argentinean-Brazilian restaurant on the picturesque Prisengracht canal. Dutch cuisine is solid if uninspiring (meat and cheese followed by more meat and cheese), but Amsterdam plays host to a real smorgasbord of international restaurants, everything from African to Japanese with Indonesian featuring heavily. Steaked-out, we headed for Café Alto, a late- night live jazz club on Korte Leidsedwarstraat. An African-American émigré saxophonist led his quintet through a selection of mellow modern jazz on a stage the size of a double bed for the next four hours. Nice.

The next morning, hungover and tired, we freshened up with a visit to the Flower Market along the bank of the Singel canal yards away from our Eden Hotel on the Amstel riverfront. Amsterdam is big on markets; you can get everything from cheese and clogs to kitsch clothing and furniture. Check out De Looier Market on Elandsgracht for simply endless knick-knacks.

Inspired by the previous night’s music we sauntered over to the Jordaan a maze-like grid of

FESTIVALS Even more reasons to visit Amsterdam

There’s plenty to keep you OCCUpled all year round in Amsterdam, but you might want to consider coinciding your visit with one of these festivals.

Drum Rhythm Festival

25—26 May

Held in the grounds of the Westergasfabriek, previous performers have included The Prodigy, Reprazent featuring Roni Size and Trilok Gurtu expect a mix of hip hop, R&B, reggae, drum & bass, dance and world music.

Holland Festival


The country’s largest arts event takes over the city with a wealth of international companies bringing theatre, dance and music of all varieties to venues.

Amsterdam Pride


One of Europe’s biggest Pride events, there’ll be parades, street parties and club events.

Uitmarkt Amsterdam


Free performances take place on indoor and outdoor stages across the city, including cabaret, theatre, music, film and children’s events.

Dance Valley Festival


The country’s largest daytime dance festival has an impressive outdoor