The city of Amsterdam is a clash of styles, both conservative and liberal. Whatever your personal views, Amsterdam is a city you have to visit at least once.
Visually, Amsterdam appears to be a conservative European city out of antiquity. The place oozes charm with cobblestone streets, canals and towering water front homes. Philosophically, however, the city is very liberal with marijuana being decriminalized and prostitution a licensed profession. It is easy to get caught up in debates over the merits of this liberal attitude and completely miss much of what Amsterdam has to offer.
You'll think Amsterdam is heaven if you are an art lover. Even if you're not big into art, the collections in the museums will impress you. This is the stuff that was in your high school art books, which you failed to appreciate because you were too stupid, young or a combination of both. I certainly had a healthy dose of both!
The Rijksmuseum carries collections of some of the great Dutch painters such as Vermeer. While the building alone can be considered a great piece of art, the Rembrandt collection is a must see. For those who are art illiterate, I'm talking about the painter, not the toothpaste. Included in the collection are pieces such as the famous Night Watch. This painting has reached that peculiar level of fame wherein a psycho idiot tries to slice it in half every few years. Now that's fame. A very sad form of fame, but there you are.
Ah, but what about that crazy man with the really bad ear piercing? Where are his paintings? Fret not. The Vincent van Gogh Museum is considered the finest and largest collection of his work. It is impressive, but I thought framing his notes regarding picking up food for dinner was a bit much. Just kidding. Impressive notes... very impressive. Brought a tear to my eye.
Coffee Shops/Red Light District
The coffee shops in Amsterdam actually sell coffee. This is often a surprise to some since they are famous for selling marijuana as well. I don't know this personally, but have "heard from a friend" that such things go on. I can, however, definitely recommend the coffee. Good stuff. If you prefer to try things other than coffee, try to show some restraint. You are in a foreign country and an out of his or her mind tourist is asking for trouble.
The red light district in Amsterdam is an odd place. Because of the fame, it is more of a tourist destination than anything else. The "professionals" sit behind storefront windows, waving and winking at people passing by. These "people" typically consists of tour groups and random tourists who want to say they've seen the place. Although I am sure business is being done, it isn't particularly obvious.
While the cliché is "sex, drugs and rock n' roll," Amsterdam seems to have replaced rock with art. All and all, the city is top notch and absolutely worth a visit if you're traveling to Europe.