Walking around town.

G van Niftrik

A lot of people — visitors and stayers alike — feel that just walking around Amsterdam is half the fun. For such a famous town, it’s really not that big. And it’s not boring to look at. The canals and bridges and peculiar 17th century architecture in the center of town keep it visually stimulating. When you slow down to take a closer look, little details emerge that may charm or even mystify you. It can feel as though the city is trying to tell you something. Maybe it is.

But while you're getting enchanted, keep in mind that life goes on around you. Amsterdam isn't a museum, it's a chunk of civilization, filled with people who need to get somewhere and do something. If you're gently strolling and sightseeing on a busy street, and you hear a voice behind you mutter "What are you, browsing?" — that's probably me, on a day I forgot to zip it.

Get used to the idea that navigating these streets involves some improvisation. Not everything can always follow the rules. Your path will sometimes be blocked by a gaggle of parked scooters, a delivery van, or the ubiquitous somebody digging shit up for some reason. Amsterdammers are used to this, and instead of getting mad, they usually just get patient. That is, unless you're blocking a bike path.

Watch out for bicycles! The streets of Amsterdam are fretted with fietspaden, or bike paths, running right alongside the pedestrian sidewalks. So it's easy to step into one if you don't recognize it. The bike paths' pavement is often slightly reddish in color, and sometimes they are marked with bicycle icons. Not always.

People from almost everywhere else on earth have trouble appreciating what serious business cycling is in Amsterdam. The reverse is also true: hardcore Amsterdammers forget that everybody else comes from a place where cycling is a form of exercise or recreation. Here, fully 40% of city traffic is on a bike, and these cyclists aren't fooling. If you pay attention to the fietspad, you can avoid sudden unpleasant encounters or even injury. Just keep an eye on where your feet are at. It can take a couple days to get used to this, but you will get used to it.

The original medieval city wasn't built to hold this many people. At times the streets get very crowded. And just how crowded can change from one day to the next — depending on which country has a school vacation, or whose trade show is opening at the RAI convention center.

Some newcomers get confounded by the layout of the city. On the map you see that Centrum Amsterdam is more or less semicircular, with a radial, concentric plan rather than a rectilinear grid. This has to do with how the city originated, and the various phases of its expansion. Think of the epicenter of town as the Dam itself, the square where it all started. The 'spokes' of the wheel tend to be streets named after other cities they lead toward; Haarlemmerstraat points to Haarlem, Utrechtsestraat to Utrecht. But as the city curls in on itself, you may find that the most conceptually direct way from A to B is not the shortest, and that zigzagging is your best option. If you do get lost, Laurence the bartender has this advice: find some tram tracks and follow them to the nearest stop. The map in the tram shelter will have a 'you are here' marker to help you re-establish your bearings.