Until you get a first-hand feel for Amsterdam, these words will help you understand the city's nuances and natives.
1. IncredibleIt may sound like a generic word to describe a place, but Amsterdam epitomizes what Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines as "too extraordinary and improbable to be believed." It seems unlikely that a medieval fishing village would become the richest city in the world by the 17th century, and doubtful that swamps and marshlands would go on to support towering buildings for hundreds of years.
Amsterdam's watery existence is perhaps what makes it most incredible; as you wander around the mesmerizing network of canals, it seems inconceivable that they were dug by hand. The extraordinary quality of a floating city is what makes Amsterdam a bit magical.
2. InternationalAmsterdam's three quarters of a million inhabitants represent a staggering 177 different nationalities. In 2007, Simply Amsterdam News reported that this number makes the Dutch capital the most international city in the world (based on nationalities represented), with Antwerp, Belgium, in second place (164 nationalities) and New York (150 nationalities) in third.
The melting pot of cultures is responsible for the wide range of international cuisine available here, from Swiss and Surinamese to Ethiopian and English-pub fare.
3. Laid-backTolerant. Chill. Liberal. Amsterdam could be called all these things. The city has been known for its open-mindedness and flexibility since it was a haven for religious refugees in the 16th and 17th centuries. Maybe Amsterdam's laid-back vibe of today, which resonates through its people, is a residual effect of all that tolerance.
Amsterdammers embody a live-and-let live mentality and aren't shocked or shaken by much. Visitors will also notice a liberal approach to things like prostitution and soft drugs, both of which are legal here.
4. CulturalThroughout history, the world's wealthiest cities have often produced the world's best artists. As such, Amsterdam enjoyed cultural leadership during the 17th-century "Golden Age," fostering the works of painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer.
That appreciation for the arts stuck with Amsterdam -- the city has 51 museums, 55 theaters and music venues and more than 140 commercial art galleries. Of course, there's more to see in ever-evolving Amsterdam than Old Master classics; today it's also a hub of modern art and design. Residents really get into the "cultural calendar," celebrating its kick-off with an annual festival of musical and theatrical performances free for all to enjoy (see the August in Amsterdam guide for more information).
5. RealI often get frustrated when I hear Amsterdam called "The Venice of the North." Yes, both cities have hundreds of canals (Amsterdam actually has more than its Italian counterpart), but that's where the similarities end. To me, Venice feels devoid of a true soul, as if no one really lives there; all around are tourists and tourism-industry workers, but "real" Venetians are hard to find (sadly, Venice's population is indeed shrinking).
Amsterdam, on the other hand, is alive with real people, going about their everyday business. Locals are fixtures in all neighborhoods, sharing bike lanes and bakeries with visitors. This sort of authenticity makes it easy for visitors to get a sense of real life here.