AMSTERDAM — If culture is the sum total of a city's social behavior and artistic expression, then this one has it in brimming buckets.
It spills forth in 22 Rembrandts and 200-plus Van Goghs, in 500,000 bicycles and a like number of flowering bulbs, in 160 canals and antique shops, in the 40 concerts and theater performances daily, plus enough fine restaurants, cafes and bars to make it one of Europe's most vibrant cities.
Toss in row upon row of handsome 17th-Century town houses lining canals that lace the inner city, a red-light district blaring almost as loud as the town's famous barrel organs, and you end up with a place noted equally for its beauty and tolerance.
Amsterdam has had a firm grip on a corner of our hearts for three decades, thanks to its knack for making visitors feel welcome, comfortable and assured that their travel dollars have been well-spent.
On the scale of European capitals, Amsterdam isn't all that large, with only 700,000 citizens. Perhaps that's why the Dutch word gezellig fits it so perfectly: Anything cozy, colorful, not too large, and filled with all sorts of satisfying delights.
And that's about the only Dutch word you need to know, as everyone here seems to speak perfect English.
Here to there: KLM flies non-stop, Pan Am and El Al make one. TWA gets you there with a change in New York, European carriers with one in their home countries. Take train directly from airport to central railway station for $2.
How long/how much? Three days should do it lightly, but another takes you to the market towns of Aalsmeer, Keukenhof and Alkmaar, all less than an hour away. Even with our fragile dollar, amazing Amsterdam is still affordable Amsterdam, thanks to the tourist-office people tossing in lots of bargains and perks.
A few fast facts: Holland's guilder, or florin, was recently worth .483, so figure about two to the dollar. Best time for a visit is April through October. Getting around town is simple and fast: Trams barrel along at sonic speeds, a day-ticket for $4, cabs reasonable and a two-place "canal bike" for $8 an hour.
Getting settled in: Hotel Agora (single $62, double $57 to $68, with full Dutch breakfast) is a small and homey place just a block from the town's Singel Canal flower market. Breakfast in a charming family room overlooking garden, old Persian rugs on floor, roses on each table. Rooms with windows on canal or garden--a very nice place.
Zandbergen (Willemsparkweg 205, $65 to $72 B&B double) near museums and good shopping is a fresh and bright little house on a quiet street. Tiny terrace in back for a coffee, pleasant rooms, vases of tulips everywhere.
Canal House (Keizergracht 148, $77 to $84) is a sheer delight, an elegant 17th-Century canal house that gets more attractive every time we visit. Enjoy that hearty Dutch breakfast in an antique-filled room with handsome breakfront and enormous chandelier. Rooms vary in decor, some quite spacious with antiques, open fireplaces, Laura Ashley curtains and four-posters. Owners Len and Jane Irwin are friendly and helpful.
Ambassade (Herengracht 341, $82 to $87) is made up of seven 17th-Century canal houses all in a row, each with a different facade. Rooms a pleasant mix of styles, marvelous grandfather clock in lobby, cheerful breakfast room.
Regional food and drink: Holland's food has the same character as its people: sturdy, comforting, easy to know and seldom fancy. National dishes include ertensoep, a thick pea soup heavy with sausage and pork, and hutspot met klapstuk, a hearty stew of assorted meats and vegetables. Raw herring with chopped onions is sold from street stands. Just one and you're hooked.
Amsterdam's Indonesian restaurants turn out a marvelous rijsttafel (rice table) of from 6 to 24 small dishes of meat, chicken, seafood, vegetable and fruit, all eaten with white rice, some with hot sauce that will melt your fillings. Another Dutch addiction is for the broodje, little open-face sandwiches sold in broodjeswinkel shops that are always jammed, one at city center with the fascinating name of Broodje van Kootje.
Pancake houses are a lunchtime favorite, most serving 20-plus choices the size of bicycle wheels. And Holland's fine beers need no introduction--Amstel, Heineken, whatever. They go perfectly with most of the above.
Moderate-cost dining: New for us on this trip is Haesje Claes (Voorburgwal 320), a romantic little restaurant that dates from 1520. A tourist menu here (and all over the country). Pay $9 for soup, trout or pepper steak and salad. Dutch and other specialties in an ambiance of old brocade, candles in pewter holders, old-fashioned nosegays. Better make a reservation for this one.