With expanses of green that are a pleasing contrast to the canal house-lined city centre, Plantage contains parks, botanical gardens and the Artis Royal Zoo. It wasn't intended this way: city planners reclaimed the land east of the Amstel with a view to add new housing developments. However, the boom was already over, and in 1682, the area was converted into garden plots. The area also contains the Jewish quarter, and during the 19th century when construction boomed, it became an entertainment district. Its darkest hour came during WWII when its large Jewish community was detained and deported from here.
Visitors often overlook the Eastern Islands, but they're a great way to escape the crowds of the city centre, despite being just next door (about 10 minutes by bike or tram). There are lots of waterside choices for lunch or a drink, plus plenty of boats, maritime history and modern architecture.
Local Knowledge: Groenburgwal
Step out onto the white drawbridge that crosses the Groenburgwal and look north towards the Zuiderkerk for one of Amsterdam's prettiest canal views. Impressionist Claude Monet certainly took a shining to it, and painted it in 1874 as The Zuiderkerk (South Church) at Amsterdam: Looking up the Groenburgwal.
Amsterdam is chock-full of slender homes because property used to be taxed on frontage. So the narrower your facade, the less you paid.
Witness the narrow house at Oude Hoogstraat 22. It's 2.02m wide, 5m deep and several storeys tall, occupying a mere 12 sq metres per storey. This could well be the tiniest (self-contained) house in Europe.
Nearby, the Kleine Trippenhuis is 2.44m wide. It stands opposite the mansion once owned by the wealthy Trip Brothers and, so the story goes, their coachman exclaimed: ‘If only I could have a house as wide as my masters’ door!’ Webers fetish shop now occupies the skinny building.
NAP: Amsterdam's Sea Level Measurement
It is widely known that Amsterdam (and indeed more than half of the Netherlands) lies a couple of metres below sea level, but when's the last time you heard anyone ask 'which sea level'? In fact, sea levels vary around the globe and even around the Netherlands. The average level of the former Zuiderzee, in the lee of Friesland, was slightly lower than that of the North Sea along the Netherlands' exposed west coast.
The Normaal Amsterdams Peil (NAP; Normal Amsterdam Level) was established in the 17th century as the average high-water mark of the Zuiderzee and it still forms the zero reference for elevation countrywide. It is now used throughout the EU as the European Vertical Reference System (EVRS). The NAP Visitors Centre shows the ins and outs of the NAP. Water columns here represent different sea levels, as well as disastrous flood levels in 1953 (4.55m above NAP). Information sheets and a touch-screen explain the details.
Worth a Trip: IJburg
From the Eastern Islands, it's less than 10 minutes by tram 26 to Amsterdam's newest neighbourhood, IJburg, which feels like an architectural vision of a model city. Construction by the city of Amsterdam first started on these three artificial islands – Steigereiland, Haveneiland and Rieteilanden – in the IJmeer lake in 1996 to ease Amsterdam's housing shortage. The first IJburg residents arrived in 2002.
Checking out striking modern architecture aside, at the eastern end of IJburg is Amsterdam's (artificial) beach, Blijburg, a lovely swathe of white imported sand. There's a laid-back beach bar, and you can go windsurfing or paddle boarding here; Surfcenter IJburg rents windsurfers from its shipping container.
The neighbourhood is also home to some superb restaurants and bars. Organic produce is prioritised by the passionate Italian chefs at Restaurant Bloem, with a breezy beach-style decor that belies its exceptional food. The menu changes daily but might include house-made linguine with clams, chilli and parsley or fresh tuna grilled with white asparagus and served with green-bean salsa, as well as authentic wood-fired pizzas. Cash only.
Fittingly named for the Normaal Amsterdams Peil (NAP), Amsterdam's sea-level benchmark, harbourside restaurant NAP has a terrace overlooking IJburg's boat-filled marina and a chic semi-industrial interior. Tapas span crostini with carpaccio to spicy prawns and oysters with vinaigrette, while mains include chanterelle risotto and seared sea bass with tomato salsa.
Timber benches with funky red cushions line the pavement of Dok 48, which also has a table- and chair-filled summer terrace right on the marina that's idyllic for watching the boats docking and setting sail. There's a good range of specialist beers, as well as wines and bubbles by the glass, and top-notch food, too. DJs regularly spin at weekends.
There are also ferries from IJBurg to Muiden, the most scenic way to visit its medieval castle, the Muiderslot, and fortress island, Pampus. The boat leaves mid-morning, allowing a couple of hours' exploration before the return journey.