Every single block of Amsterdam’s central canals is worth staring at. Sure, you’ll learn a lot when you do an organized walking tour or use your guidebook to find especially notable places. But for your first few hours there, just soak it up.
Look across the canal for the best view of the houses. If it’s chilly or wet, just walk as slowly as you can stand to. If it’s warm and dry enough, sit down on one of the benches that are scattered along the way, or better yet choose any café with seating by the water. The more you look, the more you’ll see.
Notice the architecture. What is before you is an incredibly complete, miles-long display of classic buildings from the 1600s onwards. Remember that everything you see is rooted in stakes driven into muck, not good solid earth. Check out the gables overhead: do they have right angles or curves? Notice the hooks that are still used to get goods and furniture to the upper floors. Look at the almost-black green which many doors are painted. Get closer and look at the details, and think about how that blue stone porch was carved. There is no end to what you can learn this way. If you become obsessed with buildings, a wonderful small book is Building Amsterdam, which you can get used online or, if you become more obsessed, go to the ultimate source for such things here.
Watch for nature and listen for the quiet: the magnificent herons which nest in the Westerpark (worth a visit), the occasional swan, the ubiquitous black and white “water chickens,” and the gulls soaring in from the sea nearby. If you know birds, you’ll be delighted at how many you can see. Amsterdam’s air is much better than many other cities because the bicycle is the standard means of transportation. Yes, there’s noise in the city center, but there are quiet moments even in busy places, and it’s easy to duck into a quiet canal where you can hear the beat of the heron’s wings, or the footfall of a pedestrian on a loose brick.
Listen for the carillon. In many parts of the old city, you’ll be able to hear music that sounds as if it is being played in the clouds by angels. Note: these are NOT church bells in the usual sense, nor do they ever do English-style change ringing. Rather, these sets of about 50 tuned bells play musical tunes particular to the hour, half hour, quarter past and to, so that someone who knows the music can tell the time with their eyes shut. Some bells date back to the seventeenth century. If you fall in love with these, free hourlong carillon concerts (Tuesdays 12-1) are a wonderful way to appreciate them, and climbing up the Westerkerk Tower will give you a whole new dimension.
Observe the water. Remember that the canals aren’t there for decoration. They are keeping you from being wet right now. If you look under a bridge anywhere in the country, you’ll see the mark which indicates exactly how high the water is permitted to go. It is being pumped and diverted and controlled literally all the time. Two-thirds of the Netherlands is land won from the sea by hard work and constant maintenance. The city is only about six feet above sea level; the airport is 32 feet below it. A vivid sculptural cross section of the Netherlands showing the relative heights of the sea, dunes, old and new Amsterdam building pilings, is at the Stopera (Netherlands Opera and Ballet), along with an exhibit on controlling the water level, and an interesting display on how the city has grown. Find the box office (no mean feat), and with it on your right walk straight back, away from the River. When you can’t walk farther, turn right, and soon you’ll see these excellent displays.
Watch the people. If it’s warm enough to sit outside, most of them are probably tourists, but it’s fun to try to tell the difference. Clothing and facial expressions (forget that automatic American smile) are some of the keys. The Dutch are an astonishingly tall people — 6 feet for men, 5’ 7” for women, but I routinely see people much taller than that. If they’re not on their bikes, it’s often because they are walking their dogs, and it’s great fun to see the interaction between human and beast. Look for the ethnic diversity which makes this a great city, especially people from Morocco, Surinam, and Indonesia.