As a modern European capital with cultural cache and an easygoing lifestyle, this Netherlands city attracts people from across the country to its historic streets.

Visitors who throng Amsterdam’s red light district and visit the the Rijksmuseum to parade past the priceless Rembrandts experience a small part of the city – but the capital of the Netherlands is more than just a Golden Age set piece or a home of risqué debauchery. Amsterdam is a modern European capital with cultural cachet and an easygoing lifestyle, attracting a large immigrant population and people across the country to its historic streets.

What is it known for?
During 2013, many of Amsterdam’s most famous landmarks and cultural institutions will be feted. The city is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the beautiful and historic Grachtengordel (Canal Ring), the city centre’s four concentric canals, which were built in the 17th Century and established as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999. This year will also see the reopening of the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum; celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; and mark 150 years since the Netherlands abolished slavery in its South American, Caribbean and Indonesian colonies.

Overall, the city is famous for its reputation and history of tolerance, which includes both a general worldview of open-mindedness as well as in specific industries,  such as legal prostitution and coffee shops that sell marijuana for personal use (a 2012 law that bans foreigners from coffee shops is being applied on a city-by-city basis, so Amsterdam has seen little change). “I like the atmosphere in Amsterdam,” said Merijn Henfling, editor in chief of PS van der Week, the weekend magazine of the Het Parool newspaper. “It is the most free city in the Netherlands for the way people think and the way you can express yourself.”

In this compact, canal-packed city with 400km of bike lanes and paths, the bicycle is the primary mode of transport, so visiting pedestrians need to watch out for cyclists just as much, if not more, than cars. “Amsterdam isn’t a big city, but it has everything that can be found in a big city,” Henfling said. “It’s easy to get everywhere, to see your friends and go places.”

New zones, such as the commercial and financial hub of Zuidas in south Amsterdam, are attracting Dutch companies who are relocating from the city centre, plus international corporations and their employees. In 2012, the transport minister approved tunnelling underground a section of the A10 ring road that bisects Zuidas and there are also plans to enlarge and improve the Amsterdam Zuid train station, both to begin construction by 2015.

Where do you want to live?
The gracious 17th-century townhouses in the Grachtengordel are some of the most sought-after properties in Amsterdam. “It remains one of the more expensive areas in the Netherlands,” said Alex Koch de Gooreynd, an international residential agent at Knight Frank estate agents. “Many of the old canal houses have been renovated into smaller apartments.” The 19th-century Museumkwartier (museum quarter), bordered by Vondelpark, is also popular with international residents. Oud Zuid, south of the city centre, is another traditionally desirable area of town. “It’s known as the posh neighbourhood of Amsterdam, with beautiful buildings, wide streets, designer-label shops and restaurants all within a 10-minute cycle to the centre of the city,” Koch de Gooreynd explained.

To the east, the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Indische Buurt is near the IJmeer, the lake that sits between Amsterdam and the city of Almere to the east. “It’s very lively, with lots of new restaurants and bars,” said Henfling, a neighbourhood resident. Across town, De Baarsjes, part of Amsterdam West, and Bos en Lommer just to its north, are multicultural neighbourhoods that are rapidly being colonised by young artists. “In Amsterdam, it’s really important to live inside the ring road that circles the city,” said Henfling. “[Indische Buurt, De Baarsjes, Bos en Lommer] are still inside and only 15 minutes by bike to the centre.”

Side trips
Quick transport links make visiting other Dutch cities easy; heading to Utrecht for a day of shopping takes just 30 minutes by train and historic Haarlem in the centre of the tulip region is 15 minutes away by train. In the summer, many Amsterdammers head to Bloemendaal aan Zee, a beach resort on the North Sea, just west of Haarlem. But in such a small nation, many leave the country altogether.

Schipol Amsterdam Airport has flights across Europe and around the world. Flights to London and Paris are both around an hour, while the train to Paris takes less than four hours on the high-speed Thalys train, which also reaches Brussels in under two hours.

Practical info
Recent mortgage rule changes had the knock-on effect of reducing house sale prices and strengthening the rental rates around Amsterdam. “Prices weakened over the last quarter of 2012 due to the number of properties arriving on the market at the same time,” Koch de Gooreynd said.

Buying a large two-bedroom apartment in the Grachtengordel costs around 750,000 euros, and an equivalent flat rents for 3,500 euros a month or more. A house starts at around 1.5 million euros. Properties in south Amsterdam are less expensive. “Zuidas has lower prices than the more established areas and good rental returns“, said Koch de Gooreynd. Here, apartments start at around 500,000 euros to buy and luxury flats rent for upwards of 2,000 euros a month. In areas like Bos en Lommer and Indische Buurt, two-bed flats of around 80 to 100sqm rent for around 1,000 euros a month.

Further information
Amsterdam Foodie: comprehensive food blog with reviews and listings

Amsterdo: community newspaper covering city life, culture, features and more

Free Amsterdam: city guide to arts, events, festivals and gigs