AMSTERDAM (AP) — The Dutch capital has plenty to celebrate this year, most notably the April 13 reopening of the magnificent Rijksmuseum after 10 years of renovations and, after a shorter facelift, the May 1 reopening of the neighboring Van Gogh Museum. You have to pay to get into those museums, but most of downtown Amsterdam looks like one huge open-air museum and strolling its streets costs you nothing. Renting a bike is not free, but if you want to go native, it's the only way to travel. Just watch out for the traffic and tram rails.
It's not only the Rijksmuseum celebrating in 2013: Amsterdam's canals are 400 years old this year, but strolling along the waterways never gets old. The scenery includes Golden Age mansions dating to the 17th century, converted warehouses and narrow buildings that sometimes look like they're ready to topple over sideways. The ring of canals starts with the Singel, which boasts a floating flower market. Then come the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and finally the Prinsengracht. Once you've worked up a thirst pounding the cobbled sidewalks, stop off for a drink in one of the "brown cafes" — small bars named for their dark wooden interiors — along the canals or in the web of narrow alleys that interconnect them. If you visit the Red Light District (and most tourists do), you'll discover that it's also built around two historic canals, the Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal.
The clatter of trams and ringing of bicycle bells can be an assault on the ears, but there's a hidden oasis of peace in the heart of Amsterdam if you need a little quiet time. The Begijnhof is a small grassed courtyard surrounded by beautiful 17th- and 18th-century houses that were originally built for pious Catholic single women. It's right in the middle of town and reachable by a gateway at the end of a lane leading off one of the city's busiest shopping streets, but it is almost eerily silent. The courtyard also holds a small English Reformed Church and a Catholic chapel. If you don't manage to get into the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandt's "Night Watch," right around the corner from the Begijnhof is another hidden (and free) gem of the city, the Schuttersgalerij, or Civil Guard Gallery, of the Amsterdam Museum. This short covered passageway is home to — among other things — a handful of much smaller portraits of civil guards similar in style, if not size, to Rembrandt's famous work.