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Holland, The Netherlands, The Low Countries…

The Netherlands, a country located in northwestern Europe, is also known as Holland. “Netherlands” means low-lying country; and the name Holland (from Houtland), was originally given to one of the medieval cores of what later became the modern state and is still used for 2 of its 12 provinces.

Amsterdam is the Netherlands’ capital, known for its artistic heritage, elaborate canal system and narrow houses with gabled facades, legacies of the city’s 17th-century Golden Age. Its Museum District houses the Van Gogh Museum, works by Rembrandt and Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum, and modern art at the Stedelijk. Cycling is key to the city’s character, and there are numerous bike paths.

1. It has more culture per capita than anywhere else

Thanks to its diminutive size and myriad museums, Amsterdam is reckoned to have more culture per capita than any other city on Earth. Take that London. The Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk Museum are stacked to the rafters with world-class works, while the Anne Frank House, once home to the eponymous diarist and her ill-fated family, provides an agonizing insight into the plight of Jews during the Second World War.

Amsterdam also boasts a clutch of smaller, more eccentric museums, which deal with anything from drugs to deformities (yes, really). Highlights include the Torture Museum, Sex Museum, and (of course) the Hemp Museum.

2. You can tour the city with retired sex workers

Now tour guides, Martine and Louise Fokken, are probably the oldest (former) women in the oldest profession.  The 74-year-old sex workers have notched up nearly a century in the inglorious industry, pleasuring an estimated 355,000 men in the process (which, incidentally, is greater than the population of Iceland). Oh my…

However, as the authorities crackdown on the city’s red-light district (and as age takes its toll on the ladies’ bodies) the twins have taken to tour guiding in a bid to diversify their incomes. Suffice to say they have some stories to tell,  and delight in pulling the curtain back on the infamous red-light district via their fun tours.

3. Coffeeshops are not strictly legal

Amsterdam is renowned for its  ‘coffee shops’ – the cannabis cafes better known for selling bud than brewing beans – operate in a decidedly grey area of the law, not least because the sale, production, and possession of cannabis is technically illegal in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, coffeeshops are allowed to trade marijuana; in fact, they’re granted permits to do so.

Confused? Well, stick with us because while soft drugs are not actually legal in Amsterdam or the rest of the Netherlands for that matter, the small-scale sale and consumption of them is tolerated. This suits the authorities for a couple of reasons: one because coffeeshops pay taxes; two, because they prevent shady street dealers filling the inevitable vacuum that would exist if they didn’t.

4. Locals will give tourists a “backie”

There’s a new way of getting around Amsterdam: by riding pillion with a local. Dubbed the Yellow Backie scheme, when a tourist spots a cyclist with a yellow luggage rack they must shout “backie”, which should prompt said cyclist to pull over and offer a lift (assuming, of course, they’re heading in the same direction). It’s a terrific idea and a great way to meet locals.

5. The houses are narrow for a reason

The Dutch capital is renowned for its slender properties and there are numerous houses in the city vying for the title of “Amsterdam’s narrowest”. However, that dubious right officially belongs to the dwelling at Singel 7, whose svelte façade is just 3.5′ wide, barely big enough for the front door.

There’s a good reason why Amsterdam’s houses are so narrow – and predictably it boils down to money. In the 17th century, locals were taxed on the width of their properties, which, funnily enough, generated much interest in narrow-fronted houses. Cleverly, many of these properties were designed to be wider at the rear, thus only giving the appearance of being small.

6. There’s a houseboat dedicated exclusively to cats

Cats are renowned for their hatred of water, but the kitties of Amsterdam seem quite content living on it. That’s thanks to the appropriately-named Cat Boat, a floating feline sanctuary moored on Singel canal.

Founded by cat-lover, Henriette van Weelde, the sanctuary has become something of a tourist attraction in recent years, though that doesn’t seem to get in the way of the charity’s primary objective: rehoming Amsterdam’s abandoned cats.

7. Worlds first stock exchange

Much to the chagrin of money-obsessed London, it’s Amsterdam that lays claim to the world’s oldest stock exchange. Established by the Dutch East India Company in 1602, this financial institution once occupied the impressive Beurs van Berlage building, which still stands today.

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