Amsterdam was built on water—it's the source of the city's wealth and cultural history. Before Centraal Station was built, the center of the city was open to the sea. International shipping routes ended here, sluicing bounty into the city via the Amstel and the man-made canals that loped around. Today, the area is experiencing a renaissance. With the massive development around the station and landmark buildings going up east, west, and north across the water (North being the city's most populous but least glamorous district), a shiny new Amsterdam is being built on the waterfront.

Directly to the west of Centraal Station are the Westelijke Eilanden (Western Islands), which housed the heavy and polluting industries of the 17th century: shipbuilders, pickling factories, and smokehouses for fish. The old warehouses give this neighborhood a special "village within the city" feel. It borders one of the city's main green areas, the Westerpark, which runs parallel with the train lines coming out of Centraal Station. In the park, the Westergasfabriek is the place to go for funky international festivals, art cinema, clubbing and cafés, conferences, music, and experimental exhibits.

The opposite direction will bring you to the Eastern Docklands, also an area that has been completely redeveloped since the 1990s. Architectural highlights of this former squatters' paradise include the swoopy-roofed (like a wave) cruise ship Passenger Terminal Amsterdam, the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ (Music Building on the IJ), Amsterdam's amazing new library—the biggest in Europe!—and some startling bridges and futuristic housing projects. The waterfront in Amsterdam North on the other side of the IJ, once a bleak industrial no-man's-land, is buzzing with new international art spaces, restaurants and clubs, and a new architectural landmark, the EYE Film Institute Netherlands.