As visitors to Amsterdam first set foot on Dam Square, or meander about the expansive Museumplein, or have a drink on one of the cafe terraces at Leidseplein or Rembrandtplein, it soon becomes clear how much of the city is structured around the unit of the plein, or square. The squares below are ones visitors are most likely to see on their trip, and with reason: many of the city's most memorable destinations are located on one of these picturesque squares.
The iconic square of Amsterdam, Dam Square -- or just "de Dam" in Dutch -- is the first stop on many a visitor's itinerary, not least because of its close proximity to Amsterdam Central Station. New arrivals fall in with the mass of people that head down Damrak, a perpetually crowded street filled with souvenir shops, restaurants (most of which are better avoided) and little else. The street spills out into Dam Square, where a trifecta of classic attractions await: the National Monument to the east, and the Royal Palace and Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) to the west.
Leidsestraat (Leiden Street), historically the main road to Leiden, culminates in Leidseplein (Leiden Square), one of the most vibrant entertainment districts in Amsterdam. Cafes, bars, clubs and restaurants line the perimeter of the square, and street performers busily try to reel in an audience from the crowds of people en route to their dinners and shows. Some of the top music venues in town are found near Leidseplein, like Paradiso, whose concert calendar features many internationally acclaimed artists, and venues for all tastes can be found on and around the square. Leidseplein's seasonal side is one of its most famous perks -- from a skating rink in winter to a carpet of cafe terraces in the warmer months, the square rolls with the seasons. Not far from Leidseplein is the Vondelpark, so visitors in search of a spot of peace will find this a welcome reprieve from the exceptionally lively square.
More of an intersection than a proper square, Muntplein (Mint Square) is special for its historical architecture and its convenient location amid some of the city's most unique attractions. The namesake Munttoren (Mint Tower) rises over the busy intersection, where passer-by occasionally stops to admire the classic architecture of the 17th-century former mint. To the west, the stalls of the world-famous Bloemenmarkt (Flower Market) stretch down the canal. To the north, shoppers canvass the commercial Kalverstraat for popular international brands. Both the bars and clubs of Rembrandtplein and the more sober attractions of Waterlooplein are close by.
Perhaps the most expansive of Amsterdam's squares, Museumplein (Museum Square) is appropriately named for the two major museums located on its vast lawn, in addition to the many other attractions near the square. The beauty of the square's landscape matches that of the museum architecture, which comprises the Van Gogh Museum -- one of the most popular museums in Amsterdam, devoted to the troubled artist, his brilliant oeuvre, and his contemporaries -- and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam's museum of modern art, which is currently under extensive renovation. (The museum continues to put on exhibits and events in borrowed exhibition spaces.) The stellar collection of the Rijksmuseum is nearby, as well as the headquarters of Coster Diamonds, who offer tours of their facility to diamond enthusiasts.
Located in the heart of Amsterdam Chinatown, Nieuwmarkt (New Market) square is the scene of many yearly celebrations, most notably New Year's Eve and Chinese New Year. The perimeter of the square is loaded with cafes, restaurants, and coffee shops, whose terraces take over the sidewalks in warmer months; restaurants vary tremendously, from the Chinese-Malay eats of Nyonya Malaysia Express to the Swiss fondue specialist Cafe Bern, a rarity in Amsterdam. In the center of the square sits De Waag, was built in 1488 and has served various purposes over the centuries, the most recent of which is a café and restaurant.
Situated in the desirable Jordaan district, the Noordermarkt (Northern Market) is perhaps most famous nowadays for its Saturday farmers market (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), which lures shoppers from all over the city and beyond with its fine selection of produce, meats, cheeses and more. Cafés and restaurants have sprouted on the square to cater to the market crowds and other visitors. The square takes its name from the Noorderkerk, the church that stands on the site, which actually used part of the square as a cemetery until the mid-17th century; no trace of this former use remains. Much later on in its history, Dutch activists protested the deportation of the Jews on this square; a plaque on the church remembers these activists and the Jews who were ultimately deported despite their brave efforts.
"Rembrandt Square's" claim to fame is similar to that of Leidseplein: cafes, bars, and clubs are often the destinations of choice for those who find themselves on Rembrandtplein, but the atmosphere is uniquely different from that of its fellow square. This may be due in part to the statue of the Dutch master that patrols the square, but also to the individual character of its businesses. Both the square and its side streets host a variety of clubs -- some chic establishments for clubbers who like to dress up, other laid-back ones for those who prefer to dress down, and one -- the XtraCold Ice Bar -- in which revelers had better dress warm. One side of the square features an enormous (25' x 49') interactive video screen that can be controlled with Bluetooth-enabled phones. Cinema buffs will want to check out the nearby Pathé Tuchinski cinema, a lovely architectural landmark which has screened films since 1921.
Het Spui, or "The Sluice" in Dutch, is a prime spot for bibliophiles: several major bookstores flank the square, from the cerebral Athenaeum to the attractive interior of the American Book Center -- a multi-story bookshop with an excellently curated selection. Additionally, on Fridays, a used book market takes over the square, with rows of antique and hard-to-find titles, and plain old cheap books. Literary cafes round out the bookish atmosphere of the square. Look out for the statue called Het Lieverdtje ("The Sweetheart"), which represents the youth of Amsterdam; the Provo youth movement of the 1960s, which often used this square as the site of anti-corporate protests, would convene at this statue. Down a side street almost opposite the American Book Center is the famous Vleminckx Sausmeesters, touted as the best French fries in Amsterdam.
The star of Waterlooplein (Waterloo Square) is the Stopera, whose name is a portmanteau of its two inhabitants: Stadhuis (City Hall) and Opera. While the Stadhuis is of limited use to most visitors, the opera is the home theater of De Nederlandse Opera, the Dutch national opera company, whose performance seasons are marked by an impressive variety of operas -- from traditional standards to lesser-known contemporary works. The square hosts a near-daily flea market filled with second-hand clothes, accessories and other used items, which turns the spacious premises into a warren of vendors; the market is open 6 days a week and closed on Sundays and holidays, when the square tends to look ominously vacant in comparison to its usual hustle and bustle. Waterlooplein is situated in the Jodenbuurt, the former Jewish Quarter, and a severe black monument stands in one corner to remember the resistance efforts of the Jewish citizens; just a few steps off are some of the many Jewish sites in Amsterdam, such as the marvelous Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum).