Amsterdam takes its nightlife seriously. It even has a Nachtburgemeester or Night Mayor - a lady who goes by the name of DJ Isis currently holds the post.
Nights out in the Dutch capital can be as low key, or as wild and intense, as you wish. You could just while away an hour or two over a few glasses of Heineken in a snug little brown café, or party into the small hours in any number of clubs.
If you're not fussy about where to go but just want to savour the liveliest areas, head for the Red Light District, Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein, and the southern end of Spuistraat. But be warned: on weekend nights, the Red Light District and Leidseplein are not for the faint-hearted.
The archetypal Amsterdam watering hole is a brown café - at its best, an ultra-civilised, old-fashioned pub, with gleaming brass rails, candles and glasses laid out on the low-slung bar, panelled walls, boarded floors, and perhaps a cat snoozing in the corner on its favourite chair.
Some of the most atmospheric brown cafés can be found in the Jordaan. My favourite is split-level t' Smalle (Egelantiersgracht 12, 1015 RL; +31 20 623 9617; www.t-smalle.nl), which has the additional attraction of a dreamy canal-side terrace. Also recommended is nearby Café Chris (Bloemstraat 42, 1016 LC; +31 20 624 5942; www.cafechris.nl): dating from 1624, it has more of the feel of a neighbourhood boozer.
Over in the Spui area, hunt out De Dokter (Rozenboomsteeg 4, 1012 PR; +31 20 626 4427, www.cafe-de-dokter.nl), a tiny place (it claims to be Amsterdam's smallest bar) stuffed full of undusted bric-à-brac. A livelier nearby option is Hoppe (Spui 18-20, 1012 XA; +31 20 420 4420; www.cafe-hoppe.nl), a no-frills, sawdust-on-the-floor bar dating from the 17th century - ignore its smarter but much less characterful half.
Amsterdam still has a few historic proeflokalen - distilleries' tasting houses for jenevers (Dutch gin) and liqueurs. In my opinion, the quaintest is Wynand Fockink (Pijlsteeg 31, 1012 HH; + 31 20 639 2695; www.wynand-fockink.nl), down an alley off Dam Square. It offers a long list of exotically titled liqueurs to sample, such as Parrot Soup and Naked Belly Button. Like most proeflokalen, it closes early (at 9pm).
Beer lovers should make a beeline to friendly In de Wildeman (Kolksteeg 3, 1012 PT; +31 20 638 2348; www.indewildeman.nl). The bierproeflokaal – beer-tasting house - has the best selection of beers in Amsterdam, including many Trappist varieties from the Low Countries. If you fancy tasting great locally made beer, head out to Brouwerij 't IJ (Funenkade 7, 1018 AL; +31 20 320 1786; www.brouwerijhetij.nl). The rough-and-ready pub, under a giant thatched windmill east of the centre, has an on-site brewery that makes powerful hoppy brews; it's open until 8pm.
In terms of trendy bars, retro-styled Bo Cinq (Prinsengracht 494, 1017 KH; +31.20 622 0682; www.bo5.nl), just off Leidseplein, is the prime see-and-be-seen hangout at the moment - expect to have to persuade a bouncer you're suitable clientele to get in at weekends. There are less exclusive, and to my mind more fun, alternatives nearby. Try MiNiBAR (Prinsengracht 478, 1017 KG; +31 20 422 1935; www.minibaronline.com), where you're given a key to your own minibar, help yourself to what you want, and mix your own drinks. Or try hip but casual Kamer 401 (Marxinstraat 401, 1017 PJ; +31 20 620 0614, www.kamer401.nl), which, along with next-door Lux and Weber, are packed with youthful Amsterdammers on weekend nights.
The law covering soft drugs in the Netherlands is complex. But from a visitors' point of view, all you really need know is that coffeeshops are places where you can buy and smoke cannabis and hashish, and get stoned to your heart's content, with impunity. At least, for the time being...In late 2010, the new right-of-centre Dutch government announced plans to stop foreigners from buying cannabis in coffeeshops. But so important is the coffeeshop culture to Amsterdam's tourist industry, you can be sure that this radical change will not happen speedily, or without a fight.
Here's what you need to know as the situation stands now.
You can buy ready-rolled joints (from around 3.5 euros), or the wherewithal to roll your own. Ask to see the menu: in reputable places, it should spell out the strength of what you're buying. Coffeeshops also sell space cakes, hot and soft drinks and sometimes basic snacks, but they are no longer allowed to sell alcohol.
In a Kafkaesque twist, a recently introduced ban on tobacco smoking in public places is intended to apply to coffeeshops. Many provide herbal tobacco substitutes to add to joints, and some have designated areas where you are allowed to smoke tobacco - and in reality, of course, it's hard to police whether a joint is mixed with tobacco or not.
Though their numbers are decreasing, there are still around 220 coffeeshops in Amsterdam. Given the sweet smell of dope emanating from them, you probably won't have any difficulty identifying what is, and isn't, a coffeeshop. But if in doubt, look for a green and white rectangular permit sign in the window saying "coffee shop".
So where would I recommend? Greenhouse (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 191, 1012 EW; +31 20 627 1739; www.greenhouse.org) has won many awards for the quality of its cannabis, is a favourite of celebrities, and has a funky mosaic-tiled interior. De Rokerij (Lange Leidsedwarsstraat 41, 1017 NG; + 31 20 622 9442, www.rokerij.net) has the feel of an exotic, oriental den, with a chilled-out party atmosphere.
If you want a dance somewhere central, then the legendary Paradiso (Weteringschans 6-8, 1017 SG; +31 20 626 4521; www.paradiso.nl), a former church off the Leidseplein, is a reliable bet, and is rarely hoity-toity on the door.
A strong contender for Amsterdam's most glamorous club is oriental-themed Jimmy Woo (Korte Leidsedwarstraat 18, 1017 BV; +31 20 626 3150; www.jimmywoo.com); getting past the bouncers here can be a big challenge.
Also with cachet is Panama (Oostelijke Handelskade 4, 1019 BM; +31 20 311 8686; www.panama.nl): popular with an older crowd, the former power station in the Eastern Docklands is a classy club with top DJs, with a striking restaurant and theatre too.
For a cheap night out, head out to Pacific Parc (Polonceaukade 23, 1014 DA; +31 20 488 7778; www.pacificparc.nl), a laid-back café/restaurant that transforms in to a free-to-enter nightclub late in the evening. It's out in the Westergasfabriek, a gasworks imaginatively converted into a cultural complex.
The Amsterdams Uitburo (AUB) is the best single source for tickets and information about what's on. Its Ticketshop, at Leidseplein 26, in the Stadsschouwburg - the Municipal Theatre - is open Monday-Friday 10am-7.30pm, Saturday 10am-6pm, Sunday noon-6pm. There's a small charge per ticket. Staff are very helpful, and you can find listings magazines and leaflets covering just about every possible show. Enquiries on +31 20 795 9950; listings, and links to bookings, on www.aub.nl (the website is in Dutch only). The same office is the Last Minute Ticket Shop, for half-price day-of-performance tickets (see more info in my Amsterdam insider tips).
Leading venues always worth checking out include:
* Muziektheater (Waterlooplein 22, 1011 PG; +31 20 625 5455; www.muziektheater.nl), home of the Netherlands Opera and Dutch National Ballet.
* Concertgebouw (Concertgebouwplein 10, 1071 LN; + 31 20 573 0573 www.concertgebouw.nl), for classical concerts.
* Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ (Piet Heinkade 1, 1019 BR; + 31 20 788 2000; www.muziekgebouw.nl), an uplifting glass building alongside the IJ waterway that opened in 2005, and lays on a varied programme of contemporary music. Amsterdam’s leading jazz venue, the highly regarded Bimhuis (+ 31 20 788 2188; www.bimhuis.nl), occupies a black box sticking out of the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ.
* Paradiso (see also above under nightclubs) is Amsterdam's best-known pop venue. Acts to have performed there recently range from Lady Gaga to Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.
* Melkweg (Lijnbaansgracht 234a, 1017 PH; +31 20 531 8181; www.melkweg.nl), once focal point of Amsterdam's hippy scene, is a multimedia complex with frequent pop concerts.
Going to see a film may not be an obvious choice for a night out in Amsterdam. However, cinemas normally screen films in their original language with Dutch subtitles, and there are some enticing places to watch a movie.
Theater Tuschinski (Reguliersbreestraat 26-34, 1017 CN; www.pathe.nl/tuschinski) has an astonishing, elaborate art deco interior, and double "love seats" in screen 1.
EYE Film Instituut Nederlands (Vondelpark 3, 1071 AA; +31 20 589 1400; www.eyefilm.nl), currently on the northeastern side of the Vondelpark but scheduled to move to new premises by the river IJ in late 2011, is in part an art-house cinema. There's a great café in the basement called Vertigo, and in summer open-air screenings take place on the terrace.