When we first discussed a trip to Amsterdam last year, I pictured long walks beside quiet canals, street vendors selling tulips and gabled guildhalls from the 17th century.

But here we were on our first morning in the Dutch capital, on a steel catwalk above a cavernous warehouse, peering down at the crazy din of 20 million flowers on their way to market. This was the FloraHolland auction center — the world’s largest floral clearinghouse, a depot bigger than 200 football fields, a hub where jumbo jets and robots move half of the cut flowers sold in the world each day.

It was a spellbinding operation. Hundreds of electric carts zipped across the warehouse floor, piloted by clerks holding bar-coded order sheets and towing long trains of gardenias, tulips, roses, chrysanthemums, orchids and flowers we couldn’t identify. They picked up orders, they dropped off consignments — imagine a Pixar movie choreographed by Busby Berkeley.

It was easily a highlight of our trip, but it also turned out to be an accidental metaphor for the Netherlands. For five centuries, this society has combined a talent for beauty with a genius for commerce — and the result is a city that is modern and efficient yet imbued with warmth and charm.

But then the entire trip was something of an accident. In a strange, busy year of travel, my wife and I had passed through Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport several times — usually sleep-deprived and always groggy. Each time we found it bright, friendly, well organized and glowing with tulips. It was so inviting that it hatched a crazy thought: Why not make Amsterdam the destination for a long weekend? It’s a direct flight from MSP. Schiphol has good, fast public transit into town. And Amsterdam’s compact historic city center makes it an easy walking vacation.

Of course you can’t see all of Amsterdam’s important attractions in three days. But you can take in some major sights — the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank House, one or two of Amsterdam’s “hidden churches,” and, yes, the Red Light district — while slowly soaking up the vibe of this gracious, cosmopolitan city.

A homey base

Our base of operations was the Jordaan, a residential neighborhood northwest of the city’s core. It’s just a 15-minute walk from the center of town, Dam Square, but it’s also a quiet retreat from the bustle of central Amsterdam. We found the Jordaan’s main avenues lined with cafes, taverns, bookshops and bakeries — the perfect neighborhood to come home to at the end of a busy day.

To say that Amsterdam is modern and efficient, however, is not to say you can’t get lost. Organized around a set of concentric, U-shaped canals and crisscrossed by tram lines and boulevards, it can be completely baffling to a newcomer.

Our first taxi driver dropped us off at the head of a lane too narrow for his minivan and pointed toward our apartment: “That way. Fifty meters.” Hah! After asking directions five times from five locals — each of them cheerful, confident and completely wrong — we finally found our street, tiny Tweede Leliedwarsstraat. We had much the same experience the next day, when we hoped to take the tram to a museum. Again, the natives were friendly and misinformed. (“This line, but opposite direction.’’ “No, wrong tram — you have to cross that intersection.” “No, the tram doesn’t go there. You must take a bus.”)

But once you get your bearings it’s an easy city to navigate, and strolling along the canals and bridges was the perfect way to take in the fabled architecture and absorb the city’s extraordinary history.

Amsterdam came to power in the 17th century, when its talent for trade and banking made it a colonial power and the richest city in the world. Wealthy merchants built magnificent gabled homes and sponsored the painters who gave the Renaissance its northern sequel: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals.

A good walking tour would start at Dam Square, where the city’s founders dammed the Amstel river (“Amstel-dam”), then erected the magnificent New Church, now an exhibition center, and what became the Royal Palace. From here, head west to the Herengracht (the canal of the gentlemen), where Amsterdam’s worthies built their elegant row houses, which now compete for the flaneur’s eye with an infinite variety of decorative facades.

A separate district to the south, organized around a plaza called the museumplein, houses Amsterdam’s great art collections. An essential stop is the Rijkmuseum, where an audio guide will introduce you to the world’s greatest collection of Dutch paintings while sparing you from Old Master overload.

Just across the plaza from the Rijksmuseum is the Van Gogh Musuem, a second essential stop. This sleek, modern building houses more than 200 paintings, including an entire sequence of the great Van Gogh self-portraits. It also presents surprising insights into Van Gogh the man, a deeply literate guy who wrote hundreds of letters to his brother Theo and others, in which he mused on poetry, painting and religion.

A long, rich history

The Netherlands’ wealth and location also made it a crossroads for every conquering power that marched across Europe. Though a famously tolerant city, it succumbed to the religious wars triggered by the Reformation and became home to a form of Protestantism so strict that Catholics had to worship in “hidden churches.” You can still tour a few of these, and while they lack the grandeur of the city’s baroque chapels, they convey the humility and devotion of people living in a time of raging passions.

Four centuries later, it was the Nazis who descended on the Netherlands. The enlightened country had been a refuge for Europe’s Jews since the Spanish Inquisition (the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam); Hitler deported more than 100,000 Dutch Jews to the concentration camps.

I thought I knew the Anne Frank story pretty well, but nothing quite prepares you for a visit to the house where she and her family hid from the Gestapo between 1942 and 1944. Exploring the hidden staircases and cramped attic rooms gives you a palpable sense of the anxiety and dread that fell over Europe as fascism spread.

Amsterdam remains an open-minded city — even if hashish cafes are the current hallmark of tolerance — and it is one of the most cosmopolitan in Europe. We ate croissants for breakfast, gyros for lunch and Indonesian rice tafel (do not miss!) for dinner.

Amsterdam’s history as a global trading crossroads shows up in retailing as well: The “Nine Streets” district is lined with inviting shops and small boutiques, with clothing from Paris to Kazakhstan, where shopping is a blast even if you never buy a thing.

Still, my favorite pastime in this gracious city was simply walking.

On our last morning, my friend Hap and I set aside an hour to wander the canals and cobbled lanes of our neighborhood (by now, we were confident that we could actually find our way back to the apartment). We happily crisscrossed bridges, watched a stonemason repair an old church, and looked on as canalboats tied up for the day. The hour passed far too quickly, and we left for the airport feeling that, well, maybe three days in Amsterdam wasn’t quite enough.

Dave Hage • 612-673-7108