Amsterdam is a freewheeling city, but contrary to popular opinion not everything goes.
Too, some things — while perfectly legal — are best avoided.
Here, in no particular order, are our tips and suggestions:
You can legally buy and use soft drugs, but the best place to do so is in licensed coffeeshops (yes, that’s what we call them…).
Don’t buy ‘drugs’ on the street
Naive tourists have been known to pay premium prices for sheep dung, parsley, aspirin or talcum powder.
By the way, it’s best to avoid eye contact with street loiterers, beggars and junkies. It is not a good idea to reply to their whispered ‘hash? coke?’ questions.
Not only can you end up bying stuff you did not intent to get, but such deals usually take place in dark alleys where you can easily be accosted and relieved of your valuables.
Don’t be foolish with drugs
You wouldn’t be the first tourist whose trip to Amsterdam turns into a bad trip – or even the final trip – after experimenting with (unfamiliar) drugs.
Also, keep in mind that Dutch marijuana is known for its potency.
Police, emergency services, medical professionals and others have reported a sharp rise in the number of people who have suffered psychosis after using marijuana.
Pace yourself and don’t fool yourself. Trust us when we say this: absolutely nobody is impressed with the amount of beer you (think you can) drink, or the number and size of joints you believe you can smoke at one time.
Do listen to — and follow — the advice of the counter personnel in the coffeeshops. They’re professionals who know their stuff.
The sale of hallucinogenic “magic” mushrooms was banned starting December 1, 2008 — as a direct result of a number of deadly incidents.
One of them involved a 17-year old French tourist who, in March 2007, asked an older friend to buy her some psychedelic mushrooms. After using them, she committed suicide by jumping off a building onto a freeway.
At the time only those 18 years and older could buy psychedelic mushrooms at a so-called ‘Smart Shop.’ Turned away by a store, this girl asked her friend to purchase the shrooms for her.
He did, but — as far as authorities have been able to determine — apparently did not relay the extensive Do’s and Don’ts instructions the seller gave.
The girl’s tragic death became a catalyst for the ban on magic mushrooms.
Since the ban, Smart Shops have turned to alternative products, some of which also have hallucinogenic effects. Knowing that their industry is under close observation, the shopkeepers continue to go to great lengths to provide proper instructions.
Their number one advice: do not use any such products together with alcohol, marijuana, or something stronger.
Second most important rule: do not exceed the recommended dosage.
Bottom line: some rules are simply there to protect you or your friends from doing something stupid.
Don’t ignore basic safety considerations
Here is something to watch out for: when you do visit a coffeeshop, be aware that some characters have been known to follow stoned tourists when they leave the place — figuring that it will be relatively easy to rob them.
Some tourists are so eager to visit a coffeeshop that they go there directly from the train station — carrying all their luggage. If you think you may be one of them, know this: opportunistic thieves are just waiting you to do just that.
And do we need to say this? Don’t flash your cash. At the very least, use a money belt.
Don’t buy drugs if you are younger than 18
It’s not only against the law, but if shops are caught selling to underage users they risk closure.
Don’t have an older person buy drugs for you either. Some popular shops have already voluntarily raised the age limit for customers to 21 as a result.
Freedom does come with responsibilities. Don’t ruin it for yourself and others.
Don’t buy drugs to take home
You will get caught — either here or over there. It’s not worth it. Just visit Amsterdam more often.
Your mileage may differ, but in our opinion most tourists won’t ever lie awake from having missed these spots:
- Holland Experience
Essentially this is a 30-minute multimedia tourist brochure providing an overview of the Netherlands. Some people like it. Some don’t. We think your time is better spent seeing the real thing right outside. You’ll save a bundle of money, too.
- Madame Tussaud
Put the wax figures on the back burner until you have a chance to visit the vastly superior London location instead. (Then again, you do get a great view of Dam Square and Damrak from the huge, round window at the top floor.)
- Erotic Museums
There are several of these, operating under various names. In some you pay to look at old pictures and samples of merchandise. In others you pay to look at newer pictures and samples of merchadise. Most of these outfits are stores masquerading as ‘museums’ in order to get you to pay for something you can see for free somewhere else.
- Other Shop-Type Museums
See a Cheese Museum? A Tulip Museum? A Vodka Museum? Essentially you are paying to visit a store presented as a museum.
Red Light District
The Red Light District is perfectly safe, but keep the following tips in mind.
Don’t photograph the prostitutes
If you have to have a souvenir from the Red Light District, buy a postcard. You can take pictures of, say, the area’s architectural treasures, but if you aim your camera at one of the scantily-clad ladies in the windows you may find yourself getting closely acquainted with the nearest canal – via one or more bouncer types.
Some of the ladies (or those pretending to be) will douse you and your camera with a bucket full of ammonia- or bleach-laced water.
Tip: Visit the Red Light District Shop of the ‘Prostitute Information Center.’ You’ll find interesting postcards, titillating souvenirs, maps with suggested Red Light District tours, and so on. The shop is run by a former prostitute whose organization fights for the wel-being and legal position of prostitutes.
Don’t act like a boorish lout
Some guys, usually having found some ‘courage’ after drinking too much beer, act like completely idiots when they spot a scantily-dressed woman. Don’t be that guy.
Don’t interact with the junkies
They’re after one thing only: your money. Again, if you have to buy drugs buy them in one of the many licensed coffeeshops in the area.
Do not give money to the junkies. They know where to get help, including food, medicines and medical care, shelter, counseling, etcetera.
Do not be drawn into a conversation with a junkie. It’s like talking to a politician: you won’t get anything out it, and in the end you’ll discover he is only after your money.
Don’t venture into dark, deserted alleys
You can count on the fact that people are watching you, and that they are just waiting for you to do something stupid — like entering an area where you can easily be robbed.
Don’t be an easy target for pickpockets
While pickpockets go after everyone, try not to look like a tourist. It makes you extra vulnerable.
In recent years open borders with more and more east-block countries have contributed to, among other things, an influx of criminals with creative methods. Be aware of cute young kids who charm you into posing with them for a photo. While’s you’re concentrating on looking your best, they are concentrating on the contents of your pockets and bags.
And if someone wearing what to you looks like a police uniform approaches you and demands to see your wallet ‘because there are false Euros in circulation,’ you can be sure that — if you comply — you’ll soon discover that your real money was indeed exchanged for fake bills.
Don’t eat the free cookies
It seems like a friendly gesture: a pretty Dutch girl, a young boy, or a grandmotherly women will walk up to you with a plate full of home-baked cookies. Welcome to Holland! Have some free cookies!
Only, soon after you eat them you’ll start feeling incredibly drowsy. You’re glad the cookie provider is still around to help you get out of the crowd and into a quiet side street.
Once you wake up — on the cold, hard street — you discover that your valuables are missing.
Similar scenarios happen in bars, coffeeshops, discos and other ventures where it seems natural for some friendly people to offer you a round of drinks.
Don’t buy a stolen bicycle
For one thing, you’d help perpetuate an age-old problem. For another, should the police catch you at it you’ll be fined €160.
(That said, a police officer will always have to answer affirmatively to the question, “Are you a police officer?”)
Do not walk on the bike paths
Bike paths seem to hold a near-irressistible attraction for some tourists. As always, when visiting a foreign country check and see what the locals are doing. In this case, observe where the local pedestrians walk: on the sidewalk. Join them.
Note: while the happy-clappy travel brochures and tourists guides always show lots of pictures of smiling bicyclists, in reality you will encounter quite a few kamikaze cyclists, some of whom may even deliberately target you if you venture onto ‘their’ bike path.
Don’t use an unofficial taxi
When you arrive at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, runners for unlicensed taxis will accost you. While their story may sound good, you will almost certainly be quoted a much lower price than you will eventually be charged at the end of the drive.
Bonus tip: Do not pay your taxi driver until you’ve got all your luggage out of the car.
Come to think of it, it pays to familiarize yourself with the taxi situation in Amsterdam.
Don’t trust hotel runners
At Central Station – and throughout downtown Amsterdam – people who look like tourists (carrying backpacks or suitcases) will be accosted by hotel runners. Do not trust them. Usually the rates they quote are invented on the spot. Once they have led you to the hotel – in an area you are not familiar with – the room rate turns out to be a lot higher. And some runners don’t easily take ‘no’ for an answer.
Too, you may end up in one of several illegal, overcrowded hotels.
Lastly: the kind of people who tend to use hotel runners in the first place often are the same types who come to Amsterdam primarily to sample the coffeeshops. If that is you, re-read the section titled, “Don’t be foolish with drugs.”
Don’t overlook the trams
Each year, a number of tourists die or are badly injured in collisions with trams.
Do not try to outrun trams. These urban trains go faster than you can run, and they usually have — and take — the right of way.
Keep in mind that when you cross the street behind a tram, another tram — traveling in the opposite direction from the first tram — may be racing toward you (For you British folks: they’re coming from the right). In addition, taxis, buses, emergency vehicles and some bozos also use the tram lanes.
Don’t ride the trams without a ticket
Amsterdam’s electronic ticket system (which, just like the Euro, wasn’t going to be more expensive than the old one — but still appears to costs twice as much as before) has greatly curtailed fair dodging, but shifty characters can still find ways to travel for free.
If you get caught you’ll have to pay a fine of € 35.00 on the spot.
Buy an OV-chipcard in advance (from a tobacco store, the supermarket, or the ‘GVB’ ticket office at Central Station). Tickets bought in the tram or bus are much more expensive. Get them from either the driver or the conductor. Not all trams have a conductor, but in that case there are ticket machines.
Don’t exchange your money at independent money changers
You’ll always pay more and get less. Use Travelex instead.
Bonus tip: if you insist on using an independent money changer, be aware of the ‘free map’ trick. During or after your transaction the clerk will hand you a map of Amsterdam — without asking you whether you actually want one. If you accept it, figuring that it is a free gesture, you will later discover you were charged six, seven or even more Euros for the virtually worthless map.
Don’t make a beeline for the nearest fast-food ‘restaurant’ that reminds you of home
You’re in Amsterdam. Amsterdam! Be adventurous.
This article was written by Anton Hein, along with his wife, Janet.
Anton was born and raised in Amsterdam. Janet was born in England and raised in Ireland (and truly has an Irish nature). She settled here nearly 25 years ago.
They live in a park (well, in a house situated in a park) in Amsterdam-North, and wish you lots of gezelligheid on your next visit to this wonderful city.
Anton Hein’s website includes photos of Amsterdam.
Do not republish or repost.