Amsterdam is a freewheeling city, but contrary to popular opinion not everything goes.
Too, some things — while perfectly legal — are best avoided.
First, the obvious:
Next, in no particular order, our tips and suggestions on what not to do in Amsterdam:
In Amsterdam locals and tourists alike 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.
Some people have lost more than money. In 2014 three young tourist died after using what they thought was cocaine, bought from a street dealer Seventeen others were hospitalized.
All had instead been sold white heroin, which causes respiratory failure.
‘Dying’ is high on our ‘What Not To Do In Amsterdam’ list.
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 buying stuff you did not intent to get — such as dried and crushed cabbage leaves or powdered pain killers — but those kind of deals usually take place in dark alleys or doorways 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. It is a lot stronger than what you may be used to.
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 number and size of joints you believe you can smoke at one time (or, for that matter, the amount of beer you think you can drink). Consumer for your own pleasure; not to impress others.
Do listen to — and follow — the advice of the staff 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.
March 2007: A 17-year old French tourist 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 instead asked her friend to purchase the ‘shrooms’ for her.
He did, but — as far as authorities have been able to determine — apparently failed to 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.
Strongly advised: Make sure at least one person in your party stays sober to help you in case things go pear-shaped (e.g. you’re trying to ‘fly’ out of an open window).
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 waiting for 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.
Shops disguised as ‘museums’
Several shops in Amsterdam are cleverly disguised as ‘museums.’ Think ‘Cheese Museum,’ ‘Tulip Museum, or ‘Erotic Museum.’
Our rule of thumb: if the store area is (nearly) as big as the museum, it’s a shop masquerading as something else.
Your mileage may differ, but in our opinion most tourists won’t ever lie awake from having missed these spots:
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.)
Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Really? Did you come all the way to Amsterdam to waste an hour on Ripley’s? Unbelievable!
Avoid Nutella Spam, Cheese Spam, Tours & Tickets Spam
What’s up with all the huge pots of Nutella in the windows of countless ‘bakeries,’ candy stores, and hole-in-the-walls?
We’re convinced the popular cocao paste is used as bait in tourist traps.
Apparently it is just as effective at getting tourists to part with their money as the overpriced cheese sold in the luxury cheese shops that plague Amsterdam.
Plague? Yes. The Nutella bakeries and cheese shops have seemingly overrun the city.
Same goes for the ubiquitous ‘Tours & Tickets’ offices.
It’s like offline spam.
What almost all of these shops have in common is that they have replaced many unique businesses, as well as stores that used to cater to the locals instead of focusing on tourists.
Another thing most of them share: an inexplicable desire to replace antique store fronts and interiors with ugly, visually ‘loud’ modern designs.
As a result they contribute to the gradual but steady destruction of the inner city.
Many Amsterdammers boycott these business, and we at DutchAmsterdam urge you to do the same.
Beer bikes, Drinking Tours and the like
Nobody looks good on a beer bike.
The city council has been trying to ban the bikes from most of the center of town, but thus far the tour operators have succeeded in their legal challenges against such measures.
So all we can do is ask you kindly: please help stop the Disneyfication3 of Amsterdam by not renting beer bikes.
As you might imagine, residents and business people also do not look kindly on various drinking tours, hen- and stack parties, and other types of group activities that cause nuisance.
Can we count on you to put ‘riding a beer bike’ on your ‘What Not To Do In Amsterdam’ list?
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.
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, et cetera.
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 look like you’re lost, either. A common trick is for a friendly person to offer anyone staring at a map to show you where you want to go. And you really don’t want to go where they want you to go.
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 who employ a range of creative methods. For instance, 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 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 do a Conor Woodman
The city felt insulted and said it would take the show to court for harming its reputation.
Woodman remains belligerent and his Wikipedia entry is carefully sculpted to exclude details about the ruse, but the National Geographic Channel has agreed to put its admission in writing, and has promised to not re-broadcast the episode.
Reportedly the city of Prague is also considering legal action against the program.
When you come to Amsterdam, don’t stage crimes — and if you do so anyway, don’t lie about it.
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?” That may or may not work. The risk is yours.)
Do not walk on the bike paths
Bike paths seem to hold a near-irresistible 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.
Do not cycle in pedestrian areas
This should be a no-brainer as well: If you’re one of those brave folks willing to try riding a bike in Amsterdam without a tour guide, do not make the mistake of cycling on the sidewalks.
You’ll also want to avoid other pedestrians-only areas, such as the Leidsestraat.
You do not want to spend your vacation money on fines, right?
Avoid the tram tracks
Unless you need to cross them, avoid the tram tracks. If your wheel gets caught in one of the tracks you’re likely to fly head-over-wheels into traffic.
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. You don’t want to run the risk of someone driving off with your stuff still on board.
Come to think of it, it pays to familiarize yourself with the taxi situation in Amsterdam.
Don’t trust hotel runners
Hard to believe, but many young people travel to Amsterdam on the spur of the moment — without booking any accomodation.
That’s not a good idea. Book your hotel or hostel as early as possible.
As a result, 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.
Also: 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. In other words, the trams always win.
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 € 70.00 + and administration fee of € 15.00 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 give your money away
You saved up your hard-earned money to come to Amsterdam. Don’t give a huge chunk of it away by exchanging it for euros in the wrong place.
You can save a lot of money by heeding our recommendation on where to change your money.
Don’t make a beeline for the nearest fast-food ‘restaurant’ that reminds you of home
You’re in Amsterdam. Amsterdam! Be adventurous.
Don’t believe everything you see
By the way… some things in Amsterdam are not what they appear to be. Just saying.
This article was first published on November 28, 2005. It is updated from time to time.
- The shop at this location, Singel 387, is currently called ‘420 Coffeeshop’ ↩
- Unlike many other city centers, downtown Amsterdam has a unique combination of homes, shops and offices. 81.000 people live in the center of town, while 87.000/day travel to the inner city for work. ↩
- Disneyfication is the term Amsterdammers use to highlight the fact that the inner city is starting to look and feel like a theme park. ↩
Do not republish or repost.