For most of the world, Amsterdam has become a destination corrupted by the harsh stereotypes associated with drugs, sex, & progressive thinking. Not all of us, however, travel to Amsterdam to indulge in the debauchery and in order to be able to enjoy it, everyone who visits must tune their inner chameleon – that little creature that lets you subtly blend into the culture of the country you’re in (or at least tries to). If nothing else that’s what I always try to do…otherwise you become that annoying tourist who can’t even cope with anything but the likes of the Marriot, the Hard Rock Café, or Madame Tussauds. Please, be better than that. And if you’ve made it to Amsterdam, I’m absolutely sure you can at least try.
Taking the road off the beaten path has become my thing and I always read up on my destinations from a number of reliable sources, a personal favorite being the awesome Nomadic Matt. I really like to know what my destination city has to offer beyond the time-consuming – and sometimes really unnecessary – tourist traps that are usually over-priced and offer a less than local experience for your travelling pleasures.
That said and even after having read a whole lot online, I still didn’t know what to expect from Amsterdam. I knew about the coffeeshops, the Red Light District, and some of the architectural wonders I just had to feast my eyes on. Food remained some what of a mystery to me. Aside from their famous fries & apparent loads of cheese, what did the Netherlands have to offer, culinarily speaking? On our first night, we wanted local and we searched for a while before we found the best Dutch place we could have imagined! We had started our trip on the right foot. Tomaz welcomed us for an early dinner in the friendliest & most delicious manner, taking us past the Dutch kitchen of old and giving it a modern twist in the quaintest and coziest way possible! The mashpot, or stamppot, with cabbage & bacon, topped with beet chips and a cold Amstel on the side was an absolute success!
Although Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, its status as the capital is merely mandated by the constitution. It’s not, however, the seat of the government – The Hague is – and you can quickly get a sense that Amsterdam is not your common capital city. The name derives from Amstelredamme, indicative of the city’s origins around a dam in the river Amstel – also the name of the deliciously popular local beer. The city originated as a small fishing village in the 12th century and became one of the most important ports in the world during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. During this time the city was the leading center for finance and diamonds, and there were many innovative developments in trade.
Considered an alpha world city, Amsterdam is the commercial capital of the country and one of the top financial centers in Europe. Not to mention, it’s the cultural capital of the Netherlands with many famous residents that included Anne Frank, Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Baruch Spinoza. Another unique aspect of Amsterdam – UNESCO World Heritage unique – are its more than 100 kilometers of canals, most of which are navigable by boat. The three main canals are the Prinsengracht, the Herengracht, and the Keizersgracht. It’s been compared to Venice, due to its division into about 90 islands, which are linked by more than 1,200 bridges. It’s like you’re permanently walking through a Hollywood set!
An interesting thing to know is that compared to other important towns in Holland, such as Dordrecht, Leiden, Haarlem, Delft & Alkmaar, Amsterdam is a relatively young city. While Amsterdam’s growth in the 15th and 16th century was mainly due to the rise of the Baltic maritime trade, it was only modest compared to the cities of Flanders and Brabant, which comprised the most urbanized area of the Low Countries. The city has evolved in history, expanding and contracting; and today boasts itself as the home to one of the widest varieties of nationalities of any city in the world, with 180 different ones!
The oldest area of the town is known as De Wallen and contains the city’s infamous Red Light District. The medieval & colonial age canals of Amsterdam, known as grachten, embrace the heart of the city where homes have beautiful & admirable gables. Beyond the Grachtengordel neighborhood are the former working class areas of Jordaan and de Pijp – also beautiful to just walk around! The Museumplein with the city’s major museums, the Vondelpark, and the Plantage neighborhood are also located outside the Grachtengordel.
All walkable & safe areas, the longest we ever walked was for dinner at the recommended Foodhallen. Little did we imagine what it was all about! The first indoor food market in Holland, it goes beyond the definition of market. This unique addition to culinary Amsterdam is a highly recommended spot, with a unique touch: it’s a newly renovated tram depot, a concept inspired by indoor food markets such as the ‘Torvehallerne‘ in Copenhagen and the ‘Mercado de San Miguel‘ in Madrid, or the ‘Borough Market’ in London. You get to wander around in the large lofty space and discover the various concepts that serve small signature dishes for all to enjoy. With over 20 different stalls, varying from Michelin star concepts to international street foods, you will surely love it!
Having been to Copenhagen only a couple of weeks earlier, I had the odd feeling of déjà vu throughout my daily strolls. The rich architectural history the city portrays begins at the Oude Kerk (Old Church), consecrated way back in 1306. The Renaissance era quickly brought on the unique brick Dutch Renaissance style, with buildings being constructed according to the principles of Hendrick de Keyser. I won’t let the architectural geek in me run amok, so I’ll basically skip through the Baroque, Neo-Gothic, & Art Nouveau periods, to land directly into the Art Deco period, when Amsterdam adopted its own version of the style: the Amsterdamse School. Whole districts were built in this style and a notable feature of the façades is that they are highly decorated & ornate, with oddly shaped windows and doors. The old city center is the focal point of all the architectural styles before the end of the 19th century – where most of the historic buildings are houses along the canals! I loved my evening strolls peeking into them only to study the interiors!
As a tourist magnet, Amsterdam is a top destination in Europe. Obviously, the most popular destination for tourists is De Wallen, the Red Light District. This is a designated area for legalised prostitution and is Amsterdam’s largest and most well-known red-light district, where a network of roads and alleys with several hundred one-room apartments are rented by sex workers who offer their services from behind a window or glass door, illuminated with red lights. Needless to say, my girlfriend & I didn’t make it far into this dark perverse corner. We rather enjoyed the many other lovely aspects of the city.
Our hotel, Hotel Cornelisz (highly recommended, no complaints!) was coincidentally – and luckily – located on the P.C. Hooftstraat, Amsterdam’s high-end shop-lined street where Tesla, Chanel, Bulgari, & many others decorate the brick-lined sidewalks. Many fashion brands & fashion designers, such as G-star and Viktor & Rolf are based in Amsterdam, and much of the international fashion scene has a branch or a connection to the city. My ultimate architectural highlight in this trip was definitely the Chanel boutique on P.C. Hooftstraat. MVRDV, a large Rotterdam-based architecture & urban design firm with amazing work, replaced the store’s traditional facade with glass bricks that are stronger than concrete! The results are not only breath-taking, but also absolutely mind-blowing. The glass bricks are actually held in place with a transparent high-strength glue and one of the main advantages is that the material is completely recyclable! I’m in love!
Moving on, the Museumsplein, or Museum’s Square, is just next door, home to the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum. I’m not particularly a fan of spending my limited days in a beautiful city inside a museum, so I usually narrow down my options to the things I really want to see…in Amsterdam, there is absolutely no competition – the Van Gogh Museum is a must! His collection is shared along a timeline of his greatest years, where you get a sense of how his beautiful mind worked: artistic insanity at its best, I will forever love him for the person that he was & how he tried, only through his art, to save himself from his inevitable fate. ‘Almond Blossoms’ will always be my favorite, but I couldn’t contain myself in his self-portrait exhibition hall…he was definitely the original ‘selfie’ master!
Last, but not least, I want to talk about the ultimate attraction I’m sure you’re all eager to read about. As we wandered around the city center the first night, we became familiar with the scene…one tiny whiff at a time. Our reoccurring question for the rest of the trip seemed to be, “Is it a coffee shop? Or is it a ‘coffeeyyyshaap’? By definition, the popular coffeeshops in the Netherlands are establishments where the sale of cannabis for personal consumption by the public is tolerated by local authorities. For two inexperienced female tourists, it was a hard thing to simply jump on the local bandwagon. I’ve got to admit I googled a whole lot while in Amsterdam. Among my searches, I was overwhelmed with the amount of ‘Best Coffeeshops in Amsterdam’ and ‘Tips for Getting Stoned Like a Pro in Amsterdam’ articles. I needed real help, but the amount of crap the Internet throws at you when you need real help is sometimes way too ridiculous. Luckily, with enough patience, I finally found a great article that led our way through our fabulous days in Amsterdam: The Lit Woman’s Weekend Guide to Amsterdam! I want to personally thank Kristina Adduci for her article, she really did help us find exactly what we were looking for, and even gave us advice on what to order! It can get really hectic in the evenings anywhere in the city center, so knowing where to go is always best BEFORE you leave your hotel!
Her article states that Amsterdam is ‘a slightly decadent, highly cultured, & relatively safe getaway for ladies with an elevated taste for escapades and limited amount of time’…as if spoken directly to us! The guide is ‘for girls that don’t want to smoke in a dark, crowded back-alley coffeeshop or sit at a Brown café all day’ and skips right over the obvious tourist attractions – ‘this guide is for the girls who want to shop, drink, smoke, and be chic AF doing it’. We were set! But there were some details we still didn’t know about! Like for example, the basic drug policy dominating the way these so-called coffeeshops work.
Under the drug policy of the Netherlands, the sale of cannabis products in small quantities is allowed by licensed coffeeshops. They are not allowed, however, to serve alcohol or other drugs for the explicit purpose of keeping hard & soft drugs separated. I found this out after I casually ordered a gin & tonic at our first stop…burn! The drug policy also specifically states that the selling of marijuana is “illegal, but not punishable”, so the law is not enforced in establishments following certain nationwide rules: no advertising, no hard drug sales, no sales to anyone under the age of 18, no sale of quantities greater than 5 grams, and no public disturbances.
There are about 250 coffeeshops in the city, and most of them are located in the Red Light District, one of the top choices being Prix d’Ami. You can begin to imagine why it would be important to follow the above-mentioned rules…it can get crazy, people! We definately didn’t want to make our way down to the unique atmosphere of the Red Light District, so we decided to find some awesome options closer to our neck of the woods. From psychedelic to hipster-ish but also from very local to more touristic places, each coffeeshop has its own atmosphere…so, how ever were we to choose? With help from our chic AF girly guide, we pinpointed some spots to check out and were delighted with the results. These spaces aren’t usually limited to smoking weed, they’re actually really great social spaces where you can easily meet people and spend good times with friends…watching TV, playing board or card games, and basically chilling…like never before.
Our first stop was Barney’s Lounge, part of the Barney’s Amsterdam Experience. The fashionable, designer décor sets a sophisticated tone & the permanently-chill staff sure put us at ease with friendly advice! The best thing here is the fresh mint tea, highly recommended. However, we were on a mission to find the mythical space cakes along the way, so we took it easy and decided to quickly head on over to Kadinsky, another recommended spot on our list. Well-known for the wide variety of quality products, great atmosphere and friendly staff, we were forced to move on quickly because they were limited to candy bars in the consumption department. Our final stop was New Times Coffeeshop, located in the awesome Spuistraat, where we had our first (and probably last for my friend) brownie experience. We delighted in one brownie & a warm cup of cannabis tea, and that was definitely enough for the night! Good times, good times…
Toward the end of the trip, you get a sense that the pungent skunk-y smell will never go away. It’s only until you leave and breathe the fresh air of an entirely different city that you feel you’re finally out of the permanent daze that Amsterdam can become. Regardless, whatever it is you love to do in a new city, Amsterdam’s got it all! We visited the city on some pretty cold Winter days, and even then, it was busting with life & filled us up with great experiences and memories. I wouldn’t recommend making a family trip out of it, but it should most certainly be one of your future destinations. Age will never be an issue, as the city speaks to every one individually and I’m sure anyone who’s been there can say they feel the same way.