When a city becomes synonymous for giving the green light - or red light, rather – to drugs and sex trade, it’s hardly surprising that those seeking sin view it as a primary destination. And undoubtedly, if a weekend of naughty behavior is what you desire, Amsterdam has what you’re looking for – and then some.
But there’s a lot more to Holland’s capital than cannabis and prostitutes. In fact, it has become somewhat of a tourism phenomenon in the 21st century, attracting 20 million visitors a year – more than it has residents – making it one of the most popular destinations for city breaks in the world.
Like Berlin, although no doubt prettier, Amsterdam graciously allows you to choose what kind of experience you want, as the scale of holidays on offer is so vast. To be blunt (no pun intended), you can make your trip as wild or cultural as you please.
But whichever path you choose, the likelihood is you’ll spend some of your time traveling on it by bicycle – the one common factor that brings the stoners and sightseers all together, riding in unison.
Yes, bikes are such a huge part of life in the Netherlands, it’s a wonder the national flag doesn’t have wheels. In fact, inexplicably, they actually boast more bikes than residents in Amsterdam - but many have speculated that this is down to how many bicycles are stolen and subsequently replaced annually, rather than just an insatiable appetite for cycling.
However, in spite of an apparent issue with bike theft, it should be noted that on a global scale, Amsterdam remains one of the safest cities there is. Maybe there are so many delinquent activities to be enjoyed within the law, those visiting rarely feel the need to venture outside of it?
Amsterdam isn’t the easiest city to maneuver around, despite trams and the still-relatively-new Metro system, which went three times over budget, but fortunately all the major tourist attractions are pretty central.
Of course, the Anne Frank House isn’t to be skipped. World famous and historically important, the home that was turned into a biographical museum continues to give the unimaginable horrors of World War II a face and personal story that endure, appall and fascinate in equal measure. For this reason, expect long lines to get in, and book ahead if possible.
There are other less somber cultural destinations you’re also likely to want to tick off early on, before sampling the craft beers. The art is also world famous; Amsterdam was home to two of history’s most recognized artists, Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt. Both have their own museums and deserve a trip even if you’re not much an art connoisseur – there’s no art degree required to appreciate these era-defining works.
If you’re in the center, weaving through the streets and gazing over the 165 canals – Amsterdam’s bloodstream – then you’ll find photo opportunities at every turn, especially on the iconic bridges. Canal boat tours are a great way to explore the city, as are Pedalos, if you’re feeling romantic and perhaps fed up or exhausted from cycling around everywhere.
From the waters, you’ll really be able to marvel at the Renaissance architecture, which is a treat for the eyes. Just as alluring is all the food being displayed in most of these buildings. Waffles, pancakes, traditional kebabs – all mouthwatering, and inexpensive, and they would almost be guilt-free too, if it wasn’t for all that cream.
However, as with many European capitals, it’s wise to avoid the crowded squares for lunch or dinner, as they have a tendency to be overpriced and subpar, largely because they’re not reliant on repeat customers. Off the beaten track, find the more obscure, traditional-looking eateries for a more authentic and satisfying meal.
Once full, you’ll want to make the most of the nightlife. The party city practically trembles with excitement, bulging with bachelors, bachelorettes, and birthday boys and girls ensuring that the celebratory spirit stays joyous, always. You haven’t danced until you’ve danced in clogs.
But if you’re looking to escape all the rowdiness, fun though it is, Bubbles and Wine and Chocolate Bar are both great for a more sophisticated drink. And for the daring, pop your head through the smoky doors of one of the Bull Dog Bars. Here, people focused on their weed consumption congregate to do that and that alone (this chain of cannabis café bars doesn’t even sell alcohol, meaning even Dutch Courage won’t help you here). It’s definitely worth seeing even if marijuana isn’t your bag – witnessing a group of people hanging out socially in complete silence is quite amusing, if nothing else.
And it would be impossible to conclude without mentioning the Red Light District, the city’s most polarizing “attraction.” Thrilling to some – who stare open-jawed at the half-naked women displayed in the street windows – but a depressing disappointment to many, who can’t shake the uneasy reality that the ladies “for sale” don’t look nearly as empowered or in control as supporters of the district would have you believe. It’s hard to avoid and is no doubt a fascinating part of the city’s culture that has been pivotal for a long, long time – but seeing random drunk men disappear, unsteadily, under the red lighted doors at 3 in the afternoon certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste.
To learn about the country’s attitude toward solicitation from a safer distance, the Museum of Prostitution – Red Light Secrets can offer an interesting lesson in how Amsterdam became so different, and open, in this respect, when compared to its European neighbors.
But for everything naughty about the city, there’s a handful of family-friendly alternatives, so the delightful destination really doesn’t deserve to be reduced to merely sex, substances and seediness. It’s too beautiful, with too much heart, to be overlooked. Which is why when it comes to the list of European cities to visit, Amsterdam – like its natives –continues to be high and proud.
Museum of Prostitution – Red Light Secrets: 8€
Rembrandt Museum: 12.50€
Anne Frank’s House: €9.50, and guided tour costs less than €30/person
Vincent van Gogh Museum: 17€