With its laid-back vibe and reputation for sin-laced tolerance, Amsterdam is one of Europe’s most freewheeling capitals. Prostitution, practiced in the city’s infamous Red Light District for centuries, has been legal since 2000, while marijuana and hash have been sold in local coffeeshops since the late 1960s.
Amsterdam coffeeshops like Dampkring, where Brad Pitt chilled with George Clooney in the Hollywood blockbuster Oceans 12, have been selling soft drugs for more than a half-century.
But just because you CAN do many things in Amsterdam that you can’t do elsewhere doesn’t mean you should. More than a few tourists have ruined their trip to the Dutch capital with silly indiscretions. To avoid becoming one of them, here are a dozen things NOT to do, as well as alternatives to these bad ideas:
DO get lost in Amsterdam’s historic canal belt, a free outdoor museum recognized on UNESCO’s World Heritage list .
1. DON’T come with a set-in-stone bucket list of tourist attractions that leaves no time to roam the city’s historic canals without an agenda. Amsterdam’s grachtengordel (canal belt) was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2010, making it a free outdoor museum. No need to feel guilty admiring the 17th-century architecture and getting lost in that!
Amsterdam’s fabled, tilting canal mansions reveal the glory of the Dutch Golden Age.
DO have some idea of the geography and history of where you are and what you’d like to see. Beyond its peep shows, cannabis cafés and mischievous reputation, Amsterdam boasts extraordinary art, history and music. Learning about its culture before you arrive will heighten your appreciation of the city.
Places of worship like the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam’s Jewish Cultural Quarter reveal the religious turbulence of the past.
2. DON’T take pictures of Red Light District windows. It’s invasive and can be rewarded with an unwanted dip in the nearest canal courtesy of a pimp or bouncer. Or a bucket of bleach-laced water aimed at you and your camera.
It’s fine to roam streets lined with red-lit windows in De Wallen. But DON’T take pictures of the ladies in the windows.
DO pick up postcards and naughty souvenirs of your visit. Photograph the city’s architectural treasures and tree-laced canals. Educate yourself about the history of sex for money on a walking tour of the Red Light District and at the Prostitute Information Center run by Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute whose organization fights for the legal rights of prostitutes.
Learn about the history of prostitution in the Netherlands at the Prostitute Information Center and Red Light Secrets, both in Amsterdam’s De Wallen.
3. DON’T look like a vulnerable tourist―an easy target for pickpockets and thieves. Here are some dead giveaways in Amsterdam:
- Carrying a Van Gogh Museum or Heineken Experience gift box.
- Having your picture taken at the roving iAmsterdam sign or the permanent one in Museumplein. Sure they’re fun to climb on. And city government has spent vast sums on marketing these tourist magnets. But do you really want to wind up with the same photos as all your friends?
If you’re tempted to take pics at the iAmsterdam sign, do it on a Bubbles & Bikes tour with Maartje, a Dutchie who’s lived in the Netherlands all her life.
- Photographing yourself with your red or yellow rental MacBike. This may be the biggest, least expensive rental company in Amsterdam, but their colored bikes mark riders as tourists. Instead, rent a black bike and roll like a local. Or use a MacBike to help you stand out if you’re unsure on two wheels and want to alert locals.
- Bringing luggage into a coffeeshop, marking you as someone so eager to get high you’ll bring valuables into places where they can easily be stolen.
4. DON’T buy drugs or bikes from street dealers, junkies or beggars. If you don’t know why, try to remember what your mother told you about taking candy from strangers. Tourists who’ve responded to a hushed “Hash? Coke?” in dark alleys have paid premium prices for parsley, aspirin, baby powder and other substances that pass for heroin or cocaine. And been relieved of their valuables in the process. Don’t turn your holiday into a bad trip‒to the hospital or worse yet, the morgue.
DO stick to licensed coffeeshops to buy up to five grams of weed or hash. You’ll need a proper ID showing you’re at least 18 to do so. To purchase a bike, check legitimate classified ads, bike shops and open-air markets.
The Albert Cuypmarkt in De Pijp is a great place to purchase a bike and all the accessories to go with it.
5. DON’T cycle at night without lights. It’s dangerous and punishable. Be prepared to pay a fine and buy a light from the police if you’re caught. DO buy a proper bike light and attach it securely to your two-wheeler. Remember to turn it on at dusk!
6. DON’T walk on the bike paths. Or stand on them, studying a map. There are kamikazes on two wheels out there, with no mercy for clueless tourists. Step into a bike path without looking both ways and someone’s gonna get hurt.
Cycling can be a contact sport on Amsterdam bike paths. If you haven’t been on a two-wheeler since grade school, consider 10 reasons NOT to rent a bike in Amsterdam.
DO note bicycle lanes marked with a bike symbol. When the CHA-CHING of a bike bell sounds, get out of the way! And when in Amsterdam, do as Amsterdammers do: walk on the sidewalk, not the bike path.
7. DON’T bring a car into Amsterdam. In a city built in the 12th century, it’s a liability. Parking is sparse and expensive. Regulations are enforced 24/7. Illegally parked vehicles are fined outrageously and towed within 24 hours.
DO commute by foot, bike, tram, bus and metro. Amsterdam’s manageable size and flat geography make it ideal for pedestrians, especially when the weather is nice. Public transport is affordable and efficient. When walking, be alert for bikes and trams. Every year, tourists die or are injured when crossing the street, in collisions with trams traveling in the opposite direction. Taxis, buses, emergency vehicles, and some bozos also use the tram lanes, adding to the need for vigilance.
Amsterdam trams are clean, efficient, and will take you almost anywhere in the city. Board without a valid ticket and risk an embarrassing, on-the-spot fine.
8. DON’T get on a tram without a valid ticket. Even though the current “click in-click out” system is harder to cheat than the pre-2009 one, tricksters can still figure out how to travel for free. Those who get caught pay an on-the-spot fine. And lose their dignity.
DO buy a ticket from the conductor or at self-service stations near tram stops. If you’re visiting for more than a few days, buy a GVB chipcard from a tobacco store, supermarket or the GVB ticket office at Central Station—much less expensive than paying single fares if you plan on more than a few rides.
9. DON’T eat the free cookies. Home-baked goodies served by a svelte Dutch girl, handsome lad or grandma-type are tempting. “Eet smakelijk, welkom op Amsterdam!” they’ll coo. After eating their sweets, you feel drowsy but happy to see Cookie Monster is still around to guide you onto a quiet alley. When you wake up— on the cold, hard pavement—your wallet, phone and other valuables are gone. Similar scenes happen in bars, coffeeshops, discos and concerts.
DO buy your own drinks and snacks. Between the shoarma dives, frites stands and burger bars, there’s plenty to choose from in Amsterdam. Add 20+ McDs and a proliferation of KFCs and Burger Kings, and you know you don’t have to walk far for a fix. But since you’ve made it to Holland, consider sampling some typical Dutch fare: bitterballen, haring, pannekoken, poffertjes, stamppot, stroopwafels and genever.
Michelin-star chef Peter Gast adds modern twists to a classic Dutch snack at De Ballenbar in Foodhallen, an indoor food court in the Oud-West.
10. DON’T pee in the canals. Or anywhere besides a toilet or street urinal. Besides being illegal and subject to a fine, more than a few stoned or drunk tourists have fallen into Amsterdam canals while attempting to pee near a canal.
DO find a proper bathroom or street urinal. For men, there are plenty of the latter to choose from.
Men’s urinals are easy to spot throughout Amsterdam. Look for the round, greenish stands, often with men’s feet sticking out, trousers around them.
11. DON’T get too drunk or stoned. Yes, Amsterdam is famous for beer. And soft drugs. It’s fun to get a buzz, but not so much when you fall in a canal or wind up sleeping in Vondelpark because you lost your hotel key. Dutch marijuana can be more potent than what you’re accustomed to. Try to impress friends with the number and size of joints you can smoke, and you’ll wind up acting like a boor with too much weed-inspired courage. Don’t be him!
Amsterdam may be a party town, but know your limits if you’re smoking and/or drinking more than you’re accustomed to at home.
DO know your limits and pace yourself. Ask for advice from coffeeshop personnel. Don’t exceed recommended dosages, especially for space cakes. These take at least 30 minutes to hit, so wait a while before consuming the whole thing.
12. DON’T pose with cute kids or dodgy characters who want to take a photo with you. While you’re concentrating on looking good, they’re focusing on picking your pockets and bags. A similar technique is used by crooks posing as police officers, who demand to see your wallet “because there are false euros in circulation.”
DO be wary of photo sessions with strangers, as well as fraudulent civil servants who will exchange your real money for fake bills.
Melissa, Good work and good advice. I hope to get back soon. I thought that the laws had changed and you had to be a resident for a smoking coffee house to sell MJ to you? I’ve been living in Krakow the past year.
Thanks for the kudos, Michael. Although there was some debate about changing the weed laws in Holland a year or so ago, it never flew in Amsterdam. As long as you’re 18, you can still buy up to 5 grams of weed or hash no matter where you live. Enjoy Krakow…a place I’ve always wanted to visit.
Good tips for the ones, who are about to visit Amsterdam like me. I will try to keep them in mind. Thanks Melissa 😉
Wow, These are good tips! I have no idea… I’m a litlle scared now, seems more dangerous than I thought! And, the sad thing is: i really wanted a picture with the sign Iamsterdam. :/
I’m planning to go in late april, thanks for the tips.
A good list especially after the unfortunate deaths late last year.
These are great tips! Some of these are things that wouldn’t have even occurred to me before visiting, especially about the free cookies. I had never even heard of that! Thanks so much for posting. Also, I really like that you gave ways to avoid those blunders. Extremely helpful, and I’ll be sure to read up on Amsterdam’s history before I arrive. Can’t wait to visit in March!
Great help for people planning to visit this wonderful city soon. Great job and will try to keep these in mind while I roam around 🙂
This is a very valuable information for tourists! And not only for those who come to Amsterdam. Oh… I didn’t know about the dangers of “the free cookies”… Thank you very much!
Amsterdam sounds frightening and fraught with pitfalls. Always thought I’d want to visit but maybe not after reading this. I’m a huge fan of art and thought it would be a great place to see some wonderful work.
It was not my intention to discourage you from visiting my favorite city in the world. Like all great destinations, it has its edge. And some wonderful museums, world-class art and stunning culture. Also like anywhere, you need to be careful. Follow my guide and you’ll be fine!
Wow Melissa, this post is so useful! I especially like the advice about the Red Light District, and why being respectful with prostitutes is an important way to respect them not only as workers, but also as women. In my opinion, prostitutes are forsaken by law and people in general in my country, and most people think that their work is not so respectable as others. So I’m so glad to read your way you expose it, as an important reason to respect women and enjoy the city.
Also, I like the reference to the Prostitute Information Centre, an interesting service to discover the situation of prostitutes in this city.
This is actually a great work, congrats and hope to see you soon, Melissa! 🙂
Elena (from Madrid, Spain)
Great post Melissa!
Very useful -in my opinion- for those who are going to visit the city for the first time, as I am. Especially the Red Light District advices (sometimes people forget being respectful) and the cycling ones (in a city like Madrid, from where I am, bikes are rarely used as a way of transport, so we aren’t aware of their presence and people don’t respect them and their lanes as much as they should).
Hope to have a great time when I visit the city, I’ll keep this post on mind when I’m there. Thanks again for it!
These tips should be listed on every tourist website; soo helpful! I am visiting Amsterdam this month, and this really puts things into perspective that visiting a new place is great because things are new and exciting, but that is just as much of a disadvantage as it is an advantage. – I am extremely excited to see the canals, and even more excited to not end up in one. Thanks for this!
Very helpful information, especially for me, a young American who is not a very experienced traveller, it is very good to know what things to watch out for, and now I have plenty ideas of fun things to do in Amsterdam!
Thanks for the wonderful advice. There were two things on the list that especially made an impression on me – don’t eat the free cookies!!! Wow… that one caught me off-guard. I am usually a careful person, but I had no idea that this is common way to rob tourists. I will be careful for sure. The other tip about – not renting the MacBike as it designates you most certainly as a tourist, but choosing a black bike instead. I will remember to do that for sure.
Overall, these are some wonderful tips that can be considered as “common sense”, but you kind of forget about them if someone doesn’t point them out to you.
Several common sense things, but common sense ain’t so common, so thanks for reminding us! Then there are the unique things this American wouldn’t think about-like green street toilets so thanks for that too
It’s very useful advice and im going to take that advice 🙂
Im coming to amsterdam for 3-4 days and i actually decided to move around the city on foot or by public transportation so i’ve got that covered also i dont have any list what to see or not i just thought it’s good to walk around the city.
What you CAN do in the Netherlands is take a private guide to show you around. check out TheDutchGuide and i will make a plan tailored especially for you. check out my website or follow me on twitter #thedutchguide …
I’d love to take one of your custom-tailored tours, Cor!
This was very helpful! I had no idea that most of these things are issues there. Not that I ever felt particularly inclined to buy things from people on the street or pee in a canal, but this did provide me with a good overview of how to behave in Amsterdam. I feel like many of these things are applicable to other cities. Advice like not standing out and watching your valuables is always important. Although I know I’ll need to be careful about these, I think a good awareness of safety can only enhance the experience of Amsterdam.
Looks like pickpockets in Amsterdam are especially inventive, especially those who pretend to be police officers… And what is the reaction of real police? Are there any fines or other punishment for pickpockets?
Wow! This is certainly very eye opening when you are about to visit Amsterdam! These tips are invaluable and I’m sure they will be a great help to me in the coming weeks, not just in Amsterdam but around Europe.
What a blog!!!! I didn’t realize Amsterdam was quite dangerous and preying on tourists! Need to be more careful.
Great advice for the Red Light District Tour! I was too afraid to go by myself last time. So this time I’ll educate myself with a tour!
Thanks so much Melissa!!!!
Awesome post! We only got here 3 hours ago and have already encountered at least three of these situations (successfully avoided!). Thanks!
Great post, Melissa! I have to say, #9 was a real eye-opener, especially because I’m a sucker for free food!! I only stopped through Amsterdam’s train station earlier this spring (to visit Keukenhof, not the city yet), and remember seeing all the signs regarding the deaths from street drugs. Always have to be aware! Thanks for the tips; I’ll make sure to use them this weekend! 🙂
These are really great tips, Melissa. I’ve been to Amsterdam many times but wasn’t aware of these things. You have to be careful in all big cities and Amsterdam for me as always felt safe but it’ always good to know. Thanks for the heads up!
9th advice just unsettled me and impressed. Sort of crazy how it’s not being strictly regulated and checked by the local government. I know it does happens on student parties when guys are in search for an easy “catch”, but to that extent, on the street. No way. I had a Dutch friend who sympathized Russian pickpockets when got robbed in underground and found his wallet dropped near the station and then he was pleasently shocked by such an act bec in Holland they would just drop it off somewhere to the channel he said.
I will definitely heed your advices when I am visiting (most of them should be common sense, but as a tourist you sometimes act like an idiot ^^”). The cookies would have probably gotten me, so thanks for the tip! o_o”
These are great tips! A few I had not realized before… helps to be a little more prepared.
Thank you for these useful tips! Can be lifesaving for people like us who will visit Amsterdam for the first time. Especially the one about accepting foods or cookies from someone we dont know and about fake bills and crook police officers. Cause sometimes people can not think properly when it comes to official stuff. Also I would take it as kindness and jump to cookies, so thanks for that one again 🙂
This is brilliant advice! Knowing about these kind of schemes will, I’m sure, come in very handy! So between this post, ‘Amsterdam’s 10 Worst Tourist Traps’ and ‘Six Habits of HIgly Effective Couch Surfers’ I now feel well prepared for my upcoming trip – thank you very much!
As tourist we are always expose to pickpockets and bad things to happen but it’s our obligation to investigate what is OK to do and what’s illegal and how to be safer this way we can enjoy our trip and the city without any problem. It’s a mistake to believe that because is a freewheeling city you can do everything you what.
Very helpful article.
It is such an interesting article to be informed about some risks we’re taking when we know nothing about how this city works…
I find it extremely catchy to read and really precise at giving you the information.
I will tell you, I am new in this stuff of travelling so this data will be so useful to take into account.
I know that the word “Amsterdam” could be equivalent to ‘disarray’ or ‘chaos’ and ‘doing whatever you want ‘… but you have given the exact info to mantain myself concetrated in visiting the places and keeping me away from the thieves , fines , and stomaches… XD
Thanks you a lot!!!
As I am more confident I feel like visiting the city right now!
Good article. A good reminder to be mindful wherever you are traveling. The cookie monster part was crazy. Do the locals know what the people with cookies are doing?…and are they chill with it? Also good tip with the bikes.
Thanks for writing.
This is such a great article for first time tourists to Amsterdam! I am going to Amsterdam in 2 weeks, and reading this has made me more aware of what and what no to do while visiting this lovely city! Hopefully I will not fall into any canals lol or get my wallet and such stolen!! Thanks for the tips, now I am ready for a lovely journey to such a wonderful place!
I think it’s a fairly common saying to not accept candy from strangers – or in this case cookies!
These tips are very useful being my first time here, maybe not so sure about taking the picture of the I Amsterdam sign, I have one with most cities I go to ;)!
Thanks for the tips & I too will wander and get lost in he neighbourhoods of Amsterdam
Well i have heard recently two things what is allowed – for men to pee on Canal. Is what i have heard from a person who has lived here long time. Okay for drunk people it will be a attemting and possibly end it while swimming on canal. Second is that bikes without lights are not anymore punished, because past night while i have been here, at least half of them have no lights at all, even at sight of a police officer they drive by like a boss… But to me bikers here are littlebit idiots. when they have roads for them, they still like to drive on footpaths what i really hate. I am not local, but told to many of them to use their damn road. Then is Scooters! these animals are really crazy here!! how they drive at full speed on bike roads, not on street is madness. For them i would make a huge fine for it. Use engine – go to damn road. You are not a bicycle!!.
Melissa, that’s really important things you are talking about in that post. It’s my third time in NL, and I admit, it’s better to stay out of the bicycle road. Some of your tips me and my husband are following intuitively, like don’t look like vulnerable tourists and riding a black bikes) Thank you for the tips, hopefully they avoid difficulties. Best of luck!
Very good tips! Thank you. I’ll keep in mind.
Thanx for the advice on the cookies!! I love cookies 🙂
Good job with the article, great advice. Food, bikes, and great sights. That’s what I want to come to Amsterdam for.
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