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.
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, but 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.