With its laid-back vibe and reputation for sin-laced tolerance, Amsterdam is one of Europe’s most freewheeling capitals. Prostitution, though practiced in De Wallen for centuries, has been legal here since 2000, while soft drugs (marijuana and hash) have been sold in Amsterdam coffeeshops since the late 1960s. But just because you CAN do many things in Amsterdam 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:
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 and Golden Age mansions. 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 wandering around, getting lost in that!
DO have some idea of the geography and history of where you are and what you’d like to see. Beyond its tacky tourist facade, 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.
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.
DO pick up postcards and naughty souvenirs of your visit. Photograph the area’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 across from the Oude Kerk, run by Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute whose organization fights for the legal rights of prostitutes.
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 it’s fun to climb on. And city government has spent vast sums on marketing this tourist magnet. But do you really want to wind up with the same photos as all your friends?
● Photographing yourself with your red or yellow rental MacBike. If you lived in Amsterdam, would you be caught on one of these rigs? MacBike may be the biggest, least expensive rental company in Amsterdam, but their colored bikes mark riders as tourists. Rent a black bike and roll like a local, instead. 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 be easily 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. Or avoid drugs (especially experimental ones) altogether. Tourists who’ve responded to a whispered “Hash? Coke?” in dark alleyways have paid premium prices for parsley, aspirin, baby powder or 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 and bike shops.
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. 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.
8. DON’T get on a tram without buying 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 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 are happy to see Cookie Monster is still around to guide you out of the crowd, onto a quiet alleyway. 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, where it’s natural for folks to pop for a round of drinks.
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 Big Mac. But since you’ve made it to Holland, why not try some typical Dutch fare: bitterballen, haring, pannekoken, poffertjes, stamppot, stroopwafels and genever.
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. Look for the round, greenish stands 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!
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.