Bikes and canals. It’s what makes Amsterdam, Amsterdam. And marijuana. Obviously. These are the things that make it stand out from a host of other quaint European cities with impressive architecture and fascinating history, though it has all of that, too. The city is filled with tourists and the weather leaves something to be desired, but there is something to be said for its art, walkable streets, other-worldly (and completely legal) red light district, and culture of looking the other way when minor infractions of local laws take place. It is certainly one of a kind. Wanna know what we got up to while we were there? Course you do.
First of all, we spent too much money on food in Amsterdam. How could we not? We were finally Couchsurfing with a host we had met over drinks in Reykjavik who invited us to come stay with him when we arrived, so why not spend all the money we were saving on accommodation on food? Makes sense, right? (For the record, I would always rather spend money on food than accommodation.) But in our defense, it all looked delicious, especially after the vegan food desert that was Iceland and Belgium, from where we had just arrived.
There were fries, there were smoothies, there were burgers and cake. And I wanted it all! Unfortunately (or, fortunately), we found a place called The Vegan Junk Food Bar on our first day in the city and spent one meal each day after at the establishment. And yes, it was as delicious as it sounds. And yes, there is such a thing as vegan junk food. If you’re not aware of this you clearly know nothing about vegan food. This place had us stuffing our faces with vegan cheeseburgers, dutch dietary staple bitterballen, and loaded fries. Oh, those fries! I mean, look at them!
Then every time we passed a juice bar like Juice by Nature, I wanted carrot juice and then the juice bar would have raw chocolate torte, so I’d obviously have to have that, too. We ate vegan Dutch pancakes (which is more of a cross between a pancake and a crepe) and tried local beer (well, Josh did). And then to make it look like we didn’t spend all our money on food, we went to the Anne Frank House, which was interesting, even haunting, but a bit steep for cheapos like us at €9 per person. Of course, that’s pretty much how much all the museums in Amsterdam cost, so we didn’t go to any others (no, not even the Van Gogh Museum) Although we did consider visiting the Sex Museum because we heard it was actually kind of hilarious because it looked like the kind of relatively conservative place someone’s grandmother curated and it only cost €4, but instead we settled for a peek in the popular Condomerie (yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like) where we discovered that we had no idea the number of – both literally and figuratively – inventive and colorful varieties that were available. And of course there was a brief walk through the famous red light district where (mostly) women rent windows to stand behind like pieces of meat, all lit up red, and await customers to come knocking on the glass.
I wasn’t sure how to feel about the area, actually. Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, but I was a little surprised that it’s such a lucrative industry. Also confused that women chose this kind of “work” because the money is so good. Also a bit disgusted that men could look at women like this, shopping for one like they might for a new pair of shoes. It didn’t help that most of the women looked insanely bored, resting on their stools, filing their fingernails or replying to text messages, chatting to the woman in the window next door as they waited. It was weird. Like no place else in the world.
As for the city’s architecture, while not as lovely as Bruges, Amsterdam still had its charms: Houseboats on the canals, towering steeples, the fronts of apartment buildings constructed to lean at an angle to make delivering bed frames and refrigerators through upper story windows less precarious. I would have probably liked it better if it hadn’t been rainy and cold every day we were there. But maybe I wouldn’t have. We’re not exactly the partiers and pot-smokers that the city attracts and we found the ubiquitous “coffee shops” (that’s code for head shop) kitschy and annoying.
Speaking of which, did you know that marijuana is actually not legal in Amsterdam? Yeah, you read that right. Not. Legal. But the Dutch are apparently really good at looking the other way, especially when profit margins are good, and law enforcement doesn’t mind pot heads loitering in the streets or buying grass from every fourth storefront as long as they behave themselves (and as long as nobody advertises that they sell marijuana, because advertising it is illegal). Weird, right?
But in addition to wandering the streets, climbing to the top of the NEMO Science Museum for an overhead view of the city, and taking a free walking tour with Sandemans where we learned tons about the city’s rich history (it was built on a swamp and also claims, along with Brussels and Bruges, to be the birthplace of capitalism), we also had a close encounter with the famous kind and almost didn’t even know it. Like I said, we met our Couchsurfing host at a meet up in Iceland. A bunch of us had gotten together in a bar and just chatted and shared travel stories for a couple hours. Good times were had by all. One guy present was from Amsterdam and when we said we were planning on going there soon, he invited us to stay with him when we arrived. We graciously accepted.
He had mentioned that his dad used to be a soccer coach, but we’re not into sports so we thought nothing of it. However, the second day we were in town our host said his dad, Frank, was going to meet us for lunch. The more the merrier, I always say. So we’re stuffing our faces with fries at the Vegan Junk Food Bar and talking and asking questions about Amsterdam and Frank was asking us about our travels and we were having a grand time. He paid for our lunch – what a nice guy – and guided us all on a walk around the lovely Vondel Park. It was then that the first strangers stopped us, asked if they could get a photo with Frank, and left, mouths gaping. Color me surprised. This happened at least four more times in 30 minutes. Finally, we were all, “You played soccer? Then coached, right? What team did you say it was for?” Barcelona. We were getting a tour of Amsterdam and our lunch paid for by Frank Rijkaard!
For those of you like us who don’t know soccer, he’s apparently kind of a big deal. While one couple was getting a photo with him Josh googled his name and we both stood shocked as we read about him. Holy crap, this guy was famous – like superstar soccer famous – and we had no idea! For those of you who do know soccer, Holy crap, this guy is famous! (Also I apologize for not being aware of it sooner.)
When we all parted ways in the afternoon, Josh wanted a photo of the four of us and neither us nor his son could believe it when Frank Rijkaard asked some star-struck passer-by to take a photo of us. His son was pretty sure that’s the first time that had ever happened. Color me honored.
All in all, though, Amsterdam was one of those interesting places we’re glad we visited. Now we know what everybody’s been talking about! However, it would have been worth a visit just for those fries!
Things to know before going to Amsterdam:
1. Amsterdam uses the Euro
2. Bikes are everywhere. Keep your eyes open or you’re likely to get run over by one. They have their own lanes a lot of the time, so before you cross what you think is a sidewalk, look both ways.
3. Let me repeat: Bikes are everywhere. People will tell you the quintessential Amsterdam experience is to rent a bike for a day and ride around the city like a local, but it’s both expensive at around €30/day and crazy. There are no rules and the locals ride like maniacs. And if you do rent one, make sure to lock it up; authorities pluck something like 17,000 bikes out of the canals every year. You’ve been warned.
4. Don’t take photos of the windows in the Red Light District. You can take photos of the district, but if you try to take a photo of one of the women, you may get your phone/camera smashed or a piss pot thrown on you. Respect the merchants.
5. A cafe sells coffee and a coffee shop sells weed. Make sure you know which is which.
6. There are as many tourists per year in the country as there are residents, so don’t expect to have the place to yourself.
7. The best way to get into the Anne Frank House and Museum is to buy tickets weeks or months in advance. If you didn’t, as we didn’t, show up about two hours before closing for the best shot at a short line. We arrived at 8:00 after it had been pouring on and off for two hours and only had to wait 30 minutes (instead of the average 2 hours).
8. The easiest way to get from the airport to the city center is a pricey €4.20 train ticket. Bus tickets are cheaper at €2.90 but will take longer. Tickets for all should be purchased from a ticket machine at a station. Don’t even bother renting a car.
Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. alishamcdarris.com