Amsterdam has the reputation of being an “anything goes” city. Its relaxed, permissive, tolerant, liberal approach to things like sex and drugs are legendary, so one might think there were no rules or guidelines to abide by here. But, like anyplace, there are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind when visiting the Dutch capital. Plenty of guidebooks and Google searches can tell you the things to do and the sites to see. This list is a bit different. Here are 15 things NOT to do in Amsterdam.
1. Don’t Take Pictures of the Women in the Windows
One of the most popular neighborhoods visitors flock to Amsterdam is De Wallen, the infamous Red Light District. As the oldest area in the city, it’s full of historic architecture, scenic canals and cobblestone alleyways. But that’s not what draws the tourist hordes. They’re here to check out the 300-odd window parlors of prostitutes on display like wares at a farmer’s market. Not everyone who comes to the RDL is looking to procure the produce, so to speak. Some just want to gawk at the salacious spectacle of it all. You’ll see wolfpacks of drunken guys, curious couples, gaggles of hen partiers and camera toting Japanese bus tourists among the “interested shoppers”. Look, even touch if you so desire (its not our place to judge), but do NOT take pictures of the working girls. That is strictly prohibited around here. If you get caught sneaking a pic, things could get confrontational.
2. Don’t Mistake the Blue Lights in the Red Light District
It’s no big shocker that De Wallen is known as the Red Light District, as the kamer sex cabins are literally illuminated with red lights. However, you may notice that a few of the windows are bathed in blue light. That indicates that a transgender sex worker is behind the glass. Not all buyers are aware of this, and some get a little more than they expect from their surprise encounter. However, if you’re looking for a such an experience, go towards the blue light.
3. Don’t Confuse Coffee Shops for a Starbucks
Amsterdam is famous for its coffee shops, but don’t mistake these for cafes. If you want a cappuccino, find a sidewalk cafe to get your caffeine fix. The so-called coffee shops are for a fix of another kind. For those who don’t know, cannabis, hash and other soft drugs are tolerated in these establishments. They don’t sell alcohol, but some have food on the menu (and not just brownies). There are about 200 coffee shops in the city, and while they’re not allowed to advertise, it’s not hard to identify and locate one. Look for a green and white license sticker in the window. Be aware, the herbs might be more potent here than you’re used to, so go easy on the stuff.
4. Don’t Light up a Cigarette at a Coffee Shop
Some visitors are surprised to find that, while you can legally light up a joint in an Amsterdam coffee shop, you can’t puff on a cigarette in public indoor spaces here. Weed, yes, but not tobacco. Some places turn a blind eye to this, and a few have designated smoking areas away from other patrons. However, many others enforce the anti-smoking rule with fines.
5. Don’t Think Drugs are Legal Here
A little clarification is in order in regards to Amsterdam’s approach to drugs. Contrary to popular belief, recreational drugs are technically illegal here, pot included. The twist is that the Netherlands decriminalized possession of under 5 grams of cannabis back in 1976. This has led to a generally accepted tolerance on over 18s purchasing small quantities of the substance for personal use in coffee shops (see #3) and herbal “smart shops”. Don’t think you can just light a spliff and get stoned on the streets here. Note, also, that growing, processing and trading drugs is a criminal offense in the Netherlands. Furthermore, hard drugs like cocaine, LSD and heroin are also forbidden, and as of 2008, even magic mushrooms are banned. It’s interesting to note that most of the cannabis consumption here is by foreign tourists. The local youth, who don’t see it as forbidden fruit, generally don’t find it all that appealing.
6. Don’t Buy Drugs from Street Dealers
It should go without saying, but it’s worth repeating because of Amsterdam’s hedonistic reputation. Walk around the streets and you’ll probably be approached by someone selling nefarious substances. Like anywhere, buying from them is just asking for trouble. Drugs are bad for you (duh) but you’ll have no idea what exactly you’re getting off a random pusher. With other legally tolerated buzz options open to you in the coffee shops, there’s no need to go rogue and buy questionable quality from an unregulated dealer, and risk turning your vacation into a really bad trip.
7. Don’t Accept Cookies from Strangers
On a similar note, there’s a known street scam where some friendly stranger will offer you a tempting cookie. Often it’s a pretty Dutch girl, a cute young boy or a grandmotherly figure who charms you into thinking this is simply homespun Holland hospitality. However, the baked goodie contains some dodgy ingredients, and while you zone out in a stupor, your valuables are snatched. Similar scams like this happen all over the world, but this one’s an Amsterdam special to be on guard for. Just follow mom’s standard advice and don’t accept candy – or other treats – from strangers.
8. Don’t Pee in the Canals
Cringe that this even has to be mentioned, but you’d be surprised how many drunken/high tourist buffoons stagger through the Amsterdam streets at night and feel compelled to take a whiz in the pretty canals. Something about the water, perhaps? Have a little decorum, decency and bladder control, please, and refrain from relieving yourselves in this public historic waterway. Using this as your personal urinal is just not cool.
9. Don’t Drive a Car
Compact Amsterdam is a pedestrian or pedal-pusher’s paradise. You can get around to almost anywhere you want on foot or by bike, which is much more pleasant (and sustainable!) than being stuck behind a steering wheel. If you need to go a little further afield, public transportation is efficient and taxis are plentiful. There’s no reason to rent a car to navigate the narrow 17th-century city streets, where parking, congestion and the canals will just confuse you. Besides, all those pedestrians, cyclists and trams make driving more stressful. Sure, use a car if you want to explore outside the city, but keep your vehicle in a Park and Ride carpark on the outskirts and plan on being car-free when in Amsterdam.
10. Don’t Block the Bike Paths
A word to the wise for pedestrians and tourists on rental bikes. Beware the steady stream of cyclists who own the lanes on most city streets. Don’t stop to take a selfie, check a map or gawk at the scenic canal in the middle of the bike flow, or you’re asking for an altercation with a local. With 500 kms of bike paths in the Dutch capital, two-wheeled transportation is a great way to go here, but know the etiquette and rules of the road before saddling up or strolling within their midst.
11. Don’t Cycle at Night Without Lights
If you do choose to cycle in Amsterdam, don’t forget to light up at night. Yes, you’ll see locals breaking this rule all the time. However, it is technically required by law to use front and back lights on your bike after dark. Besides, it’s just common sense to want to see where you’re going and have others see you, too.
12. Don’t Rent a MacBike or You’ll Flag Yourself as a Tourist
One of the oldest and most popular rental bike companies in Amsterdam is MacBike. They offer guided tours as well as a variety of bicycles and accessories to rent from five central locations. Nothing against this fine company, per se, but as their distinctive red bikes come with a big circular logo on them, you will be essentially flagging yourself as a pedalling tourist. Same goes for the Yellow Bike company. Not to fuel paranoia, but this could make you a bit of a target for those that like to prey on unsuspecting visitors. There are other bike rental companies in town where you can blend in with the locals a bit better.
13. Don’t Drink Heineken
We have nothing against this pleasant pale lager in the signature green bottle. In fact, we encourage you to visit the Heineken Experience when in Amsterdam to learn about the brew. However, this premium beer brand has done a great job marketing and exporting itself around the world and you can probably enjoy it back home any time you choose. Ditto for Amstel, Grolsch and Bavaria. There are many amazing local beers from microbreweries to sample in the city pubs. Beer connoisseurs should check out ‘t Arendsnest, De Brabantse Aap, Brouwerij ’t IJ or de Prael for some local craft beer flavors.
14. Don’t Line Up for Anne Frank’s House
One of the must-see sites of Amsterdam is, of course, the house where Anne Frank and her family hid out in a secret annex for two years during WWII. With the popularity of her famous diary, the line ups at the museum can reach epic proportions, especially during the high summer season. We’re all for spontaneous, serendipitous tourism and not being locked into set itineraries, but this is one attraction to plan ahead for or else you could suck away 2 to 4 hours waiting in a line (and perhaps not even get in). You can easily pre-book a timed ticket online to get direct entrance at a door beside the main entry point. Do this as far in advance as you can, as a limited number are available each day.
15. Don’t Miss the Poffertjes
Another one of the things not to do in Amsterdam is to miss an opportunity to eat poffertjes. These spongy spheres are kind of like a Dutch donut hole (but better). The sugar-dusted pancake puffs are available from street vendors and markets around Amsterdam, served with a knob of butter and optional toppings like Nutella or strawberries – but we prefer plain. There are many other delicious Dutch delicacies to indulge in when in Amsterdam. Cheese, herring, bitterballen and stroopwafel spring to mind. But poffertje balls of bliss are an addictive treat you shouldn’t even try to resist. Betcha can’t eat just one.