Eight simple rules for visiting Amsterdam

What to know before you ride a bike, toast a beer and smoke a spliff in the Netherlands' capital.

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Sex, drugs and wooden shoes—clichés about Amsterdam abound. But before my trip there, I wanted to know about the real Amsterdam, beyond the debauchery and uncomfortable footwear (okay, maybe a little debauchery). My friend and former colleague Todd Savage, who moved from Chicago to Amsterdam eight years ago and is now the director of Time Out Amsterdam, gave me some fantastic tips, which I road tested:


 


Sex, drugs and wooden shoes—clichés about Amsterdam abound. But before my trip there, I wanted to know about the real Amsterdam, beyond the debauchery and uncomfortable footwear (okay, maybe a little debauchery). My friend and former colleague Todd Savage, who moved from Chicago to Amsterdam eight years ago and is now the director of Time Out Amsterdam, gave me some fantastic tips, which I road tested:


1

Don’t ride a bike on your first visit to Amsterdam, unless you pedal immediately to the countryside. Amsterdam’s bikes may look cute, but every hour is rush hour. Todd’s right about one thing. Amsterdamers are serious about their biking. They ride everywhere at breakneck speeds, at all hours of the day and night, while committing these etiquette breaches: using cell phones, eating sandwiches, smoking, reading the paper and carrying cats under their arms. But don’t ride a bike at all while in Amsterdam? That’s like going to Florence and avoiding museums. You do need an introductory course if you want to survive, and the best place to get it is Mac Bikes (various locations), a bike-rental outfitter offering two-wheeled tours of the city.


2

Go to the Anne Frank house an hour or two before closing time. You’ll avoid the crazy-long queue, and you’ll have a better chance of getting a feel for the house. Great tip: I followed it and walked right in. This is the house (Prisengracht 267, annefrank.org) where Frank and her family hid from the Nazis in a two-room annex for two years, and tracing your fingers over the same wallpaper she stared at day after day, noting the pencil marks where her father recorded the children’s growth over that time, is nothing short of devastating. Also follow this advice for the other big museums: the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum (home of the Dutch masters).


3

Beware of the “coffee shops”: The marijuana here is strong. A friend of mine once said smoking pot in Amsterdam is for tourists and losers. Not even the risk of being labeled a loser tourist could keep me from smoking legal pot, but I wish I had heeded Todd’s warning about its ferocity. Coffee shops abound in Amsterdam, but my weed deed went down at Barney’s Lounge (Reguliersgracht 27), where my fiancé, Patrick, and I made fools of ourselves trying to roll our first joint in ages (spare yourself the embarrassment and buy prerolled). After Patrick lit his pants on fire, a staffer took pity on us and rolled a tight spliff, from which I took four deep hits. This loser-tourist spent the next five hours suffering anxiety attacks every three minutes while trying to convince myself I was having a blast.


4

The Red Light District is one of the oldest and most beautiful parts of Amsterdam. I always like to point out the hookers quaintly working the windows directly next door to the city’s oldest church (Oude Kerk) and also next door to a child-care center. I, too, enjoyed noting this crazy juxtaposition. Patrick and I wandered the area one night, watching as packs of foreign men evaluated the women as they would a tomato at the grocery store and counting how long they lasted inside (the average: 11 minutes). My favorite part: overhearing two older gentlemen in suits telling a lady of the night she should give them a discount because of the weak Canadian dollar. She wasn’t having it.


5

Duck into one of the cozy brown cafés. The staff will let you idle for hours (and, conversely, force you to run after them if you want service). These old, often dark-wood-paneled bars scattered all over the city are a great place to stop in for a beer and a snack. Todd recommended Cafe ’t Smalle (Egelantiersgracht 12), a shoe-box-sized spot dating from the 18th century with a lovely canal-side terrace, and Twee Zwaantjes (Prinsengracht 114), where musicians lead the crowd in traditional Dutch drinking songs. He also turned me on to the Dutch bar treat bitterballen, a fried ball filled with meaty gravy you dip in spicy mustard. While you could make a meal out of bitterballen, raw herring sandwiches sold streetside and the mayo- and hot sauce–topped fries from stands around the city (believe me, I tried), you should fill up with something more substantial. I ate Indonesian food four times during my visit (it’s cheap and ubiquitous), and my favorite was Puri Mas (Leidsedwarsstraat 37): Order the rijsttafel (rice table), a smorgasbord of dishes ranging from mild to spicy, with plenty of rice sprinkled with toasted coconut. Also, make sure you hit the free tours of the Brouwerij ’t IJ (Funenkade 7), Fridays at 4pm. Beat the after-work hordes by drinking the brewery’s fantastic beers in the outdoor garden before your tour.


6

Book a hotel that doesn’t require a tram ride home. It’s much nicer to experience Amsterdam on foot. So true: The city is fairly compact, but because trams stop running around 12:30am, you want your hotel to be in the middle of it all. Hotel Seven Bridges (Reguliersgracht 31; $147–$368/night), on a centrally located canal, fits the bill. Laden with antiques, the 300-year-old canal house is quiet and comfortable, and gratis breakfast (warm, flaky croissants, juice, yogurt, coffee) is delivered to your room on fancy china.


7

Shop the “Nine Streets,” an area encompassing—you guessed it—nine narrow streets filled with boutiques. Damn, Todd, you have upmarket taste; one glimpse at the price tags at some of these shops and I knew I was out of my league. But once I discovered the vintage and secondhand stores, euros nearly burst out of my purse. The best among them: European chain Episode (Berenstraat 1), for dresses and great menswear (especially hats); and Lady Day (Hartenstraat 9), featuring ’70s-heavy clothes and accessories.


8

Take a break: The excesses of Amsterdam, especially the drunk, high and horny tourists, can get to you after a while. Todd didn’t offer this advice; I arrived at this nugget of wisdom after the third time a Charles Bronson stand-in asked me if I wanted to buy coke. Luckily, the quiet, seaside city the Hague (yes, home of the war-crime tribunals) is only a 30-minute train ride from Amsterdam. There, the pace slows, the crowds taper and pungent wafts of marijuana smoke are replaced with appetizing scents emanating from quaint, laid-back restaurants. The student is now the master, eh, Todd?


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