Roger Vertigo’s Thumbnail Guide to Amsterdam
Language â€“ Dutch people speak…um…Dutch, but the good news is they also speak English extremely well (in addition to German, French, and Spanish in many cases). In most foreign countries it’s considered polite to first ask someone if they speak English before conversing, but you really don’t need to worry about that in the Netherlands. Similar to Scandinavia, the Dutch know their language is a bit obscure and they are generally proud of the fact that they can speak your language as well as you can. If you walk into a shop and someone mistakes you for a local and speaks Dutch to you it’s polite to apologize for not speaking the language, but then you can confidently carry on in English without worry. In many businesses geared toward tourists, English is the Lingua Franca already so you won’t even hear Dutch.
Arrival â€“ If you arrive by train, skip this section because Centraal Station is the hub for everything. If you arrive by air you have a few options to get into town, but by far the best of these is the train. A taxi is really expensive (around €45) and the KLM hotel buses are slow, a bit pricey, and make many stops. Both usually take longer than the train anyway. Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport is on the commuter train lines and the station is a few right turns out of baggage claim, just follow the signs. When you find the ticket counter for the trains get in line and ask for a single (one-way) ticket to Centraal Station, which will set you back around €3. Return (round trip) tickets cost exactly twice as much, but the trip has to be complete that same day so it’s best to just get the single.
The trains leave from Platforms 1 and 2, just down the escalator from where you buy the tickets, and they leave about every 15 minutes during the day and a bit less often in the fringe hours. The journey to Centraal Station (CS) takes 20-25 minutes, but don’t fall asleep. Some trains go non-stop while others make up to 3 stops on the way. They usually keep going after the CS stop, so it’s important to pay attention, although it will be obvious when you are in the right place.
Orientation â€“ Get a map. You can get one at the official tourist office called the VVV just outside Centraal Station, or in the free brochure rack at many hotels. The center of Amsterdam is relatively small, but the layout is very confusing. Don’t worry, almost everyone gets lost while marching around Amsterdam, and if you don’t get lost you aren’t doing it right.
Many different companies offer canal tours and this is by far the best way to get acquainted with the city quickly. These are easy to find and are a good idea when you first arrive in town so you can get your overview and then decide which things interest you for up-close inspection later on.
Getting Around â€“ Amsterdam is the flat and compact, making it the ultimate city to explore on foot, but you do have a few other options. There is a subway (metro) system, but it’s dirty and it disappears into the suburbs after just a couple stops. Far more useful is the extensive tram system. Most city maps show the tram system pretty well and most trams begin and end their routes at Centraal Station. To ride the trams enter through the open door near the back where you will usually find a cashier in a little booth. You can pay €1.60 for a single ride in the city center or if you’ll be riding frequently you can save a lot of money by buying a Strippen Karte (Strip Ticket) at a news stand or tobacco shop before you get on the tram. For €7.50 you get a card with 15 strips on it and you punch 2 strips for a ride in the city center (multiple people can use the same Strippen Karte if you punch the appropriate number of strips). The cashier guy will punch your Strip Ticket for you or you can do it yourself in the little yellow boxes on board.
If the weather is nice you might consider renting a bike, however it’s not as carefree an experience as it might seem. You’ll instantly notice that the density of bike traffic is far heavier than the car traffic since all the locals ride their bikes everywhere. The result is a fairly low tolerance for people clogging up the bike lanes riding at a leisure pace, especially if you don’t ride in single file. The other complication is the prevalence of bike theft. The police have an unspoken deal with the junkies that if the junkies don’t mug people the police won’t pay much attention if they steal bikes. Rental places will rent you a good lock, but that isn’t always enough, and finding something to lock the bike to isn’t as easy as you’d think it would be.
ATMs â€“ There are a couple of ATMs near baggage claim at the airport and another couple at Centraal Station, so use them while you are there. There are individual machines here and there in most of the tourist spots, but they aren’t on every corner like they are in some other cities. If you don’t see one ask someone where to find a Bank Automaat.
Where to stay â€“ There are three main areas with hotels and each has its own character so who you are and what you intend to do will likely dictate in which of the areas you will stay. I won’t include any specific recommendations here, but I will say that you usually get what you pay for in Amsterdam. In New York City, for example, you might pay $150 for a room while the person in the identical room next to yours might have paid $300, but this rarely happens in Amsterdam. Some top-end places offer deals to fill empty rooms in the off-season, but generally the more you pay for a room the nicer it will be and vice-versa.
1 â€“ Centraal Station/Red Light District area â€“ Most younger people and those on a tight budget prefer to stay in this area. Not only is it convenient to transportation, it is packed with budget options. If a big part of your Amsterdam experience will involve smoking and drinking then this area is your Mecca. The Red Light District (RLD) is just across the big street from Centraal Station and it tends to be quite loud and even a little dangerous. Shady characters will try to sell you fake drugs or a stolen bike, but usually nothing worse than that. Be careful though, especially late at night.
Just west of the RLD you’ll find countless other hotels and hostels clustered around the trendy pedestrian streets. This area is a little more expensive and safer, although you’ll find fewer bars and coffeeshops.
2 â€“ Rembrandtplein â€“ This area is an easy 10-15 minute walk from Centraal Station and is centered around the neon-filled square at its heart. A few hotels face the action, but most of them can be found on the streets nearby. On weekends and all summer this area is packed and loud all through the night so if you are a light sleeper make sure your room doesn’t overlook the square itself. Here you will find many Grand Cafes with their wicker furniture sprawling into the square in nice weather, and also many upscale clubs and discos mixed in with the oversized tourist bars. There is also a strip of places that cater to a large gay clientele just down one of the streets. Another advantage of the Rembrandtplein area is the fact that it’s more or less in between the other two main areas so nothing is more than a 15-20 minute walk from here.
3 – Leidseplein/Museum District/Vondel Park â€“ From Rembrandtplein it’s another 10-15 minute walk to this area. The Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum are next door to each other and just around the corner from one entrance to the lovely and enormous Vondel Park, which in turn, is just across a canal from the Leidseplein so these areas form one hotel district. The Leidseplein is the largest and most complete nightlife area in town, but most of the hotels are actually just to the south on the streets close to the park and the museums. The Leidseplein area features about 100 restaurants (seriously) that are mostly lined up next door to each other, as well as a Casino and several large nightclubs. This area features many hotel options in all price ranges as well as a couple of hostels.
Eating â€“ There is really no such thing as a restaurant that serves Dutch food, but that’s probably a good thing. Fortunately they have almost everything else imaginable. Small restaurants are everywhere and the prices tend to be reasonable. You won’t go hungry, but here are a few things to note:
Fast Food â€“ Except for a few of the usual American burger chains you will find the fast food scene to be dominated by Middle Eastern food (Gyros, Falafels, Shoarmas, etc.) and Vlaamse Frites (Flemish Fries AKA French Fries). It’s nearly impossible to find a place that doesn’t sell fries actually, so you’ll have no excuse for not trying the delicious and piping hot paper cones full of the high-carb treats slathered with the traditional mayonnaise or ketchup or curry sauce. These places are all over town and open late. Fries usually range from €1.50 for a small to about €3 for a giant, meal-sized cone. Falafels and Gyros are usually €3 to €5 and many places will let you pile on the veggies and sauces yourself from a “free salad bar”. A unique Amsterdam experience is eating at FEBO. This large chain of shops is famous for their rows of coin-operated windows behind which workers place soggy burgers and delicious croquets (deep-fried savory pastries filled with thick gravy and otherwise unknown contents). You put about €1.20 in a slot, open the window and enjoy. The places are strangely popular with drunken locals and they also serve sub-standard fries.
Restaurants â€“ The entire city center is thick with small restaurants so you’ll never have to go too far to find a decent place. The best area to compare and contrast is definitely the grid of streets surrounding the aforementioned Leidseplein. This entire district is literally one restaurant next to another next to another. You’ll find cuisines from around the world, but the most popular are Argentinean Steak Houses, Italian, and Indonesian. The Italian places are nice for the fact that many of them offer many pizzas and pasta dishes on a €5 special, but the most interesting are the Indonesian places. The signature dish at these spots is the famous Ristafal (rice table). A Ristafal consists of a bowl of rice alongside between 10 and 25 small dishes containing exotic combinations of meat, veg, and spices, all kept warm on metal racks with a flame underneath. It’s a Dutch presentation of Indonesian food and it’s as fun as it is delicious. They are not cheap however, so save this for a mini-splurge.
Marijuana â€“ Are you still with me? Okay, here we go. There are over 100 “coffeeshops” in Amsterdam and they are all over town, however they are most common in the area around Centraal Station. If a place calls itself a coffeeshop, it sells marijuana in various forms and also coffee drinks, tea, snacks, and in some cases, alcohol. It’s pretty obvious when you’ve found one of these places, but if there is any doubt they all display a green and white sticker in the front that says “coffeeshop”, and this is not to be confused with a “cafÃ©”.
Once you enter you’ll notice the unmistakable scent of pot smoke, but the shops aren’t allowed to have everything out in the open. Approach the counter and ask to “see the menu” and you’ll be given the list of the cannabis products. Most places stock four or more varieties of weed and four or more types of hash. These products are sold by weight and almost always you’ll see the price per gram next to the name on the menu. Needless to say, the stronger the stuff, the more it costs per gram. The going price is normally around €5 – €8 per gram and in case you aren’t familiar with the weight of marijuana, one gram is actually enough for 4 or 5 good sized joints, or enough to get 8-10 people really stoned. Some places impose a 2-gram minimum, but this is rare so just thank them and move on to the next place.
You can smoke your new stash in the coffeshop itself and each place has a unique decorative, and sometimes musical theme that lends itself to hanging around and getting stoned. You can buy weed one place and smoke it in another, but you have to buy something in each place, like a coffee or juice, and no one will bother you. Many places have water pipes they will lend you if you ask, but most people just smoke joints. Virtually all Europeans mix their marijuana with tobacco and then roll it into a cone-shaped joint with a small cardboard “filter” on the end, but it’s really just a handle, as it filters nothing. Virtually all North Americans prefer to smoke their weed in its unadulterated form. One reason this is important to know is that many places sell pre-rolled joints, but very few of these are American style. Americans trying out the European style usually get to practice coughing without getting very high.
In addition to weed and hash, some places sell marijuana edibles. They will be code named Space Cakes, Space Cookies, Space Muffins and so forth, and while they are common at the shops close to Centraal Station they are almost impossible to find further out. For the uninitiated, these desserts are not to be taken lightly. Usually for about €4 you’ll be given an item that will look and taste normal, but 30 to 90 minutes later (depending on how recently you’ve eaten) you will begin to feel a little funny. About another hour later you’ll be fully within the grips of the THC-laden treat. The high is similar to smoking, but it’s more of a full-body feeling instead of just a “heady” feeling. It also lasts 4 to 5 hours so it’s important to plan ahead. If you’ve never done this before it’s important to be careful with the dosage. Once it starts you can’t stop it and some people have been known to panic. The shops are very aware of this so they are usually very honest if you ask how strong their items are. Usually cookies and muffins contain less THC than cakes and brownies so choose wisely.
You can smoke marijuana in any coffeeshop and at concerts and large nightclubs, but almost nowhere else. Smoking while walking around town is done sometimes, but is frowned upon. If a cop notices you doing this you’ll usually be asked to knock it off, but that’s about the worst that will happen. It’s safe to assume that most bars that don’t double as coffeeshops won’t allow pot smoking and they will quickly point that out if you decide to try.
Drinking â€“ Amsterdam is a beer town and that beer is usually Heineken. The locals virtually all order beer in a .25 liter glass, but all the tourist places also serve it in the .5 liter/pint size. Prices range from around €3 to €5 for a pint and the half-size usually costs exactly half as much. Your beer will be served with a two-finger foam head whether you like it or not. Most places also serve decent wine for around €3 per glass and all of them serve proper cocktails, but those tend to be quite expensive.
Red Light District â€“ Similar to much of Europe, prostitution is legal in the Netherlands. The main difference is the prostitutes in Amsterdam sit in red-lit windows and flirt with passers-by. They are also one of the city’s best-known tourist attractions. There is no shame in strolling through this area, as this attraction is compulsory for adult tourists of all ages and both sexes. For the brave or impulsive, prices are said to start at around €50 for the quick and unromantic experience. The Red Light District is also home to a number of adult clubs that lure in groups of men (and even some women) with sex shows that can be quite graphic.
What to do â€“ In case you haven’t done any other research, the following are the most popular things to do in town while you aren’t getting stoned and/or drunk:
Canal tours â€“ As mentioned previously, this is the best way to get acquainted with the whole city center in a short time. Boats leave regularly from in front of Centraal Station as well as various other spots around town. Many offer a hop-on/hop-off service, but it’s a bit frivolous to try to use these boats as transportation so it’s probably best to finish the tour and then travel around on foot.
Red Light District â€“ See above.
Van Gogh Museum â€“ This modern building features an extensive, popular, and changing gallery of Van Gogh paintings and not much else.
Rijksmuseum â€“ Located next to the Van Gogh, this giant museum is undergoing a 4-year renovation, but most of the important works are still available in the annex next door to the main building. If you only have the patience to do one of these two this is a better choice, but name recognition usually draws people to the Van Gogh instead.
Anne Frank House â€“ Here you’ll see the surprisingly large attic the where the Frank Family hid from the Nazis, along with various adjacent rooms that tell the story to those who never bothered to read the book.
Heineken Experience â€“ Not far down the road from the Rijksmuseum is this disused brewery that has been drawing tourists for decades. Old-timers love to point out that this popular attraction was recently very different from its current incarnation. Only about 5 years ago it used to cost almost nothing for a short and standard brewery tour followed by a merry all-you-can-drink session with your tour group. After being closed for a year or so the brewery tour morphed into the surreal and corporate “Heineken Experience”. The price edged up to €10 and now includes coupons for 3 small glasses of beer in the pub at the conclusion and a “free gift”. (Not to kill the suspense, but the free gift is a small Heineken logo glass in a green metal canister.)
Cannabis Museum â€“ This Red Light District attraction is almost as disappointing as the nearby Sex Museum, but on the other hand it’s probably the only cannabis museum in the world.