Amsterdam has a lot going for it – museums, picturesque canals, exotic window-shopping – but chief among its attractions is seeing your worries go up in smoke
“Pas op voor de fokken fiets!”
Amsterdam is a friendly city. With 30% of its population comprised of foreigners and espousing the Dutch concept of samenleving (community living) and respect for individual freedoms, the Venice of the North is a welcoming destination and especially rewarding for those wanting to go about their business without anyone looking over their shoulder.
It’s an even more amiable city if you exclude the ubiquitous cyclists (there are 847 000 two-wheeled chariots for the city’s 850 000 residents) who descend on you like the legions of the underworld, tinkling their evil little bells, with their riders offering you choice words when you’ve stopped for a selfie in front of the Museum of Prostitution or to munch a raw herring (a regional delicacy). Or, in my case, when you’ve emerged from one of the more than 200 certified coffeeshops in the city which are legally permitted to sell cannabis.
Yes, that’s one word – not “coffee shops” or “cafés”, which focus on caffeine-based addictive substances. In 1972, the Dutch government decriminalised dagga to ease problems associated with “harder” narcotics, which had become all the rage in the flower-powered Sixties. The coffeeshops – the first of which, Mellow Yellow, actually sold tea – soon mushroomed and earned global fame (or infamy, depending on where you stand).
Although they’re permitted low-volume sales to consumers, these shops have to source their marijuana supply through the back door in a case of the curious policy of gedogen, or tolerating behaviour that’s technically illegal, but ubiquitous at all levels of Dutch society. It isn’t uncommon to see people having a toke in the streets or on one of the “smoke boats” that allow you to while away the day on canals of green.
Even with weed freely available, however, only 8% of the Amsterdam population is estimated to enjoy partaking of it, which my tour guide Anja – who’s also a social anthropologist – puts down to the absence of the thrill one gets from doing something illegal.
“My parents nipped my need to experiment with weed in the bud when I was a teenager by joining me in a smoking session. Dutch parents often join in to make any activity uncool!” she laughs, as we take a leisurely walk through Amsterdam’s fabled red-light district.
She also refutes the idea that the Dutch penchant for tolerance comes from a traditionally liberal attitude, arguing instead that there’s a purely economic basis for it. She has a point: the combined revenue of coffeeshops in the Netherlands was estimated at €1 billion in 2017.
The national Rijksmuseum, which covers Dutch history and art dating back to the Middle Ages, and the Van Gogh Museum, which houses 200 works by the Dutch master, are both well worth a visit, as is the excellent Anne Frank House. And if you really must, brave the crows to take the obligatory selfie at the “I am Amsterdam” sign.
After experiencing cultural overload in Paris, where you’d reasonably expect to stumble on a masterpiece in the public restrooms, my partner and I decided to go easy on the museum trail in Amsterdam and focus on the ambience of a city that’s been a refuge for dissident minds from all over the continent since the 16th century.
From our base at the bright and cheery Student Hotel in Transvaalbuurt, west of Amsterdam’s central district, where one can find Pretorius, Biko, Luthuli and Tugela among the street names, we ventured out
to discover the city on a coffeeshop crawl.
Bar the fantastic caramel-filled stroopwafels (syrup waffles), Dutch cuisine is as insipid as a worn pair of clogs, so we chose to fill up on more fiery Indonesian fare at the excellent Kantjil & De Tijger. We also stopped at a few of the trendy craft burger bars.
Even with its clean and reliable subway and tram system, Amsterdam’s best explored on foot. Everyone speaks English, albeit with an accent reminiscent of manic gargling, and there’s little chance of getting lost as you explore the canal scenes that might have been painted by Van Gogh himself and steal a glance at the hookers showcasing their wares in brothel windows.
We began our crawl by paying a visit to two of the pioneering establishments – The Bulldog, the converted sex shop that’s served as the “living room of Amsterdam” for the past 40 years, and Barney’s, multiple winner of the High Times Cup for the best coffeeshop and an institution in the city. Both offer a bewildering array of weed, hash, spacecakes and other products, bearing wonderful names like Gorilla Glue and Big Buddha Cheese, and are upmarket, boisterous venues.
Looking for a spot to relax and watch the Arsenal vs Atlético Madrid Europa League semi-final, we found the suburban Ibiza coffeeshop not too far from our hotel. Despite its party island moniker, the Ibiza’s quite a subdued place with a small menu and is frequented mostly by locals, rather than throngs of tourists.
The amiable, bloodshot-eyed owner directed us to the quiet basement, where we sat down in front of
“It isn’t uncommon to see people having a toke in the streets or on one of the ‘smoke boats’, where you can while away the day on canals of green.”
the TV with a large indica ( for a more sedate high, as opposed to the energising sativa strain) joint. It’s a room that features miniature tables facing the walls, presumably for those seeking a place to enjoy a heated philosophical debate with the ghost of Jan van Riebeeck.
Even though the Gunners lost in a disappointing encounter, I was quite unable to muster my usual fan’s ferocity and instead watched them meekly, with a slack-jawed grin. Despite the result, it was moment of bliss for the two of us, cocooned in a foreign land, as we discussed how the world was changing and dreamt of a progressive planet marked by tolerance and an absence of hatred.
Indeed, the only thing able to shake me out of my reverie afterwards was the sight of a 2,1m female cyclist bearing down on me and bellowing at me to get out of the way.
01 Museum of Marijuana. 02 A joint of cannabis and a cuppa at an Amsterdam coffeeshop