All photos by Raymond van Mil unless otherwise stated
The Dutch capital is a compact museum city being sunk into its canals by rich Americans staring at Rembrandts and the revolving cast of perverts and drug addicts who infest the red light district. Here's how to not be awful in Amsterdam.
Jump to sections by using the index below:
– WHERE TO PARTY
– WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH DRUGS?
– POLITICS, PROTESTS, AND JUST HOW RACIST IS EVERYONE HERE?
Screw in the Park but Don't Wear Soccer Cleats | Protests? What Protests? | Immigration
– WHERE TO EAT
– WHAT DO LOCALS EAT?
– LGBT AMSTERDAM
– WHERE TO DRINK
– WHERE TO STAY
– WHERE TO HANG OUT WHEN YOU'RE SOBER
– HOW TO AVOID GETTING RIPPED OFF AND BEATEN UP
– HOW NOT TO BE A SHITTY TOURIST
– PEOPLE AND PLACES TO AVOID
– TIPPING AND HANDY PHRASES
– A YOUTUBE PLAYLIST OF QUESTIONABLE LOCAL MUSIC
– VICE CITY MAP
WHERE TO PARTY
One of the very few reasons to go to Leidseplein is for the Chicago Social Club, which everyone just calls "De Soos." It's a former theater that's been converted into a laid-back club with a big dance floor, and it attracts every Dutch person who dresses a bit like you.
This is hands-down the best club in Amsterdam, and the atmosphere on the dance floor is as good as in any club we've been to in Europe. They somehow manage to book great DJs every single night (apparently great DJs love coming to play in Amsterdam, who'd have guessed?), but if you're planning on going, make sure you're in the know with who's on that night because the doormen can be dickheads. Name the DJs who are performing, and they're more likely to let you in. Be quick, because 2014 looks set to be the last year Trouw (that's what we call it for short, let's face it, it's got a fucking stupid name) is open. They haven't announced why they're closing yet, but they have just banned cameras, so maybe they're really, really paranoid about their appearance or something.
Rembrandt Square is the fucking pits, but tucked away between all kinds of horribleness is Studio 80, which for almost a decade has been one of the city's most important clubs on the house and techno scene. It's almost exactly 50 percent better than Studio 54. That's just math.
Volkshotel, 150 Wibautstraat 150
The Western world's current sad lust for putting clubs in hotels hasn't spared Amsterdam, the difference being that ours isn't a waiting room peopled by new media dads, mediocre laptop DJs, and bemused foreign-exchange students. Canvas is actually on top of Volkshotel, an old newspaper factory in the east of the city, which means it's now the only club in Amsterdam with a view worth opening your eyes for. Get a bottle of something fizzy and take your loved one up to a hot tub on the roof to experience just how glamorous the death of print media can be.
Photo by Ewout Lowie
WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH DRUGS?
Contrary to stereotype, Amsterdam isn't a lawless free-for-all. There are plenty of rules, but despite talk of changing the law, it remains legal for anyone over 18—tourists included—to buy weed in Amsterdam.
However, the national government is now relatively anti-marijuana, and Amsterdam is closing dozens of coffee shops because they can't be close to schools any more. Our best guess is that weed will be here to stay, but the "anything goes" attitude is long gone.
There are areas that display "no smoking weed" signs, but they aren't actually enforceable. Still, if you see one you're probably not in the best spot. As a general rule, if a bar is clean and tidy, sparking up a joint in the smoking area will be frowned upon, even if it's technically legal. So if you want to keep smoking you're better off sticking to dark and dingy dive bars. Such is the stoner's lot.
The tobacco laws are just as random. Officially, a smoking ban in all bars and restaurants was passed a few years ago, but after a while an exception was made for small bars. There are smoking areas in most clubs, and in some it's sort of accepted that people light up after a certain time of night. Follow the lead of the locals if you don't want to look like a prick.
Mushrooms are effectively still legal. They now don't come in their OG mushroom format, but as a sort of nutty root called "Philosopher's Stone Truffles." They have the exact same psychoactive substance in them and are derived from the actual mushrooms. You can buy them over the counter at any smartshop, most of which have an orange mushroom logo out front.
Holland is one of the largest producers of MDMA in the world, and in classic Dutch style we can send our pills to a government test lab who will tell us if they're good quality. The government would rather have us rolling hard than dead. They used to have these services at large raves, but sadly Christian political parties had them closed down because they felt "it sent the wrong signal." The wrong signal being "safety first," apparently.
Cocaine is relatively popular, but the quality varies, as do the attitudes of those selling it. Locals know that the street coke dealers are kind of sketchy, and no one wants to get mugged by some scumbag.
Just because cops are relatively easy-going doesn't mean people don't get into trouble. People who are caught by a bouncer carrying one or two pills probably won't get in and will definitely lose their drugs. Anyone using openly is chucked out once a bouncer sees him. Anyone with enough on him that he could feasibly be dealing will end up meeting the cops, though the police have been known to be lenient to people carrying small amounts, provided those people aren't dicks about it. Anyone who goes all hippie badman and calls them narcs or fascists is probably going to end up in a cell.
POLITICS, PROTESTS, AND JUST HOW RACIST IS EVERYONE HERE?
SCREW IN THE PARK, BUT DON'T WEAR SOCCER CLEATS
The Vondelpark—the best park in town—has its own set of rules. It's the only place in the Netherlands, and maybe the world, where you can legally fuck and smoke weed outdoors. There's a certain etiquette to it: Go in the evening or night time. Avoid the children's playgrounds. Be a good human being and pick up your condoms. Also, you can't go to the park while wearing studded soccer cleats, although admittedly that's quite a specific fetish.
Squatting has been illegal in Amsterdam since 2010, and while the few squats that remain are still tolerated, they're quickly becoming relics of an already lost struggle.
Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom are pretty far right, but they've become more and more mainstream as they've gained popularity over the years. Although Wilders is anti-EU, he currently wants to remain a member of Parliament in the Netherlands AND be granted the opportunity to become a member of the European Parliament, which is currently a legal impossibility.
(Photo by Alejandro Tauber)
POLITICS, PROTESTS, AND JUST HOW RACIST IS EVERYONE HERE?
PROTESTS? WHAT PROTESTS?
The Dutch aren't known for taking to the streets in anger. Our country's unofficial motto is: "Act normal; that's crazy enough." We tend to think of street fighting as the sort of thing that happens in other countries.
Amsterdam's last major riots were more than 30 years ago. On April 30, 1980, squatters took to the streets to protest the national housing shortage. This was the date that our former queen, Beatrix, was set to be crowned, and grand festivities were scheduled in her honor. Instead, tear gas filled the air and shops were looted as police and rioters went head to head. Protests since then have been very small and are more likely to come from the extreme left than the extreme right. Having said that, Occupy Amsterdam hardly made a political dent here. The populist right sometimes have their moment in the sun, like when they demonstrated in defense of Santa's helper "Black Pete," enthusiastically reminding the planet that there's nothing remotely racist about Father Christmas having an assistant (slave if you will) in blackface.
Act normal; that's crazy enough. Remember that and you'll understand how Amsterdam was built on pragmatism rather than passion. It also makes the city and the Netherlands as a whole more boring than it probably wants to be.
POLITICS, PROTESTS, AND JUST HOW RACIST IS EVERYONE HERE?
Despite the country itself being a product of late medieval immigration, immigrants have been a source of stupid debate in the Netherlands for decades. 9/11 didn't do a great deal to quiet the issue. Back then, immigration's harshest critic was the right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated by an animal welfare activist turned immigrant activist in 2002. Which did not help anyone, least of all Pim, better understand the benefits of an open, free, and multicultural society.
Although the worst of the storm seems to have passed, the fight over what it means to be Nederlands continues. This is mostly fueled by Geert Wilders, the leader of the Party for Freedom, who rails against Muslims and workers coming in from Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania.
WHERE TO EAT
A small, well-lit rotisserie with a 60s vibe where they serve no-nonsense food. This is a good place to chill out and not spend too much money. It's not a good place to come if you've just eaten a load of mushrooms and need to hide in a darkened room until the walls start behaving themselves.
These days, coming back from Amsterdam healthier than when you arrived is the real act of rebellion, kids. Go to this salad bar for all the organic ingredients you can shovel into your mouth, then stick around for the workshops on healthy cooking so you can learn how to stop living on microwavable cheese meals made from sodium and donkey curd.
16 Katestraat 16
Everywhere on earth does beer and burgers these days, but Brouw's are actually good. They're famous for their slow-cooked and smoked meats, so try their brisket, pork belly, and ribs and forget everything you learned about healthy eating. Meat is murder, sure, but it's also suicide.
This Amsterdam institution has been here since 1889, so it doesn't get much more authentic. It's an Italian place located in the middle of the Jordaan, and as far as we can tell they've barely changed the menu since it opened. Seeing as people have been eating here since your grandparents were doing whatever the Greatest Generation's version of snapchatting dick pics was, they must be doing something right.
Le Fou Fow
This is the best place to get Japanese food in Amsterdam. You'll find it on the second floor, right above an Asian food shop that's been giving it the big one here since 1957.
WHAT DO LOCALS EAT?
What you need when you've hit rock bottom after a long, hard day of smoking stupid-strength weed is a hit of sugar, and Dutch people are always jonesing hard for a stroopwafel. It's basically a cookie made from two thin waffles sandwiching a layer of syrup. It's really stupid stoner food, basically.
Kroketten and Frikandellen
Imagine putting a cow, a pig, and a horse in a blender, then rolling the resulting mess into a sausage shape, covering it in breadcrumbs and deep-frying it. Voila! Kroketten and frikandellen are to Dutch cuisine what doughnuts and burgers are to American diners: disgusting, supposedly irregular treats that have slowly worked their way into our daily diet.
The former Dutch colony of Suriname blessed us with some great food traditions. One of the tastiest dishes is called roti and contains curry chicken, potatoes, beans, and the most important element: a sort of salty pancake. Sadly, it seems unlikely that the Surinamese are currently going nuts for stroopwafels. I guess imperialism is a one-way street.
There are a few different varieties of stamppot, but the gist of it is that you mash up a bed of potatoes and boiled vegetables, and then lay a nice fat smoked sausage across the top of it. One of the most popular versions is made with kale, which is funny because this weird, filling traditional dish is just about the least likely thing to ever be eaten by San Francisco yoga moms.
Dutch people fucking love liquorice; as a nation we eat more of it per person than any other country in the world. But be warned: Our liquorice is not like your liquorice. The little black sweets we eat, known as drop, have such a distinctive ammonia taste that unsuspecting tourists usually hack them back up as soon as they taste them. Only the deeply Dutch can manage one without pulling a face like they've just bitten into a dog turd.
You really should taste Gouda from a cheese shop while you're here in Amsterdam, but be aware that from then on you'll never be able to buy it at home again. This is the cheese equivalent of drinking a pint of Guinness in Dublin or doing crystal meth in Fresno.
Amsterdam has a long history of being a great and tolerant city for gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1811, the first gay bar was opened in 1927, and in 1946 the COC—one of the world's first gay-rights organizations—was founded here. The Netherlands prides itself on being the first country to legalize same-sex marriage, and the first legal gay and lesbian marriages in the world were officiated in 2001 by the mayor of Amsterdam.
In recent years, though, a handful of incidents have stained the tolerant image Amsterdam has built. Unfortunately, it's still not unheard of for gay couples kissing or holding hands in public to receive abuse. In another setback, a series of prominent gay bars and clubs have closed, all for different reasons and none for lack of business. However, some argue this is just a sign of greater integration. Practically all bars are gay-friendly, so nightlife needn't be segregated.
That said, if you're looking for specific gay bars there are still plenty left. The main gay street is the Reguliersdwarsstraat. Search a bit further and you'll find bars and events like De Trut, Spellbound, Fucking Pop Queers, GOD, Dolly, Yarr, and Nyx. If you're looking for a transgender bar you should go to De Lellebel at Rembrandtsquare.
If it's your style, there are also plenty of darkrooms. Like the Spijkerbar. Downstairs you can drink as if you were in any other folksy bar, but if you go upstairs you'll find yourself in pitch darkness where you can do pretty much whatever wild shit you feel like doing. Alternatively, Thermos is the place to go if you want a dirty quickie in a jacuzzi, hot tub, or sauna on the way home from the club.
One other highlight is Canal Pride. Every year on the first Saturday of August, dozens of boats glide down the canals of Amsterdam. It's more of a politically correct endorsement of tolerance than a wild party, but it's still good fun. The Milkshake Festival (for all who love) is in late July and is another festival for "boys who love girls who love girls who love boys who love boys," which is just about as inclusive as you can get.
Amsterdam has an official gay and lesbian information kiosk, Pink Point. It's next to the Homomonument (gay monument) at the Westermarkt. Pink Point provides information about the Homomonument, and general information about Amsterdam, specifically for gay tourists.
WHERE TO DRINK
The best places for a quiet drink before you head on for a night out are the bars clustered around Noordermarkt, the flea market in De Jordaan. There are only two real dangers: (a) vomiting teenage tourists who can't stomach three beers and (b) falling in the canal. My favorite bar is probably Paepeneiland, which is also where Bill Clinton came for a beer a few years ago. You should have seen the amount of Secret Service they were employing to keep him out of the red light district.
Further afield, we'd recommend checking out Joe's Garage, Brouwerij de Prael, and Brouwerij 't IJ. Roest is good as well—it's in the east of the city, away from the crowds, with a pool and a terrace covered in sand to create an ersatz beach bar, despite the industrial surroundings. You won't find many other tourists here, which—if the International Holiday Code still applies—makes you cool, or something.
WHERE TO STAY
If you're watching your money, the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel (€25 [$35] per night in a dorm) isn't a bad choice. It's the rowdiest party hostel there is: Come for the price, stay for the location, and leave when you can't stand the noise a second longer.
A quieter option is Stayokay Zeeburg (€30 [$40] per night in a dorm). It's your average big clean hostel, but it's really good value and it's smack in the heart of a fancy-ish neighborhood in the east of the city, so you won't get freaked out by sex tourists jerking off on the doorstep before breakfast. An alternative is the sleek boutique CitizenM (€85 [$116] per night for a room), which is pretty great for the price and has all the ultra-modern fixtures and fittings that interior designers jerk off over—it's not really in the heart of anything, which in a city with an international clique of drug zombies looming about, can be a blessing.
If you've come into a large inheritance, Hotel Américain (€150 [$205] per night for a room) is a gorgeous hotel in the Jugendstil style, with bags of old school class. And if you're involved in some sort of Brewster's Millions scheme to dispose of a vast amount of money, the most ridiculous option is the Faralda NDSM Crane Hotel (€435 [$595] per night for a suite), which is a good place to take someone if your fetish is getting laid in a box suspended in the air. Because that's exactly what it is—a box suspended in the air. Obviously there's also a jacuzzi on top of the crane.
WHERE TO HANG OUT WHEN YOU'RE SOBER
Look: You're going to have to try pretty damn hard not to have an amazing time in Amsterdam. It's one of the world's great party cities, so for fuck's sake don't come all the way here and then spend your trip hanging around Rembrandtsquare or Leidsesquare. Those places are just shitty honey traps for shitty tourists. The city has loads more to offer, and it's small enough that you'll probably stumble across the best bits just by getting out there and exploring.
Having said that, if you're looking for some direction and some cool crowds to hang with, it's worth looking into both Rush Hour Records and Red Light Records, where you'll find flyers for all the best underground parties. If there's nothing here that excites you, then chances are you're just not cut out for "fun," you miserable loser.
Rent a Canal Boat
Okay, so maybe we didn't push the idea quite as far as those ridiculous Venetians, but Amsterdam is still a city that's best experienced from our canals. Drinking, smoking, and eating while on a boat is basically our life, and there's plenty of them to rent, so get yourself on the water as soon as you can. Chances are, back home, you live in between a bunch of highways, so this is the open sea to you—your Master and Commander moment. Avoid the shitty "canal bikes," though—there's a reason the Armada didn't run on peddle power.
Electric Ladylight Museum
Run by an eccentric New Yorker with a Father Christmas beard, this museum of fluorescent art is the only one of its kind in the world. It has sections called things like "The Magic Land of Lights, Sounds, and Dimensions" and "The Sister Mary Bernadeth Grotto," so yes, obviously it's absolutely the best place to go when you're tripping balls.
This is a super shabby café where everyone winds up after all the other bars and clubs have closed. In the early hours, prepare to encounter a fascinating hotchpotch of prostitutes, drug dealers, frat boys, cokeheads, students, tourists, and old sailors. There's a women there who sits outside the toilets called Wilma who'll sell you five different sorts of candy and cigarettes straight from a garbage bag. Which sounds bleak, but when you think about it, is more wholesome than most deals you make in a bathroom.
Broek in Waterland/Durgerdam
The most scenic places to burn a joint in Amsterdam, far from the basement coffee shops, are towns to the north of the city, like Broek in Waterland and Durgerdam. They're absolutely beautiful, and frankly, getting really high in a horrible basement is about the single biggest contributor to mental ill health in the Western world. Here, in the hills, it's a different drug.
The Docks in the North
For some reason the north of the city gets neglected by most tourists, which is stupid as all the ferries there are free and it's a great place to hang. The new EYE Film Museum has some cool exhibits and there's a nice spot by the water where you can eat, drink, and take in the views of the low-rise city. It's just across the river from Centraal Station, and you can't miss it because it's the only building round there that looks like a bad CGI spaceship from an early-90s computer game.
This place is Amsterdam's chameleon. Smack in the heart of the old harbor, by day people come here to study, but by night it becomes a romantic bar and the terrace becomes an outdoor party.
Special Collections at the Rijksmuseum
So, you're done with all the Rembrandts and Vermeers? Good—the best shit is yet to come. Head down into the Rijksmuseum basement, where you'll find piles of gold and jewellery and the realest treasure in history: 17th century magic lantern porn.
Most coffee shops in Amsterdam will sell you weed or hash just to turn a profit, but not Bluebird. This place is run by experienced old stoners whose life's work is getting you as high as God. Normally there's nothing duller than listening to potheads bang on about why you have to try their new strain, but if you're going to smoke weed it may as well be the good stuff.
Away from the sleaze and grime of downtown Amsterdam, this cute little neighborhood park that's surrounded by bars is where locals actually hang out. No one there will be too hyped to see hundreds of VICE readers show up, so try not to act like a jerk.
A museum entirely devoted to cats in art. It's like imgur IRL.
(Photo by Ewout Lowie)
HOW TO AVOID GETTING RIPPED OFF AND BEATEN UP
Taxi drivers in Amsterdam are notorious for overcharging tourists. At any obvious tourist location—like Centraal Station, Dam, Leidseplein, and Rembrandtplein—drivers will compete for your attention and then drive you in rings around the city while the meter ticks up.
The city has started using mystery customers to try to catch taxi hustlers, but the chances are you'll encounter some type of bullshit if you take a cab. The best thing to do to avoid hustlers is to walk away from the tourist hangouts and try to catch one on the side of the street. Obviously you should never get into cabs that don't have an official sign.
As lovely as Amsterdam is, it's also a place with a reputation that screams SEX and DRUGS, two fun things that dickheads have been managing to make money out of by abusing other people for centuries. And the red-light district is where they come together to swap tips on how to be a dick to women. Anyway, the vibe round there can be nasty and buying drugs on those streets, late at night when you're fucked up, is probably the best way to get yourself rolled by some bastard or other.
HOW NOT TO BE A SHITTY TOURIST
We like it when tourists on bikes take an interest in local culture, but why the fuck do you all clog up the city center? There's a whole city to explore, but most of you end up getting fucked after a couple of blunts and then wobbling a bike down the uneven streets of the tiny 17th-century downtown area. Stoned tourists, busy streets, and canals are a recipe for the most repetitive slapstick performance of all time. Get out of downtown, spin your wheels, and see some more of the city.
Another terrible tourist trait is taking photographs in the red light district. The women who work there don't appreciate it, and chances are they'll let you know by hurling your camera in the canal.
PEOPLE AND PLACES TO AVOID
Frat Boys in the Pijp
The Pijp is the stomping ground of Amsterdam's frat boys—you'll know it from the mingled stench of sweat and sexual desperation. They're like all frat boys—violent, sexist, privileged, stupid, thuggish, unattractive shitheads. If you walk through a pile of them they'll smell the decency on you and start lobbing bottles at your face.
Amsterdam's taxi drivers are pretty bad, but the bike taxis are even worse. On the plus side you do get to spend the whole journey staring at their lycra-clad ass. On the minus, they're slow, expensive, and they'd drag a baby through deserts of blood just to get a tourist fare.
This is Amsterdam's largest and best-known red light district (or blue light, for the transvestites). We know the area gives the city part of its identity, but the truth is it's home to a staggering number of abused and trafficked women from all over the world. It's grim as hell and fucking prostitutes just isn't cool.
Amsterdam is one of the easiest countries in the world to buy drugs in, so don't pick them up from guys in the street unless you're really into handing over loads of cash for Pro Plus and rat poison.
It might be great as a subway hub, but why is this terrible square still in all the tourist guides? It's the place you end up when you don't know where you're going. If you do find yourself here, leave.
Strangely, for a city with so many people wandering around fucked after dark, late-night food here is fucking abysmal, especially near the RLD. Kebab and shawarma are sometimes reheated by plunging them in boiling water. It's overpriced and it will kill you slowly. We know you won't listen to us when you're drunk, but we're telling you anyway: You're better off going home hungry.
This place has hardly anything to do with the real history of Amsterdam. It's a classic tourist trap. You'd learn more about Amsterdam if you stayed at home smoking a tea bag and googling pictures of canals.
Regularly named as a beacon of Amsterdam nightlife, but in essence just a really shitty club, it boasts the unholy trinity: shitty music, shitty drinks, and shitty people. Go next door to Studio 80.
Amsterdam's main shopping street. The shops suck and it's full of tourists who are just as lost as you are. How much interest do you really have in generic high streets in the Netherlands? Fucking none, that's how much.
This is the street right in front of Centraal Station, so for most tourists it's their first sight of Amsterdam. The beautiful old buildings are hidden from view by fences and garish neon signs directing you to the endless shops selling T-shirts with slogans like: "Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to Amsterdam." You have no business here.
The Sex Museum
We're all for taking a liberated and open-minded attitude to sex, but Amsterdam's Sex Museum is not the place to go for a nuanced discussion of interpersonal gendered power relations as they relate to consensual BDSM. It's the place where stoned teenagers go to point at boobs and dicks. Your Auntie Margaret doesn't want to see a picture of you on Facebook posing with a seven-foot cock, and neither does anybody else.
(Photo by Sabine Rovers)
TIPPING AND HANDY PHRASES
Dutch waiters and bartenders are used to dealing with miserly people, so tips in restaurants and bars usually aren't that high. Ideally, waiters and bar staff would expect about 10 percent, but they tell us it's often more like five. For taxis, just round up the bill, and don't tip in nail salons or hairdressers.
Goodbye: Tot ziens
Thank you: Dank u
Where do I get cocaine, motherfucker?: Hoe kom ik aan coke, kankerlijer?
You're hot: Je bent lekker
Is sex with a fist acceptable in this dark room?: Is seks met een vuist aanvaardbaar in deze donkere kamer?
A YOUTUBE PLAYLIST OF QUESTIONABLE LOCAL MUSIC
Here is some Dutch music. It's pretty good right? You'd be singing along if your clumsy foreign tongue could handle our language.
VICE CITY MAP
That's all, I think. You'll thank me when you're not tweaking out, wandering lost through the red-light district on 'shrooms.