Cannabis Tourism: Top 10 Things to Do in Amsterdam in Winter

Cannabis Tourism: Top 10 Things to Do in Amsterdam in Winter

Google Flights is a nifty way to choose your next travel destination. On a map of the globe, you compare flights to anywhere, for any selected timeframe. That’s how we wound up on a flight to Amsterdam in November for $380 each, round trip.

This was highly amusing to friends and family. Why would two Coloradans (with nearly-unlimited supplies of free pot at home) choose to spend a week in Amsterdam?

Amsterdam has a lot more than just weed. But conveniently, all these activities pair perfectly with the city’s most iconic plant.

Top 10 Things to Do in Amsterdam

  1. Rent a bike.

This should really be your first activity, because you may want to get comfortable biking here *before* you start partaking in the city’s offerings. This is urban biking. If you’re a couple of mountain bikers from Colorado, it is startling. You’re sharing the bike lane with all kinds of other focused riders — bikes with multiple people on them, plus scooters, mopeds, electric skateboards, and some of other wheeled vehicles you aren’t sure what to call.

When people pass you on your bike, they are often close enough that their jacket will be touching your jacket. If this happens on a quiet cobblestone street, after you think you’ve safely exited the bike-traffic mayhem, you may let out an involuntary scream. The biker passing you will exhibit precisely zero reaction to your screaming.

Apparently, everyone is ringing bike bells. If you happen to be a hearing-impaired person who can’t hear bells, don’t worry. Nobody will yell at you in Amsterdam. For someone who grew up near New York City, who’s accustomed to fearing the wrath of hurried strangers, this is a pleasant — if disconcerting — surprise.

But you do need to watch out for the trolleys. They are quietly zipping all over the city on their tracks, like San Fransisco’s.

If you’re not into biking, the trolleys look like a fun way to get around. Whatever it is, you’ll want to figure out some mode of transportation, before you start enjoying the city. Walking around Amsterdam is downright dangerous. It’s the only city where bikes and scooters seem to have the right-of-way, not pedestrians. Pedestrians are constantly being imperiled by all those wheeled vehicles. (Cars pose less of a threat, because they’re mostly stationary, waiting for a break in the stream of bikes.)

If you’re staying in the city center, and you don’t plan on covering much ground, maybe you’ll be just fine on foot. But staying in the city center is expensive. 

If you’re visiting Amsterdam on a budget, you’ll probably be staying in more residential neighborhoods, like the Jordaan. Here, you can find sparse but comfortable one-bedrooms on VRBO for around $100 per night.

To reach your affordable apartment, you will likely be faced with a narrow spiral staircase that looks like it’s straight out of a MC Escher painting. You’ll wonder if you’re supposed to use your hands to climb these stairs, like a ladder. Your suitcase will pose challenges.

In hip neighborhoods like this, you’ll find plenty of bike rental shops. (Bring cash: they may want a deposit.) Most bike shops use the same complicated Dutch bike-lock situation. You will be given not one key, but two. Prepare to fumble around with these a lot in the dark later.

2. Buy a joint in a “coffeeshop.”

Now that you’ve got your mode of transportation sorted out, you’ll want to check out Amsterdam’s famous coffeeshop scene.

In fact, you should probably go to as many coffeeshops as you can, because they’re all noticeably different. In “Black Star,” for example, there’s an appreciation for African culture and art. Some have outdoor tables, to enjoy smoking in nice weather. Some have no tables at all, and clearly aren’t designed for on-site consumption. Some are very crowded, especially at night. But that’s okay, because it seems to be legal to take your joint and walk around, smoking it on the street. (But when someone walks by with a stroller, you will feel guilty.)

If you’re embracing your European side, and hoping to drink lots of cappuccinos, this will prove mildly challenging. Most coffeeshops do not serve coffee. (But some do have a coffee shop attached to their coffee shop. Sometimes, a coffeeshop server will offer to go get you a coffee from the coffee shop next door.) 

Or you can just hop from establishment to establishment. One of them is bound to be an actual coffee shop.

Most stores have about a dozen strains on their menu. But Europeans tend to smoke their pot combined with tobacco, in what we would call “spliffs.” In Amsterdam, coffeeshops call them joints. So if you’re not a tobacco person, make sure to order a “pure joint,” which does not contain tobacco.

Or maybe, for cultural immersion purposes, you should embrace the European version. You’ll cough a lot, feel vaguely nauseous, and remember why you don’t like tobacco.

3. Go to a “smart shop.”

These stores sell psychedelic mushrooms by the strain, the way we sell weed back home in Colorado. They’re packaged in tins. Each tin contains an amount that’s marketed as one “trip.” For more casual tourists — or if you’re partaking in the mayhem that is Amsterdam biking — it’s an amount that really can be enjoyed over a couple days. 

The products in the neatly-labeled tins actually aren’t fully-developed mushrooms, but their mycelium, which is sort of like a root system for fungi. These little nuggets, if left alone, would eventually grow into mushrooms. But you eat them first.

Marketed as “truffles,” they’re available all over the city. Smart shops never sell marijuana, or alcohol. The Dutch retail staff are insistent about not layering your substances. Because *that* would be nuts.

This advice is reiterated in a whimsical booklet you receive with your purchase. The leaflet implores you to enjoy your new fungal friends responsibly, so they can remain legal and available for humanity for generations to come. It also provides details about the various strains. 

“Makes you understand the Big Bang Theory,” it says about one.

In the margins of every other page, there’s a googly-eyed nugget-shaped blue face, apparently named “Mr. Truffles.” In cheerful word bubbles, Mr. Truffles distills the most essential pieces of advice, for people who don’t feel like reading several pages.

“Your sense of being an individual may fade,” Mr. Truffles says.

4. Check out Amsterdam’s world-famous museums.

The Van Gogh museum is captivating. There’s a room filled with nothing but the artist’s famously prolific self-portraits.

“People say it is difficult to know one’s self,” reads a Van Gogh quote, sprawling across the wall in enormous font. “But it is not easy to paint one’s self, either.”

You may feel, in those desperate brushstrokes, the agony of being trapped in that mind — the mind that led Vincent Van Gogh to shoot himself in the chest, when he’d had enough.

Being an individual can be tough, you realize. (You may think of Mr. Truffles again.)

Amsterdam is full of other famous museums, too. But museum-hopping gets expensive.

Luckily, there’s a great way to appreciate the famous Rijksmuseum for free. You can ride your bike underneath it. This is for bikes and pedestrians only: scooters and other motorized vehicles are prohibited. Suddenly, you’ve entered a sweeping, vaulted atrium, filled with classical music, with low-angle sunlight filtering in the archway before you. The music is coming from busking musicians. You should probably make a few laps (and tip them). 

Classical music under the Rijksmuseum incorporates incredible accordion playing. You will never think of accordions the same way again.

Amsterdam is also home to the Museum of Prostitution, The Museum of Sex, and the Museum of Marijuana, which has neat-looking exhibits, like “Women and Cannabis Today.”

5. Try on fur hats. Look for vintage Dutch outfits to wear around the city.

Amsterdam is a hub of vintage clothing dealers. (It has embraced its identity as a port city: a hub for selling all kinds of things.) For people who wear mostly second-hand clothing, this is a fantastic surprise. You’ll find thousands of inexpressibly cool leather and fur coats, which is great, because Amsterdam can be freezing, and you suddenly want to look cool and Dutch.

You’ll also find thousands of fur hats. But if you have an extra-large American head, you may be out of luck. It turns out the Dutch may have a smaller average-head-circumference than Americans.

In vintage clothing stores, you can also grab a free “vintage map of Amsterdam,” on which the city’s other dozens of vintage clothing stores are marked.

Rental bikes come outfitted with bungeed racks that are great for shopping. But if one of your bungees snaps, it may get stuck in your spokes, and completely destroy your rental bike.

6. Try to blend in with the locals.

In your new (vintage) Dutch clothing, people may start addressing you in Dutch, or asking you for directions. The most common question is about the whereabouts of a local market. If you get the chance, you’ll want to ask a real local about their favorite market.

Amsterdam’s street markets are loved by locals and tourists alike. There are some markets that take place every day of the week; others are only on Saturday or Sunday. On a narrow street, hundreds of vendors set up their wares. Some parents push strollers. Others ride bikes, with their toddlers snugly affixed to the handlebars.

Cheese vendors are extremely generous with their samples. These include unusual cheeses, like a startling indigo-colored “lavender cheese.” There are so many cheeses to sample, you may wonder if you can eat anything else.

But you should. One classic Dutch dish, available at any market and many street corners, is pickled herring. It comes with red onions and pickles, and it’s delicious. You eat it with a toothpick with a Dutch flag on it.

Make sure to stock up on wool slippers for the whole family. They’re only about 15 euros per pair.

On Sunday, you can go to the biggest flea market in Europe. The flea market is across the IJ, which is a river, sort of. (You pronounce it “IJ”: the river was named after a single letter in the Dutch alphabet.) It divides Amsterdam in two. It has no bridges, for reasons that are known only to the Dutch. 

So bikes and scooters zoom straight onto a ferry, which departs from behind the Grand Central Train Station every few minutes. When it docks, a few minutes later, the mopeds fire back up, and everyone cruises off.

It is possible to board the wrong ferry. This will take you somewhere that is not a flea market. If so, you may have to bike for a few miles through an extremely industrial, unpopulated landscape.

But the flea market is worth it. Thousands of vendors gather in a giant converted warehouse, hawking everything from animal skulls to more fur hats.

Almost everything at the flea market is second-hand. So there’s no wool slipper vendor. So hopefully you’ve already stocked up on slippers, from a vendor at a neighborhood market. You don’t want your one regret from this trip to be not buying enough slippers for everyone.

7. Check out Paradiso, Amsterdam’s famous music venue.

This venue gets great bands and artists from all over the world. They book several acts per night. When one set ends, you can go upstairs, to a new room, and see a new band.

Between these two floors, there’s also a smoking lounge, where you can go smoke the rest of your joint. With alternating shows going on nearly til sunrise, it’s like the venue is inviting you to chill out and stay for a while. And since you’ve just experienced a very chilly bike ride (and you have legal drugs in your pocket), staying for a while sounds like a great idea.

You will appreciate coat checks like never before.

8. Check out the Red Light District.

This notorious square takes on a new meaning when you walk through it at night. Beautiful women in lingerie beckon at you from windows, which are more like glass doors, because most of them are at ground level, right in front of you. (When a customer is interested, the woman simply opens her door, confirms her pricing, and lets him in. Then she closes the curtains.)

While they are not with a customer, some women dance. Most check their phones. Some use vape pens, or fix their makeup.

If you’ve watched any of HBO’s new series “The Deuce” (which is fictional, but is based on New York City’s actual history), you will be struck by Amsterdam’s noticeable lack of pimps. You’ll realize that these women are provably living much safer lives than their American counterparts.

And Amsterdam is proud of them. “These women are entrepreneurs,” read one tourism guide that was left in our Airbnb.

The city does not push its sex workers to the fringes. The Red Light District is right smack in the center of the city. It’s the zenith of the horseshoe-shaped canal system, a celebrated part of Amsterdam’s identity as a port city. You practically have to cross through it to go anywhere. Some people are pushing strollers.

9. Get out of the Red Light District.

All over Amsterdam, you’ll find hubs of exuberant nightlife. If you’re staying in a residential neighborhood, you’ll find incredible cafes, restaurants, and pubs right near your apartment. But it’s worth the bike ride to check out the town squares, lit up under holiday lights. 

You’ll find bakeries selling a plethora of waffle-centered desserts late into the night. These colorful, sprinkle-filled shops are perfect for anyone exiting a coffee shop with the munchies. They’re also frequented by people who just need a sweet snack to wash down their truffles.

One area that becomes jam-packed with revelers each night is called Rembrandt Square. (A statue of the artist presides over the square.) Between the canals, you’ll see strip clubs, coffee shops, restaurants, pubs, dance clubs, and waffle outlets, all bustling. You may see people striding purposefully in costumes (think “sexy police officer dominatrix”), presumably on their way to work as performers in the Red Light District.

In this laughter-filled square, where nearly everything is legal and socially acceptable, you may notice something unusual: Nobody is doing anything weird.

Nobody is fighting. Nobody is cat-calling women. Nobody is screaming cuss words into the night.

10. Notice what we can learn from the Dutch.

Suddenly, sparks are flying into the cold night air. What’s this? A large huddle of police officers has converged on Rembrandt Square. They’re interspersed with the red uniforms of the local “hosts.” Amsterdam’s city hosts work at night to ensure safety and decorum, and, presumably, to reassure anxious tourists who’ve eaten too many truffles. (“HOST,” reads the backs of their jackets, “Ask me!”)

This is intriguing. Especially if you’ve been trying to figure out what the police do in Amsterdam. You get closer for a better look. The police, it turns out, are cutting people’s bike locks. They are loading up dozens of bikes onto a paddywagon.

This is confusing. Luckily, you’re surrounded by people wearing matching jackets that say “Ask me!”

“Why are they stealing those bikes?”

“Because people can’t leave their bikes there,” says a host with a headscarf.

In the city where nearly everything is legal, there are harsh punishments for locking your bike to the wrong piece of metal.

“They put a warning on the bikes,” she explains, pointing to red tags on hundreds of bikes. “Then people have an hour to come out of the bar. Otherwise, the police have to take their bikes.”

Okay.

It was getting cold, even in my Dutch coat. “DANCE DANCE DANCE,” read a neon sign.

“Maybe we should dance dance dance.” I looked at my husband. He does not often want to dance dance dance.

We were grateful for the coat check again. We danced to terrible rave music. Something was noticeably absent. Maybe it’s just because we would never attend a rave, in our normal lives. But there was something else.

I kept dancing, glad to be in a tank top now. Nobody looked at us.

I entered a dance battle, while forgetting I was still wearing an elf hat. Nobody gave a shit.

Nobody cares what you’re doing in Amsterdam. In a culture that sees morality in every shade of the rainbow, and doesn’t drive a stake between virtue and vice, you can just be.

But don’t even think about locking up your bike in the wrong place.