Before visiting Amsterdam in the Netherlands, I always thought of the Dutch as a strange cult of quasi-Germans who wore clogs, built windmills, and loved tulips. Predilections that, I presumed, were the result of smoking copious amounts of marijuana. But Amsterdam, it turns out, has had a long history of unconventional behavior that predates its lax drug laws.
To be fair, Amsterdam has always been a little “off.”
Let’s start with the Dutch language—it’s freakin’ mental. For example, “Muilpeer” refers to a ‘slap in the face’, but actually translates to “mouth pear” because…you know, the Dutch. Or “Vleermuis,” which means “wing mouse” or what normal folk would call “a bat.” It’s apparently a Germanic language spin-off that went off the rails. The English language, of course, would never tolerate such confusing idioms, euphemisms, or colloquialisms. (Cough, cough.)
To make matters worse, about a third of the Netherlands is beneath sea-level. In fact, it’s only thanks to polders—a technologically advanced system of dikes, pumps, and sand dunes along the North Sea coast—that Amsterdam wasn’t the next Atlantis. Who lives like that—constantly on the verge of being flooded? Morons, that’s who—morons like us Floridians and maybe the first settlers of Seattle.
Not surprisingly, climate change (a very real thing) no doubt keeps the Dutch on edge. So what do they do to relax? Smoke pot, right? Nope. They drink high-octane coffee, more coffee than any other country in the world, in fact. I guess they figure somebody has to be ready to sandbag the dikes when the ocean surges and the rest of the county is completely baked.
In a lot of ways, the Dutch go their own way in this world. And, while their nontraditional approach to life can seem unconventional to normal folk—I won’t even mention those weird Dutch toilets—it did help this waterlogged land become a sea-faring superpower.
How Amsterdam rose from the swamps to rule the seas.
Europe’s “Low Countries”—the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg—were basically “wetlands” (i.e., swamps) for most of unrecorded history. Only two-thirds of this region was dry enough to build anything on.
So, after spending countless days up to their ankles in chilly North Atlantic floodwater, the local folk had had enough, and finally invented polders between bouts of pneumonia.
By surrounding low-lying land with water barriers and then draining the water within it, polders are created that make the swamp usable for agriculture and other development. The first polders date back to the 11th century.
Over the next few centuries, the Dutch built dikes and canals, using their iconic windmill pumps to drain almost half of the damn country, ultimately, reclaiming and utilizing swampland from the sea.
During this time-consuming process, the Low Countries were variously invaded and occupied by the Celts, Romans, and other wearers of goulashes.
Amsterdam becomes capital of the Low Countries.
The Low Countries were eventually occupied by the Hapsburg Spanish in the 1300s. That lasted until Spain got into a financially crippling 65-year tiff with the French over control of the Italian peninsula. In 1559, a peace accord was reached, and Spain drew down its troops from the Netherlands.
Spain’s withdrawal gave the Low Countries their first taste of autonomy and self-determination. Of course, self-governance was generally frowned on by the Monarchical Spanish (see also, Colonialism), so they launched the Eighty Years’ War. But after only 22 of those years, the northern provinces finally beat back Spain’s armies for a while.
The provinces that formed the Low Countries continued to fight the Spanish off and on again for another 28 years, until the costs of fighting had financially strained both Spain and the fledgling Dutch Republic. The Twelve Years’ Truce was signed in 1609, but only lasted for ten before hostilities resumed (Learn more on “Watch What happens Live with Andy Cohen”).
The Netherlands’ need for military capital at the start of the 17th Century prompted the enterprising Dutch to get into the spice trade, long dominated by both the Portuguese and House Atreides. To finance the building of ships, hiring of sailors, and threatening of nutmeg farmers, the Dutch created the world’s first “fractional investment vehicle.”
Capitalism was basically invented in The Netherlands.
Widely considered the world’s first “stock,” The Dutch East India Company (or “Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie” in stupid Dutch-speak) was formed by the Dutch government and given shockingly broad powers that would horrify any modern antitrust lawyer.
For context, imagine if Microsoft had been legally allowed to amass its own military and sign treaties with other nations. Yikes, right?!?
Prior to the creation of the VOC, voyages to Asia had to be bankrolled by a single rich person, whose fortunes went up or down with their ship.
Fractional ownership allowed regular people to invest in a company that spread risk across multiple voyages, at least one of which would probably hit pay-dirt.
Vertically-integrated and anticompetitive, the VOC quickly became the largest corporation that has ever existed. (Suck it, Apple!)
How to succeed by trafficking in turmeric.
Over the next 40 years, the Dutch East India Company racked up profits that would even impress drug dealers—up to $700,000/month—and soon became wealthy enough to finance a military and force the Spanish troops back to their damn sunny climate and sandy beaches.
The otherwise preoccupied Holy Roman Empire (Spanish Division) reluctantly recognized the independence of the Dutch Republic in 1648.
Thanks to the success of the VOC, Amsterdam was the financial center of capitalism for two centuries, a time known as “The Dutch Golden Age” (not a sex act). Tragically, it all came crashing down at the end of the 17th Century.
While the British were putting down pesky revolutionaries in America, the VOC were making overtures to trade with those same New Kids On The (World) Block. The British took umbrage at this affront, and proceeded to bitch-slap the VOC’s colonial interests all around the globe. In 1799, the Dutch East India Company added another “first” by becoming the first multinational to file for bankruptcy.
Okay, which one of you D&D nerds named The Netherlands?
The Netherlands—or, to be more accurate, the Kingdom of the Netherlands (aka, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands)—really sounds like a fictional nation from a fantasy novel or a Dungeon’s & Dragons game. It’s especially weird when you consider that nowhere else on earth is still named like somewhere you’d send an elf on a quest.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands includes four disparate “countries”: Aruba, Curaçao, Sint Maarten, and the Netherlands. The Netherlands itself includes 12 provinces, only two of which you’ve ever heard before: North and South Holland. In fact, the Netherlands used to just be called “Holland” back in the day, but the ten other provinces complained to their agents and insisted on equal billing.
Getting around in Amsterdam like a local.
As one of the more walkable cities in Europe, you’d think Amsterdam would be best seen on foot. Sure, walking around is a good way to get around, but it’s also a good way to snap an ankle. The city’s ancient stone streets are extremely uneven, and walking on them constantly tests your balance and tolerance for ankle pain. So pack waterproof hiking boots that lace up to your mid-calf and a Costco-sized bottle of Ibuprofen®.
Adding to the fun of getting around is Amsterdam’s single-lane, bidirectional streets (or straats) which double as both sidewalks and bike lanes. That means pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars all have to jockey for position on the same slim path. It’s basically chaos and anarchy—How are people not constantly falling, biking, or driving into the canals?—and, once you leave the straat, things don’t get much better.
Many of the canal-facing homes and buildings—built during a boom in the 17th Century—were intentionally made narrow to avoid paying higher taxes. So inside, you have to deal with surprisingly tight spaces, including steep and narrow stairs that were clearly built back when humans had petite feet. My Size-12 Timberlands® barely fit on the tiny steps (see above photo), so I had to walk sideways and hunch over a lot.
The homes along the canals hunch over, too. That’s because they were constructed atop long, wooden poles driven into the swampy ground. These brick homes eventually tilted toward the water as the moist wood slowly rotted away over the past 300 years. Today, many locals extend beams out from the roofs to making hoisting large furniture and people up to the second floor.
Bicycles are how people establish dominance in Amsterdam.
With so many canals in Amsterdam, you’d think that boats would be the most common form of transportation. Instead, it’s bicycles, and by a wide margin. Go anywhere near a road, er…straat, and you’ll see bicycles by the thousands, swarming everywhere like angry wasps at a picnic.
What makes bicycles so popular is that they’re the top of the transportation food chain. Bikes have the right of way over both cars and pedestrians. If anyone crashes into you (or you into them), the other person is always at fault! So it’s no wonder bicyclists ride so crazy—they’ve gone mad with power.
Speaking of power, I saw an encouraging number of electric cars in Amsterdam, as well as many on-street charging locations. That’s probably because the Dutch don’t have America’s “car culture,” and it shows in their healthier populace, more vibrant downtowns, and near-total absence of highway shootings.
Marijuana is Amsterdam’s most popular perfume.
For a lot of people—predominantly stoners and druggies—Amsterdam and drugs are tightly intertwined if not synonymous. The city is their Mecca and Valhalla, all rolled up into one big, fat spliff.
While drugs are technically illegal in Amsterdam, the Dutch authorities have a “look through the fingers” approach to policing pot, prostitution, and other socially aberrant activities like Christianity.
Possession of fewer than five grams (0.18 ounces) of marijuana was decriminalised in 1976 under a “tolerance policy,” though they are looking at cracking down on drug tourism, so avoid using cannabis or wearing a lot of Bob Marley merch in public.
PRO TIP: Only coffee houses and shoppes are allowed to sell marijuana. Coffee bars and cafés only sell coffee—so know the difference before you enter if you don’t want to look like a tourist.
Much like San Francisco, New York City, and many others, Amsterdam is a city for adults. As such, their drug policy is based on the fundamental idea that every human being should be able to decide matters of his or her own health. Nutty, huh?
Hornier than a jazz band? Check out Amsterdam’s Red-Light District.
Built around 1385, the Red-Light District—or De Wallen, as the area is known to local perverts—is Amsterdam’s oldest district and its home for the world’s oldest profession. Prostitution, I mean.
Sex work is legal in Amsterdam, just not out on the street…er, straat. It’s wisely contained to this one area in Amsterdam where the business can be supervised to ensure the safety of sex workers and minimize any abuses. Again, it’s almost like the Dutch consider sex a normal, healthy, human urge, and not some moral failing that requires confession to a judgmental god.
Pro Tip: Do not photograph the prostitutes.
It’s tempting to snap a photo while you’re in the Red-Light District, but don’t (Oops). Many of these girls are from Eastern Europe or Russia, and you risk getting accosted by her
pimp “agent.” This happened to a member of our party—he had to open his iPhone and prove that he hadn’t taken a photo of a dominatrix before her “agent” would let any of us keep living. There was a lot of angry screaming in Dutch, and it’s not a very pleasant language in which to be yelled at.
Amsterdam has some impressive museums. And a Van Gogh one, too.
It’s no wonder the Dutch allow pot and prostitution—their weather is reminiscent of Ireland’s or Seattle’s, that is to say, shitty. As a result, you’ll likely have the time and inclination to visit a museum or two.
First off, there’s the Rijk Museum, the national museum of the Netherlands. It houses many brilliant Dutch masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt, as well as talentless, hacks like Vincent Van Gogh. (Did you know that he made over 2,100 works, yet only sold one painting while he was alive? What does that tell you?) I know he was a tragic figure, but that doesn’t excuse his never learning to paint—try art school, you bum!
Second, there’s the Van Gogh Museum.
Third, there’s one of Amsterdam’s most exciting and intriguing museums, one that celebrates and honors the talented artists who’ve lived in Amsterdam over the years, and actually got paid for their work.
Amsterdam’s museum of whores, adulterers, and fornicators—kids get in free!
We went to Amsterdam’s Museum of Prostitution. I’m not sure what I was expecting—a talking, animatronic “Hall of Prostitutes and Their Famous Johns” exhibit?—but whatever it was, I figured it had to be better than viewing a collection of Van Gogh’s garbage paintings. And it was.
The Red Light Secrets audio tour gives visitors a rough idea of how glamorous it is/was to sell your body on the street. The curators try to keep it sexy and upbeat—not every prostitute is damaged—so you walk away with more empathy for sex workers and what they have to go through. It’s worth going, if only to realize that these sex workers are human beings, and not just hot pieces of ass waiting to be chosen by customers like lobsters in a tank.
The native cuisine of Amsterdam isn’t great, because there kinda isn’t one.
No one talking about fine dining ever suggests going to a Dutch restaurant, and for good reason—Dutch cuisine is basic and bland. Breakfast and lunch are typically bread with cheese, while dinner is meat and potatoes—snooze. I mean, why do you think they got into the spice trade? (…besides the money.)
Thanks to foreign influences, you’ll now find restaurants in Amsterdam selling more flavorful fare like “Pancakes and Burgers.” Apparently, chocolate-covered pancakes and waffles are a big thing in Amsterdam, too. Yet, what really wowed me was their Pizza Hot Dog sando (see photo). How did Americans not invent this dish years ago? Or did we? It was deliciously horrible and probably only took eight years off my life expectancy.
For some slightly healthier fare, we liked Indra Pura, an Indonesian restaurant in the Jordaan neighborhood. The Restaurant d’Vijff Vlieghen was romantic, despite its name “translating” into English as the “Five Flies” Restaurant—gross.
On another day, we took the free water-taxi across the river to Restaurant Moon in the A’DAM Hotel. Known as “The restaurant that spins ’round like a record, baby,” Restaurant Moon is a rotating establishment located on the 19th floor of the A’DAM Toren, and offers patrons a 360º view of Amsterdam and the surrounding port area.
The restaurant offers no menu, opting instead for a prix-fixe approach, but prices are moderate for a big city in Europe. And since “going Dutch” is so common in the Netherlands, we split our bill with a nearby table—they’re going to be very mad when they find out.
Summing up Amsterdam and the Netherlands.
While I have a great deal of respect for the Dutch—they’ve accomplished much considering the lousy geographic hand they were dealt—I still can’t rank the city of Amsterdam up there with my favorite cities due to its shitty weather.
Sure, Amsterdam is one of the poster-children for human happiness and healthy urbanism, but that’s not enough to overcome its gray, cloudy skies, and freezing rain. I hate the cold, and no amount of coffee or marijuana is going to make me forget that I can’t feel my damn toes.