We spent three nights in Amsterdam (with a day spent at Keukenhof, the tulip festival) so had close to two days to explore the city. We stayed in a hotel by the Vondelpark, about 15 minutes by tram from the city centre.
The first thing we did on our first morning (after a rather expensive breakfast of crepes) was a Sandemans’ walking tour. Our guide was an Australian married to a Dutch girl, who has been living in Amsterdam for about 5 years.
Amsterdam is an interesting city, and I think its reputation is often misunderstood. As is becoming increasingly better-known, marijuana (and other soft drugs) is actually not legalised in the Netherlands. It is, however, decriminalised, which means as long as you’re not being blatantly obvious about it and are adhering to the legal restrictions, the police will ignore it. This attitude has existed in the Netherlands towards a lot of things for much of history – it might technically be illegal, but as long as we can’t see it happening and can plead ignorance, we won’t do anything about it. This was especially the case for soft drugs like marijuana after authorities decided the battle against soft drugs was not as important as the battle on hard drugs. Since decriminalising soft drugs, Amsterdam’s heroin problem has radically diminished. There is no tolerance for breaches of legal restrictions though. We couldn’t help but laugh that despite it being technically illegal, there are still rules governing how marijuana is sold and it’s only once those restrictions are breached that anything gets enforced. Our guide told us of one coffeeshop which got shut down recently after one of the staff was found to have a few grams of cocaine in her bag (and having hard drugs on-site is a definite no-no). Even causing a nuisance to neighbours can be enough to have a coffeeshop shut down for a period of time.
In general, Amsterdam (and the Netherlands as a whole) seems to have an attitude of live and let live – let people do basically what they want as long as they’re not hurting anyone else and not being obnoxious and inconsiderate about it. Historically, people have been forced to get along with their neighbours, regardless of how they differed, as neighbourhoods were required to work together to mend dikes and protect their streets from the encroaching seawater. Somewhat surprisingly, we found the most objectionable thing about Amsterdam to be the prices, and the proliferation of regular cigarette smokers smoking right near doorways and in eating areas.
Sandemans’ tours are always good. Our guide, Julian, also took us past Rembrandt’s house, Anne Frank’s house, the church where Rembrandt is buried in a mass paupers’ grave (yes, he died broke), the last remaining city gate, the highest point in Amsterdam (1.5m above sea level, if I remember right) and the begijnhof (which is no longer used by a religious order, but the houses are still set aside for single women).
We took Julian’s recommendation for lunch, and sat by a lovely quiet canal in the beautiful weather, where I had a chicken club sandwich and Andre had some kind of curry sausage. It was just perfect weather, with excellent food that was priced quite reasonably compared to a lot of other places we came across in Amsterdam.
In the afternoon, we took a canal cruise around the centre of the old town. We pre-booked a cruise online for about 14 euros which seemed to be about standard across several, however later we came across a dock near central station with companies advertising 10 euro trips, although I don’t know how the length or content differs.
I was a bit disappointed that the boat was enclosed, despite having a glass roof and windows, however we found a window to sit beside so I could take photos out the window.
We spent the evening taking photos of the town centre and canals after dark.
Our second day was spent at Keukenhof (post to follow), and we spent most of our final day at the Rijksmuseum. We debated for a little while which museum to visit, as all of Amsterdam’s main museums are quite expensive (in the range of 17 euros) and we just wouldn’t have time to visit more than one anyway. We ended up selecting the Rijksmuseum over the Van Gogh Museum due to the variety.
We enjoyed seeing works by Rembrandt, van Gogh and Vermeer among others. We also took a lunch break at a wonderful little bar called Mankind a few blocks from the cafe where we had poffertjes (dutch pancakes) with ice-cream and chocolate sauce for dessert, and which was miles cheaper than anywhere else we had eaten in Amsterdam. We were also impressed by the friendly service, which was especially pleasant after we had walked away from Cobra Cafe (out the front of the Rijksmuseum) where we had waited for nearly half an hour without being served (despite going to the counter and saying we were ready to order). Prices at Mankind were also much, much better. We highly recommend it to anyone visiting Amsterdam!