Amsterdam: Green Buds, Red Lights, & Lots of Bikes

From Noordwijk it was a half day ride to one of the cities I’ve been looking forward to visit for a long time, the infamous Amsterdam! I had heard stories of Amsterdam and it lived up to its reputation as one of the most liberal and progressive cities around. There are over 800,000 bicycles in Amsterdam, more bikes than people, so I fit right in. You have to make sure to lock your bike to something stable as ‘throw the bike in the canal’ is a popular game among teenagers, over 15,000 bikes are fished out of the canals each year. (It reminds me of the tradition of ‘ponding’ at my university where your friends kidnap you and toss your ass in the pond on your birthday.)

When people hear the word Amsterdam two words usually come to mind: red light district and marijuana. Both operate on a system of plausible deniability, meaning they are not technically legal but accepted as part of daily life. Even the church used to get in on the action. Sailors coming to the ports could buy an absolution in advance for the sins they were going to commit that night (if their ship left port before the church opened, how could they atone for their decadence and how could the church make money off it?). Nowadays most prostitutes stand behind glass windows, enticing bypassers who want to do a little window shopping. Prostitution is a part of every major city. By having it out in the open it is much safer for everyone involved. (Apparently the going rate for a ‘suck & f***’ is around 50€ per 15-20 minutes.)

Marijuana operates under the same concept of plausible deniability. Enter a coffee shop and you might get some pretty shitty coffee, but you’ll find some of the best strains of weed available. (If you want coffee go to a cafe, coffee shop is synonymous with marijuana. Notice how the name allows for that good ol’ plausible deniability.) You can buy professionally rolled joints for a few euros or buy your favorite strand by the gram. There are guides describing the thc and cbd levels of different strands, their qualities, and recommended use.  People sitting outside coffee shops with joints, a bag of buds, and grinders is quite common like the view below.

Although the red light district and availability of marijuana account for the majority of Amsterdam’s tourism, there is so much more rich history to the city. I took a walking tour to find out more.

The Dutch Trading Company made a fortune dealing with spices, a rare and expensive commodity hundreds of years ago. How much of a fortune? It’s estimated the company’s value would have been worth 3 trillion dollars today, dwarfing the 46 billion that Google is valued at. They were also the first company to issue public stocks.  

Speaking of firsts, the Netherlands were the first country to legalize gay marriage. It was also home to the Ducth writer Multatuli who wrote a book about the exploitation of workers abroad, becoming the father of the free trade movement. Amsterdam has always been open to all people living in relative harmony, attracting many free thinkers which lead to many famous intellectuals and artists taking residence in the city.

Many amazing historical works of art are on display at the Rijksmuseum. Classic Rembrandt, like the ‘Night Watch’, and Vermeer and Van Gogh paintings are on display. Hit up a coffee shop before hand and you could spend all day staring at the masterful paintings, sculptures, and historical artifacts contained within the impressive building’s walls.

Aside the museum sprawls the Vondelpark, one of many nice parks in which I spent almost every afternoon basking in the sun. Between the old buildings (which are protected, the outside of existing buildings and houses in Amsterdam cannot be renovated to change their original appearance), rings of canals, and green parks it is a pleasant bike ride throughout the city. You might find it hard to leave the city (I did as I missed a train to Munich, having a small malfunction on my bike rack cost me the five minutes I was late).  

Surprisingly you don’t need to leave the US to see the influence of the Dutch. New York was originally named New Amsterdam (the name changed in the 1600’s), Harlem is named after the Dutch city of Haarlem (which I biked through, looks nice), and Broadway got its name because it was the broadest road in the city (not all of the Dutch were as creative as Van Gogh).  Our tour guide joked that everything good about New York came from the Dutch and everything unfavorable came from the English.  I’m not sure about all that but I am sure that Amsterdam is one cool progressive cat as far as cities are concerned.