Whenever I tell people that I’m planning a trip to Amsterdam, I occasionally get a response of, “Amsterdam, huh? Gonna have fun while you’re there I suppose?” Usually accompanied by a mischievous grin and a cheesy, conspiratorial wink. At that point, I can tell that they’ve never been to Amsterdam and the reasons they think I’m visiting the city are very different from the reasons I’m actually visiting the city.
Admittedly, Amsterdam does have somewhat of a notorious reputation. For people who have never visited themselves, the perception of Amsterdam may be of a wild party city with free-flowing drugs and legal prostitutes on every street corner. For others who have visited, or who have done a bit of research, they know that this simply isn’t the case. Yes, Amsterdam has a different approach to marijuana and prostitution than we’re used to in the States, but there is so much more to this city than legal weed and the Red Light District. Amsterdam is also all about tree-lined canals, historic gabled mansions, world-class art museums, and cozy cafes.
In the first of this two-part series on Amsterdam, I’ll give you the truth about the “dark side” of Amsterdam, which, as you’ll see, isn’t all that dark at all. While you certainly can get into trouble if you actively seek it out (and isn’t this true of all large cities?), Amsterdam is overall very clean, safe, and beautiful. Here are the facts about Amsterdam’s legal drug and prostitution trades.
Here’s the truth about marijuana in Amsterdam: the sale of weed is highly regulated and you probably won’t even encounter it, unless you seek it out. Marijuana can only be sold in licensed “coffeeshops”, where the minimum age for purchase is 18. A coffeeshop can only sell up to five grams of pot per person per day, and it’s absolutely illegal for them to advertise. In fact, most coffeeshops won’t even hand you a menu of their marijuana offerings unless you ask. (It’s considered perfectly acceptable to visit a coffeeshop and simply have a cup of coffee without purchasing or smoking pot.)
Now that legal marijuana is becoming more common here in the U.S. (as of 2018, nine states plus the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and another 29 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes), the idea of being able to walk into a store and buy weed may not seem quite as foreign as it did 10 years ago, but it might still be a little shocking. If you’re curious, by all means – visit a coffeeshop! Check out a guidebook for a reputable one that will take time to make you feel comfortable and answer your questions. Be sure to listen to their advice regarding what and how much you should smoke, as the weed in Amsterdam is generally much stronger than the illegal weed sold in the U.S. (However, if you happen to live in a pot-friendly state, there won’t be much difference in potency.)
As you can see from the image above, many Amsterdam coffeeshops simply look like inviting cafés.
Similar to coffeeshops, “smartshops” around Amsterdam are legal, licensed stores that sell a range of “natural” drugs. The name comes from their origins as purveyors of herbal stimulants intended to improve memory and boost cognitive power (such as powdered guarana). The products on offer range from harmless nutrition boosters (like royal jelly), to more harmful and mind-altering drugs like tobacco, herbal Ecstasy, and hallucinogenic truffles (as hallucinogenic mushrooms have been banned by the EU – truffles grow underground, so technically, they’re not mushrooms). Because these substances are found in nature, the Dutch government considers them legal (but keep in mind that legal does not equal safe – some of these drugs can have powerful harmful effects).
Although this nonchalant attitude toward powerful psychedelic drugs (natural or not) can seem scary and off-putting, smartshops are not common outside of the Red Light District, and you won’t have any interaction with them unless you chose to do so. Smartshops are clean, well-lit, and not at all skeezy; you could walk right by one and never notice.
Contrary to popular belief, prostitution is not allowed throughout the entire city of Amsterdam, nor are there prostitutes plying their trade in windows all over the city. Rather, legal prostitution is contained to two specific streets in a specific neighborhood, De Wallen (“The Walls”), more commonly known as the Red Light District. Women who work here as prostitutes are entrepreneurs and run their own business. They accept or reject customers, negotiate their own rates, have police protection, belong to a union, and pay rent for their “office” space.
Admittedly, the heart of the Red Light District (Dollebeginensteeg and surrounding alleys), with its high concentration of sex shops, peep show parlors, the occasional drunk passed out in a doorway, and questionable characters leering at women in windows can feel sleazy, but in reality, it’s perfectly safe. (Pickpocketing is common, though, so keep an eye on your wallet, and note that taking pictures of the women working is absolutely forbidden.) If those areas make you uncomfortable, simply skip them. Broadening your horizons is great and all, but it’s totally ok to decide that something isn’t for you.
The De Wallen neighborhood may contain some seedy streets, but there’s so much more to this neighborhood than prostitution. De Wallen is the oldest part of Amsterdam, with the oldest church (Oude Kerk), a vibrant square (Nieuwmarkt), picturesque leaning gabled houses (along Oudezijds Voorburgwal), and even a beautiful Buddhist temple (Fo Guang Shan). As part of an ongoing effort to combat the influence of of organized crime, the city has launched the 1012 project to reduce the types of business that are conducive to crime. This has resulted in a revitalization of sorts, with several former prostitutes’ windows being transformed to exhibition spaces for new and upcoming designers.
Although Amsterdam frequently gets stereotyped as a wild, anything-goes party city, it’s not like that at all. Marijuana and natural drugs are highly regulated, and are only sold in clean, well-lit, licensed shops that are staffed by informed employees who have a strong incentive to keep their customers safe. Prostitution is only allowed on a few streets in a small part of the city that is also well-lit and regularly patrolled by a robust police presence. If any of these things make you nervous or uncomfortable, simply avoid them. It’s easy to do, and there’s so much more to Amsterdam to enjoy.
It’s worth noting that the legal drugs and prostitution does not mean that the Dutch are cavalier about the problems they cause, or that the Dutch are running around getting stoned and paying money in exchange for sex. The Dutch have simply found pragmatic solutions to difficult problems, and the Netherlands have been known as a haven for tolerance. Amsterdam residents have found a way to live side-by-side with individuals from all different backgrounds, with all different ideologies, and I think that’s incredible.
As I mentioned above, Amsterdam is so much more than just it’s “dark side”. There are picture-perfect canals, incredible art museums, sunny café terraces, historic gabled waterfront mansions, trendy restaurants, and the list just keeps going. Stay tuned for Part II of this series where I talk about the “light side” of Amsterdam!