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The city of sex, drugs and tulips...
Member Name: kiss_me_now9
Date: 01/10/11, updated on 02/10/11 (70 review reads)
Advantages: The people, very clean, friendly, lots to do for everyone and plenty of options
Disadvantages: Some may feed the 'pot culture' off putting, the red light district is run down, it's expensive
Just a side note, whilst crime rates are lower than most capital cities, and violent crime is lower than every other crime, don't make yourself a target. Crime still does and will happen if you're wandering around with your wallet hanging out of your back pocket, euro notes falling out and your head in a map! Be aware. Most people do speak English but if you try to speak Dutch, they're more than happy to give you the time to explain yourself fully. Very helpful and friendly, especially shop staff. It's also a very clean city, especially if you compare it to places like London or Paris.
Hotel wise, Amsterdam has a good range of them. We stayed at the NH Carlton which we booked through Lastminute.com and paid around £75 a night for our room for two. It wasn't the best but it did us and I would have no problems going again at that price - though it was a lower price than most people pay. I think our room should have been around £95 a night. Pretty much any hotel you get is going to be within walking distance of all the important things; though I personally would not want to stay in the red light district due to the nightlife booming there. It doesn't strike me as the safest place to walk around at night. Generally you can get some really, really good deals on hotels and flights if you shop around - We paid £650 for two people, 6 nights and return flights. We ended up spending an extra £400 on top of that because of what we did but Amsterdam isn't really the kind of city you can go to on a budget.
There is so much more to Amsterdam than pot heads and girls in windows, with plenty for a family to do. There's a very good zoo - The Artis Zoo, which costs about 18 euros per person to get in and is very entertaining for a day. It's not the most animal friendly zoo (if you see the penguin enclosure you'll know what I mean) but by and large the animals look healthy and well cared for. As it's not massive they don't have the widest variety of animals but have all the crowd pleasers and a few more random ones too. The aquarium is outstanding! As well as this, there are lots of nice open green spaces such as Vondelpark where you can relax in the nice weather if you're lucky enough to get it. There's a lot of shopping available in Amsterdam, which is quiet nice and they have some interesting shops! There's all the regulars such as H+M and McDonalds but also, quite obviously, Dutch brands.
There's a nice flower market on every evening which is well worth a visit, even if you're not green fingered. Most of the shops around here stay open until about 8pm so you can spend a day out and then go for a wander in the dusk around the shops and stalls. If you want to buy bulbs then make sure you check that you are getting the cheapest ones available as you can walk three stalls down and find exactly the same packets for two or four euros less. There's also a lot of cheese shops in Amsterdam, which sell a wide range of cheeses, from Edam to Gouda, Sheep and Goat cheese. The sheeps cheese is lovely but a little more expensive than the others at 9 euros a round. We bought back a round of edam with fenugeek and it was beautiful! Really worth the 6 euros we paid for it. As always, there's touristy shops every where that sell clogs, blue and white porcelain, dutch themed items and weed/red light district themed stuff. Do make sure if you're going with children that they don't pick up a marijuana themed item and demand it! Generally there is a large selection though and the prices aren't *too* bad.
By and large, if you don't want to see the more controversial side of Amsterdam as you're with family or just don't agree with it, you can get away with it. The red light district is obvious once you get into it. We never intended to spend much time in the red district and indeed never saw it at night; but even walking through it can be quite a saddening experience. It's probably the only thing about Amsterdam I don't like to be honest. Girls line up in the windows, a range of pretty young things who you want to drag out and make do something worthwhile with their lives and the older, more experienced women who just look like they've given up. Maybe some of them enjoy it but by and large I didn't get that idea from walking by.
As with all tourist places, there are good sides and bad sides. For us, the worst experience we had was when we were ushered into a dark, dingy restaurant, made to buy drinks and a two course meal which wiped out our days budget of 60 euros in one fell swoop and was absolutely disgusting. In an English speaking country, even being as mild mannered and timid as I am, I would've kicked up a fuss. I don't know why we didn't but the whole experience was just depressing. The restaurants are not good during the day. The flipside, however, is the lovely little traditional Dutch restaurant we found that made beautiful pancakes - and the meal, with drinks, was under 20 euros. If you want to go, it's near Spui and is down a little alley. An absolute gem in Amsterdams crown!
Amsterdam is also quite well known for it's large amount of museums. Do not be fooled; most of these charge you 9/10 euros entry and when you get in, you can see the entirety of the exhibits out of one eye and you feel very disappointed. The Torture Museum on Singelstraat is quite good and a nice way to spend an hour in the evening at 7 euros 50, but the Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum and the Sex/Erotic Museums are incredibly disappointing and expensive. The University museum is very good and does student prices. We didn't bother getting a IAmsterdam card and I'm glad we didn't as I don't think it's justifiable. Not enough museums give you free entry with it and the ones that do aren't very good anyway.
***I'm now going to talk about the legal weed side of Amsterdam. If you do not agree with this practice or feel it is inappropriate please scroll down. I do not advocate drug use in any way. If you feel you may susceptible to some of the more serious effects of weed, such as schizophrenia or paranoia (which can run in families) then stay away from the coffee shops. When I say 'weed' here, I mean anything legal and green that coffee shops sell, which includes skunk and hash.***
As with most people my age, marijuana is a tempting prospect. Before going to Amsterdam, I had only smoked it a handful of times and even then it was imported, tacky and one spliff vaguely tasted of lemon washing up liquid. Whilst I enjoyed it, it was never a massive buzz and I would compare it to merely being tipsy off of alcohol than being high. The first night we arrived in Amsterdam we took a stroll around our hotel and arrived at our first coffee shop of the trip. The atmosphere is pleasant in coffee shops; not at all seedy or underhand as you might imagine. In every coffee shop you will be expected to buy a drink if you're staying there to smoke, and in some (not all, mainly the tourist ones) you will be expected to buy weed on the premises. We found a few where you didn't have to and a few where you were asked to. A couple didn't really care either way. The counter will have a menu on it with the names of the different weed and hash types they sell, the effects and the price per 1 gram. Now, anyone who's bought it illegally in the UK will know that the price over here is generally between 15 and 25 pounds for an eighth - for a gram you're looking at closer to £40. In Amsterdam you can buy a 1 gram bag for as little as 8 euros - or at least, this was the cheapest we saw it. May not be the best though! You can also normally get pre rolled spliffs with either hash or weed for around 3 euros (the cheapest we saw was 2 euros 50, the most expensive was 5 euros. Do NOT pay over 4 euros for a prerolled - it's just not worth it.)
If you go into a coffee shop and drinks prices are over 3 euros, and 1 gram bags are over 15 euros, just walk straight out. In particular I'm thinking of a big chain brand that has about three coffee shops and cafes around Rembrandtsplein which was just a tourist trap - 5 euros for a pre rolled that was smaller than the 2.50 euros one we got. Ridiculous. I would say go a little off the beaten track and see what you can find, but trust your instinct. If you don't feel right in a coffee shop, don't stay in it. You're welcome to walk straight back out again! Our favourite one was called 'Betty, TOO!' which has it's own facebook page and has quite a small collection of fans as it's tucked away between clubs, pubs and restaurants. A very friendly, chilled out atmosphere with lovely owners. There are a couple of chains in Amsterdam, primarily the Bulldog coffee shops (in the red light district there's about three on the same canal) which we didn't try out as we presumed they would be touristy and expensive.
A little note for those who've never smoked weed or have only smoked minimal amounts before, do not buy a full bag to begin with. Buy a pre rolled, share it with a friend and if you feel ok, the next day you may want to consider getting a bag and some papers if you or your companion can roll. It's very easy to get incredibly high and stumble out of a coffee shop with no idea where you are, a perfect candidate for a mugging (I said earlier the crime rate is low but crime does still happen - it is a capital city after all, with a lot of tourists) and next thing you know you're paranoid that everyone is talking about you and you're having a breakdown in Dam Square. Not good. Take it slow, and remember that you shouldn't smoke anything you don't want to smoke. You wouldn't go into a bar and order a drink that you can't or don't want to drink, so apply the same principle and be responsible.
Don't believe the rumours that weed is going to be illegal for anyone who isn't a resident in Amsterdam in 2012; these are just rumours. It is however true that weed is going to become illegal for anyone who isn't a Dutch resident in other parts of Holland, particularly Maastrict and Utrecht.
***End of marijuana discussion***
Overall, Amsterdam is a lovely city that has something for everyone. I'm already planning my next trip back, and even considering moving there seriously when I graduate. Truly one of those cities that you must visit before you die!
Summary: A wonderful holiday and somewhere I hope to visit again very soon.