From pretty canalside streets to a 100m-high swing, our writer takes to two wheels in Amsterdam
But nothing on the Richter scale for reefers – not even the super-potent Puff Puff Pass Out – is as intoxicating as the city’s canal-side scenery. It’s eye candy.
Cannabis lollipops, however, aren’t get-you-high candy – they’re quirky, drug-free souvenirs, as any honest local who isn’t flogging them from a market stall will tell you, so save your money and don’t be a sucker.
Just about everybody in the Netherlands can speak English before the stabilisers come off their bikes, but visitors without a word of Dutch will find the language easy to understand in certain situations.
On trams, passengers press their travel cards against a reader that bears the instruction “Houd je kaart hier”. If someone’s talking too much, they’re told to “Houd je tong”. Feeling frightened? “Houd mijn hand”. Romantic? “Geef mi een kus”. More than romantic? “Waar is de rood licht district?”
It’s hard to rile the laid-back Amsterdammers unless you commit the mortal sin of stepping into a cycle lane without looking both ways first.
At worst, you might get a belt off a bike, but usually you’ll get a tirade of abuse along the lines of “Ga uit de weg, idioot!” to add to your collection of useful everyday phrases.
Everywhere you go, you’ll hear a ringing in your ears – it’s not tinnitus, it’s the incessant sound of cyclists ting-tinging their bells, warning you to get back on to the pavement where you belong.
Traffic-slowing bumps on the road are considered hills in Amsterdam, which is home to 814,000 people who between them own 881,000 bikes – four times the number of cars – and cycle two million kilometres every day.
That’s the equivalent of two-and-a-half return trips to the moon, to which many coffee shop customers appear wired.
Anyone keen on seeing the city’s sights from a saddle should note that cycling is not without incident: every year, 13,000 bikes are fished out of the canals and 100,000 are reported stolen.
When the Nazis began their retreat from the Netherlands in May 1945, German soldiers jumped on the first set of wheels they could find and pedalled furiously back to the fatherland.
This gave rise to the popular chant still heard at football matches between Dutch and German teams: “My granny wants her bicycle back!”
Modern-day thieves apparently don’t stop there – during my visit a few weeks ago, I nearly rode into a lamppost when I spotted a Zimmer frame padlocked to the railings outside a church.
My bike came courtesy of the new four-star Yotel Amsterdam beside the Tolhuis canal where I stayed and will do so again thanks to many factors, foremost being the charming multinational and multilingual young staff who clearly love their work. A happy team means happy guests.
To get to Yotel, hop off the airport train at Central Station, step out the back and on to the free ferry to Buiksloterweg (four minutes across the water) and it’s a 15-minute stroll or a five-minute cycle from there.
The hotel is in the trendy Amsterdam North district, near enough to the city centre for convenience, but in a quiet spot with no hordes of half-cut hens and stags to disturb your sleep.
Importantly for someone like me who gags at the slightest whiff of ganja, Yotel is close to plenty of craft ale and cocktail bars and cosy restaurants and cafes, many with waterside terraces where dope is a big nope.
That goes for the hotel terrace too, where breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks are served.
When you’re heading into town to see the sights, park your bike at the ferry and collect it on the way back, or wheel it on board and cycle along the tree-lined canals, shouting “Ga uit de weg, idioot!” at tourists who dare to cross your path.
Amsterdammers take exception to their city being described as the “Venice of the north” when it has umpteen more waterways and four times as many bridges – 160 and 1,700 respectively.
“No, no – Venice is the Amsterdam of the south,” said the skipper of one of the scores of sightseeing boats that leave from outside Central Station and ply the canals from early morning until dusk, except during especially harsh winters when they freeze over and people go ice skating.
Three million boat tour tickets are sold each year, and they’re worth every cent of the average €16 price.
The operators have had decades to get the formula right – route, sights, informative and entertaining commentary – and a 75-minute cruise, especially on a sunny day, can be the highlight of a long weekend.
It’s the best way by far to view the lovingly preserved historical and colourful buildings for which Amsterdam is famous and which have made millionaires out of fridge magnet manufacturers.
Most of the canalside streets have knee-high metal barriers at the water’s edge to prevent cars from toppling in. A smart move by the city authorities, you might think, but no: the barriers are installed and maintained by shrewd motor insurance companies that believe prevention is better than a payout.
For those who aren’t happy on the water, the hop-on, hop-off tour buses that drop and pick up passengers at all the main attractions provide an ideal sightseeing alternative – it’s like having your own private driver on call.
The buses have to skirt the Red Light District, which is in De Wallen, the city’s oldest neighbourhood and mostly a maze of narrow streets and alleys.
Women have been selling sex here since the 14th century, but prostitution didn’t become legal until 2000. Today, prostitutes have the same employment rights and protections as any other worker in the Netherlands and since 2011 have paid tax on their income.
However, there’s incontrovertible evidence that many of the young foreign women engaged in the sex industry are the victims of trafficking and do it under threat of violence from the criminals who control them.
That’s a sobering thought for anyone tempted to avail of their services.
Eighty-one-year-old identical twins and former prostitutes Martine and Louise Fokkens, who are local celebrities, reckon they entertained around 355,000 men between them during the 50 years they worked in the Red Light District.
The sisters, known affectionately as De Ouwe Hoeren (The Old Whores), retired in 2013. In an interview, Louise said arthritis forced her to call it a day “because I couldn’t get one leg over the other”.
The delightful pair have seen it all and often appear on TV chat shows to share saucy and sometimes heartbreakingly sad stories of life on the game and all the dangers it involves.
While they will obligingly pose for pictures during their occasional strolls through De Wallen with their little dogs, taking photos of the scantily-clad women in the red-lit windows is strictly forbidden.
Anyone caught transgressing will be asked by burly security guards to delete the offending images from their phones or cameras. Protest too much and those devices might ‘accidentally’ end up in the canal.
The Red Light District’s days may be numbered because of increasing complaints from neighbours fed up with the late-night rowdy behaviour of tourists.
In response, the city council has proposed developing an out-of-town “Erotica Centre” with 100 hotel-type rooms, communal rest areas and clinical facilities for sex workers.
‘People come here to see the Red Light District – but you wouldn’t catch me there’
The plan has widespread support, but not everyone is convinced, as I learned when I watched the All-Ireland hurling final in The Blarney Stone (a sign outside reads “This pub may contain nuts”).
“It’s typical of the council, moving a problem from one place to another,” said a Dutch customer who was shouting for Kilkenny, simply because he likes the ale.
An Englishman who wanted to see the cricket but was soon won over by the action from Croke Park disagreed, saying: “Nah, mate, it’s a tourist attraction. People come here to see the Red Light District – but you wouldn’t catch me there.”
The pub quickly filled up with Irish visitors and expats and I quickly filled up with Dutch courage, so much so that near the end of the game when one big guy stood up and blocked my view of the telly, I nearly shouted: “Ga uit de weg, idioot!”
That’s when I remembered my bike was chained up outside and decided it would be wise to leave it there until the morning – I didn’t want it to be one of the 13,000 that are fished out of the canals every year.
Five fab attractions
Over The Edge Swing: On the roof of the A’Dam Lookout tower, 100 metres up, is a seat that swings out over the edge. It’s scary, but great fun. For €24.50 you can visit the 360-degree observation deck, have a go on the swing (if you dare) and enjoy a virtual rollercoaster adventure on the Amsterdam VR Ride. See adamlookout.com
Heineken Experience: Various tours of Heineken’s old HQ are available, but go for the interactive Heineken Tour + Rooftop option (€27.50). See heinekenexperience.com
Anne Frank House: A visit to the canalside house where Jewish teenager Anne and her family hid for two years before being betrayed to the Nazis is a sobering experience, but one of those things you feel you have to do. Online tickets only, which are sold by specific time slots. See annefrank.org
Van Gogh Museum: See many of the artist’s best-known masterpieces and learn about the life of this troubled genius. A fascinating attraction. Entry €20. See vangoghmuseum.nl
Rijksmuseum: There are thousands of wonderful works of art in the Rijksmuseum, but the one visitors flock to see is Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, and it alone is worth the €22.50 entrance fee. See rijksmuseum.nl
Plan your trip
Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly several times a day from Dublin to Amsterdam Schipol, from where trains depart every 15 minutes for Central Station. The journey takes around 17 minutes and a one-way adult ticket costs €5.90.
Yotel Amsterdam offers considerable savings when you make your reservation directly with yotel.com
Buy a city card for free public transport and free admission to many attractions – it will quickly pay for itself.
For further information on visiting Amsterdam and buying a city card, see iamsterdam.com