On my Euro trip back in 2011, I took a train from Brussels to Amsterdam to see how wild a city it really was. Amsterdam is known for legalizing marijuana, prostitution, absinthe, and magic mushrooms. All along the train ride, I saw beautiful, lush green fields (some filled with tulips), windmills (new and old), and hundreds of little boat canals that were the arteries of the countryside. On each one of these tiny canals were long, narrow houseboats that were probably about 60 feet in length each.
The train ride wasn’t too long thanks to the high-speed rail system, which gave me enough time to appreciate the countryside without getting bored. One of my favorite things to do while taking trains is to go hang out in the dining cart. You can sit there and have a meal, make new friends, and have a pint all while watching little towns and the beautiful countryside pass by.
I arrived in Amsterdam just as the sun was starting to go down. I knew I better put a little pep in my step if I was going to catch the trolley to my hostel, check in, get situated, and still get back to Dam Square.
Dam Square is pretty much the epicenter of Amsterdam. Everything except for a couple museums and The Hague happens in or around Dam Square. As I came walking out of the train station, I looked over to my left and saw this beautiful basilica named St. Nicholas reflecting back the dusk sun off of its gorgeous gothic architecture. St. Nicholas Basilica is the only basilica in Amsterdam. I took a quick picture of the basilica, read the directions to my hostel and caught the trolley.
My hostel was about 20 minutes outside of Dam Square and located around the corner from the Van Gough Museum. As I arrived at my stop and exited the trolley, I made a beeline straight towards my hostel. Upon checking into my quaint little hostel, I headed back to my trolley only to find that on the other side of the street was a black-tie event at what looked like an opera house. I needed a landmark to reference in case I got lost later and need a reference; I then jumped on the trolley and head to Dam Square. Once back in Dam Square, I started to gaze in amazement at all the signs that were advertising sex shops, coffee/tea shops, and bakeries. I already had a full stomach from eating on the train, so I decided to have dessert—absinthe.
If you don’t know what absinthe is, here is a crash course. Absinthe is a 90–148-proof alcohol that is infused with herbs and tastes like licorice. One of these herbs is called wormwood and contains a chemical named thujone that if consumed enough has hallucinogenic effects. So…walk before you run when it comes to absinthe. Vincent Van Gough drank too much one night and cut off his ear and gave it to a whore. Absinthe is not legal in the states, but is all over Europe and comes in an array of colors depending on the potency. Green absinthe is the most popular and is referred to as “The Green Fairy.”
There are dozens and dozens of bars that line the streets around Dam Square, and they all have absinthe. After having a few drinks made with the traditional fire and sugar-cube method, I headed out to find a coffee shop. In Amsterdam, they don’t call the place to buy weed a smoke house or anything like that. Instead, they refer to them instead as coffee shops. Every coffee shop has three things: coffee, tea, and high-grade marijuana. You don’t have to necessarily buy weed from the coffee shop and can bring your own, but you must at least buy a coffee or tea to stay. I’m not much of a coffee person, so I stuck to tea. My favorite coffee shop hands down was Babba Bar.
You walk in, go up to one counter and order your tea from a menu, then step over to a booth that has menu of all the different strands of marijuana posted. You place your order, grab your weed and a one of the dozens of beautiful acrylic water bongs available for use, and then sit down at a table or lounge area to wait for your waitress to bring over your tea. Located across from most coffee shops coincidently are some of the most delicious Dutch bakeries you will ever see.
It was a very chill and relaxed environment. I made friends with some people from Milan who told me they come to Amsterdam every summer because they enjoy the people. They were right; the people of Amsterdam are very, very friendly. I finished my tea and my smoke and then headed out to have some more absinthe.
I walked down the street and popped my head into a pub that had a bar with tiny chandeliers above the bar and they had the green fairy. So I ordered drink, twisted a spliff, and smoked at the bar while enjoying the American music playing in the background. I enjoyed so much absinthe that colors were becoming more and more vivid, and my depth perception was changing into something I had never experienced before. I wasn’t stumbling drunk, but rather wide-awake and taking in the amazement of this foreign luxury. I did know that I had reached my limit and walked back to the trolley station so I could get back to the hostel and plan my following day.
I asked one of the trolley personnel which trolley went to the opera house and politely told me the number. I got onto the trolley I was told and was on my way. After a little while, the trolley started thinning out and we were approaching the end of the line. Finally, the trolley driver said, “Last stop, opera house,” but this was not the building I remembered. I described to the driver the building I saw and he said, “Oh, you’re looking for the Theater.” At that moment the absinthe really kicked in. He also said that was the last stop for the train that night and I couldn’t ride back. Now I was totally freaking out because I was in an unknown part (to me) of Amsterdam, no trolley to get back, and the absinthe kept intensifying.
After I had stepped off the trolley, two ladies came up to me. They asked if I was an American and I said yes. They said they were from Houston and they overheard my dilemma. They said, “Don’t worry. If you ever get lost in Amsterdam, just jump on any bus or trolley, and they all head back to Dam Square. The trolley runs about every ten minutes until 11pm (it was past 11pm), and when they shut down and then you just have catch the bus that comes every hour on the hour.” A huge sigh of relief came over me and gave these ladies a big bear hug and then decided to step into the pub I was standing in front of to have another drink until my bus arrived. Right on the hour, the bus showed up and I was on my way back to Dam Square. I couldn’t stop thinking to myself how convenient this was and how it took all the guesswork out if I got lost. I ended up back in Dam Square and bumped into the Italians from Milan. We went out for one last absinthe before I caught the right bus to the theater next to my hostel.
The next morning, I woke up and headed out for breakfast. As I was walking along the street, I was amazed as how many people road bicycles in Amsterdam. It’s one of the main means of transportation for people living in the city. After eating at a small Dutch bakery, I headed over to The Van Gough Museum to take in some culture.
Upon taking in unforgettable memories of priceless art, I headed back to Baba Bar. I chillaxed in Baba Bar for an hour or so, had lunch with some absinthe, and then proceeded to The Rembrandt Museum where I took in more culture. I then went back to Dam Square and watched soccer in the pub until it was time for dinner.
One of the more innovative things that I saw were these port-o-potties for men to step into and take a pee instead of doing it in an alley around the corner. What a brilliant idea! I wish we had a convenience like that in every major city. At dinner, I had a couple more absinthes, made some English friends, and then we went on a pub-crawl for the remainder of the night.
I awoke the following morning, had breakfast, and headed back to Dam Square to get a little more culture at the Heineken factory. I went in and paid an entrance fee of $12 that included a tour and two beers in the private Heineken bar. As I walked through the tour I thought, “This is pretty cool,” then I turned a corner and saw an entire part of the tour dedicated to James Bond. How could this get any better? Heineken has been featured in every James Bond movie in some shape or form.
After the Heineken factory, I headed out for some souvenir shopping before I left that afternoon on a train headed for Berlin. As I waited in the train station, I was leaning up against a railing with my headphones in, thinking to myself, “This trip just keeps getting better and better. I wonder where the next excitement will come from.” Just as I was thinking that, a train pulled up in front of me, the doors opened, and thousands of soccer fans all piled out of the train. They were there for the final match of the Dutch soccer tournament. All the men and women were all decked out in jerseys, scarfs, and face paint. They all erupted into their football club’s chant, and the entire place went wild. I got a little choked up because I was so happy to be in a place where the people shared the same interests as me. That moment just solidified my intuition that Europe is the place for me.
Amsterdam is one of the most fun-filled places I have ever been. It’s a place where all bets are off (for the most part), anything goes, and nobody abuses that privilege. The people of Amsterdam enjoy their coffee shops, red-light district, and bicycle rides. These are some of the happiest people I have ever met, and after a couple days in Amsterdam, you’ll know why.