By Brian Spencer
When you write about Amsterdam, in most cases you’re not supposed to write about the coffeeshops anymore.
If you do, you’re supposed to do so only in passing, preferably by making a half-baked pun (like that one) or rehashing (double bingo!) an ancient ha-ha-ha pothead cliche or two. Obligatory nudge-nudge pot reference fulfilled, it’s then onto more important matters about the “new” Amsterdam. The chefs have saved the city! The young artisans are helping them save the city! The coffee roasters peddling hyper-organic beans processed through wheatgrass-fed civets raised in their natural habitat — they’re helping save Amsterdam too!
Forget coffeeshops and forget marijuana; think tattooed chefs and demure makers of things and tri-racial mixologists and altruistic everything. Welcome to the New Amsterdam, motherfuckers — put the pipe down and get over it.
The thing is, that’s true. Over the past decade Amsterdam has changed, significantly, and continues to change in wonderful, somewhat unpredictable ways. During my recent 10-night stay in the city I ate and drank far better than I ever had; I met so many young, ambitious creative types and entrepreneurs; I immersed myself in the ‘Dam’s blossoming arts and culture; I tapped into an emerging craft beer scene. Amsterdam is kind of poppin’ at the moment.
I fell in love all over again, but on a much deeper level than I had during previous visits almost a decade ago. Part of it, certainly, is that I’m (a little) older now; part of it is Amsterdam’s changing of the cultural guard being reflected in its changing fabric and personality; part of it is that I had more time to do everything else because I spent very little time hanging out in the coffeeshops.
I don’t particularly enjoy getting blown out on Cheese or Kush or Shiva or Bubble Gum while sitting around inside a coffeeshop, but that doesn’t mean I’m not glad they’re there. I am; very much so, in fact. It’s just that I prefer to enjoy the products elsewhere.
I usually don’t have time to sit around in a dark, smokey den decked out in black-light posters or similarly “trippy” decor, listening to Cypress Hill and Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead and Bob Marley — no cliche, it’s sadly true — oftentimes surrounded by stoned fools who don’t know their limit and say (admittedly amusing) things like, as was the case with an American businessman “letting loose” with his colleagues, “ya know where this should be legal in the United States? On the indian reservations. I mean, why not, ya know?”
No, most of the time I don’t care to be couped up indoors when there’s so much beautiful cityscape to be explored by foot or by bicycle. (Don’t worry, I’m one careful dude while floating around the city on two wheels.) There are parks and an abundance of canalside benches in which one can partake in Amsterdam’s leafy pleasures, so long as you stay away from schools and little old ladies, of course. Enjoy it outdoors on a quiet patch of canal, free of harassment or concern.
Amsterdammers surely tire of the “pot tourists” and their baggage, particularly since all things considered there really isn’t much of a “pot culture” in Amsterdam. It’s something the Dutch can largely handle, and something they kindly choose to share with its visitors, at least in most parts of the country. It’s tolerated, if not technically legal, and there are stores where you can purchase it and consume it; that’s it.
From my view, coffeeshops and marijuana have a fairly benign day-to-day impact on the city, aside from the aforementioned Pink Floyd and Cypress Hill travesties, the unfortunate late-90s decor, and the scores of giggling twentysomething lads that stalk the city streets in packs four to six deep. Yes, in this small, relatively quiet city, one chronically miscast as the party-hearty capital of Europe, the coffeeshops have traditionally grabbed far more attention than necessary.
Still, the byproduct is that we’ve now reached this point — we as in editors and writers who write about travel — where they are treated as if it they are not there at all.
Why do we provide smart, insidery guidance on where and what to eat, where to stay, what to see and do, what to drink and where to get drunk, how to act, when to go, which neighborhoods to explore, what to pack, how to save money, where to splurge, best day trips, how to get around, what’s new, what’s dated, what’s underrated, what’s overrated… but not on where to smoke?
Oh, certain publications do; local and international guidebooks often provide cursory references to “coffeeshop culture,” though often in an offhand, down-the-nose manner. (Time Out Amsterdam is a notable exception.) I don’t think I’ve seen any magazine features, however, even touch it; I guess advertisers rule the day (and, yes, in part pay my bills), and advertisers, I suppose, don’t want that association.
I understand, to a degree, and it’s not that I’m advocating heavy coffeeshop coverage. Coffeeshops, in and of themselves, would be a fairly weak focus of an in-depth, trip-planning type feature on Amsterdam. As I say, it’s a very small part of the visitor experience, or at least it should be, for unless you live nearby, that’s a long ways to travel just to get high.
Still, like it or not, planning to smoke or not, it is part of the experience, and it need not be handled with fuddy-duddy gloves, or referenced with weak pothead jokes, or ignored entirely. That’s weak sauce; almost as weak as angling said feature around “forget coffeeshops, blah blah blah.” I suppose a possible counter-argument is that be that case, we should also be providing brothel advice, right? Fair enough, but that’s different, and the research far more hazardous, tiring, and difficult to expense.
Where am I going with this? I’m not sure, other than to lead into four very brief coffeeshop recommendations in the good chance that you need to wait out the rain, or the off chance that you do actually want to sit around indoors while getting blazed. A lot of people — normal travelers even! — enjoy that experience, and I suppose that’s my point.
I’m not “defending” coffeeshops. I don’t think getting high should be a determining factor in deciding whether to visit Amsterdam or not, and I’m not insinuating all writers should always be writing about coffeeshops.
I do think they’re a nice bonus of visiting the city, however, and a part of the Amsterdam experience, even if just a small one. Tattooed chefs and artisanal coffee roasters are all well and good — bring it, for sure (maybe not the mixologists though) — but there is more than one way to paint an incomplete picture of a city.
Four Recommended Coffeeshops
Kadinsky – Though unfortunately starting to show some age, the coffee and chocolate-chip cookies are still scrumptious, the staff still friendly, and the pot still reasonably priced. I like finding a seat on the long bench, positioned in front of expansive ground-floor windows, and watching bikes zoom by in the narrow alleyway in which Kadinsky is located. I love that there’s a new pinball machine on the lower level, too.
La Tertulia – Airy, bathed in sunlight (when the stubborn Amsterdam sun decides to shine), and notable for its cozy upstairs seating area with beautiful views over Prinsengracht, La Tertulia is one of the city’s few coffeeshops not stuck in kitsch hell or the late-90s. The grass is fine, and the pint-sized pre-rolled joints are ideal for those wishing for comparatively moderate consumption. While many coffeeshops offer menus with little to no description of each strain, here you’ll find helpful pointers like “strong Dutch grass with a pungent aroma and pleasant ‘up’ high” or “mostly satica that’s been grown outdoors, this has a heady, ‘alert’ high and a spicy herbal taste; good for an active daze.”
Katsu – This longtime De Pijp mainstay is a little tacky, yes, but the ample greenery surrounding the main table in the front contributes to a cozy vibe. I’m always in favor of pinball machines like the ones they have here, plus there are a good variety of complimentary reading materials for civilized stoning (though mostly Dutch language). Strong selection of greens.
Dutch Flowers – Like La Tertulia, Dutch Flowers is that somewhat rare coffeeshop that has the look and feel of a normal cafe, a look which I clearly find more appealing than the alternative. Best of all, perhaps, are convenient stoner-friendly neighbors like Landskroon Bakery, which serves flaky, gloriously buttery apple-muesli turnovers and some of the best stroopwafels in town, and a Belgian frites stand around the corner with more than 20 different sauces. This all adds up to one of the most pleasantly pungent corners in Amsterdam.