We’ve all heard the whispers about Amsterdam. It’s one of those cities cloaked in a weird kind of infamy, and until you actually take your first trip to this beautiful city, it’s easy to raise an eyebrow at its risqué and ominous reputation.
Amsterdam has always been touted as a place where people can comfortably engage in the vices of their preference. In fact, if you believe the rumours, you might assume it’s a city of clog-wearing, bicycle-riding, cheese-eating hedonists. But the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
As the capital of The Netherlands, Amsterdam is steeped in a rich history and culture that transcends its somewhat gritty stereotypes. With origins dating back to at least the 12th century, the city is chock full of iconic buildings, important artwork, and a deep sense of cultural pride. It’s also one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world and it’s easy to see why.
In the interests of full disclosure: yes, some of the rumours are based (sometimes loosely) on fact. But don’t believe everything you’ve heard. It’s time to forget what you think you know about Amsterdam and read our breakdown of some the most widely-held assumptions about this charming, vibrant and thoroughly modern capital.
20 True: Almost Everything's Legal
While we'll skimp over the nitty-gritty details, what you've come to associate with Amsterdam (don’t play innocent, you’ve heard the rumours) is actually legal. Some of it, at least. The government has adopted an open and honest approach to certain issues, which are considered taboo elsewhere in the world, and it makes every effort to ensure safety for the people involved.
As a visitor to the city, make sure you’re armed with the most up-to-date information about any of the, ahem, pursuits you’ve got planned. Know where you stand and keep safe.
19 False: There’s Lots Of Sketchy Behaviour
Amsterdam is the sixth safest city in the world and the safest city in Europe, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's third annual Safe Cities Index. The explanation is simple - all the things we associate with sketchiness are largely controlled in the city, which keeps bad behavior off the streets.
That’s not to say you should leave your common sense at home. Keep your guard up like you would in other major cities. Don’t engage strange people, especially if walking alone at night, and keep a constant eye on phones and other belongings when sitting at outdoor cafes, restaurants, and bars.
18 True: There Are More Bicycles Than Residents
The myth that there are more bikes in Amsterdam than residents is completely true with 880,000 bikes to a population of just 800,000.
In fact, that the country boasts more than 18,000 miles of dedicated bike paths and in Amsterdam, you can cycle from the central train station to the suburbs 20 miles away, all without leaving a bike path.
This makes it one of the most cycle friendly cities on earth and no trip would be complete without taking a ride on two wheels around the backstreets and cobbled lanes.
17 False: Everyone Wears Wooden Clogs
I mean, come on? You didn’t believe this one, right? Wooden clogs are not the most practical of footwear for everyday use, unsurprisingly. But like a lot of rumours, this one does contain a kernel of truth. Back in the day, farmers across the country used to wear wooden clogs to keep their feet in good shape when walking on marshy land, and it’s still the preferred footwear for a committed few today.
While many of the farms that open their doors to visitors have preserved a clog-making room and offer clog-making demonstrations, the reality is that the only wooden shoes you’ll likely find in Amsterdam are in the cheesy souvenir shops.
16 True: Amsterdam Lies Below Sea Level
Amsterdam, and even half of the Netherlands, lies below sea level. The city, built upon lakes, swamps, and peat, is located about 2 meters below sea level. The lowest point in Amsterdam is a whopping 6.7 meters below sea level.
So why isn’t the country underwater right now? Well, there is a complex system of dikes, pumps and sand dunes along the coast that keep the country safe. In fact, it has one of the most sophisticated anti-flood systems in place anywhere in the world, and developers claim only a one in 10,000 year storm could bring down the sea dikes. Let’s hope they are right.
15 False: Holland And The Netherlands Are The Same Thing
You’ve probably heard it called Holland and The Netherlands, so which is it?
The country’s official name is the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which was founded in 1579 as a union of various provinces and cities who resisted rule by the Spanish. One of these provinces was the province of Holland (now divided into Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland), which contains the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague - the country’s economic and political hubs.
It’s probably because of this that foreign countries came to know the region as Holland, and the name kind of stuck.
14 True: Amsterdam Has More Culture Per Capita Than Any Other City On Earth
Amsterdam has more museums per square meter than any other city in the world. The city administration counts 51 museums and it’s not a case of quantity over quality. It’s home to the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk Museum, which are stacked to the rafters with world-class works, and there’s Anne Frank House, once home to the eponymous diarist and her ill-fated family.
There are museums dedicated to everything from cats and hemp, to funerals, sex, torture and even pathological specimens. No matter how niche your interests, Amsterdam might just have the museum for you.
13 False: It Always Rains In Amsterdam
Yes, the city’s weather can be notoriously fickle, but is it always raining? Not exactly. In fact, The Netherlands only has about 700 millimetres of rainfall each year, which really isn’t a huge amount. The city’s soggy reputation is more to do with the uncertainty of its moderate marine climate, which makes rain a possibility all year round.
Spring and summer are the best months to visit if you want to improve your chances of avoiding a downpour. That said, there are no guarantees.
If Amsterdam’s weather has one notable feature, it’s not necessarily rain - it’s unpredictability.
12 True: John Lennon And Yoko Ono Spent An Entire Week In Bed In Amsterdam
It sounds creepy that we know this, but the whole world was invited to look. This was a very public event that took place at the height of the Vietnam War in 1969. The famous couple tried to give peace a chance by staging two week-long bed-ins, one in Montreal and the other in Amsterdam's Hilton Hotel. The event was designed to use the publicity generated by their recent wedding to promote peace.
It’s not everyone’s ideal honeymoon but the stunt did help to give the city a peaceful and progressive image and it remains one of the most iconic calls for peace of all time.
11 False: Amsterdam Is A 24-Hour City
On any given night, Amsterdam is up for a party, but it’s not what one would call an all-night party city and closing times are much earlier than many visitors might be used to.
During the week, bars and cafés in the city centre can stay open until 1am on weekdays and 3am at the weekend. Dance clubs can stay open until 3am during the week and 4am on the weekend.
But this could be about to change with the appointment of a Night Mayor, tasked with developing the city’s nighttime economy. He’s already introduced night cafes, with licenses extending open hours to 4am during the week and 5am on the weekend, and 24-hour clubbing licences are being trialled, so watch this space.
10 True: Amsterdam Has The Tallest People In The World
This one’s a little more broad but people in The Netherlands are, in general, taller than other nationalities. Most men average at a height of 184cm while the average woman towers at 171cm. But it hasn't always been the land of giants. In fact, 150 years ago the men were almost 7.5cm shorter than the average person from the USA. What happened is somewhat of a mystery. Scientists believe a number of factors are responsible, such as natural selection, medical care, and a calorific diet rich in meat and dairy products.
9 False: Tulips Are Native To The Netherlands
“When it's Spring again I'll bring again…Tulips from Amsterdam.” You might know the song, but now it’s time for the history. Despite playing such a vital role in the country's culture, tulips were actually imported from Turkey in the 16th century.
It was only during The Netherlands' Golden Age that the flower left its indelible mark on the country’s psyche, during a period known as Tulipomonia. It was the world’s first economic bubble and single prices of bulbs skyrocketed to as high as 1,000 florin, or over $200,000 in today’s dollar. By early 1637, the demand and prices for tulips collapsed, leaving many in poverty.
8 True: Amsterdammers Love Coffee
Though the Dutch are famous for their other coffee shops, they’re actually the fifth biggest coffee drinkers in the world.
According to the International Coffee Organization, The Netherlands ranks as the fifth largest consumer of coffee, with residents knocking back an average 2.4 cups per day.
Coffee is part of the nation's fabric. After all, they were the first in Europe to obtain live coffee trees, kickstarting the coffee cultivation. It’s little wonder then that Amsterdam is home to a cafe on seemingly every corner.
7 False: Amsterdam Is All About The Party
Another of the most common misconceptions about The Netherlands' capital is that hedonism is the main attraction. But there’s so much more to the city than red lights and coffeeshops. In addition to being an architectural wonder, the city is full of superb galleries, museums and attractions.
Lose yourself in Amsterdam's Canal Belt; Picnic in the Vondelpark; Rent a bike and get exploring; Eat street food, Amsterdam-style. There rewarding experiences to be found beyond the fabled tourist paths. Go out there and find them.
6 True: No To Ketchup And Yes To Mayonnaise
They might be known as French fries, but some of the tastiest fries in the world can be found in Amsterdam, home to several friteries.
The condiment of choice is not ketchup, however, but a few generous dollops of mayonnaise. Also popular are patatje oorlog - fries served with onion, peanut sauce and curry ketchup. Watch out, it’s spicy. Fries with apple sauce (known locally as applemoes) and sambal, the hot chilli condiment, are other popular options.
Hey, until you've tried it, don't knock it.
5 False: The People Are Rude
Like most national stereotypes, this one-size-fits-all assumption about the people of Amsterdam and beyond isn’t very useful, and neither is it accurate. Make no mistake, the locals can tend to be very direct, and nowhere more so than in Amsterdam.
While this give-it-to you-straight mentality can come across as inconsiderate to foreigners, perhaps even arrogant, it comes from a place of transparency.
This straightforwardness is so intrinsic in the country's society that there’s even a local word for it: bespreekbaarheid (speakability). They believe everything can and should be talked about and there are no taboo topics.
4 True: Amsterdam Is Seriously Multicultural
Here’s a fun fact for you, Amsterdam is home to highest number of nationalities out of any city in the world, an estimated 178. After WWII, people from all over the world immigrated to Amsterdam to live a better life and the city prides itself on being an open and tolerant society. Its diverse population is reflected in its rich culture and food. You can grab a curry from Indonesia, eat it while you’re waiting for a haircut in the barber from Turkey and then go for a drink, served to you by an Aussie.
3 False: Anything Goes In Amsterdam
It’s true that the city has enjoyed a long tradition of tolerance but contrary to its freewheeling, unconventional reputation, there are rules and regulations. They are in place for a reason, so you’d be wise to follow them, not just for your own safety but out of respect for the people who live there.
As you might imagine, residents and business people do not look kindly on tourists causing a nuisance. Don’t turn your trip to Amsterdam into a bad trip.
2 True: Amsterdam Has More Canals Than Venice
The city isn’t nicknamed Venice of the North for no good reason.
Amsterdam has more canals than Venice - 165 to a paltry 150.
Amsterdam’s canals are a world-famous tourist attraction and part of the Canal Ring, built in the 17th century, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010.
In addition, Amsterdam has approximately 90 islands, which are linked by more than 1,500 bridges. Want to see a large number of bridges in one place? Head to the corner of the Reguliersgracht and Herengracht canal where you can see up to 15 of the city’s bridges at one time.
1 False: Local Cuisine Is Raw Herring And Cheese
Okay, so cheese is big business in the Netherlands and you’ll spot haringhandels (raw herring carts) all over the city. But Amsterdam has plenty more unique culinary experiences to offer the hungry traveller. From mini pancakes at any time of the day to croquettes from a vending machine, the Dutch have the market covered when it comes to comfort food.
One for cold winter evenings, stamppot is not dissimilar to bubble and squeak out of Britain, and if you want a tasty snack to wash down with a drink, try bitterballen, delicious, deep fried crispy meatballs traditionally served with mustard for dipping - the ultimate pub snack.