Amsterdam is known globally for it’s “coffee shop culture”, but most people don’t know what it’s actually like inside one.
Neither did I, so my dorm buddy Chris and I decided to go find out.
Coffee shops aren’t hard to find. In central Amsterdam you’ll find many of them scattered through the grid of bakeries and pizza joints and bars and clubs.
But before we get to what happens inside, some of you may still be unaware of what Amsterdam coffee shops actually are.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, Amsterdam coffee shops aren’t like other regular coffee shops around the world. In Amsterdam those are known as a koffiehuis or a café.
An Amsterdam coffee shop is a place where people go to buy and smoke cannabis. Think of it like the Amsterdam version of a dispensary crossed with a cafe. Cannabis has been decriminalised in the Netherlands since 1972, and “coffee shop” is the term used for the legal dispensaries of the product. If you want to be doubly sure, you can check the green and white license that should be displayed by the door.
If you’re a foreigner, it’s best to keep your coffee shop experience to Amsterdam. While they’re operational around the country, many other cities require a Dutch ID or have outright bans on foreigners. Amsterdam is definitely the friendliest city for coffee shop tourism.
Because there are so many coffee shops in Amsterdam nowadays, it’s always good to get a recommendation. We were told to try the 420 cafe, so that’s where we headed.
As soon as we get inside I notice it’s a little smokey (obviously) and smells how you might expect it to smell, but it’s actually pleasant and not suffocating or anything. The place looks like any regular pub – a long bar lined with barstools, a few tables along the wall, and a few more cosy corners to lounge in. I wasn’t sure whether it would be cool to take a photo so I kept my camera in my pocket.
The guy behind the bar gives me a friendly greeting and asks if he can help. I ask if we can see the menu, and he points me down to the other end of the bar where another staff member is standing.
We look over the menu quickly and ask if she can explain the different items. A lot of people just choose the cheapest strain or the one with the coolest name, but it’s a good idea to understand the differences between each one, especially if you don’t smoke often.
While explaining each strain, she also opens up a huge container of the buds and lets us look at them and smell them. It’s really odd seeing that much weed out in the open in one place.
When she’s finished we ask if she can recommend one.
“Try the NY Diesel,” she says. “That’s a good one.”
“But it sounds kinda strong, will we be messed up?”
“No it will be fine, you guys smoke a lot of weed, right?”
We both look at each other and laugh.
“Well actually no, not really…”
“Oh! Well maybe you should try the Haze instead. That’s a nice one.”
We give the box another smell, and then go ahead and buy a gram of the 420 Haze. She weighs it out on her little stainless steel scale, as if we’re buying spices at the market. Then she pops it in a little ziplock bag and hands it to us.
“Have fun,” she smiles.
We go find a seat at the bar and roll it up. The cool thing is they provide you with rolling papers and matches and everything else you need, so you really can just show up any time you want and indulge. There’s also a big jar of a herbal mix with tea and sage and other stuff – people use this to mix their product, because you aren’t allowed to smoke tobacco inside.
When Chris finally lights it up he takes a long drag and then holds his head.
“Oh my god dude it’s so strong,” he laughs.
He hits it again and then hands it to me.
Then it’s time for drinks. The interesting thing about coffee shops is they’re not actually allowed to serve alcohol – they can serve cannabis or booze but not both.
Their drinks menu is sodas, coffees, teas and hot chocolate.
We both order tea and choose a hipster flavoured tea bag from the box in front of us. And then we just…chill.
Sitting beside us are two middle aged guys, each holding joints as fat as cigars. They were sitting there talking and smoking when we arrived and were still going when we left.
Behind us, a couple of girls are sharing a joint and scrolling through their phones.
Next to them, a table of young guys playing cards.
In the corner, a group of people who look like they’ve been sitting there smoking since yesterday.
When the tea and the joint is finished, Chris and I just sit there and watch Animal Planet, which is playing on the big screen. We chat with the Italian guy behind the bar who tells us all about the shop and what it’s like living in Amsterdam.
“You see this place, it’s full of Italians. This is all Italians do, smoke weed and do nothing. That’s why we’re the worst country in Europe right now,” he laughs.
Chris and I spend the next hour talking about travelling, girls, podcasts, life. Then, before we know it, it’s nearly 1 a.m – closing time.
We grab our stuff and head out the door, still buzzed, ready for a good night’s sleep. No expensive drinks, no shots, no hangovers, no cover charges, no fights, no drunken ordeals. Just a peaceful evening and an early night.
Maybe Amsterdam has got it right after all.
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Tips for a good Amsterdam coffee shop experience
Choose the right spot. There are so many coffee shops in Amsterdam these days, so there’s no need to go somewhere you’re not feeling 100%. An Amsterdam regular I was talking to said ten years ago there were some crappy places around, but nowadays most of them have been weeded out (ha ha) and the shops in the centre are all pretty good. Ask around, get some recommendations, and then visit a few and see which one you like. Many of them are within a small radius in the city centre anyway.
Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the menus and the different products. Many first timers head to Amsterdam coffee shops, including many people who haven’t even seen marijuana before, so the staff won’t laugh at you. Each strain will have a different effect on you, so ask as many questions as you can to ensure you get something you like! If the staff don’t have time for your questions, head somewhere else.
Do your homework. It’s a good idea to learn a bit about the plant before you go. Do you know the difference between eating and smoking cannabis? Do you know the difference between the indica and sativa plants? Even ten minutes on Google will help a lot before you head out to the shops! With the medical marijuana industry developing at light speed and legalisation happening around the globe, the world is slowly becoming more educated on cannabis and there is information everywhere.
First time? Take it slow! Even one or two puffs will put a decent buzz on you, so be careful not to overdo it. A coffee shop is a place to lay back and relax, so there’s no need to rush. If you do end up smoking too much or too fast and your body doesn’t like it, just drink some water and don’t panic. Nobody ever died from smoking too much weed. A good night’s sleep will bring you back to normal.
Take a tour! Amsterdam is one of the most visited cities in the world and there are plenty of great tour offerings around. If you’re new to the cannabis scene, I would recommend taking a coffee shop tour like this one. You’ll learn about the history, the different strains, and get walked door to door through the coffee shop scene in Amsterdam.
Another thing first timers should note is that in a lot of these places you roll your own joints or bring your own smoking equipment. Most places will supply rolling papers and roaches/filters but if you’ve never smoked before, chances are you don’t know how to roll. If that’s the case don’t panic! A lot of shops sell pre-rolled joints too, or you can ask a friendly neighbour or staff member to roll one for you. Alternatively, you can try eating some cannabis food items instead, which many shops sell also. Remember, don’t worry – these guys see first timers every day.
Stay safe and have fun 😉
Look for an organised tour of the coffee shops? Check out these great tours by GetYourGuide!
Visiting Amsterdam? Be sure to check out my Amsterdam city guide, breaking down the best places to stay and things to do 🙂