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Forget the cannabis clichés – to embrace a genuinely laid-back Amsterdam experience, swap toking for boating the city’s canals

“Something to eat, then something to fuck!” roars an enthusiastic British tourist, to howls of approval from his cluster of buddies. Anywhere else, I’d think that kind of public oversharing to be, well ... crass at best.

But I’m earwigging on this gang of good-timers on Amsterdam’s Warmoesstraat, an anything-goes haven where most of the street clearly has identical plans for the evening.

To my right are clubs Fuxxx and Dirty Dicks, stalwarts of Amsterdam’s infamous leather scene.

Over the road is a window display which I swear would make even Soho’s sex shop regulars turn pink – a row of plastic bottoms in black, brown and white, an assortment of dildos, plugs, hoods, chains and a contraption that I can honestly say I have no idea where it goes or why.

(Oh and a rack of cheerfully snuggly ski hats that read: ‘AMSTERDAM’). 

Just a block away is the Red Light District, where girls wearing only lingerie are posing in brothel windows, their expressions as blank as mannequins.

And to my left are a bunch of coffee shops with signs in the window saying: “You can drink and smoke here!”

From the pungent wafts of weed I can smell drifting out in the street, I certainly believe them. 

If there’s anywhere else like central Amsterdam, I’m yet to hear about it.

The atmosphere is charged with the breathless excitement of tourists nervously buying drugs and sex (and expecting a bolt from the sky to strike them down), but offset by nonchalant Amsterdammers who sit around puffing, chatting and scrounging Rizla papers from each other.

From January 1 this year, only residents of the Netherlands were supposed to be allowed to buy cannabis, but unsurprisingly, Eberhard van der Laan, Amsterdam’s mayor, has refused to enforce the ban in his city.

After all, a third of the seven million tourists that visit each year spend at least part of their holiday getting gleefully blitzed in the coffee shops. 

I’m not here for the pot, however, but for Amsterdam’s equally famous but far more wholesome feature: its beautiful, winding, tree-lined, bicycle-friendly, iconic canals, which celebrate their 400th anniversary this year.

Over 100km of waterways were dug in the 17th century, and they loop around the city centre in concentric circles, all seven feeding out into the wide and placid Oranjesluizen lake.

And on a serene bank of this lake, there’s a warm and cosy houseboat waiting for me.

So I beat a hasty retreat from the ‘Dam’s dens of iniquity, hop on my bike and cycle back to it. The houseboat I’m staying on is as elegantly sophisticated as the city centre is debauched.

Spacious and beautifully furnished, it has soft, romantic lighting, polished wood floors, an espresso machine, framed arty posters on the walls and fluffy white rugs.

It’s the kind of place I dream about owning, but it really belongs to Ton Van Beers, a tall, tortoiseshell glasses-wearing Dutchman, who lives on his other boat, next door.


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