The Great European Adventure

What I Learned in Amsterdam


I Visited Amsterdam and Didn’t Get High

I went to Amsterdam for Vincent van Gogh, and Anne Frank. I went because friends had been and spoke highly of this fun, cultural city. And I listened when people told me that Amsterdam was an amazing place to party.

That’s where I went wrong.

Amsterdam was the first place that I traveled to by myself, and although I had one contact in the city, he was in the midst of studying abroad and busy with classes and his own life. I stayed at hostels that didn’t facilitate meeting other travelers (no common room!), and I was new to this, so I didn’t think to check couchsurfing for events until the weekend had passed. I found myself on Saturday night, after wandering the Red Light District alone, flippantly posting on Facebook that maybe Amsterdam was the wrong choice for a 22-year-old nonsmoker in a committed relationship. My friends and family back home got a kick out of that, and I felt briefly validated.

Red Light District
My one photo from the Red Light District

Then I opened my email, to see a message from a friend, which literally began, “Amsterdam is the shit!” Okay… then why wasn’t I having fun? Drinking, smoking, and general debauchery seemed to be the thing to do. But I didn’t want to smoke, and, although, like many people, I’ve been known to enjoy drinking, I wasn’t comfortable going to a bar alone, particularly not in a strange city. That sounded like it would be all kinds of awkward and uncomfortable. Have I mentioned I’m not the most extroverted person?

But… it’s Amsterdam! That’s what everyone says you do in Amsterdam! And everyone saying that Amsterdam was about partying only served to make me feel worse about not partying. What was I doing wrong? What was wrong with me that I wasn’t enjoying such an obviously and easily enjoyable city?

Um… nothing.

I was doing nothing wrong.

Except for letting other people dictate what my trip was supposed to be like.

I went to Amsterdam for Vincent van Gogh, and Anne Frank. And somewhere along the way I became more concerned over what other people thought I should be doing than what I actually wanted to be doing.

So, I went to Anne Frank’s House.

Anne Frank

And I learned that before her family was betrayed to the German police, Anne began to edit her diary. She hoped to publish it after the war was over. Anne Frank wanted to be a writer. How heart wrenching that her diary has been so widely read without her knowledge. Visiting Anne Frank’s House was a powerful experience, and I’m very glad to have gone.

And after Anne Frank’s House, I still needed my art fix. The van Gogh Museum is closed for renovations until April 23, but a stunning exhibit of van Gogh’s works has been set up at the Hermitage Museum. Seeing so many masterpieces in one place was incredible. Van Gogh didn’t begin painting until he was 27 years old, and he committed suicide at 37, which means he spent just over a decade as an artist, and managed to create 2,000+ works in that time. The piece that moved me the most was Almond Blossom, which he painted in 1890 (the last year of his life) in honor of the birth of his brother’s son.

These museums were the parts of Amsterdam that most excited me. And I’m not suggesting I did something unique by visiting them–they’re both very popular–but I prioritized what was important to me and I stopped letting myself feel bad about the experiences I wasn’t having.

Amsterdam is the largest city in the Netherlands, the country’s capital, and one of the top financial centers in Europe. To suggest that I was silly to go to Amsterdam and expect to do something more than smoke pot legally is to grossly underestimate this city.

Canal Houses

For me, Amsterdam wasn’t about drinking or smoking; it was about canals and parks, architecture and Anne Frank, Vincent van Gogh and remembering that this was my trip. I considered writing a post about how to have a good time when you picked the wrong destination, but I didn’t pick the wrong destination.

I just did Amsterdam my way.

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.


  • pickledwings

    I went to Amsterdam a little over a year ago and found it to be very nice but quite different to expectations generated by what others had said.

    The worst part was how much floor space was given in souvenir shops to marijuana and Red Light District related stuff. I barely caught so much as a whiff of pot and the Red Light District was pretty underwhelming. Both aspects seemed extremely overstated by my experience in the city. Not that I was looking to get high or buy “services” mind you.

    Thankfully, the city has a great deal more to offer. The Maritime Museum is simply incredible and the NEMO science centre is a good bit of fun.

    • opportunemma

      I caught many a whiff of pot personally, and was actually amazed by how prevalent the coffeeshops were. Some of my friends made fun of me for expecting anything different, but I agree with you that the city has a great deal more to offer. It’s amazing how we can all travel to the same place and have such different experiences.

  • ks3nia

    Most my visitors don’t party hard in Amsterdam actually – definetly not the first time they visit:-P I take them to see some cultural stuff, they do some shopping and we might stop at a bar or a coffeeshop – and around 10-11 everyone are happy, tired and ready to go home 😛 So no reason to feel bad – especially since you were on your own! I’d never go pary-crazy in a foreign city 😀

    • opportunemma

      You’re right, if you spend the whole day sightseeing, shopping, and enjoying yourself, you have no energy to go out and party anyway. I’m glad my experience wasn’t that abnormal!

  • pickledwings

    I think your message is an extremely good one as it is about breaking stereotypes and preconceptions about places.

    My blog about places in the Czech Republic other than Prague is set up for largely the same reason. Prague is a lovely place and offers a lot, but the country asa whole offers so much more and it’s worht leaving Prague to see some of it.

  • Rachel Pierce

    I went to Amsterdam with my mom, so smoking, drinking excessively, and sex museums were ruled out pretty quickly. We did the museums, went into churches, toured farmers markets, and biked around the whole city. There’s also a picture of me sitting in a giant wooden shoe, because why not. We had a blast and I would love to return and do some of the same things again.

    • opportunemma

      I know which wooden shoe you’re talking about! And yes, Amsterdam has a lot to offer many different kinds of travelers. I think the only mistake you can make in Amsterdam is to assume there’s a “right” way to visit the city.

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