Amsterdam, Holland: What's True about Tulips and Windmills in Holland?

When people think of Amsterdam (Holland), some images almost come up automatically.

On the one hand, 'old fashioned' images about cheese, wooden shoes and windmills in Holland. On the other hand, images of 'liberal Amsterdam' consisting of drugs, prostitutes and out-of-control gays.

What's true about each of them? What's myth and what is reality? And where can you find them in and around Amsterdam? Let's answer these questions once and for all.


True, up until 50 years ago, windmills were quite promiment in the Netherlands. They were used to grind grain to flour and to keep lands dry. So called watermills would drive a water wheel that brings water from a lower parts into higher parts. That last thing is even more important in a country of which about 50% is below sea level.

There are still over a thousand water and mindmills in the Netherlands, often run by volunteers, but only a handful of them are in Amsterdam, Holland. To see a range of windmills, take a day trip from Amsterdam to the Zaanse Schans, a kind of open-air museum just outside Amsterdam where many authentic old houses, shops and windmills and have been reconstructed.


True. The Netherlands still has a blossoming flower trade, and tulips are among them. Actually, the first speculative bubble in world history was the Tulip Mania in Amsterdam in the 1630s. Tulip prices rose higher than gold after speculators bought up as much tulips as they could find. The prices went through the sky, until the bubble burst.

The huge, colorful tulip fields are outside Amsterdam, in e.g. Lisse. But in Amsterdam, you can see and buy tulips and other flowers at e.g. the Flower Market at the Singel between the Koningsplein and Muntplein. Flower bulbs are also sold there, so you can take them home and plant them. It's open seven days a week (Mon-Sat 9am - 5.30pm, Sun 11am-5.30pm). The Flower Market is entirely on house boats, so it's a floating market.


True. Amsterdam has 165 canals, more than Venice. The Dutch word is "grachten" (KHRAKH-tun). The canals were constructed from Medieval times on, first as a defense around the city. Later, when Amsterdam became the richest trading city in the world, the canals were used to transport goods by ship from all over the world to the warehouses that were built around the canals. From 1612 on, a very ambitious plan to expand the canals was started, and 50 years later Amsterdam had the biggest and finest network of canals to transport shipped goods to the more than 1000 warehouses in the city.

These days, you can take canal cruises from the Damrak (right outside the Central Station) and from the Leidseplein area. They will take you through Amsterdam's most beautiful canals. Almost every nook in the city centre can be reached by boat.

Anne Frank?

Partly true. It's true, of course, that this famous Jewish girl was hiding in the Secret Annex of a house at the Prinsengracht together with her family and others, helped by the four employees of her father's company. Today, the Secret Annex (called the Anne Frank House) is Amsterdam's third best visited museum, drawing around 1 million visitors a year.

The part that's not so true is the beautiful image of the Dutch resistance in World War II. There was quite a lot of Dutch passiveness and collaboration with the Nazi's, and of 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands in 1939, only 35,000 survived the war.

Wooden Shoes?

True (50 years ago). In the past, Dutch farmers, fishermen etc. wore wooden shoes. They were produced by hand, cut from a whole piece of wood, and then either left blank or painted in traditional colors.

Nowadays, it will be hard to find anyone who still wears them, although on the Dutch countryside, a few young men are wearing them again as a token of pride. Wooden shoes are said to be quite healthy for your feet, by the way.

Legal drugs?

Well, sort of. Dutch law distinghuishes between 'soft drugs' (cannabis products, i.e. marihuana and hash) and 'hard drugs' (all the others, including cocaine, speed and heroine). While hard drugs are fully outlawed, and actively persecuted, the use of small quantities (up to 30 grams) of soft drugs has been decriminalized since the 1970s. So, in hundreds of 'coffee shops', anyone can buy marihuana and hash in Amsterdam, Holland openly. The coffee thing was a necessary cover back when they came into being in the 1970s.

At the same time, large scale farming and trading of soft drugs is still banned, and actively persecuted. This is how the rather bizarre situation emerged, that coffee shops commit a crime when they buy large quantities of marihuana from wholesalers, but don't commit a crime when they sell it in small quantities to consumers. Every coffee shop needs to obtain a government permit, but it can only function when it breaks the laws (i.e. keeps a stock of more than 30 grams of cannabis).

Why isn't this weird situation changed? Well, if the Netherlands would fully legalize soft drugs, or stop prosecuting the producers and big wholesalers, it would get into a fight with neighboring countries. But at the same time, the Dutch drugs policies are generally seen as successful: for Dutch youngsters, there's a clear distinction between the soft drugs and hard drugs 'scene', and on the whole drug use among the Dutch is about 4 times lower than in the UK, United States or France. Which was the plan from the beginning. So the Dutch won't turn back the clock so easily.

For the Dutch, smoking marihuana is something they try a few times when they're young, and then leave to the tourists.

Red Light District?

Partly true. While prostitution has been legal since 1811, brothels have only been fully legalized in 2000. Like the soft drugs, prostitution isn't allowed because the Dutch are such big prostitution fans. Both the majority of the Amsterdam prostitutes and their clients are foreigners: the clients often British and Americans, most girls are from Eastern Europe or Southern America.

Instead, the Dutch argue that paid sex is never going to disappear, and if the state allows it out in the open, it can also control and regulate it. And of course, the Dutch make nice money from all the tourists who flock to Amsterdam like bees to honey.

In the Amsterdam Red Light District, window prostitution is totally out in the open, next to sex theaters, peep shows, video cabins and sex shops. Many of Amsterdam's 4 million annual visitors will visit the area.

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