The 26th Annual Cannabis Cup festivities are coming, and the city’s many coffeeshops, bars, restaurants, museums and other attractions are eager to greet and serve you with courtesy, quality and the finest herbal refreshments available.

It’s important to be aware that the Dutch coffeeshop scene is under severe political attack like never before. Incessant pressure from other countries (like the US, France and Sweden) and a rising conservative tide in the Dutch legislative body have left the shops more vulnerable today than at almost any time in history.
    
The coffeeshop movement dates back to the late 1960s and has been officially tolerated since 1972, but the past several years have seen tightened regulation of the cannabis trade. Coffeeshops have been forced to choose between serving alcohol or cannabis products, so now buying a bud and a beer in the same place is entirely a thing of the past: There is absolutely no consumption of alcohol allowed in any operating coffeeshops.

Next, the Dutch government mandated that there could be no advertising of the availability of cannabis products at any establishment. Even the ever-present cannabis menus at the shops must now be displayed facedown until the customer asks to examine them, or to see the buds of weed and blocks of hash on hand. And now, as part of an increasing trend across Europe, tobacco smoking is banned at restaurants, bars and all other public places -- and this includes coffeeshops where marijuana is still sold and smoked.


    
The ban on smoking tobacco took effect on July 1, 2008, forcing coffeeshop patrons who wish to smoke a traditional spliff (the half-weed, half-tobacco joint that is very popular among Dutch and European smokers) to alter their usual habits. While this may seem like a nuisance to many coffeeshop visitors, it’s important to remember the law was enacted ostensibly to protect the workers from secondhand smoke.

So please be aware that decriminalized public smoking is a privilege to be both enjoyed and respected while you’re in Amsterdam. It’s not a big thing to the Dutch citizenry, which looks upon marijuana smoking as an acceptable recreational activity best practiced in private or in designated public areas like the coffeeshops. Your stay will be most rewarding if you maintain a sense of decorum and respect the local customs wherever you go.

A sad fact for American travelers is the severe disparity in the value of the US dollar with respect to the local currency, the euro. When you change your American money for euros, you will immediately lose 25 to 30 percent of your dollars.

GETTING AROUND
Amsterdam has a terrific public transportation system that can get you to just about any section of the city in a short time by tram, Metro (subway) or bus. You can purchase tickets from the conductor on board, but your best bet is to buy a strippenkaart at a tobacco or tourist shop for €6.40. The attendant on board each tram will stamp your strippenkaart for two strips or more, depending on the number of zones you need to travel through, and you can travel in those zones by tram, bus or subway in any direction for the next hour at no additional charge.

Be aware that the trams and the Metro cease operation each night sometime between midnight and 12:30 a.m., so if you’re planning to catch the tram back to your hotel after an evening of entertainment or dining out, be sure to get to the tram stop right around midnight or catch a taxi home after that.

The taxi is another good (though more costly) way to get around town. There are taxi stands located near most large hotels and big public places. Taxis aren’t allowed to cruise for passengers in Amsterdam like they do in many other cities, so you must call for a cab to pick you up (dial 020-677-7777, or ask the staff wherever you are to call one for you) or head for the first car in line at the nearest taxi stand.

Bicycling is very popular in Amsterdam, and renting a bike is an excellent way to get around. Bike rentals tend to be reasonably priced, and locks are supplied as well. Don’t forget to use the locks or the bike is virtually guaranteed to be stolen: bike theft is one of the biggest categories of property crime in the Netherlands, so please don’t encourage this ugly tendency by buying a bike from someone on the street.

There are three lanes in each direction for traffic on most major streets: one for cars, one for bikes and the center one for trams and taxis. The sidewalks and bicycle paths are sometimes separated only by a line on the edge of the pavement. Pay attention to where you’re walking or standing on the streets at all times, and never stand still in a bike path. And when you hear the insistent tinkling of bicycle bells, get out of the way! If you get caught in a bike path and get hit by a bike, it’s still your fault.

Finally, there is always the intense pleasure of walking around this beautiful city. Fully half of the coffeeshops competing in the Cannabis Cup this year can be found on a leisurely stroll in the area between Centraal Station and Dam Square. The rest are located nearby on Haarlemmerstraat (just west of Centraal Station), in the Spui (just below Dam Square), or in and around the Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, with only a couple of others in outlying areas beyond walking distance.

MUSEUMS
Amsterdam is the City of Museums. There are 33 museums located within the city limits, and those are just the ones that are regularly open to the public. Most are art museums -- Amsterdam has historically been home to many incredible artists, including Rembrandt and van Gogh, who both have their own museums -- but there are also several different science museums, as well as museums for media, photography, architecture, religion, shipbuilding and history. The renowned Rijksmuseum, the legendary treasure-house of the Netherlands, tops the list of the city’s cultural institutions, which also includes the Amsterdam Historical Museum, the Anne Frank House, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, the Botanical Gardens and the Artis Zoo. There’s even a Cannabis Museum and a Sex Museum. Go to amsterdammuseums.nl for complete information.

DINING OUT
Amsterdam is full of restaurants that offer just about everything to please your palate. The Leidseplein is a particularly fertile area, but the entire City Centrum boasts several fine breakfast spots and countless restaurants offering Indian, Afghan, Indonesian, Chinese, Thai, Argentine, Mexican, Turkish, Middle Eastern, Japanese, American, British and, of course, traditional Dutch food. A special tip: For steak and spareribs lovers, De Klos on Kerkstraat near the Leidsestraat (just a few steps from the Dolphins) is waiting for you with the stuff you like.

For vegetarians, there are great places like Deshima Proeflokaal (Weteringschans 65), Golden Temple (Uitrechtsestraat 126), De Bolhoed (Prinsengracht 60-62) and De Waaghals (Frans Halsstraat 29).

There are also lots and lots of fast-food joints, pizzerias and snack bars, from the Automat-style packaged sandwiches at FEBO to the myriad falafel and shawarma stands to the inevitable Burger King and McDonald’s franchises. Domino’s has invaded the city too, so the entire area is covered for pizza delivery. Get the phone number for the nearest one from the front desk at your hotel, where you can generally expect to find an entire selection of delivery menus from local restaurants available for your perusal.

If you’d rather eat in your hotel room and save money, take a trip to the closest Albert Heijn supermarket. They have takeaway meals as well as all of the basic supermarket items. Less pricey is the Dirk van de Brock chain, offering almost everything you can get at Albert Heijn but at somewhat cheaper prices. There are also smaller neighborhood markets everywhere you go.
    
Grocery stores tend to close by 8pm, and most are closed all day Sunday too. After 8pm, you can find various snack bars and avondwinkels (night shops) that are usually open till around 1 am; after that, you’re looking at the stuff in the vending machines in your hotel lobby. A little prior planning can keep you hip deep in the quality foodstuffs of your choice without having to travel around at all hours.

SHOPPING
They say that Amsterdam offers shopping opportunities galore, from high-end, designer-label boutiques to several excellent Old World street markets and literally everything in between. An elongated shopping street, the Nieuwendijk, runs between the Damrak and Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal and continues below Dam Square as the Kalverstraat; it features an incredible selection of shops of every description. At the southern end of the city, in the area called the Pijp, you will find the Albert Cuypmarkt, one of Amsterdam’s oldest and best-known open-air markets. There’s another big open-air market at Waterlooplein and a world-famous flower market not far from Dam Square, as well as a great used book market on the Spui every Friday.

Serious shoppers say that the best bargains in town can be found at the smaller marketplaces dotting the city -- and even if you’re not in buying mode, you can observe all kinds of interesting people and products at these colorful places. There are also some amazing little shops in the city’s many neighborhoods. You can find almost anything that you can imagine here in Amsterdam.

For some of the world’s oldest kind of shopping, there’s the legendary Red Light District, a unique phenomenon that gives the concept of window-shopping a whole new dimension. Prostitution is legal and regulated by the government, and the attractive ladies who offer their personal charms for sale display their wares in the red-neon-lit windows that front their working quarters.

Amsterdam is a center for diamond sales, with an abundance of jewelry stores and diamond centers that also offer tours of their facilities, where you can see stones being graded, cut, polished and mounted. You can get some really interesting deals at these places, but be sure to shop around if you’re planning to make a serious purchase.

One of the best shopping experiences in Amsterdam, believe it or not, is the mall at Schiphol Airport. There’s an incredible selection of places to shop (duty-free), and you can pick up all of your last-minute gifts and souvenirs for your loved ones at home before you catch your flight back to the States.

THE STONER'S GUIDE TO DUTCH CUSTOMS
The Cannabis Cup draws people from around the world to celebrate the spiritual, medical, industrial and recreational uses of cannabis. While in Amsterdam, please remember that the arguments for marijuana legalization become stronger when Cannabis Cup participants conduct themselves in a respectful and responsible manner.

A quick etiquette lesson in Dutch customs may help you to more fully enjoy your stay in this beautiful and tolerant city.

Be polite! Europeans are more formal than Americans. Remember to say “please” and “thank you.” Almost everyone in the Netherlands speaks English, so just say, “English, please,” and most will be happy to oblige. People in general are kind and willing to help, so if you need directions or other assistance, don’t hesitate to ask.

Public cannabis use is generally not acceptable in Dutch society. While marijuana smoking is tolerated by the government, smokers are wise to restrict their consumption to designated coffeeshops and private homes. Judges must be discreet out of consideration for nonsmokers and the local customs. Unless you’re in a coffeeshop or your own hotel room, always ask permission before lighting up. Also, do not smoke cannabis in your hotel lobby or corridors.

At the cannabis coffeeshops, marijuana and hashish are sold either behind the bar or at a separate window. Most shops provide a written menu, but due to government prohibition of any sort of advertising of cannabis products, you will usually have to ask to see the menu or to be shown samples. Many shops also provide free rolling papers and little strips of cardboard for making filter tips. A few coffeeshops provide pipes, bongs and/or vaporizers for customer use.

Coffeeshops are places to hang out, offering a living-room-away-from-home atmosphere where you may feel free to read, write, play games, talk to friends or meet strangers while enjoying a beverage and a relaxed smoke. Whatever their selection, it’s considered polite to eat or drink something while at the coffeeshop. In the tourist district (the Red Light/Dam Square area), some shops require that you purchase something in order to sit down.

Be patient. Even as you hurry from shop to shop for the Cup, be aware that Dutch service is unhurried and personal. Many Americans talk too loudly and are overly impatient by Dutch standards, so be cool and show your respect for the staff and other clientele. While the coffeeshops automatically run a tab if you don’t pay as you’re served, it’s easier to pay as you go during the busy Cannabis Cup period. Bear in mind also that in Holland, it’s considered rude for the server to present a bill before it is asked for. Your patience will be greatly appreciated, especially since the Cup brings more people to some coffeeshops in a day than they normally serve in a week.

A final word of warning: If you want to eat the cannabis concoctions called space cakes, be careful -- it can take an hour to feel the effects on an empty stomach, up to two hours if you’ve already eaten a meal. The effects last much longer and are more intense than from smoking cannabis. Panic reactions are common, even with regular users. Space cakes used to be more prevalent in Holland, but the Dutch government got tired of tourists getting too high and now views edible cannabis as virtually a hard drug.