Amsterdam wears its attractions on its sleeve. You can see so much of what the city has to offer for free, simply by walking about, writes Amsterdam insider, Rodney Bolt.
Saunter along the canals admiring Golden Age gables, duck into a medieval courtyard, wander through street markets, past flower stalls bursting with blooms, or hang out for hours on a cafe terrace in an artsy quarter of town.
Along the way, you can take in some world-class art, without necessarily breaking the bank.
Beyond the main Canal Belt, the sharp edge is often knocked off Amsterdam’s usually high hotel rates – and it’s often just a short tram hop or pleasing stroll into town.
A designer version of a pod-hotel, CitizenM Amsterdam City offers rooms that are one-half super-comfortable king-size bed, and the other half bathroom and seating area – but done with style, and perfect for a short break. Become a ‘Citizen’ and pay upfront for the best deals.
The busy, buzzy Volkshotel has cleverly laid-out rooms, with facilities and style a good few notches above what you might expect for the bargain price. The rooftop restaurant (and some upper-floor rooms) offer a sweeping view over the city.
Keep an eye open for the dagschotel (dish-of-the-day) at one of the many eetcafés (cafés that serve food) around town. Smaller establishments, such as Café Kingfisher (Ferdinand Bolstraat 24), often with inspired individual chefs, can come up with really good, inexpensive meals.
On the edge of the flourishing foodie quarter of De Pijp, CousCous Club (Ceintuurbaan 346) offers mounds of steaming, homemade, scrumptious couscous, starting at €9 a go for vegetarian, up to €15 for a ‘Royal’ with lamb and mergez sausages. Tables are convivially close, there’s a friendly crowd and a cheery home-kitchen atmosphere.
Get a taste of good old-fashioned Dutch cooking, such as bal gehakt (a giant meatball), or stamppot(potato mashed with vegetables) with smoked sausage, at La Falote (Roelof Hartstraat 26). There’s a daily three-course menu for just €15.85, with main dishes starting at €9.95. The owner has been known to emerge from the kitchen with an accordion at the end of the evening, for a rousing sing-a-long of old Dutch favourites.
If the purse strings are really tight, stop off at a branch of Maoz (there’s one on the corner of Regulierstraat and Muntplein), where you’ll get crunchy falafel in a pitta bread, which you can fill again and again with goodies from an imaginatively stocked salad bar, for just €5.
A wander about Amsterdam’s network of canals is one of the city’s greatest delights. As well as the three grand canals (Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht), check out some of the smaller waterways: Brouwersgracht and Reguliersgracht are high in the charm stakes.
Through a wooden door in the wall beside the American Book Shop on the Spui, a dark passageway will take you an unexpectedly large medieval courtyard, the Begijnhof, lined with gardens, cottages, and – in the middle of it all – the small church that was once the worship place of the religious group that formed the core of the Pilgrim Fathers.
Amsterdam’s famous fleamarket, held daily (except Sundays) on the Waterlooplein, is a great place for vintage clothes and curious souvenirs, and there are plenty of other markets, such as the abundantly colourful flower market on the Spui, where looking is just as much fun as buying.
Along the way, you’ll find vibrant city quarters such as De Pijp, crammed with cafés, restaurants, and delis, and with a kilometre-long street market; or the more gentrified Jordaan, with its galleries and chicer shops, where, for the price of a coffee or a beer (order a fluitje, a mini flute-shaped glass that will set you back only a couple of euros), you can take it all in from a canalside terrace
The Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum contain some of the world’s greatest artworks, but you can see Old Masters for free, at the Amsterdam Museum, where the Schuttersgalerij, an open-access arcade off the central courtyard, is lined with 17th-century paintings, including group portraits (similar to Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch).
If you’re aching for more, consider a Museumkaart, which for €59.90 allows one person free entrance for a year to nearly every museum in the country. Given that entrance to major museums is often upwards of €15, it can be a worthwhile investment.
Take a (free) ferry from behind Central Station, across the waters of the IJ, to the spectacular architectural zigzag of EYE, a film museum with a collection of worldwide renown.
In the Panorama, in the basement, you can take in magic moments from movie classics, and also see snippets of rarities – such has hand-coloured silent movies – for free. There’s fun for (grown-up) children, too, such as acting in front of a green screen, to superimpose yourself into a movie scene, and also a couple of private pods, where you can view films for free.
An Iamsterdam City Card gets you in to most museums (except the Rijksmuseum), includes free public transport, and offers a wide range of other discounts, for from €49 for 24 hours.
Trains between Schiphol Airport and Central Station are frequent, fast and cheap (from €4.10 for a 15-minute journey). Don’t be lured by the (expensive) one-click ‘Special Deal’ offer on the ticket machine, but buy an ordinary single.
Amsterdam is compact, and you’ll find most of what you want to see within reasonable (and attractive) walking distance. Trams help out on those extra hops, or when feet demand downtime, and a day pass (€7.50 for 24 hours) pays for itself after only three journeys. A hop-on-hop-off Canalbus plies the waterways for €20.50 for a day ticket.
Or, do like the Dutchies and hire a bicycle, from €7.50 for three hours.
Book tickets online for the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, or the Anne Frank House. That won’t save you any money, but it will ensure that you won’t spend most of your stay waiting in queues.
Musicians from all over the world come to study at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, and in term-time they give free lunch-time and evening recitals. The concerts are not widely publicised, but you see what’s on via the conservatory website.
From nabbing the best views to sweet talking your way into an upgrade, improve your chances of getting the best hotel room – without paying through the nose – with these expert tips.Read moreabout Ask the experts: How to bag the best hotel rooms