Popularity can be a double-edged sword. In Amsterdam’s case, the sharp side is 15 million tourists descending on the Dutch capital daily in high season, found in long lines and crowded museums in spring, summer, and holidays like Koningsdag and Gay Pride. Drawn by cheese, tulips, windmills, world-class culture, and the city’s tolerant attitude toward sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, most are seduced by Amsterdam’s fairytale landscape, Golden Age mansions and edgy vibe. Indeed, in a global village encompassing 180+ nationalities there’s something for hipsters, culture vultures and history buffs. From museums to marijuana and canals to nightclubs, the Dutch capital is a tourist magnet, making it one of Europe’s most expensive cities.
With a dearth of beds for so many visitors, even hostels run €40+ in high season. Many museums charge a whopping €18 entry fee, and few student discounts are available. The 2015 Europe Backpacker Index ranks Amsterdam more expensive than Rome, Paris, and even a few Scandinavian cities. Its $95/day index is less those of Venice, Helsinki, London, Bergen and pricey Zurich. But far ahead of more affordable cities like Budapest and Istanbul.
Yet there are ways to see the home of Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Anne Frank on a budget. Most are in Free Things to Do in Amsterdam, Part I and Free Things to Do in Amsterdam, Part II. But here’s a recap: 35 tips for seeing Amsterdam like a local, for little or no cash:
Couchsurf. But not just for the free digs. Staying with a local through this alternative accommodation network is as much about cultural exchange as it is about saving money.
- Stay in a world-famous hostel. Popular joints like Meeting Point, Winston and the (in)famous Flying Pig offer an energetic vibe and spaces to meet fellow travellers. For value and a killer breakfast, check out Stay OK Hostels.
- Camp. Cabins and wagonettes at Camping Zeeburg run about €35/night—a deal at this funky campground in Amsterdam’s eastern docklands.
- Rent an apartment. Visiting with three or more friends? An AirBnB apartment or short-term rental will reduce your nightly per person rate and help you save by cooking and eating on your own.
Roam a free, outdoor museum. Just getting lost in Amsterdam’s 400-year-old canals, which outnumber those in Venice, means discovering a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- Tour city highlights. Both Sandeman and 360 Amsterdam offer free wanders covering Amsterdam’s history and highlights like the Red Light District, Jewish Quarter, Jordaan, widest bridge, narrowest house and other landmarks. Tips only.
- Stroll the Rijks gardens. There’s a fee to enter Amsterdam’s famed national museum, but no charge to wander through five centuries of Dutch architecture encompassing salvaged Gothic pillars and 17th century gates in the Rijksmuseum’s Baroque and Renaissance Gardens.
- Investigate history. At Amsterdam’s City Archives, ferret out historical letters, photos and movies about Amsterdam and such famous inhabitants as Rembrandt, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Anne Frank.
- See the future. At ARCAM, browse exhibits of uber-cool contemporary design at no cost. Staff at the Amsterdam Architecture Foundation also offer free resources about Amsterdam’s eclectic mix of architectural styles, and digital guides to architecture along city tram routes.
Admire Golden Age art. There’s an entry fee for the Amsterdam Museum, but none to view 15 giant portraits of the 17th century city guard in the Civic Guard Gallery in an adjacent outdoor arcade where Napoleon presides. Life-sized David and Goliath replicas bookend the collection off Kalverstraat.
Discover a secret courtyard. In Amsterdam’s bustling center, there’s an oasis of 14th century calm at the Begijnhof, a cluster of houses, gardens, and relic-filled churches. Once a residence for the Bengijntjes, a Catholic sisterhood of women who took no monastic vows but dedicated their lives to educating the poor and caring for the sick, it’s where people still gather to worship, marry and reflect.
- Ditch the tourist horde. Amsterdam’s lesser known places of refuge include Zon’s Hofje, where you can picnic in the small garden of a former Mennonite church; the Van Brienenhofje, a former brewery with intact old-school water pumps and a clock tower; and the Karthuizerhofje, the largest, built in 17th century for widowed women.
- Get 50% off. At Last Minute Ticket shops on Leidseplein, and at the Amsterdam Tourist Office and Main Library, buy last minute tickets for same day/night shows. Don’t speak Dutch? Not a problem at Boom Chicago, which almost always has last minute tickets for its comedy improv shows.
Dance for lunch. On Tuesdays during cultural season (September–May), The Dutch Philharmonic and Opera stage free lunchtime opera and ballet at the Dutch National Ballet & Opera (formerly the Muziektheater) on Waterlooplein. Young musicians and Amsterdam Conservatory students also perform at Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ at free lunch concerts.
Savor the food of love. Amsterdam’s renowned Concertgebouw presents lunchtime classical music concerts—often rehearsals for musicians playing that evening—on Wednesdays during the cultural season.
Jazz it up. All instruments, including voice, are welcome at free Tuesday night jazz improv workshops at Bimhuis, followed by live jazz played by Conservatory students.
Explore Noord. Walk through Central Station, turn left and hop on the free ferry to NDSM Wharf. On the ride across the Ij to what was once a derelict shipyard, view the low, village-like skyline. In 15 minutes, you’ll arrive in an artsy hotspot peppered with funky restaurants like IJ-Kantine, Noorderlicht and Pllek.
- See the EYE. Once headquartered in Vondelpark, this homage to international cinema now perches like an ivory spaceship on the Ij River. Its movies and main-floor exhibitions have entry fees, but there’s no cost to browse the interactive film displays in the basement.
Find Panoramic Views. Overlooking the Ij east of Central Station, the Openbar Bibliotheek (Main Library) offers free access to WiFi, as well as print and electronic media. Open seven days a week, the top-floor cafeteria boasts panoramic city views.
- Challenge the locals at chess. Beat the Dutchies at their own game on a giant chess board on Max Euweplein, a square named for a world champion Dutch chess player of the ’30s.
- View where King Willem wed Maxima. The 15th century Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) has been the stage for royal weddings and coronations. Now used for major art exhibitions, it has a gift shop that leads to a free display about the church’s turbulent history.
- Bling it. Both Coster Diamonds and Gassan offer free tours covering the art of diamond cutting and polishing. Buying is optional.
- Smell the roses. A bag of bulbs will run you a few euros, but there’s no charge to stroll through the fragrant Bloemenmarkt, set on moored boats lining the Singel Canal between Muntplein and Koningsplein.
- Learn about weed. From its Red Light District base, Amsterdam’s Cannabis College dispenses advice about safe marijuana use. Free guided tours cover marijuana cultivation and stages of growth, drug paraphernalia, and coffeeshop etiquette.
- Hear a story. Or tell one, at free monthly storytelling sessions at Mezrab in Amsterdam’s eastern docklands. Donations welcome.
- See an architectural potpourri. On Roemer Visscherstraat, the Zevenlandenhuizen (Seven Countries Houses) showcase architectural styles from seven European countries on a single street. Designed by Dutch architect Tjeerd Kuipers in 1894, they encompass a German chalet, French castle, Spanish villa, Italian palazzo, English cottage, Dutch Renaissance mansion and onion dome-topped Russian residence, all lined up near the entrance to Vondelpark.
Tour a beer brewery. Marked by a giant windmill in Amsterdam East, Brouwerij ‘t IJ turns out excellent craft beers. Reach it via bike or tram 10 or 14 for free tours, tastings and a great outdoor terrace.
- Sample Jenever. Open tastings are offered Saturdays from 14:00–15:00 at Wynand Focking, a distillery in an alleyway near Dam Square where a Dutch drink similar to gin is produced. The bar is open daily from 15:00, and you can also tour the old distillery.
- Taste local cheese. De Reypenaer, along with many other cheese shops around Amsterdam, may be run for a profit, but wandering in to sample some of their offerings costs nothing thanks to the customer-friendly guillotine tasting setup.
See 15 bridges from one. Standing on the bridge at Reguliersgracht and Herengracht, glimpse 15 bridges—spectacular at night, when they’re all illuminated.
- Visit a national equestrian school. Housed in a neoclassical structure in Amsterdam’s Museum District, the Hollandsche Manege features ornate architecture inspired by Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. Watch the regal trotting from its elegant café.
Catch a street show. Hang around Dam Square, Leidseplein or Rembrandtplein long enough and you’re bound to be entertained by talented musicians, jugglers, mimes, break-dancers and comedians who come from around the globe to perform for free. For many, this is their livelihood, so throw a few euros their way if they’ve inspired a laugh.
- Work out in a park. Rembrandtpark’s outdoor gym means you can exercise for free, on your own schedule.
- Practice morning t’ai chi. Find Sifu Chan in Oosterpark every morning at 10, rain or shine.
Skate late.Year-round on Friday evenings, skaters gather at Vondelpark to roll through town on a 20km, three-hour adventure. Bring or rent skates or meet the group afterward at their final destination—inevitably a pub.
Now it’s your turn. What’s YOUR best tip for seeing Amsterdam on a budget? Leave it in the comments below!