For good reason, Amsterdam is one of Europe’s most popular destinations. Drawn by Golden Age canals, 17th-century mansions, world-class museums, and a well-established counterculture, hordes of tourists descend on the Dutch capital from April through September, as well as during the year-end holidays. Such demand can drive the nightly cost of a hostel dorm bed to more than €50, with a two-night minimum during peak periods. Throughout the year, few major attractions offer student discounts and entrance fees at museums and other popular sights are relatively high.
But don’t despair if you’re on a budget in Amsterdam. There are myriad ways to cut costs while also getting off the tourist path and having tons of fun in a charismatic global village that’s sometimes a victim of its own popularity. Beyond picnicking in Vondelpark and watching break dancers bust moves in Leidseplein (a personal favorite), here are 20 fun Amsterdam experiences that don’t cost a dime:
1. Let the city lead you. In other words, just wander. Amsterdam’s UNESCO-recognized Grachtengordel (canal ring) is a free, living museum stamped with the architectural legacy of the city’s 17th-century Golden Age. Lined with storied sights and magnificent gabled mansions tilting at odd angles, the 400-year-old canals, which outnumber those in Venice, wrap around the city like an onion layered with history and culture. There’s no telling what you’ll find in some of those narrow, cobbled alleyways.
2. Walking Tours. Numerous companies, including Free City Tour, Sandeman’s and Original Europe Tours offer tip-based walking tours that reveal the history behind such landmarks as Dam Square, the Royal Palace, Rembrandt’s house, the Red Light District and the Jewish Quarter. Learn how Amsterdam evolved from a muddy fishing village on the Amstel into a Golden Age maritime power on these two- to three-hour adventures.
3. Civic Guard Gallery. The Amsterdam Museum charges €12.50 to view its repository of Golden Age art and more contemporary collections. Outside, in the arcade by the museum entrance, view a handful of Golden Age portraits depicting peers of those in Rembrandt’s Night Watch for free.
4. Gassan Diamond Factory Tour. In a town hailed as The City of Diamonds for 425 years, visit a diamond cutting company based in a historic factory once powered by steam. At Gassan Diamonds, free daily tours reveal how a rough stone is transformed into a stunning gem.
5. Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). King Willem-Alexander married Maxima and was crowned the Netherlands’ first king in a century in this soaring 15th-century church on Dam Square. Now used for major exhibitions, it has a gift shop that leads to a free display about the church’s turbulent history.
6. Friday Night Skate. Year-round, when the weather cooperates, skating enthusiasts gather at Vondelpark at 9pm on Fridays to roll through town on a three-hour adventure. Bring or rent skates or just meet the group afterward at their final destination—inevitably a pub.
7. Chess on Max Euweplein. Players move meter-high chess pieces on a giant board in the corner of a touristy square that was once a prison yard. Now anchored by shops and cafés like the ever-buoyant Hard Rock, Max Euweplein is named for a world champion Dutch chess player of the ’30s.
8. Dutch National Opera & Ballet. On Tuesdays from 12:30–1pm, performers from the Dutch Philharmonic and Opera stage free gigs in the foyer of their contemporary venue on Waterlooplein. The concerts take place during the cultural season, September–May.
10. Ferry to Amsterdam-Noord. A free ferry to NDSM Wharf takes you across the Ij River to a transformed derelict shipyard. Now an artsy community and cultural hotspot, Noord is peppered with cutting-edge architecture, open spaces and funky hangouts like Noorderlicht, Pllek and De Ceuvel.
11. Classical Concerts. On Wednesdays during the cultural season (mid-September–June), Amsterdam’s renowned Concertgebouw presents free lunchtime shows—often rehearsals for musicians playing later that evening—from 12:30–1pm. Come early if you want a seat.
12. Rijksmuseum Gardens. Entry to Amsterdam’s famed Rijksmuseum will set you back €17.50. But there’s no fee to enter its Renaissance Gardens, an outdoor gallery added as part of a 10-year museum overhaul. Relax amidst sculptures, ponds and lawns, or play chess on a giant board similar to the one on Max Euweplein.
13. Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam (Amsterdam Public Library). This seven-story sunlit temple of media is Europe’s largest public library. Browse newspapers and magazines from around the world, use any of 600 Internet-connected computers, or just chill at a restaurant with panoramic views over the Ij River.
14. The Bloemenmarkt. A bag of tulip bulbs will set you back a few euros, but it’s free to smell the roses and snap photos at Amsterdam’s floating flower market lining the Singel Canal between Muntplein and Koningsplein.
15. Hollandsche Manege. Since 1882, the Netherlands’ national riding school has been housed in a neoclassical structure inspired by Vienna’s Spanish Riding School in Amsterdam’s Museum District. Even non-equestrians can admire the ornate architecture and watch the regal trotting from the elegant café.
16. The Begijnhof. Once a residential sanctuary for the Begijntjes, a Catholic sisterhood dedicated to serving the poor and sick, this hidden courtyard is a hidden oasis of peace in the heart of a bustling city.
17. Amsterdam Architecture Foundation. Amsterdam’s eclectic architectural melange is no accident. Since 1986, it’s been guided by the Amsterdam Architecture Foundation (ARCAM), founded to shape the future of urban design in Holland. Browse exhibits of contemporary design or chat with staff about digital guides to architecture along city tram routes and other free resources.
18. EYE Film Institute. Perched like an ivory spaceship on the north bank of the Ij, EYE is an homage to international cinema, accessible via the free Buiksloterweg ferry behind Central Station. Its arty movies and main-floor exhibitions have entry fees, but the interactive displays in the basement are free. Before leaving, refuel with a plate of bitterballen in the eye-popping EYE Bar restaurant.
19. Cannabis College. Get all your questions about the world’s favorite herb answered at this nonprofit center. Free tours cover the history of cannabis use, marijuana cultivation, coffeeshop etiquette and myriad hemp applications. The center’s showpiece is its basement garden, where five flowering cannabis plants thrive.
20. Find Everlasting Love. According to legend, kissing on Amsterdam’s Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) will ensure everlasting love. Allegedly built by two sisters living on opposite sides of the Amstel River who wanted easier access to each other, Amsterdam’s most recognizable bridge was once so narrow two pedestrians could barely pass each other.
Do you have a favorite free thing to do in Amsterdam? Please share it with my readers in the comments below!