After a second extended city break in Amsterdam, Liz and her husband are keen to share tips they picked up along the way to help others.
Thinking of Amsterdam
When you hear the words, Amsterdam, Netherlands, what springs to mind?
A picturesque low-lying capital city built around a network of canals, sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North, maybe. Or an easily accessible city with good transport connections; Schiphol Amsterdam Airport is a major European air travel hub and Amsterdam Centraal station is a big international railway hub.
Perhaps you think of it as a great location for a city break with a wide variety of museums and interesting sites to visit. You might associate Amsterdam with bikes, flowers, cheese, beer (Amstel and Heineken are local brews), and coffee shops supplying soft drugs.
But the words 'free' and 'Amsterdam' do not immediately go together. Read on to discover how you can enjoy this unique and scenic city without breaking the bank.
Try These Amsterdam Activities for Free
This list has two sections. The first five options are for good weather and the last five are indoor alternatives on wet days.
- Take a walk. (This section is long, as there is much to see!)
- Slow down. Pause to take in the views.
- NEMO rooftop view
- Doubletree by Hilton Skylounge
- Free concert at the Concertgebouw
- Coster Diamonds
- Amsterdam Central Library
- Local produce
1. Take a Walk
Amsterdam is a reasonably compact city and it is flat, making walking an ideal free option for seeing it at its best. The advantages are that you can go at your own pace and cover as much ground as you want. Here are a few places that we noticed on our walks around the city.
For many visitors, this is their arrival point in Amsterdam. But before you head off to explore the city, look back at the building behind you. Amsterdammers have long since forgotten the outcry, when the station was built in the 1880s on three specially constructed artificial islands, blocking the view of the sea. The resemblance of the Neo-Renaissance structure to the Rijksmuseum is no coincidence, as both were designed by P.J.H. Cuypers. The designer of the Concertgebouw, A.L. van Gendt was also responsible for the station building.
"The Dam", to give it its local name is the site of the original 13th Century dam on the River Amstel from which the city takes its name and is the center of Amsterdam. Here you will find the 17th Century Kononklijk Paleis, originally built as the town hall and still used for state occasions.
There has been a church on the site of Nieuwe Kerk since the 14th Century. It is now a cultural center, hosting exhibitions. Royal events including coronations have taken place here since 1814.
The Nationaal Monument is a 70ft obelisk, constructed in 1956 to commemorate Dutch people, who lost their lives in World War II.
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De Bijenkorf is the best-known department store in Amsterdam. Often compared to Harrods of London, this flagship store has a large perfumery, designer fashion boutiques as well as toys, soft furnishings, and household goods.
Cross the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, which runs behind Nieuwe Kerk and Koninklijk Paleis, to take a look at Amsterdam's rather grand former head post office building. Dating back to the late 1890s, the building was described as 'post-office gothic', due to its elaborate style and towers. It is now a shopping mall, worth a quick look inside for its unusual design by Cornelis Hendrik Peters.
Abercrombie & Fitch (Formerly Metz & Co)
You might be forgiven for thinking we're on a shopping trip. But, as you wander the streets and canals of Amsterdam, it's worth noticing the architecture around you. Abercrombie & Fitch's late 19th Century building on the corner of Leidsestraat and Keizersgracht was formerly occupied by Metz & Co, selling luxury goods.
The glass cupola was added in 1933 and in 1973, new owners Liberty commissioned a sixth-floor cafe, which was very popular for its views. Sadly, the cafe is no longer there, which we established after trying to access it.
The Amsterdam sign might have moved to the airport, but it's worth taking the time to head to the Museum District, crossing several canals as you do so. Here you will be able to admire the national museum of the Netherlands, home of many famous works of art. Designed by P. J. H. Cuypers in a neo-Renaissance style, the Rijksmuseum opened in 1885.
The area between the museum and the Concertgebouw is a large open space with an attractive water feature. It's an opportunity to take a break from the canals and busy streets of central Amsterdam along with other visitors to the city. The absence of the iconic sign might even make it easier to get a good photo. Note the similarities with Centraal Station.
After the open space of Museumplein, head back into Amsterdam over the canals, to Muntplein, at the end of the Singel. The base of the Munttoren was once part of a gate in Amsterdam's medieval city wall. The base survived a fire in 1618, which destroyed the gate. Hendrick de Keyser (designer of the Westerkerk) added the clock tower, steeple, and orb in 1619.
In 1673 Amsterdam's mint was temporarily stored here, hence the name 'Mint Tower'. The carillon, which rings every 15 minutes, was designed in 1699 by Francois Hemony (designer of a 47 bell carillon in the Oude Kerk).
As you walk down Reguliersbreestraat, don't miss this restored example of a blend of Art Deco and Amsterdam School architecture. Abraham Tuschinski's theatre opened in 1921 and at its peak hosted the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland on stage. Restored back to its former state, the Tuschinski Theatre is now a cinema.
The outside is impressive and there's nothing to stop you wandering into the entrance to take a look inside. But to get any further you will need to buy a ticket for a film. Sadly Abraham Tuschinski, a Jewish tailor from Poland, died in Auschwitz.
Follow the road into the square, which has taken its name from the statue of the famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt (1606-1669) since it was erected here in 1876. Prior to this, it was called Botermarkt, due to the butter market that took place here.
The arrival of the statue and the change of name led to the opening of hotels and cafes around the square. It is now a popular location for a drink and a center for nightlife.
To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt's birth, a bronze cast of his most famous painting, The Night Watch was placed in the square. After a break, while it was displayed in cities abroad, the cast now seems to be a more permanent fixture and is a big tourist magnet.
If you keep walking along Amstelstraat, you will come to the River Amstel. Look right to see Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), Amsterdam's most well-known bridge, which is thought to take its name from its narrow design.
There has been a drawbridge here since around 1670. Widened in 1871 and renovated in 2010, the bridge was closed in 2003 to all but cyclists and pedestrians. It's interesting to get a close-up view by crossing the River Amstel here.
The traditional double-leaf style bridge, made from African azobe wood, is opened several times a day by the bridge master to let boats through. It is illuminated at night.
Continuing along Nieuwe Kerkstraat, you will enter the Plantage area of Amsterdam. Formerly a 'plantation' of green parkland outside the city walls, and a leisure area for 17th-century Amsterdammers, it was developed from the mid 19th century as a tree-lined suburb of the city.
Many Jews, working in the diamond industry, settled here and there are memorials to the Jewish community in the area. It is worth taking the time to learn something about the Jewish community's tragic experience through the German occupation and Holocaust of World War II.
Cross the Nieuwe Keizersgracht and continue to the main road, Plantage Middenlaan. Turn left and you will find Hollandsche Schouwburg on your left. To see this building now on a leafy street in Amsterdam, you would not necessarily be aware of its grim history, until you step a little closer and read the information on the boards.
It was in this former theatre that thousands of Jews were detained, before deportation to concentration camps. It is now a memorial to the 104,000 Dutch Jews, who were killed during World War II.
Take a Walk
2. Slow Down and Pause to Take in the Views
It is easy, especially on a short break, to rush, map in hand, from one site to another, barely stopping to draw breath as you work your way through a list of 'must-see' sights. You can certainly pack in a lot this way.
But it is important to build in a little time to slow down in your hectic schedule. Take time out to pause by a pretty canal scene, or an expanse of water like Oosterdok, to admire the views of this unique city.
You don't need an expensive camera to record these views. Most of us now have mobile phones that will capture the moment well.
Take the opportunity to have a drink and a snack.
3. NEMO Rooftop View
Located on the edge of Oosterdok, NEMO is the largest science center in the Netherlands. Its vast green copper structure, resembling a ship is certainly eye-catching. Although admission is charged to explore the interactive scientific displays inside, it is free to take the stairs or lift to the largest roof terrace in Amsterdam.
Renzo Piano, the architect wanted to design a real piazza. The open-air Energetica exhibition, with its interactive sculptures, teaches about the sun, wind, and sustainable energy. 4000 liters of water flow through 30 pools and receptacles to create a relaxing environment.
Visitors are torn between admiring the rooftop sculptures or taking in the stunning vista of Oosterdok and the city of Amsterdam beyond.
4. Doubletree by Hilton Skylounge
Whilst we are on the subject of great views, you can walk a little further around Oosterdok, towards Centraal Station, to the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Centraal, with its panoramic Skylounge on the 11th floor.
Take the lift up to the roof terrace, which is open to anyone. It is worth exploring the area up here. We wandered into a bar with an open balcony. It turned out not to be in use, but we only found this out after we had admired the view and taken a few photos.
Walk around the outdoor terrace for views towards the city and also over the water of Het Ij, on the other side of Centraal Station. We intended to buy a drink here, but much of the seating was set back to the view and below a protective screen, drinks were expensive and it was busy. We took some photos and slipped out without being noticed.
An oasis of tranquility, away from the bustling city, Begijnhof, is centrally located off Spui around 450 meters to the south of Dam Square. Its entrance is off Gedempte Begijnensloot. This cluster of houses around a pleasant green dates back to 1346. It was built for the Begintjes (Beguines), a lay Catholic sisterhood, who taught the poor and looked after the sick.
None of the original houses remain, but Het Houten Huis (No.34), dating from the 15th Century is one of the oldest houses in Amsterdam. It is one of only two timber-fronted houses remaining in the city, as, following a series of fires, timber houses were banned in 1521.
Most of the other houses in Begijnhof date from the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Beguines lived here until the last member of the order died in 1971. The Begijnhof is now home to around 100 single women.
The Engelse Kerk dates from around 1419. The Beguines worshipped here until it was confiscated in 1578, at the time of the Alteration, a peaceful revolution, when the Calvinists revolted against the Catholics and Amsterdam joined William of Orange. In 1607 the church was let to a group of English and Scottish Presbyterians, hence its name. Catholics were allowed to worship in private, so two houses were converted into the clandestine Begijnhof Chapel in 1665.
6. Free Concert at the Concertgebouw
Located at the opposite end of Museumplein to the Rijksmuseum, the imposing Neo-Renaissance building of the Concertgebouw is the site of weekly free lunchtime concerts on a Wednesday.
The first concert took place in 1888, in this building designed by A L van Gendt (co-designer of Centraal Station). Since then the Concertgebouw has taken its place amongst the world's best, with the acoustics in its main concert hall being especially renowned.
Renovated several times, the Concertgebouw was found to be suffering from subsidence in 1983 and in danger of collapse. Amazingly, the building was preserved and the original supporting piles were replaced with concrete ones, sunk to a greater depth in the ground.
Entry to Westerkerk, the biggest church in Amsterdam, is free. It was designed by Hendrick de Keyser, who died before its completion in 1631, as part of the development of the Canal Ring. The largest nave on any Dutch Protestant church is fairly austere, but it is worth noting the big organ and its ornately painted shutters. Rembrandt was buried here, although the exact site of his grave is unknown.
The tower, which was completed in 1638, is topped by the Imperial Crown of Maximilian. At 85 meters high, it offers panoramic views over Amsterdam for those who book and pay to take the grueling climb to the top.
8. Coster Diamonds
Amsterdam has been a center for the diamond-cutting industry since the end of the 16th Century when it was introduced here by the Sephardic Jews. Coster Diamonds was founded in 1840.
The words 'diamond' and 'free' do not usually feature in the same sentence. But Coster Diamonds opens its doors to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year offering free guided tours in over 25 languages. The diamond grading, cutting, and polishing processes are explained in detail. At the end of the tour, visitors browse the showrooms.
In 1852, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, got Coster Diamonds to repolish the 108.8-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond. A copy of the blue-white stone with a replica of the coronation crown is displayed in the entrance hall.
9. Amsterdam Central Library
Libraries are interesting buildings but do not often feature on a top list of sightseeing places. OBA stands for Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam. Located on Oosterdok, between NEMO and Centraal Station, this modern building offers opportunities for computer access, but much more than that, on the 7th floor it has a big self-service cafe with a covered balcony. The views over Amsterdam are good and you are protected from the weather by the large overhang. There are also free toilet facilities here.
10. Local Produce
As you would expect there is no shortage of souvenir outlets in Amsterdam. But it is worth taking the time to check out some of the local produce. You do not have to buy it. 'Window shopping' is free and you might even get offered a free sample.
The flower market on the Singel, west of Muntplein, is the last of Amsterdam's floating markets. Nurserymen used to sail up the Amstel and moor their boats here to sell plants and cut flowers. The stalls are now permanent and you barely realize that they are still floating, so securely are they fixed. It's still a colorful sight and worth a visit, although these days sellers cater a lot for tourists.
Trailing around supermarkets is not everyone's idea of a great holiday experience. But it is well worth venturing in to take a look at a cheese counter, another famous Dutch product. The range is amazing and, if you pay enough attention and look suitably interested, you might be offered a sample to try.
Although the Marqt that we visited on Utrechtestraat has since been taken over by Albert Heijn, the Marqt store at Wolvenstraat 32 is a reasonably central alternative.
Free Things to Do in Amsterdam
I would highly recommend Amsterdam as a great short break destination. If you transit through Schiphol airport and have a few days to spare, it is well worth adding this city to your itinerary. We have thoroughly enjoyed visiting Amsterdam. It is a very picturesque city in a unique setting. Sightseeing here does not have to cost a fortune. There is plenty you can see for free.
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- InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam, a Thorough Hotel Appraisal
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Liz Westwood