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Visiting Amsterdam: An Alternative Low-Budget Guide

Andrew travels extensively, contributing articles to newspapers and online sites. Recent trips: Brazil, the Amazon, the Pantanal, Bulgaria.

Canal houses at night in Amsterdam.

Canal houses at night in Amsterdam.

Low-Budget Alternative Guide to Amsterdam

Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, is an expensive place to visit, so here is an alternative, low-budget guide to help you make the most of this unique capital city. If you are wanting to get off the beaten track and avoid the plastic tourist spots, please read on.

Amsterdam is one of my favourite places to visit. It's relatively small to start with, so you don't have to go miles to get to the big cultural attractions. You can walk in safety, you can hire a bicycle, you could even hire a paddleboat and take to the canals.

Perhaps Amsterdam is one of the most 'lived in' cities, that is, many of the houses are private homes, turned into apartments, shops, and businesses. At times it has a very homely feel to it.

It also has a vibrant alternative scene, a little off the beaten tourist track, and that's part of the reason I've written this guide. Having lived in the Netherlands for over two years, and with a dutch partner of 30 years, I have a slight advantage over others!

If it's art, architecture and design you crave then this city has all three in abundance. The Dutch are known worldwide for their artistic talents—just think of Rembrandt, Vermeer, the Golden Age of painting, Van Gogh, Mondriaan and Escher.

Amsterdam has some of the best-preserved canal houses in Europe, row upon row of narrow, brick buildings with their curved gables ('neck gables'), cheek to cheek at an angle. They're really picturesque and take you right back to the 17th century.

Plus, did you know that there are approximately 1,500 bridges crisscrossing the water of Amsterdam? That's around three times more than in Venice and only 200 fewer than in Vienna!!

Don't forget that, at peak tourist times, this city can be absolutely heaving with folk. That means long queues at popular bucket list places and hot competition for much sought after accommodation. I offer you a slightly different take on this beautiful old city by listing alternative places, cheap ways of visiting and insider tips.

Canal, bridge, narrow houses - typical Amsterdam scene.

Canal, bridge, narrow houses - typical Amsterdam scene.

Tourist Information

Tourist Information offices—there are two main ones. One is at Schiphol airport just outside of the city and the other is at the Centraal Railway station in Amsterdam proper.

Low-Cost Accommodation

Whilst Amsterdam is a relaxed and culturally astute capital, prices in this World Heritage city can rival those of Paris, London and Rome. That's why I've prepared this list of low-budget ideas and tips for those with limited funds, but an adventurous spirit.


If you want to save lots of money by avoiding expensive hotels why not try camping? There are several sites in Amsterdam, including CampingAmsterdam, GaasperCamping and Camping Zeeburg.


Hostels are a cheaper alternative and there are plenty to choose from. Bob's Youth Hostel is busy and central. The Flying Pig hostel is a 30-minute walk from the railway station and Hostel Utopia and Heart of Amsterdam hostel are five minutes away.


Couchsurfing is the cheapest way to visit Amsterdam. You stay with local people which is a great advantage but be sure to find out just exactly what your accommodation will be before making a commitment. Find out more on the couchsurfing website.

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If there are four of you visiting Amsterdam for a week or two or longer it could be worth your while renting an apartment. Short term rentals are available. Popular areas for renting include the Jordaan and Canal Belt.

Take It All In

Amsterdam is definitely a take it all in and go with the flow kind of city. The best way of getting around is on foot, that way you'll stay in touch with the locals, have the chance to get off the beaten track once in a while and not have to bother with deadlines.

Once out on the streets relax, find a nice canal bar or gastropub and sit and watch the world and his cousins go by to live jazz or blues.

  • For those who love to walk and soak up the atmosphere on the streets take one of the three canal walks—Herengracht, Prinsengracht or Keizersgracht. Stroll alongside the water. It's one of the best ways to discover Amsterdam.
Swans on an Amsterdam canal.

Swans on an Amsterdam canal.

Rent a Bike for $10, 9 Euro, 7£ a Day or Less

The Dutch are expert cyclists, they're born pedalling—as the saying goes. Amsterdam is, naturally, full of bicycles and there's no doubt it's a clean, cheap and handy way of seeing the city.

But remember that if you hire a bike you'll have to compete with cars, pedestrians and trams for space. And there's also the native cyclist, a mean no-nonsense creature, especially if you're blocking their path!

For rental see: Rent a Bike, MacBike or Mike's Bike Tours, all within easy reach of the Centrum.

A cyclist totally relaxed in the red light district.

A cyclist totally relaxed in the red light district.

THe wooden house (het Houten Huys) Begijnhof, Amsterdam.

THe wooden house (het Houten Huys) Begijnhof, Amsterdam.

Cheap Ideas and Tips for Amsterdam

1. Gardens and Parks

It's often best to escape from the noise and chaos of the city streets every so often. Amsterdam has some nice sized parks to stroll through if you need to grab some fresh air. Or take a picnic—that's what we usually do when visiting the Vondelpark. Other alternatives include: Rembrandtpark, Sarphatipark and Amstelpark.

2. Begijnhof Courtyard and Chapel

This is a beautiful old medieval courtyard and collection of buildings, including the wooden house, pictured right, built in 1420, the oldest house in Amsterdam, and a chapel. The Begijntjes was a catholic sisterhood who lived a closed life as nuns but never took monastic vows. The houses are private and quiet respect is called for. There's also a gallery with 17th-century paintings lining the walls. This is free. A great place to wind down.

3. Low-Price Tickets and Free Concerts

Save money by purchasing special last-minute tickets for shows and other events at Amsterdam Tourist Office, Last Minute Tickets or the Amsterdam Public Library, a short walk from Centraal Station.

  • Free music concerts are held in the Concertgebouw building every Wednesday afternoon from September to June.

4. Music Bars

Amsterdam has a lot of bars, but only a special few have live music you can listen to and even join in with! From folk to contemporary jazz, an evening or whole night with a wine or two can work out as excellent value for money.

  • Cafe Alto, an intimate bar, has live jazz most nights. It's not far from the Prinsengracht and Leidseplein.
  • CC Muziekcafe. Live mixed music 7 days a week. Great atmosphere. Situated on Rustenburgerstraat.
  • If it's blues and jazz you're after, then try Bourbon Street on Leidsekruisstraat and go back to the roaring '20s, USA. A blast.
  • De Buurvrouw on St Pieterpoortsteeg, has a DJ and rocks. Expect a crowded joint with young locals. Can get pretty loud!
  • Maloe Melo is the home of the blues. In the backroom listen to excellent guitarists and singers, both local and established. On the Lijnbaansgracht.

Irish pubs are renowned for their friendly ambience and criache and Mulligans on Amstel is no exception. Guinness and live folk music, with open evenings. So turn up with your banjo and get playing!

 Boy in giant clog, Amsterdam

Boy in giant clog, Amsterdam

An Alternative Bucket List

In summer Amsterdam gets packed out with tourists so the best times to visit are in spring, autumn(fall) and winter. You're just about guaranteed space and time to take in the quiet moments and that's essential in my book.

Because this is an unofficial guide the list starts with the more unusual places to visit and things to do:

  • Rent a paddleboat and cruise the 400 year old canals. Take a picnic with you as you glide beneath one of 1500 bridges.
  • Rent a quieter 'whisper boat' with electronic engine.
  • Walk along Apollolaan, a sculpture route, for 2.5 kilometres.
  • Hop on a free ferry just close to Centraal Station and cruise down to the EYE building which houses the Film Institute Netherlands. There's a cool restaurant here.
  • Visit the Sex Museum and gain new knowledge.
  • Visit the Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum.
  • Grab a special sweet cake at one of the infamous coffee shops.
  • Visit the Tassenmuseum where small bags and purses are on show.
  • How about the Torture Museum? Speaks for itself.
  • Or the Katten Kabinet revealing cats in art through the ages.
  • And FOAM is a brilliant photography museum.
  • Finally the Houseboat Museum is well worth an hour or two if you love all things houseboat!

Coffee Shops

Mention coffee shops in the same sentence as Amsterdam and the inevitable subject of drugs springs to mind. That's soft drugs—hash, marijuana and cannabis. Times have changed in this capital city and whilst technically marijuana has never been legal, police have turned a blind eye to its use over the decades. Now, they're becoming less tolerant but still allow them for personal use.

The dutch authorities leave it up to individuals to decide what a person puts into their bodies. It's a health issue. Coffee shops in general are on the decline but you'll be given a menu when you enter and drugs will be included.

More information on the best coffee shops in Amsterdam here.

Night scene Amsterdam

Night scene Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh keeping an eye on you in Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh keeping an eye on you in Amsterdam

More Free Things to Do in Amsterdam

There are many more things to do for next to nothing in Amsterdam, despite its reputation for penny pinching! Check out AmsterdamTips for more information.

On an old house in Amsterdam

On an old house in Amsterdam

© 2016 Andrew Spacey

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