Many people come to Amsterdam intent on visiting every landmark they’ve ever heard about from friends, family, classroom history, and their Lonely Planet guidebook. Gotta see the Anne Frank House. Can’t miss the Van Gogh Museum. Must catch Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum. And on and on.
But making a beeline down Amsterdam’s tourist track can be a costly pitfall. While depleting your energy and wallet, visiting one famous attraction after another can leave little time for soaking up authentic local color and culture. Rather than using your finite resources to earn bragging rights for checking off every sight on your bucket list, here are five ways to spend less and see more in the Dutch capital:
1. Get beyond the historic center.
Beyond the must-see sights and pricey tourist traps in Amsterdam’s historic center are hip neighborhoods that were once the haunt of artists, immigrants, and construction workers employed to dig the canals of the 17th-century Grachtengordel. Among the first to evolve was the Jordaan, now a living picture postcard with an eclectic mix of shops like Het Oud-Hollandsch Snoepwinkeltje, an old-fashioned candy store piled high with drop, the national sweet.
In the Oud-West, Zevenlandenhuizen showcases a melange of architectural styles with seven distinctly different houses lined up in a row — a visual feast that appealed to the 19th-century fascination with all things far away. Find fare from many distant lands at De Hallen, a transformed turn-of-the-century tram depot that’s now a buzzing weekend hotspot with an indoor food court, cinema and cozy library.
In De Pijp, the price is always right at Trust, a funky bistro where you determine the bill. For dessert in Amsterdam’s Latin Quarter, check out Taart van mijn Tante, a fantasy tearoom replete with kitsch and cakes with sassy names like “Chocolate Bitch Pie.”
Get further off the beaten path in Noord, a dilapidated shipyard-turned-hip ‘hood, accessible via free ferry from Central Station. On the northern banks of the Ij, discover an homage to international cinema at the EYE Film Institute, swing over the edge of the old Shell Tower at A’dam Lookout, and hang with a bohemian crown at Café De Ceuvel in Amsterdam’s clean-tech playground.
2. Think markets, not museums.
Amsterdam’s museums may be world-renowned repositories of Golden Age art, but hefty admission fees can mount up to drain your wallet. After visiting a few, refuel at street markets offering both cheap eats and a healthy dose of local color and culture.
The city’s largest street bazaar is the Albert Cuyp Market, centerpiece of De Pijp and an Amsterdam institution since 1905. Reflecting the neighborhood’s diversity, 260+ stands proffer everything from Vietnamese loempia to Dutch stroopwafels, as well as fresh produce at below-supermarket prices and an array of treasures you never knew you needed.
Other neighborhood markets offer the same range of products in less overwhelming settings. Find a true local vibe at the Ten Katemarkt in the Oud-West. On the other end of town, shop where 19th-century Jewish merchants once hawked their wares at Waterlooplein Flea Market, a source for vintage clothes, antiques, ’50s vinyls, and other curiosities. If you’re in Amsterdam on a Saturday, check out the Lindengracht market in the Jordaan for daily rations, as well as specialty edibles.
3. Connect with locals.
If you limit your visit to popular attractions like the Anne Frank House and Van Gogh Museum, you’ll see how visitors, not residents, experience Amsterdam. Similarly, touristy areas like Dam Square, Leidseplein, and Rembrandtplein may be great for people-watching, but bars and cafés in these high-traffic squares tend to serve inferior, overpriced fare, as they cater to tourists, not locals, and don’t rely on repeat business.
Better to chill at waterfront dives like Sound Garden in the Jordaan or Hanneke’s Boom near Central Station, where you’ll imbibe alongside regulars who’ve been drinking at these joints for decades. Have your fill of a local delicacy at “Eat Real Dutch Pancakes,” one of many experiences offered by With Locals, as well as EatWith.
Other opportunities to mingle with locals are listed on Meetup, as well as Internations, an activity club for Dutchies and expats. Find friends from around the world at Open Meal with Refugees, a monthly potluck dinner. Save on accommodations while engaging in cultural exchange through Couchsurfing.
4. Find cheap fun.
From tip-based walking tours to free afternoon performances at the Concertgebouw and Dutch National Opera & Ballet during cultural season (September–May), Amsterdam offers myriad opportunities for budget-friendly fun, including many listed in 18 Awesome Things to Do in Amsterdam For Free. For spontaneous culture, discounted tickets are available on the day of selected theater, comedy and opera performances through the online Last Minute Ticket Shop.
The best way to experience Amsterdam on any budget is to wander the UNESCO-recognized canals with no agenda. Lined with storied sights and gabled mansions tilting at odd angles, the 400-year-old canals, which outnumber those in Venice, form a free, living museum stamped with the architectural legacy of the 17th-century Golden Age. A map will inform your adventure, but even a good one can’t reveal everything in Amsterdam’s narrow, cobbled alleyways.
5. Visit in low season.
Admittedly, January and February can be cold, wet months in the Netherlands. But Amsterdam offers plenty of indoor fun for dreary days. Inside many cafés and restaurants, roaring fireplaces thaw the winter chill. The Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House, and other popular attractions are open, but with smaller crowds and shorter lines, making for more intimate experiences. The ICE rink on Museumplein prolongs the year-end festive spirit through early February.
Save for holiday dates in December, airfares, accommodations, and tourist numbers are priced lowest in winter. Hostel accommodations that fetch up to €50/night with a two-night minimum on summer weekends can be had for less than €20 in off-season — a good reason to spend twice as much time in one of Europe’s most popular destinations on a winter visit.