As a renowned scrooge, usually travelling on a tight budget (read: ‘my own money’), I’m regularly asked for advice about finding cheap fun in otherwise expensive cities.
The Dutch are on average the tallest people on the planet. Perhaps they’ve evolved this characteristic by living on reclaimed land below sea level.
Everything else in Amsterdam is on a small scale – narrow houses, short streets, tiny gardens, miniature shops, little canals…and mini hotel rooms too. Accommodation in Amsterdam is notoriously expensive compared to other places. Fear not – once you’ve put the hotel bill on the credit card, you can save euros in other ways and still have a great time in this charming, lively city.
1. Rent a bike. Amsterdam is an extremely bike-friendly city, with separated bike paths and car drivers who know how to look out for cyclists. And Amsterdam is flat. A basic city bike will cost as little as EUR8 a day.
2. Walk in the Jordaan. A stroll through the leafy canal belt with its 17th century houses leaning over the water, houseboats, quirky cafes and unusual shops will cost you nothing but your time. And even that will be well spent.
3. Visit the library. The library? On holidays? Are you kidding me?? The ultra-modern, brilliantly designed OBA, Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam, is right by Central Station. It’s free to go in and read the foreign language papers and magazines – or play the piano in the foyer! The reasonably-priced La Place cafe on the top floor has the best bird’s eye view of the city going. Recommended for coffee or lunch.
4. Picnic in the Vondelpark. Cyclists, skaters, joggers, sunbathers and dog-walkers flock to this lovely park in the centre of town as soon as the sun breaks through the Dutch clouds. There are several good cafes with outdoor terraces, and free weekend concerts during the summer months.
5. Browse the markets. The Bloemenmarkt (Flower Market) sells flowers and bulbs, but it’s also a good place to buy Dutch souvenirs. The Waterlooplein has some interesting bric-a-brac – a few treasures among a lot of trash. My favourite market is the Noordermarkt in the Jordaan, which operates as a farmers’ produce market on Saturdays and a textile and clothing market on Mondays.
6. Dive down into the City Archives. There’s free entry to the Stadsarchief in a wonderful art deco building. In the bowels of the building are fascinating memorabilia from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s honeymoon in bed in Amsterdam, and a homage to football legend Johan Cruyff.
7. Explore the hofjes. The gardens in what used to be housing for the poor are Amsterdam’s hidden treasures. Best known is the Begijnhof, established for the beguines – devout single women who lived almost like nuns. Entry is free, and the hofjes are open to the public on weekdays only. People still live there and the residents want some peace at weekends!
8. Make a Rondvaart. A one hour tour of Amsterdam’s canals in a glass-topped boat sounds like a touristy experience, and it is. But it’s an excellent introduction for first-timers in the city and reasonable value at around EUR14.
9. Have dinner in an eetcafe. ‘Cafe’ in Amsterdam generally means ‘bar’. ‘Coffeeshop’ means a place where soft drugs like hashish and marijuana are legally available over the counter. An ‘Eetcafe’ (eat cafe) is a bar which serves food, often with a limited menu, but with prices a little below what many restaurants charge. Eetcafes usually have a genuine Dutch clientele and atmosphere.
10. Get a value discount card. An ‘I Amsterdam’ city pass gives unlimited use of public transport and city museums for 24-72 hours. For those staying longer or visiting other Dutch towns a Museumkaart (Museum Card) may be preferable. It offers free entry to most museums in the country for a year. Good value at EUR45.
Naturally I’d be very interested to hear other insiders’ suggestions for affordable fun in the city. Post any ideas in the comments box and I’ll check them out next time I’m in town.