Having lived in Amsterdam for a few months now, it only seems appropriate to update one of my all-time favorite posts. I originally wrote this post about a year ago, after having spent only four days in Amsterdam. Now that I call Amsterdam home, I have fallen even more deeply in love with the wide canals, narrow townhouses, fast bikes, and slow way of life. There is so much to do in this city it can be super hard to pick and choose… especially when you are on a budget. Here are the top 15 free things you must do in Amsterdam!
1. Go on a free walking tour
Of course every free list should start with a free walking tour. My favorite free walking tour is always New Sandeman’s. The tour guides work on a tip only basis and provide three hours of entertainment as you discover the city. I generally make it a point to go on these tours whenever and wherever they are offered. The Amsterdam tour is not particularly exceptional, but it turned out to be one of my favorites because I made an awesome new friend! I was traveling alone for the first time and was nervous about spending a couple days here alone. Turns out, there are tons of young travelers looking for friends.
2. Wake up and smell the tulips
Bloemenmarkt is Amsterdam’s world famous floating flower market. It is located in the center of the city, on the Singel Canal. The floating flower market is the only one of it’s kind in the world! Here you can find tulips, bulbs, mini cacti, and souvenirs among plenty of other oddities. If you came to Amsterdam for Dutch flowers, this is the place for you. Keep in mind it is pretty much always crowded so it is best to go on a weekday.
3. Cheese. Cheese. Cheese.
Go in a cheese shop… or 27. Nearly every cheese shop in Amsterdam gives out free samples- a meals worth of free samples. Every time you go in a shop you will leave full, I promise! Sample it all. The aged varieties are my favorite, but if you prefer to sample some strange cheeses like wasabi, lavender, coconut, asparagus or even rum flavored, feel free.
4. Relax where the locals relax
Finding a quiet place to workout in a noisy city can sometimes prove difficult. Vondelpark is on the outskirts of the center just behind Museumpark. It’s one of my favorite urban green spaces in Europe. On any given weekend, you will catch locals enjoying an afternoon picnic or playing a pickup game of frisbee mixed with tourists puffing a joint and over achievers running laps around them. The park is small, only about a two and a half mile run, but it’s about as good as it gets in the city.
5. Go on a houseboat
Amsterdam has over 2,500 houseboats. They started as cheap accommodations after WWII when Amsterdam was suffering from a housing shortage and hippies ruled the world. Now, the houseboats are anything but cheap. In fact, they are some of the most expensive homes in the city. Although they may look like ships, most don’t have motors of any kind and the sewer and electric systems are connected to the rest of the city just like a normal house. If you want to visit a houseboat for free, get on The Catboat! The Catboat is a floating cat shelter that has been around since 1966.
The too-popular Iamsterdam sign is clearly on everyones must do list! No matter the hour, you will find people sitting in, on, in front of, or behind it. It would prove nearly impossible to take a photo here without anyone else in the background. Still, a fun and free place to test your climbing skills. I prefer to go in the evening or the early morning when most tourists are asleep.
7. Check out the Red Light District
Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District, known locally as “De Wallen” is not only the home to sex shops, movie stores, brothels, coffeeshops, condom stores, gay bars, peep shows, live sex shows, prostitute windows, and red neon lights, it is also the oldest part of the city. Even if you are not curious about the X rated portion of Amsterdam… but let’s be honest, how could you not be… it is well worth a visit. I recommend visiting at night. The vibe changes dramatically when the street lights turn on and the Red Light District comes alive.
Being a young woman, traveling alone, with an extremely high curiosity level, I chose to go on an evening walking tour to learn more about how the Red Light District functions, watch a peep show, and travel down some of the most famous alleyways with some of the most expensive women. After the tour I found the best way to enjoy the district was to settle in with some locals and foreigners at a bar with a nice view of the sex windows.
Warning: Don’t photograph the women in the windows, it is not only illegal, but they may come after you with a 6″ stiletto.
8. See 15 bridges at once
Amsterdam has over 1,200 bridges hence why it is often referred to as the “Venice of the North”. There is one point in particular where it is said that you can see 15 bridges at once, if you count the bridge you are standing on. At the crossing of Reguliersgracht and Herengracht, start counting! I went during daylight and I was told afterwards it is easier to differentiate the bridges in the evening when they are illuminated. I repeatedly counted 13, until eventually I convinced myself I could see all 15. A fun game nonetheless. Happy counting!
9. Catch up on some reading at the library
Amsterdam’s public library is a modern and cool place to study or get some work done. But what you really go here for is the view. Take the elevator or the escalators all the way to the top and step outside to see the city in a new way.
10. Check out the view at NEMO
NEMO Science Centre is the science museum in Amsterdam. Located on a highway overpass, NEMO is a large, green, ship-shaped building with a secret oasis on the top deck. The rooftop is free and accessible by foot or by elevator. At the top there is a waterfall, varying exhibits throughout the year, adirondack chairs, a small cafe, and of course, the best view of the city. We brought our lunch, relaxed in the adirondack chairs, and enjoyed the view for an hour or so before heading back to ground level.
11. See the narrowest house in the world
Singel 166. With a width of only about three feet, this is the narrowest house in the world. So, why are the houses so narrow in Amsterdam? Back in the sixteenth century, residents were taxed on the width of their homes. What was the only logical thing to do? Build narrow houses of course!
12. Visit Begijnhof
The Begijnhof is a private courtyard that dates back to the early 14th century. This area is basically a gated community in the center of the city. It is completely cut off from the noise and traffic that you find in the rest of the city. It was originally built as a sanctuary for the Begijntjes, a Catholic sisterhood who lived like nuns but did not take their vows. The garden is beautifully maintained and well worth a visit.
13. Stroll the Albert Cuyp Market
The Albert Cuyp Market is the most famous street market in Amsterdam and is open Monday through Saturday from 9 am – 5 pm. It is located in de Pijp and there are nearly 300 vendors selling all sorts of items. Fresh produce, mixed nuts, imported olives, local cheeses, roasted chicken, leather goods, bicycles, jewelry, clothing, shoes, flowers, you name it, they’ve got it. Be sure to try the stroopwafels- they are the best in the city. I can never go to the market without getting one.
14. Spot the Triple X
There is soooo much to look at in Amsterdam. There are bikers, boats, cars, trams, buses… I was more worried about not getting run over than anything else my first day there. I didn’t notice the triple X flag until a friend pointed it out to me.
Once I was aware, I saw it everywhere! It reminded me of pirates.. and also the label on X rated movies.. I was interested to find out the real meaning. My tour guide explained that the XXX does not have to do with pirates or pornography, but that they represent the crosses of Saint Andrew. Saint Andrew was a fisherman that was crucified on a cross. But then again, things in Amsterdam are never quite so black and white. Here are a couple more theories on the Triple X Flag. 1. the three kisses Dutch people give upon greeting each other and 2. the three perils the city once suffered: Floods, Fires, and Black Death.
15. Ride a bike
You know when you forget to put on your earrings and don’t realize it until you are half way to work? A bike is like those earrings in Amsterdam. Without a bike you feel completely naked. Bikes are the #1 mode of transportation in Amsterdam, and rightfully so. With the winding and curving narrow canals, it is difficult to drive in the city. Bike rentals can be found for as little as €5 and although it’s not exactly free, it’s well worth the splurge!
Fun fact: Amsterdam has more bicycles than residents! Do yourself a favor, rent a bike for a day! You will be able to visit all of these free places and experience Amsterdam like a local.
Do you have anything else to add to the list?