Grachtengordel (canal ring) was added to the World Heritage List in 2010. Just getting lost in the 400-year-old waterways, which outnumber those in Venice, is like roaming around in a free, living museum that’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Get your bearings in a sometimes confusing city and gain insight into Amsterdam’s its evolution from a muddy village on the Amstel into Europe’s most powerful trading city on this three-hour, whirlwind adventure. Tour the Red Light District, Jewish Quarter, Jordaan District, widest bridge, narrowest house and other top sights. Daily tours in English and Spanish are given by entertaining guides who work on a tip-only basis. Tours depart at 11:15 and 13:15 from the National Monument on Dam Square.
Built in 1408, this soaring church has been the stage for royal weddings and coronations, including King Willem’s marriage to Maxima and his crowning as Holland’s first king in a century in 2013. Now used for major art exhibitions, it has a gift shop that leads to a free display about the church’s turbulent history.
From 10‒21:30 daily, meter-high chess pieces appear on a giant board on Max Euweplein, a square bordered by touristy shops and cafés including the always buoyant Hard Rock. Named for a world champion Dutch chess player of the ’30s, this is where you can challenge the locals in a free game or just watch the action from the sidelines.
Walk through Central Station, turn left and hop on the free ferry to NDSM Wharf in Amsterdam-Noord. On the ride across the Ij to what was once a derelict shipyard, take in the low, village-like skyline. In 15 minutes, you’ll arrive in an artsy community and cultural hot spot peppered with recycled-junk sculptures, a giant tiki head, and numerous funky restaurants and night spots. Throughout the year, festivals, performances, exhibitions and IJ Hallen, Europe’s largest flea market, are held in Amsterdam-Noord.
On Wednesdays during the cultural season (mid-September–June), Amsterdam’s renowned Concertgebouw presents lunchtime shows—often rehearsals for musicians playing later that evening—from 12:30–13:00. Queue up early if you want a seat.
On Tuesdays from 12:30–13:00, performers from the Dutch Philharmonic and Opera stage free lunchtime gigs in the foyer of their contemporary venue on Waterlooplein. The concerts take place during the cultural season, September–May. Guided tours of the National Opera & Ballet are sometimes offered.
If you hang around Dam Square, Leidseplein or Rembrandtplein long enough, you’re bound to come across talented musicians, jugglers, mimes, break dancers and comedians who come from around the globe to perform in public squares for free. Many are aspiring stars and this is their livelihood, so be sure to throw a few euros their way if they’ve inspired a belly laugh.
There’s a fee to enter Amsterdam’s renowned Rijksmuseum, but access to its Baroque and Renaissance Gardens is FREE. Pick up a gratis guide to five centuries of salvaged Dutch architectural pieces, including magnificent Gothic pillars and 17th century city gates set amidst fountains and ponds.
Renovated as part of the 10-year overhaul of the museum, the new outdoor gallery includes many original sculptures, ponds and lawns. New elements include post-war playground equipment, a 19th century greenhouse with heirloom vegetables, and a water maze based on a design by Danish sculptor Jeppe Hein.
Amsterdam’s floating flower market is a fine source for high-quality flora. Pick up a bag of tulip bulbs for the folks back home and they’ll thank you when they receive the gift, then think of you again in spring when the blooms come up. The thoughtful souvenir will cost you a few euros, but it’s free to smell the roses and photograph the stunning blooms at this fragrant open flower market lining Singel Canal between Muntplein and Koningsplein.
After the glitz of the previous excursion, find respite in this hidden courtyard protected from the madness of central Amsterdam. Beyond the Begijnhof’s humble doors, an oasis of 14th century houses, gardens and relic-filled churches provides quiet escape from the buzz of the city. Once a residential sanctuary for the Bengijntjes, a Catholic sisterhood comprised of women who took no monastic vows but dedicated their lives to educating the poor and taking care of the sick, it’s now a place where people still gather to worship, marry and reflect.
Amsterdam’s mix of eclectic architectural styles is no accident. Since 1986, it’s been overseen by the Amsterdam Architecture Foundation (ARCAM), founded to shape the future of urban design in Holland. At no cost, browse exhibits of uber-cool contemporary design or chat with staff about digital guides to architecture along city tram routes and other free resources.
In addition to raising awareness about urban design, ARCAM works with rising stars in the architectural field, as well as institutions influencing city architecture. Five annual exhibitions present new developments alongside a historical perspective of urban design in Amsterdam. Set in a funky, transparent aluminum structure, fronting the NEMO Museum near Central Station, ARCAM will inspire anyone interested in urban design.
If you think all libraries are created equal, visit this sunlit temple of print and electronic media to change your mind. Since opening in 2007 on the Oosterdokseiland, a five minute walk heading east from Central Station, Europe’s largest public library has drawn some 2.5 million visitors annually. Alongside books and multimedia, the seven-story structure overlooking the Ij River houses a 250-seat theater, radio station, meeting rooms, exhibition space, music department, study pods and readers’ café. A restaurant with an outdoor terrace provides panoramic views of the city.
Visitors are welcome to use any of 600 Internet-connected computers, 50 multimedia workstations, 110 reference terminals and 11 print stations. You can also browse newspapers and magazines from around the world at no charge. If you’re lucky, someone will be showcasing some talent on the lobby piano or a special exhibit, film showing, reading, concert, lecture or workshop may be scheduled. Need to e-mail Mom, book a hostel or check Facebook? It’s possible seven days a week in Amsterdam’s Most Sustainable Public Building—its public library.
Once headquartered in Vondelpark, the new center for this homage to international cinema perches like an ivory spaceship ready for launch on the northern bank of the Ij River. Its art-house movies and main-floor exhibitions have entry fees, but the interactive film displays in the basement are FREE. The striking facility houses four movie screening rooms, a museum shop and exhibit space. To reach it, take the free Buiksloterweg ferry behind Central Station. Before leaving, refuel with a plate of bitterballen and beer on tap, served in the eye-popping EYE Bar restaurant.
It costs €11 to enter the Amsterdam Museum on Kalverstraat, a repository of Golden Age art and more contemporary collections. Outside, in the arcade by the museum entrance, view a slew of Golden Age portraits—peers of Rembrandt’s Night Watch—for nada.