The Sweet Spot: Amsterdam

by  Christina Garofalo | Updated on Oct 28, 2019
Canals in Amsterdam
Canals in Amsterdam / KavalenkavaVolha/iStock

Electric tulip blooms, picturesque windmills, and a network of 165 canals lined with colorful houses encircling the city, Amsterdam is worthy of the Old Masters. As the city draws an increasing number of tourists, the city's increasing popularity has come at a cost. Its liberal culture — which includes an infamous Red Light District and coffee shops where orders are smoked rather than sipped — has also made the Amsterdam a magnet for rowdy college students and bachelor parties. In an attempt to crack down on its derelict reputation, the city recently raised its tourist tax again, which would make it the highest in Europe.  

While this may help taper off some of the partying visitors, the tax will be felt by travelers, like us, looking to experience Amsterdam on a budget. Therefore, it is more important now than ever to arrive armed with tips to soak up the city while keeping costs low.

The Perfect Time to Visit

April and May, September to November

Warm weather and seemingly endless daylight make June through August high tourist season in Amsterdam. Opt for spring and fall for a happy balance between the summer rush and the cold, damp winters. Holland’s electric tulip bloom occurs around early April to mid-May, a truly spectacular reason to time your visit for spring. The event does draw a crowd and an uptick in prices, so we recommend booking accommodations several months in advance.

The Cheapest

December to February
In winter, hotels and restaurants are cheaper and less crowded with a more relaxed, local vibe. Although the temperature rarely dips below freezing, Amsterdam’s below-sea-level locale is grounds for a damp chill that cuts to the bone. However, when the waterways freeze over, the scene is pure magic: the canals become highways for skaters to dash through the city.

Most rain falls November through January, though substantial showers can occur year-round. Be prepared with layers and rain gear, especially if you’re touring on bike.

The Smart Place to Stay

Hotel de Jonker
Vibe: For those who want to live like a local with the benefits of a hotel
Locate in the city center, this 15-room residence-style hotel is ideal for cost-conscious and extended-stay travelers seeking an authentic experience. Rooms sleep anywhere from two to four guests and are equipped with kitchenettes that include a dishwasher, fridge, microwave oven, cooking utensils, glassware, and cutlery. There are also rain-showers, free wifi, and flat screen TVs. Though you won’t encounter any staff upon check-in (it's all conducted via cell phone), the rooms are cleaned daily and include hotel amenities, like bath products and a Nespresso machine with coffee and tea. Rates start at $145 per night, depending on the season. 

Sir Adam Hotel
Vibe: For trendspotting and scenesters
Sir Adam opened in 2017 in the first eight floors of the A’DAM Toren building, which also houses music industry giants Gibson, MassiveMusic, and Sony. As a nod to its location, each of the 108 rooms is equipped with a turntable, a selection of vinyl records, and a Gibson guitar. Rooms also have Illy espresso makers, rain showers, Bluetooth TVs, and floor-to-ceiling windows with panoramic views over the river and city center. The in-house bar and restaurant is open 24 hours a day and has a riverfront terrace where DJs spin in the evening hours. The property is right next to the EYE Film Museum, a two-minute walk from the Veer Buiksloterweg Ferry Terminal, and a short walk from Dam Square. Rates start at $178 per night, depending on the season. 

Generator Hostel
Vibe: Staff favorite, for the grownup backpacker
Forget everything you think of when you picture a hostel. The Generator Amsterdam — like all Generator properties — is clean, quiet, and sophisticated.

Adjacent to Oosterpark, the hostel is housed in the former University of Amsterdam science department building (c. 1916). Each of the 168 twin and quadruple rooms has a private bathroom, while the penthouse apartment has two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and sweeping park view. The building’s former lecture hall has been transformed into a lounge and bar, and a dining space and secret bar occupy the former boiler room. Bike rentals are available on-site. Rates start at $109 per night, depending on the season. 

What to Do & See

In Amsterdam, it's all about the museums.The Van Gogh Museum has the world's largest collection by the Dutch-born artist, while the Rijksmuseum is famed for its its impressive collection of Vermeers and Rembrandts. Meanwhile, the Stedelijk displays Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, De Kooning, Lichtenstein, and Warhol. Rembrandt House Museum contains the late painter’s studio; he lived and worked in the building between 1639 and 1656. The Hermitage Amsterdam, the outpost of Russia's state museum, features its own a multi-million-dollar collection.

Thanks to an elaborate network of bike lanes, cycling is the main mode of transit. Head to one of the city’s many bike shops, such as MacBike and Yellow Bike, to join the locals in navigating the city on two wheels.

One of the city's most popular attractions is the Anne Frank House. Visitors will get to see the Secret Annex, in the rear of the house, where the Franks lived before they were discovered and arrested by the Nazis. Anne’s actual diary is also on display behind glass. To minimize the wait time, purchase tickets online in advance for before 3:30 p.m., when the museum opens to the public.

The Pancake Bakery (near the Anne Frank House) makes enormous, paper-thin pancakes that are widely considered the best in Amsterdam. Try the traditional Dutch preparation, topped with syrup or powdered sugar, or a more elaborate concoction, including ice cream, bacon and cheese, or Thai curry — all of which hit the spot after a visit to one of the city’s coffee shops.

At De Hallen, the turn-of-the-century tram service station has been converted into a trendy complex of shops, restaurants, event spaces, and even a hotel. It hosts outdoor markets on weekends.

Grab a pint and a piece of history at the city’s oldest bar, Inʼt Aepjen, which has been open since 1519 and is one of only two wooden structures left in the building after the great fire in 1605.

Take a late-night tour of the city’s famous Red Light District, where you’ll wind through narrow alleys past window brothels, peep shows, and the world’s first condom shop.

Spend the afternoon exploring the hip neighborhood of Jordaan, home to the Amsterdam Tulip Museum and the Houseboat Museum. Snap a photo on Brouwersgracht, regarded as the most beautiful street in Amsterdam.

The Museum Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder is a hidden church that was used by Catholics during the 17th century when they were banned from worshipping. Rembrandt's wife is buried at Oude Kerk, the city's oldest church, which still retains its original roof from the 15th-century and stained glass windows from the 16th century.

Eight windmills remain in Amsterdam, the most famous of which is De Gooyer. Constructed in the 16th century, it's the tallest wooden mill in the Netherlands.

Be sure to sample Amsterdam’s traditional foods. Raw herring, sold at stalls all over town, is best between May and July; ask for a “broodje haring” to get the fish served in a small sandwich with pickles and onions. Stroopwafel, two thin waffles stuck together with a layer of syrup, is best served warm; and bitterballen, deep-fried meatballs with mustard for dipping, are quintessential pub fare.

The city is also home to many Indonesian eateries. Rijsttafel (rice table) is a medley of small dishes from all over the Spice Islands, that was developed during the Dutch colonization to provide colonials a sampling of dishes from around Indonesia.

However, the Netherlands is best known for its cheese — especially Gouda, Geitenkaas, and Maasdammer. To learn about Dutch cheeses, stop by the Cheese Museum or one of the city’s many kaas (cheese) shops.

Tips to Save Even More

Wander the streets to explore Amsterdam’s active street art scene.

For live music, check out  Melkweg and Paradiso (the latter of which is a  former church that holds multiple performances at a time). Every week (except for July and August),  Concertgebouw offers free lunch concerts at 12:30 p.m. in the Grote or Kleine ZaFrom. For half-price tickets for everything from opera to jazz, visit the Last Minute Ticket Shop on the Leidseplein between noon and 7.30 p.m. 

Pick up a free audio guide to the Royal Palace, which opened as a town hall in 1655 and became a palace in the 19th century.

Skip overpriced boat tours and stroll or cycle around the 400-year-old canal system on your own. The most picturesque of canals is Prinsengracht, lined by shady trees and funky houseboats.

Avoid taxis, and opt for trams and buses. From the airport, take the 15-minute train ride from to the Centraal Station for about $5.  For the best value, buy day passes — 8 euro (about $9) for one day, 13.50 euro ( approx. $15) for two days, 19 euro (about $21) for three days, or 24.50 euro (approx. $27) for four days — which covers unlimited travel throughout Amsterdam on all GVB trams, buses, metros, and ferries.

If you’re planning to visit several museums, the Iamsterdam City Card makes more sense. In addition to free and discounted admissions to most museums, it includes a free canal ride, free unlimited use of public transport, and a 25 percent discount on various attractions and restaurants (€60 or $67 for 24 hours, €80 or $88 for 48 hours, €93 or $103 for 72 hours, €105 or $116 for 96 hours, and €115 or $128 for 120 hours). 

Buy in bulk for two-wheel transit, too: often a one-day bike rental could cost anywhere from €7.50 to €15, while a three-day rental could cost about €15, or $18 USD.

Picnic at Vondelpark, the city’s largest green space, or one of Amsterdam’s hofjes – courtyards hidden from the street, such as the Begijnhof, formerly a 14th-century convent.

For a free panoramic view of the city, head for the roof terrace of the NEMO science centre.

Also, don’t over-tip; the Dutch standard is to round up the bill to the nearest euro or two.

Shop at the city’s expansive flea markets rather than in stores. The largest, Albert Cuypmarkt, is a general market in the heart of Pijp; the Dappermarkt in Oost and the Lindenmarkt in Jordaan are the most authentic. On Mondays, the Noordermarkt in Jordaan hosts an antiques fair that is less touristy than the famous Waterlooplein flea market. And, the most famous place to buy tulips is the Bloemenmarkt, along the Singel.

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