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 -- about 17 million people in 2016, up from 12 million five years earlier -- the Dutch capital is constructing 2,500 new hotel rooms over the next three years.
However, 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 announced a plan to increase taxes on tourists by €10 a night.
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.
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
This brand new (as of 2017) 15-room residence-style hotel in the city center is perfect for cost-conscious and extended-stay travelers seeking an authentic experience. Rooms sleep two to four guests and have kitchenettes -- complete with dishwasher, fridge, microwave oven, cooking utensils, glassware, and cutlery – as well as rain-showers, free WiFi, and flat screen TVs. Though you won’t encounter any staff upon check-in, which is conducted via cell phone, the rooms are cleaned daily and include hotel amenities, like bath products and a Nespresso machine with coffee and tea. We found the lowest nightly rates at $116 USD for a studio on a Sunday in November, and the highest rates starting at $191 on weeknights in May and July, though the majority of nights were $226 and up.
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 is also occupied by 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 IJ-river and the city center. The in-house bar and restaurant are open 24 hours a day and have a riverfront terrace where DJs spin in the evening hours. The Sit Adam is right next to the EYE Film Museum, a 2-minute walk from the Veer Buiksloterweg Ferry Terminal, and 2 km from Dam Square. The cheapest nightly rates we found were around $160 USD midweek in December and January; February and March were just slightly higher at about $170, compared with rates starting around $210 per night in June and $230 during the tulip bloom in April and May.
Vibe: Staff favorite, for the grownup backpacker
Forget everything you think of when you picture a hostel; the new Generator Amsterdam -- like all Generator properties -- is clean, quiet, and sophisticated. Adjacent to Oosterpark, the hostel occupies the former University of Amsterdam science department building (c. 1916), redone with playful colors and graphics/design features . Each of the 168 twin and quadruple rooms has a private bathroom ensuite; a penthouse apartment has two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and views over the park. The building’s former lecture hall has been transformed into a lounge and bar, a dining space and a secret bar occupy the former boiler room, and there are several meeting and workspaces. Bike rentals are available on site. Starting rates are €18 for shares, €75 (about $21 USD) for private rooms, and €250 for the luxury suite (about $300 USD). We found the lowest rates in February, at about $75 USD for a twin private room ($20 for shared) on a weeknight, and just slightly higher at $80 in December and January. The most expensive rates were in April and June, from about $170 per night for a private and $30 for a shared room.
Next year, the city will see the highly anticipated Breeze, the first hotel to operate almost entirely on solar and wind power; the Park Inn by Radisson Amsterdam City West opening in the Sloterdijk Business Park, alongside the city’s major corporations; and the latest in Marriott’s millennial-focused MOXY chain, expected to open in January near the Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank Huis.
What to Do & See
In Museum Square, the Van Gogh Museum has the world's largest collection by the Dutch-born artist; the Rijksmuseum was the most-visited art museum in Europe in 2013 and 2014 for its impressive collection of Vermeers and Rembrandts; and the Stedelijk displays Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, De Kooning, Lichtenstein, and Warhol.
Outside the square, the Museum het Rembrandthuis 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, has 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.
Amsterdam’s most popular attraction is the Anne Frank Huis. See the Secret Annexe, in the rear of the house, where the Franks lived before they were discovered and arrested by the Nazis, and Anne’s actual diary, 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 Huis) 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.
Churches: The recently restored 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.
Try 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, 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, the non-profit Melkweg and Paradiso (a former church that holds multiple performances at a time) are inexpensive and have a cult following. From September to June, the Concertgebouw lays on free classical concerts on Wednesdays at 12:30 p.m. 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 just €3.90 one way (under $5 USD). For the best value, buy day passes -- 16 euro (about $19 USD) for one day, 21 euro ($25) for two days, or 26 euro ($30) for three 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 (€57 or $67 USD for 24 hours, €67 or $79 USD for 48 hours, €77 or $90 USD for 72 hours, and €87 or $102 USD for 96 hours).
Buy in bulk for two-wheel transit, too: often a one-day bike rental could be from €7.50 to €15, and a three-day rental could also be €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.
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.