A trip to Amsterdam need not squeeze on the wallet; the city is full of fantastic things to do free of charge. From whiling away time in a secret garden and wandering boat-speckled canals to exploring Amsterdam's trendiest district, you can have a thrifty day out in the Dutch capital.
Below our expert shares his suggestions, while for further Amsterdam inspiration, see our guides to the city's best hotels, restaurants, bars and cafés, shopping, attractions and how to spend a weekend in Amsterdam.
Catch the sun in a secret courtyard
Through a brown wooden door, leading off the busy Spui square, lies another world – a tranquil garden courtyard, edged by dinky gabled buildings. The Begijnhof dates back to the early 15th century, when it was built for beguines, a form of lay nun. In 1607, the church at the heart of the courtyard was offered to Protestant dissenters fleeing England. Later they later sailed to America, becoming the Pilgrim Fathers. The last beguine died in 1971, but the houses are still occupied by single women. At number 34, one of only two remaining medieval timber facades remains in town.
Nearest transport: Trams 2, 11, 12
Canal Belt – West
Meander through the heart of Amsterdam
Amsterdam is its canals. Walking along them is one of the city’s greatest pleasures. The streets are bicycle-crazy, but relatively car-free and most of the inner city dates from the 17th to 19th centuries: low rise, with lines of decorative gable tops. The grand 17th-century canals of the Grachtengordel – the Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht – are a must, but a stroll along smaller ones at night, when the gabled houses look like strings of lanterns, is preferable. A favourite beauty spot on the western part of the Grachtengordel is Brouwersgracht, just ten minutes from Central Station.
Nearest transport: Trams 2, 11, 12, 13, 17
Browse the shopping beat of Amsterdam
The nine little alleys crisscrossing the main canals, from Reestraat through to Wijde Heisteeg, are Amsterdam’s most charming shopping area, but also simply for an atmospheric stroll. Once the realm of quirky speciality shops, the quarter is moving more towards designer goods and fashion – though some of the specialist shops, such as one selling only candles and incense, remain, and some of the newer concept stores have just as intriguing (or bewildering) a selection of oddities. If, despite all intentions, you find yourself tempted to spend, it takes little effort to flip back and forth between shops to compare.
Nearest transport: Trams 2, 11, 12, 13, 17
Museum district and De Pijp
Stroll through the city's finest park
Amsterdam’s 'green lung' is a pleasing profusion of forested patches, formal gardens, abundant shrubberies, open lawns, lakes and ponds. There are playgrounds, an open-air theatre, cafés – and plenty of people. In good weather, the park can get so crowded, it’s like being inside. But the Vondelpark is central, fun, and a great place for a morning jog, or an afternoon breather. Top spot for tea or a meal is ’t Blauwe Theehuis (The Blue Teahouse), an eye-catching 1930s building in the heart of the park. Check their Facebook page for occasional party nights.
Nearest transport: Trams 1, 2, 3, 5, 11, 12
Oosterdok and Amsterdam East
Explore the city's cutting-edge architecture
The artificial islands and once-derelict docklands east of Central Station have been given a massive makeover, involving some of the most adventurous architecture in the country. First off is Renzo Piano’s copper-clad, ship-like NEMO building (a science museum). The surreal bridges and precariously angled gables on Java Island, and the style-magazine showpiece homes along Scheepstimmermanstraat on Borneo Island, are fascinating. The Openbare Bibliotheek (Public Library) is not a place you’d normally think of visiting on a city trip, but take the escalators to the top – the café has one of the best views in town.
Nearest transport: Tram 26; Bus 48; Metro: Centraal Station
De Jordaan and Amsterdam West
Hang out in the trendy 'old quarter'
Inviting side-streets, intimate canals, galleries, quirky shops and neighbourhood cafés lure you this way and that in what was once a working-class area southwest of the Prinsengracht. Jordaaners (born within the sound of the carillon of the Westerkerk bell tower) once had a pride and culture akin to London’s cockneys. You can still savour something of the old spirit in cafés like De Twee Zwaantjes, known for its rousing singalongs. Saturdays are a good time to visit De Jordaan, when there’s a busy general market on Lindengracht, and a farmers’ and flea market around the Noorderkerk.
Nearest transport: Trams 3, 5, 13, 17