With its olive-green canals and handsome gabled houses, waterfront bars, bustling markets and exquisite art, Amsterdam never fails to charm. It’s a city that’s proud of its character, and the perfect balance between business and bohemia. Amsterdam undoubtedly has a lot to offer for every taste, but what about entertainment that doesn't eat into your wallet? In this guide, we've rounded up free things to do in Amsterdam.
There's no charge to wander past the stalls of the city’s wonderful floating flower market, the Bloemenmarkt (daily 9 am–5 pm, some stalls close on Sun), which extends along the southern bank of the Singel. Popular with locals and tourists alike, the market is one of the main suppliers of flowers to central Amsterdam, but its blooms and bulbs now share stall space with souvenir clogs, garden gnomes, Delftware and similar tat.
On the northeast edge of the city centre, Zeeburg has become one of the city’s most up-and-coming districts. Actually, a series of artificial islands and peninsulas connected by bridges, the docks here date back to the end of the nineteenth century. By the early 1990s, the area was virtually derelict so the city council began a massive renovation, which has been going on for the past fifteen years or so.
As a result, this is the fastest-developing part of Amsterdam, with a mixture of renovated dockside structures and new landmark buildings that give it a modern (and very watery) feel that’s markedly different from the city centre. The best way to explore is by bike.
A little gateway on the north side of the Spui leads into the Begijnhof, where a huddle of immaculately maintained old houses looks onto a central green. This is one of the city centre’s most beguiling sights, and one of the free things to do in Amsterdam.
It was founded in the fourteenth century as a home for the beguines – members of a Catholic sisterhood living as nuns, but without vows and with the right to return to the secular world.
This tailor-made trip will bring you the best of two countries: the Netherlands and Belgium. From the quaint streets, canals and windmills of Holland to beer and Belgium chocolate tasting in three beautiful Belgium cities. This trip has it all.
Just wandering the length of the city’s best (daily except Sun 10 am–5 pm) is a fine way to pass the time. It stretches for over 1km between Ferdinand Bolstraat and Van Woustraat and is the largest in the city, with a huge array of stalls selling everything from raw-herring sandwiches to saucepans.
Check out the ethnic shops that flank the market on each side, and the good-value Indian and Surinamese restaurants down the side streets.
Going to a concert at the Concertgebouw, one of the city's most impressive-looking – and -sounding – venues, is a great experience, especially when the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra are performing. The Grote Zaal (Great Hall) acoustics are unparalleled, while the smaller Kleine Zaal regularly hosts chamber concerts.
One of the best free things to do in Amsterdam is to listen to free 30min Wed lunchtime concerts held from Sept to May (doors open at 12.15 pm; arrive early), and in July and Aug there’s a heavily subsidized series of summer concerts.
Amsterdam is short of green spaces, which makes the leafy expanses of the Vondelpark, the city centre’s main park, one of its best attractions. The park possesses a wide variety of local and imported plants, an excellent rose garden, and a network of ponds and narrow waterways that are home to many sorts of wildfowl.
There are other animals too: cows, sheep, hundreds of squirrels, plus a large colony of bright-green (and very noisy) parakeets. During the summer the park also regularly hosts free concerts and theatrical performances, mostly in its own specially designed open-air theatre.
Vondelpark in Amsterdam © Shutterstock
The Amsterdam Museum, which occupies the rambling seventeenth-century buildings of the former municipal orphanage, surveys the city’s development from its origins as an insignificant fishing village to its present incarnation as a major metropolis and trading centre. You have to pay to enter the main museum, but this gallery, with its portraits of civic guards, is one of the free things to do in Amsterdam.
Note that in Amsterdam you have the opportunity to take a free ferry ride across the IJ River. The ferry is operated by GVB, Amsterdam's public transport company. Four ferry routes shuttle across the River IJ to allow access to the NDSM and Noord districts. You can catch one of the blue-hulled boats that ply each route for free.
Trapped in her house, Anne Frank liked to listen to the bells of the Westerkerk, just along Prinsengracht, until they were taken away to be melted down for the German war effort. The church still dominates the district, its 85-metre tower – without question Amsterdam’s finest – soaring graciously above its surroundings.
The church was designed by Hendrick de Keyser and completed in 1631 as part of the general enlargement of the city, but whereas the exterior is all studied elegance, the interior is bare and plain.
Before World War II, many local Jews worked as diamond cutters and polishers, but there’s little sign of the industry hereabouts today, the Gassan Diamonds factory being the main exception. Daily free guided tours include a visit to the cutting and polishing areas, as well as a gambol round Gassan’s diamond jewellery showroom.
Comprising a substantial chunk of wooded parkland, the Amsterdamse Forest is the city’s largest open space. Originally a bleak area of flat, marshy fields, it’s now a mixture of a well-tended city park, leafy waterways, deep woodland and grassy meadows, intersected by foot- and cycle paths.
The main entrance is on the northeast side of the park off Amstelveenseweg, and from here it’s a couple of minutes' walk to the De Boswinkel visitor centre, a large café and the Bosbaan – a dead-straight canal, popular for boating and swimming. Elsewhere in the park, there are children’s playgrounds, a goat farm and spaces for various sports, including ice skating.
The Cannabis College is a museum and educational centre dedicated to providing you with information about cannabis and its use. The College is a non-profit organisation, so it is free to attend, but you can donate any amount to its development.
Visitors can participate in a variety of educational programmes, including workshops on growing and cultivating cannabis, lectures on the history and medical uses of cannabis, and demonstrations of the various ways of using cannabis.
De Poezenboot (the Catboat) is a non-profit enterprise that is a floating shelter for street cats. The shelter was founded by a woman called Henriette van Weelde, who was concerned about the large number of stray cats in the city.
The Сatboat is open to visitors, where you can watch and interact with its furry inhabitants. Visiting the boat is free of charge, the enterprise exists solely through donations, and you can also financially adopt one of the pets. The boat is also of interest for visits with children.
If you're a little tired of the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum Garden is a peaceful oasis in the heart of the city with a diversity of trees, bushes, flowers and statues. The garden is divided into several parts, including a rosarium, a pond with fountains and a secluded area with bench seats for quiet contemplation of the surroundings.
A walk around Dam Square, commonly known simply as Dam, which gave its name to Amsterdam, located in the heart of the city, is one of the free things to do in Amsterdam to get to know the city. Today it’s an open and airy, but somehow rather desultory space, despite – or perhaps partly because of – the presence of the main municipal war memorial.
It comes as no surprise that in the Netherlands you can find an enormous amount of activities outside of Amsterdam. Read our guide to the best things to do in the Netherlands and get more information about this fascinating destination.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Amsterdam without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
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Top image: Amsterdam on a bicycle © RossHelen/Shutterstock