38 Things to Do for Free in Amsterdam
With its blockbuster museums, cutting-edge design, and a Michelin-starred restaurant for every month of the year, the Dutch capital can be heavy on the wallet. Amsterdam local Mark Smith gives us his top tips for exploring the city free of charge.
See awesome art
The legendary Rijksmuseum garden is a safe bet if you want to catch monumental art, and sculptural works in the garden are always free. Currently on view: twelve pieces by Louise Bourgeois, one of the most renowned artists of the 20th century, including three of her monumental spider sculptures. Not into the creepy-crawly? Hold out for the next biannual ArtZuid sculpture trail, which features striking works by eminent sculptors including Tony Cragg and Frank Stella, held on the wide, Hendrik Berlage-designed avenues of the monied residential districts to the south of Amsterdam.
Listen to music
Keep your ear to the ground and you can find a free gig practically every day of the year in Amsterdam. The Dutch National Opera & Ballet puts on free concerts at 12:30 p.m. almost every Tuesday, while Het Concertgebouw holds its free lunch shows at the same hour on Wednesdays. The Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ features free lunch concerts one Thursday each month, and the neighboring, jazz-focused Bimhuis offers at least one free evening jam session or show per week. Jazz fans should also check out Jazz Café Alto, which hosts intimate get-togethers every day of the week from local musicians like the famed Dutch saxophonist Hans Dulfer.
With elm-lined canals and more bridges than Venice, Amsterdam has no shortage of free vantage points from which to observe its never-ending program of water-based festivities. Every summer the city hosts the Canal Parade, one of the biggest gay pride celebrations in Europe, with brightly colored boats and wild events like the Drag Queen Olympics; for the best view, head to the banks of the Prinsengracht. In mid- to late August, the Grachtenfestival comes to town. The classical music extravaganza culminates in a free-for-all concert performed on platforms on the waters of the Prinsengracht. Meanwhile, the spectacle at the heart of the SAIL Amsterdam event is the arrival of the tall ships, which you can see (for free!) from the roof of the ship-shaped, Renzo Piano–designed Nemo children’s science museum.
Amsterdam has a long history as a trading and polishing center for the jewel trade, and both of Amsterdam’s most famous bling factories, Coster and Gassan, offer tours of its sparkling buildings for free. Naturally, both places encourage you to exit through the gift shop. Time to make your excuses and leave.
Named for Holland’s first and only world chess champion, the Max Euweplein, with its giant chessboard and amphitheater terrace, is a meeting point for serious players. Should you fail to snag a board there, kill some time with a visit to the little-known but no less free Max Euwe Centrum chess museum. Or decamp to the city’s other alfresco playing field, which is under the trees in front of the Tropenmuseum. In the Westerpark racket sports are the thing. The tennis courts at Big Ali tennis club are free to the public daily until 1 p.m. and whenever lessons aren’t in session. There’s also a gratis ping-pong table.
Take a dip
Unless you’re participating in the annual Amsterdam City Swim event, avoid a dip in the canals at all cost. Come summertime, Amsterdam’s outlying green spaces offer numerous opportunities for dippers and divers to swim in nature. Among the finest examples are the Stootersplas lake in Het Twiske, the natural recreation area to the north of Amsterdam, and the amazing Nieuwe Meer, whose banks are filled with beer-sipping sunbathers and adorable cattle.
Although many of Amsterdam’s big name cultural institutions require an entrance fee, some have areas that can be accessed free of charge. At the striking, shark-like EYE Film Museum, don't miss the ground-floor "EYE pods" (which tell the story of filmmaking in the Netherlands and farther afield). Similarly free, the Schuttersgalerij (Civic Guards’ Gallery) of the Amsterdam Museum is an impressive alleyway lined with art depicting the city’s historical elite, from merchants to soccer players. You can also spend an afternoon exploring Stadsarchief (City Archive), which chronicles Amsterdam’s evolution via remarkable photographs, documents, and early film footage.
Sample good eats
Although it may look like an upscale café, Property Of… is actually the European flagship store for the Singaporean men’s bag brand. Everyone who works there is a trained barista and will happily offer you a free coffee, whether you’re browsing or just blagging. A less glamorous way of getting caffeinated gratis is to hit up one of branches of the national grocery chain Albert Heijn, which offers complimentary paper cups of house-brand but good coffee. If you happen to be in the Oud-West district, try the one on Jan Pieter Heijestraat. And of course, tempting morsels of cheese, bread, and meat dot the aisles of the many branches of gourmet supermarket Marqt.
The GVB ferry from behind Central Station take passengers, bikes, dogs, and the occasional lazy seagull across the waters of the IJ over to Amsterdam Noord for free. Once you arrive at Buiksloterweg, speak to the charming staff members at the Tourist Information Point; they'll be happy to arm you with free maps of bike tours for in and around the up-and-coming district. Back on the more traveled side of the water, the red-shirted crew at Sandeman’s Tours offers an excellent three-hour walking jaunt throughout the city. More interested in gliding around? Friday Night Skate, which has been a proud Amsterdam tradition since 1997, is a weekly procession of in-line skaters of all skill levels, who rock-and-roll their way across tarmac, cobblestones, and pavement. Just bring your own skates.
Enjoy outdoor entertainment
Amsterdam has an extraordinary array of free green spaces, each of which has its own unique character. There’s the dynamic Westerpark, with its repurposed industrial buildings and entirely free WiFi; the small Sarphatipark in the bohemian De Pijp district; and the slightly rough-around-the-edges Oosterpark, where fascinating sculptures celebrate the Dutch virtues of free speech and liberty. Throughout the summer the stately Vondelpark’s Openluchttheater is an alfresco podium with a diverse program of dance, stand-up comedy (phrase book at the ready!), jazz, pop and world music. Hidden in courtyards off the mazelike side streets of the once working-class Jordaan district, you'll find a host of communal gardens built by the rich in the 17th century for the enjoyment and edification of slum dwellers. They’re called hofjes, and notable examples include the Claes Claesz Hofje (near Egelantiersstraat 50) and the absurdly photogenic Karthuizerhof off Karthuizerstraat.
Get your culture fix
Amsterdam’s 17th-century Golden Age couldn’t have blossomed without the city’s reputation for religious tolerance. Nowadays, many of Amsterdam’s churches have been repurposed as concert venues, museums, and art spaces. But there remain a number of places of worship where you can attend a service or admire the historical interiors on a wing and a prayer. They include the Westerkerk, where Rembrandt was buried, the Noorderkerk in the Jordaan, the H.H. Petrus en Pauluskerk (nicknamed "the Parrot" because it was originally concealed behind a bird-trader’s house), and the spectacular Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, which has the status of a national monument.
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