A mash-up of tradition, technology and creative energy, Amsterdam’s star continues to rise – as do travel costs.
Save money by taking advantage of a host of freebies, from architectural jewels and archeological treasures to inventive art exhibitions and concerts. Here’s our guide to the best free things to do in the Netherlands’ spirited capital.
Make your travel budget go a little further with insider tips from our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. Amsterdam’s canals are a feat of engineering from the Dutch Golden Age © InnervisionArt / Shutterstock
1. Wander through the “living museum” of Amsterdam’s Canal Ring
Roaming along the canals flowing through central Amsterdam (the city has more than Venice) is like being let loose in an open-air museum. A feat of engineering from the Dutch Golden Age, lined by tilting, gabled canal houses and spanned by quaint hump-back bridges, Amsterdam’s 400-year-old waterways are a Unesco World Heritage site, with photo opportunities at every turn.
In a former shipbuilding warehouse, NDSM Loods now contains more than 80 studios © Quince Graphics / Shutterstock
2. Watch artists at work in studios at former shipyards
Free ferries take you across the IJ river, from Amsterdam’s historic canal ring to post-industrial Amsterdam Noord – one of the city’s most up-and-coming neighborhoods.
In a former shipbuilding warehouse, NDSM Loods now contains more than 80 studios, where upwards of 250 artists unleash their imaginations. Exhibitions are displayed beneath the hangar’s girders in its gallery space, NDSM Fuse. Set aside at least a couple of hours to walk or cycle through the vast site.
3. Marvel at archaeological finds dating back millennia in a metro station
When the 2018-opened Noord/Zuidlijn metro line was dug beneath Amsterdam’s streets and waterways, objects were unearthed dating as far back as 2400 BCE – among them medieval ice skates, Golden Age pottery, 19th-century pocket watches and buttons and 20th-century tech, such as early mobile phones. Passengers at the Rokin metro station can see the artifacts at the exhibit Below the Surface, displayed in glass cases between the escalators.
4. Ramble between rose bushes, hedges and elegant statues at the Rijksmuseum
An Amsterdam secret – unknown even to many locals – is that the Renaissance and baroque gardens of its premier museum, the Rijksmuseum, are free and open to the public, along with occasional sculpture exhibitions held amid the greenery.
Amsterdam’s NEMO science museum is a city landmark, with a roof terrace designed as a public square © Getty Images / iStockphoto
5. Learn about sustainable energy on NEMO’s scenic roof terrace
Jutting into the IJ river, Amsterdam’s boat-shaped, green-copper NEMO science museum is a city landmark, and its 22m-high (72ft) roof terrace (Amsterdam’s largest) was designed as a public square, with a sweeping panorama over the watery city below.
Interact with the elements like a control-it-yourself kite and a sundial at its open-air Energetica exhibition, and splash around with 4000 liters (1057 gallons) of water pouring through 30 receptacles and pools at the summertime Cascade. (The rooftop closes in bad weather.)
6. Experience local life at the Albert Cuypmarkt
To get a feel for the “real” Amsterdam, trawl its largest street market, the Albert Cuypmarkt. Unfurling along Albert Cuypstraat between Ferdinand Bolstraat and Van Woustraat, in the lively neighborhood of De Pijp, it’s the place locals shop for shimmering fabrics, bike locks, socks, fresh flowers and a vast array of snacks, such as herring sandwiches and, of course, Dutch cheeses (stalls often offer samples). The market sets up every day except Sundays.
7. Revel in electrifying jazz at a Bimhuis jam session
Rollicking jam sessions at the Bimhuis – the core of Amsterdam’s influential jazz scene – take place every Tuesday at 10pm from September to June and feature an eclectic array of local and international talent.
Step inside the legendary Concertgebouw orchestra hall without shelling out a single euro © Patrick van Katwijk / Getty Images
8. Preview classical music performances at the Concertgebouw
The Concertgebouw’s free lunchtime shows are often rehearsals for musicians playing the famed classical hall later that evening; you might also catch chamber music by up-and-coming performers. Concerts typically take place at 12:30pm on Wednesdays between September and June.
The floating Bloemenmarkt is set for a spruce-up that will incorporate more blooms and fewer kitschy souvenirs © Getty Images / iStockphoto
9. Browse Amsterdam’s colorful flower market
Take a heady stroll along Singel between Muntplein and Koningsplein, home of the Bloemenmarkt. The city’s “floating” flower market was founded in 1862, when horticulturalists sailed here to hawk their wares.
Recent years saw it overrun by kitschy souvenirs, such as fluffy clogs, but after a consultation with locals and visitors concluded in 2022, it’s set for a spruce-up that will incorporate more tulips, daffodils, lilies and other blooms against the dramatic canal backdrop.
10. Seek out the peaceful Begijnhof courtyard in Amsterdam’s busy center
To find the hidden Begijnhof, enter the door off Gedempte Begijnensloot (near heaving shopping strip Kalverstraat) and a tranquil oasis of diminutive 14th-century houses and gardens appears, along with two clandestine, relic-filled churches.
While the last of the Catholic Beguines died in 1971, it’s still the home of 105 women residents, so visitors need to be respectful (no photos) and preserve the hushed silence.
11. Explore the world’s largest city archives
Amsterdam’s Stadsarchief occupies a glorious century-old former bank. Fascinating displays at the archives rotate regularly, so you never know what you’ll find: a 1942 police report on Anne Frank’s bike theft, photos from John and Yoko’s 1969 bed-in at the Hilton or a 1625 city map. The Amsterdam Treasure Room and most exhibitions are free.
Become a diamond expert on the Gassan Diamond Factory Tour © Will Salter / Lonely Planet
12. Discover diamonds’ secrets on a factory tour
Don’t know your princess cut from your marquise, or a river from a top cape? Get a debriefing on diamonds during a one-hour tour of Gassan’s workshop.
Originally powered by steam when it was built in the 19th century, the factory is beautifully restored. You’ll watch pro polishers in action as a primer on assessing diamonds, then land in a gift shop selling sparklers.
13. Get schooled at Cannabis College
Nonprofit center Cannabis College educates visitors about Amsterdam’s favorite herb, which flourishes here in its own organic garden. Chat with staff about coffee-shop etiquette, view displays of paraphernalia, browse hemp-made products or try out a vaporizer. Various courses cover cannabis’ recreational, cultural, medicinal and industrial uses and cultivation.
Amsterdam’s Centrale Bibliotheek provides great views of the city as well as great reads © Bikeworldtravel / Shutterstock
14. Check out Amsterdam’s awesome main library
At the Netherlands’ largest public library, the light, bright OBA: Centrale Bibliotheek, you can catch various exhibitions, screenings and events, or just settle into a cushy sofa for an afternoon’s reading. Just don’t get so comfy that you miss the city panorama from the top floor, with a summer terrace opening from its restaurant.
15. Meet adorable kitties living aboard the “cat boat”
Fans of all things feline should make a beeline for the quirky Poezenboot, which has served as a stray-cat sanctuary on the Singel since 1966. Today it’s home to some 50 cats, many of whom are looking to be adopted. Admission is free, but donations are warmly welcomed.
16. Visit Amsterdam’s last remaining country mansion, Frankendael
See how wealthy 18th-century Amsterdammers spent summers in once-bucolic surrounds at Huize Frankendael, the last country mansion standing (there were once more than three dozen) within the present-day city limits. On Sunday afternoons the house is opened to visitors and often hosts art exhibitions.
The beautifully landscaped gardens are free to explore throughout the week; don’t miss the artisan producers showcasing their creations at De Pure Markt, held in the grounds on the last Sunday of the month.
17. View cutting-edge photography exhibitions at Melkweg Expo
Just around the corner from legendary nightlife venue Melkweg, late-opening gallery space Melkweg Expo celebrates pop-culture, society and identity through inspired contemporary photography at free exhibitions throughout the year. Enter via the Milk Cafe.
18. Catch summertime performances in Amsterdam’s most popular park
Amsterdam’s leafy Vondelpark is beloved by locals for its expansive lawns, striking sculptures (including one by Picasso) and festive atmosphere, which peaks on sunny summer days when free concerts – world music, dance, plays, stand-up comedy and more – take place at its open-air theater, the Openluchttheater.
19. Look out for free lunchtime classical concerts at the Muziektheater
Lunchtime classical concerts have been a long-time favorite at this mod venue that’s home to the Dutch National Opera and Ballet. While the pandemic put the half-hour performances (held most Tuesdays between September and June) on hold, it’s anticipated they will eventually return, so keep tabs on the website to hear the high Cs fly for free.
This article was first published in March 2013, last updated February 2020.