Affordable Amsterdam: 20 insider tips

by Fred.Mawer

It’s a classic destination for backpackers and travellers on a budget, but Amsterdam can be shockingly expensive. For a city break that doesn’t break the bank, here are 20 money-saving ideas

It is a city of atmospheric canals, old merchants’ villas, packed cafés and an endless stream of festivals, parades and art events; a quirky, creative and open-minded place ideal for a weekend break – but nobody can say Amsterdam is cheap. Average hotel room rates top £135 a night, it is easy to spend £30 a head on dinner in a modest café, and tickets to the city's two major cultural attractions (the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum) will make a £20 dent in your wallet. Yet, if you are in the know, there are ways of keeping spending to a minimum. Here are 20 money-saving suggestions, from my most recent trips.

1. Visit between November and March, when hotel rates can be 25 per cent lower than at other times of the year. Or travel midweek, when simple canal-front b&bs have lower rates than at weekends (and usually better availability).

2. Book into the Brouwer: the 17th-century sea captain's house is one of the best deals in town, with en-suite double rooms costing €95 a night, b&b.

3. Alternatively, reserve a bargain one-star bedroom, with shared bathroom, costing from €84 room-only, at the funky and welcoming Lloyd Hotel, out in the revivified eastern docklands.

4. Don't assume flying with a low-budget airline will be cheapest. Stena Line has rail-and-sail fares from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, with train travel on to Amsterdam, from £58 return.

5. If you do fly, resist taking a taxi from the airport: the journey will set you back at least €40. Instead, take the 15-minute train ride from Schiphol airport to the Centraal Station, in Amsterdam city centre. Tickets cost just €3.90 each way.

6. Avoid taxis generally. Rates are extortionate, especially for short journeys, with a flat €7.50 fee charged for the first 2km.

7. On trams and buses, don't buy individual tickets. Much better value is the 15-unit strippenkaart (strip ticket), covering seven central journeys for €7.30 – see www.gvb.nl for where to buy the ticket.

8. Rent a bike. The cheapest bikes have pedal brakes (easy to master) – and at MacBike (www.macbike.nl), a reputable outfit with a depot at the Centraal Station, cost €9.50 a day, plus €3 insurance.

9. Given the high cost of museum entry, consider investing in an I amsterdam Card, covering admission to 30 (including the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum), along with use of public transport. At €48 for 48 hours' validity, however, you'll have to go some to make it pay. See www.iamsterdamcard.com.

10. Don't bother with boat tours. At €12 for an hour-long cruise, even the cheapest are pricy – and the taped commentaries are uninspiring.

11. For a cheap but high-quality lunch, make a beeline to Burgermeester (www.burgermeester.eu) at Elandsgracht 130 in the Jordaan district. Though it is just a burger joint – burgers from €3 – it is one of the places rated most highly by the influential IENS restaurant guide.

12. Alternatively, put together a picnic from the mouth-watering salads, sandwiches and pastries on display at La Place (Kalverstraat 203), the café of the V&D department store.

13. Best free sights: Amsterdam’s hofjes – pristine courtyards, invisible from the street, surrounded by almshouses. The best known is the Begijnhof (www.begijnhofamsterdam.nl) but there are others in the Jordaan district, of which Karthuizerhof, on Karthuizersstraat, is the prettiest.

14. For a free, panoramic view of the city, head for the sloping suntrap roof terrace of the copper-clad NEMO science centre (www.e-nemo.nl). In the summer months, there is a party atmosphere on the terrace.

15. From September to June, the Concertgebouw (www.concertgebouw.nl) lays on free classical concerts on Wednesday lunchtimes at 12.30.

16. For half-price tickets for all sorts of shows – opera, ballet, pop concerts, jazz, theatre – visit the Last Minute Ticket Shop on the Leidseplein between noon and 7.30pm (see www.lastminuteticketshop.nl).

17. For a remarkably cheap supper, dine on no-nonsense traditional Dutch dishes such as chicory stew or meatballs at Hap-Hmm (www.welcome.to/hap-hmm), very much a locals’ hangout at 1e Helmerstraat 33. Three courses can cost less than €10; open Monday to Friday, 4.30pm-8pm.

18. Leaving substantial tips in restaurants and cafés is not part of Dutch culture – locals usually just round up the bill to the nearest euro or two.

19. For a cheap night out, take tram 10 to its final stop and wander across to Pacific Parc (www.pacificparc.nl) in the Westergasfabriek cultural complex. The vast, laidback café transforms into a free-to-enter nightclub late in the evening, with DJs and sometimes live bands performing.

20. The Rijksmuseum Amsterdam Schiphol (www.rijksmuseum.nl), after passport control between piers E and F, lays on small-scale but engrossing exhibitions using works taken from the Rijksmuseum itself – and it's free.

Fred.Mawer

As a travel journalist with over 20 years of experience, I have written numerous articles on Amsterdam for the travel sections of newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph, Mail on Sunday and The Independent. I've also contributed to guidebooks on Amsterdam for the AA and Dorling Kindersley.

For my portfolio of writing, I am proud to say that the Netherlands Board of Tourism has voted me Journalist of the Year 2010.

During my many and frequent visits to the Dutch capital, I've stayed in most of the best hotels (in all price brackets - not just the expensive ones), and visited dozens of others. I've eaten and drunk in more restaurants, cafés and bars than, even sober, I can remember. I've explored the canals by boat and bike and on foot. I've hunted for bargains in the markets. I've admired the art - and worked out how best to avoid the crowds and queues - in the must-see museums. When not in Amsterdam or on my travels elsewhere, I'm at home in Bath.

My Amsterdam

Where I always grab a beer - Café t' Smalle (Egelantiersgracht 12), a cosy, classic "brown café" with its own canalside terrace.

My favourite dining spot - Café de Reiger (Nieuwe Leliestraat 34), an atmospheric eetcafé in the Jordaan that is always packed with locals.

Best for people watching - A window seat in Snackbar Bird (Zeedijk 77), a great little no-frills Thai café on one of the main thoroughfares into the Red Light District.

My favourite stroll - Pick a canal, any canal...but the stretch of the Prinsengracht along the Jordaan district is particularly lovely.

Where to be seen - MiNiBAR (Prinsengracht 478), an unusual, newish bar near the Leidseplein where you get your own minibar (and unlike many of Amsterdam's trendy nightspots, it's easy to get in).

The most breathtaking view - from the top of the tower of the Westerkerk.

The best spot for some peace and quiet - Vondelpark, the city's main park - especially towards its less visited western end.

Shopaholics beware! The gourmet shops, funky art galleries, fashionable clothes boutiques and oddball stores that line the charming Negen Straatjes or Nine Streets quarter.

Best new attraction - Hermitage Amsterdam, which lays on no-expense-spared exhibitions of treasures from St Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

Don’t leave without...exploring the Eastern Docklands on a bike. The avant-garde modern architecture there is as memorable as the old gabled canal houses in the centre.