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Imagine that it’s your first time in Amsterdam. Like most travelers on a trip around Europe, you’ve only penciled in a short weekend to explore the Dutch capital. While this might not be our recommended way to see the city, it is doable… or at least we can pack the weekend with enough activities to offer a wide variety of experiences and hopefully make you want to come back for more!
Here’s our quick guide to introducing yourself to Amsterdam — without paying too much for the experience!
You’ve arrived at Amsterdam Centraal station with just enough time to check in and have a night out. Do not take the taxi to your hotel unless you’re ready to spend €20 on the ride. At €2.75 for a one-hour ticket, trams are a better option in general for Amsterdam transit.
Note: If you haven’t yet found a place to stay in the city, swing by our guide to central budget hotels in Amsterdam. We’ve inspected, reviewed and chosen our favorite hotels that are all within walking distance of the sights mentioned in this itinerary. (Read more in our Amsterdam guide.)
Amsterdam Friday nights as a first timer basically demands a visit to the Red Light District. Take in all the eye candy by wandering through the oldest part of the city. Aim for streets like “Oudezijds Voorburgwal” and “Oudezijds Achterburgwal,” and all the alleyways in between. The Red Light District is safe and secure, more of an attraction than seedy streets. (Still, here’s a quick guide to scams to avoid when visiting.)
Enjoy a night cap at one of the many old sailor Dutch “brown cafes” off Nieuwmarkt or Zeedijk, the oldest street in the city. I’d recommend a micro brew at De Prael, a local brewery where each beer is named after a late great Dutch celebrity. A midnight stroll through the romantic Jordaan canal district is a top-notch way to end a first night out (for free!).
NOTE: For cannabis smokers, try to refrain from coffeeshops in the Red Light District. They’re all over priced and geared towards the uneducated pot smoker. Save your “down time” for later in the visit when you’ve got all the “must sees” checked off the list. (Coffee confusion? Read our article on the difference between coffeeshops and cafes.)
Bike it, and build around one idea
The best way to see Amsterdam is by bike, so rent one at least for a day. These bikes are easy going, fun and simple to use. Even the less-coordinated pedal pushers will love it. The streets were made for biking here. It’s healthy, it’s safe, and it beats being dragged around in a tram all day. Get to know the local bike safety rules, and pedal off!
For a daily dose of history, go for a guided bike tour. There are many to choose at competitive prices (€15 to €25 for a few hours).
If you do decide to ditch the bike idea, at least check out a walking tour. Tours are great for wrapping your head around new cultures and getting your bearings in a new city. Check out New Amsterdam Free Tours for stellar guides working on a tips only basis (tours at 11:30 am and 1:30 pm daily from Dam Square).
By afternoon you’ve seen the city life, and it’s time to step indoors. You can’t see the Anne Frank Huis, Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt Huis and Heineken Experience all in one day. So pick one that tickles your fancy most, and build your afternoon around it.
Anne Frank and free activities in the Jordaan
Since we’re strapped for time and in a Cheapo frame of mind, let’s say your pick is Anne Frank Huis, located on Prinsengracht just next to the magnificent Westerkerk (West Church). Don’t go right in the middle of the day, as it will be far too crowded. Instead, first spend some time walking down the canal towards Noorderkerk (North Church).
Between these two churches are a plethora of (free) pit stops. The Cheese Museum has an endless supply of free samples fresh from the farms. Next door, the Tulip Museum is an adorably quaint look-see of everything tulip.
Another block down is the Go Gallery, a fun and creative look at the city’s latest urban artists. And music and photography lovers will dig the Rock Archive’s collection of stunning black and white posters of rock legends.
Coffee breaks on the canal are best on the P96 café boat, but authentic and cozy brown cafes dot the Prinsengracht with charm and character. By the time you’ve arrived at Noorderkerk you’ll be in the thick of Saturday’s organic food market. Look for fresh oysters, baked goods, exotic herbs and pressed juices. It’s also a good spot for trinkets and postcards.
When it’s time to hit the Anne Frank Huis, buy your tickets online so you can skip the line. Last-minute buyers will want to pass by late afternoon, the museum is open until 9 pm during off-season, 7 pm during high season. (We recommend visiting at night. Here are some more time-saving tips for visiting Amsterdam.)
Give yourself about an hour inside, and expect to feel a little down afterwards. Trust me, the best pick-me-up is a slice of apple cake and a bike ride!
Free music for the night out
Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein are the hotspots for going out at night. This is when your wallet can run amok, so keep it cheap by finding quick eats. Places like Wok 2 Walk for Asian food, Maoz Falafel, and pizza joints are everywhere. Choose these over burgers and fries for a healthy meal, satisfying for both your tummy and wallet. (Read more about cheap eats in Amsterdam.)
Get a taste of nightlife on the cheap by checking out live music spots. Mulligan’s Irish bar has nightly live music at Rembrandtplein, but my pick is Jazz Café Alto at Leidseplein. It’s exciting, energetic, small and intimate; well worth the €5 for a Saturday night.
Other places like Bourbon Street Blues (€5) and the Last Waterhole (€1) keep the party going with live tunes until 4 am! But if relaxing is your forte, a brown bar on Nieuwmarkt can dish out a cold Heineken as you people watch from one of the many outdoor terraces overlooking the square.
Wrap up with a canal cruise, coffeeshop, and cultural cuisine
It’s your last day in Amsterdam, and you’re exhausted from a busy Saturday. Take it easy this morning by opting for a lazy canal cruise (€12 to €16+) to float you around the center. Boat tours really give visitors a chance to step back and marvel at the funny facades of Amsterdam’s buildings. And it’s a way to be active while giving your body a rest!
Lunchtime is the best time to dine out on the cheap, menus offer lower prices and restaurants aren’t as busy. Thai Bird on Zeedijk has excellent lunch deals, while Burgermeester spots are great for healthy, hearty burgers. Outdoor markets like Albert Cuypmarkt, and Albert Heijn grocery stores have many options to go, and all-you-can-eat sushi is best at Sumo on Leidseplein and Vijzelstraat.
Or you could grabs a coffee or tea and experience one of Amsterdam’s fine “coffeeshops.” Stay out of the Red Light District or pay too much for bad quality. If you’re looking for the classic setting and decent cannabis, you’ll love places like De Dampkring. The more experienced smokers will want to try Grey Area. Whatever you decide, be responsible, and never mix cannabis with alcohol.
Café Klos on Kerkstraat has the best ribs in town with a cozy brown bar ambiance. Not far is Café de Zotte, a Belgian beer bar that locals love for their selection and steak. Be ready to pay about €20 for a plate, but it will always include a salad and frites!
Those curious about Dutch cuisine should try stamppot at Moeders, down the Rozengracht West from Westerkerk. Crazy for pancakes? I’d say the Pancake Bakery on the Prinsengracht has the best setting and selection (although I recommend two additional pancake joints here). And spice lovers who want to turn up the heat can find Indonesian, Thai and Chinese dishes along Zeedijk, Amsterdam’s Chinatown. Dishes at these spots can range from €10 up.
End your weekend with a bird’s eye view of the city from OBA, the free public library just by Amsterdam Centraal station. Soak it in, grab your bags, and hop on the train. We’ll see you again!