One of the most visited cities in Europe, Amsterdam, while unique, comes at a high price. While the only thing that seems to come cheap here is the weed, traversing this city can be a huge budget breaker for backpackers. As with any city however, there are ways to explore this legendary canal town without spending too many pennies above budget.
When looking at hostel prices ahead of arriving in Amsterdam, I almost dropped my computer. Hostel beds were being posted for $60 or more. Private rooms were well over $140 for even the crappiest of hotels and AirBnB wasn’t much better. While you will end up paying more than you want to for accommodation in The Dam, there are ways to make it less painful.
There are two main factors that affect the price of accommodation in the city, the time of year, and weekends versus weekdays. During high season (April-September) prices are the highest. Expect to pay at least $50 for a dorm bed in most places, along with crowded streets and attractions. For a more pleasant experience, hit Amsterdam in the shoulder season in the months of March, and November. Prices begin to drop and the cooler temperatures mean you can enjoy the cafes and canals more as the crowds begin to thin out. Prices are at their lowest when the temperatures are too, but the city is less enjoyable to walk around and daylight hours are short. From our research, it seems the sweet spot to visit in the fall was right after we visited, as accommodation prices seemed to be cut in half the week after our stay around the first week of November.
Year round, Amsterdam is a popular weekend trip for European tourists. Therefore, the best prices to be found throughout the year are on weekdays. Do your best to avoid weekends and you will find the best prices in respect to what time of year you visit.
Claire and I ended up in a train hostel that was literally a sleeper train that was converted into a hostel right in the rail yard. While tight on space, it proved a comfortable and unique place to lay our heads down each night. It ended up costing us $30 per bed between the last week of October and first week of November.
Museums: Long Lines and High Ticket Prices
Ticket prices in Amsterdam have been the highest we have seen throughout our travels in Europe. It is not uncommon to pay at least 15 euros for most museums. In addition to the price tags, many of the more popular museum wait times can feel like your waiting to get on a roller coaster at an amusement park. To avoid this, buy tickets to the museums you want to go to in advance. This cuts down your wait time considerably. Claire and I did not go into any museums in Amsterdam as we had our fair share of museums throughout Europe previously. Instead, we decided to enjoy the free activities of Amsterdam as well as the country side around the city.
Amsterdam for Free
Amsterdam has plenty of activities and sights to keep budget minded travelers amused for a couple of days. Combined with day trips out into the immediate area of Amsterdam, it makes for a great introduction into the city and country.
As for in the city, the canal district with its crooked buildings makes for enjoyable walks. Whenever your feet get tired, for a few euros you can rest and treat yourself in a coffee shop or coffee house in Amsterdam. Yes, there is a big difference between these two as one has very different aromas wafting out of its doors. Coffee shops are where locals and tourists buy and smoke marijuana while coffee houses are what you would expect… a place that sells coffee. Depending on your preferences, one or the other is a must do while in the city. Just follow your nose, and you will end up in the right place!
Within the canal district lies the web of streets known as the Red Light District. Perhaps the most cliche area of Amsterdam, it is also the more unusual placse to venture through in any city. Windows saturated in red lights line the pathways of this pedestrian area. Inside the windows, are scantily dressed women tapping on the glass and winking, seeking the attention of potential customers. Most of the prostitutes working in the district are self employed. They file taxes just like everyone else and also set up their own rules for customer interaction, and are protected by the police who patrol the area. They come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, seeming to appeal to every customer’s possible fantasies. While walking around and checking out the windows are free, DO NOT take pictures of the women that are working. The women are here for work, not to pose for free pictures for tourists. If you do start snapping photos, you might vary well find your camera thrown into a nearby canal. Just don’t do it.
The Red Light District is also where you will find the highest concentration of coffee shops, sex stores, and live adult entertainment. Despite all of the 18 and over affair, this area can also be very family friendly and should not be avoided. During the day, the district is at its tamest and offers visitors some of the best and oldest architecture to be found in Amsterdam. The best part for backpackers is that it is the most affordable section of the city worth visiting, as long as you keep your money and other bits inside your pants.
Instead of waiting in line for museums to see things you can look up online, get out of the city and into the countryside. Despite the Netherlands being one of the most densely populated regions in the world, it doesn’t take long for one to go from concrete jungle to endless fields and open space. The best way to experience the area outside is to use the most common transportation to be found in Amsterdam, a bicycle.
We recommend renting from Black Bikes, as they have many drop off points within the city and have no advertising on their bikes, allowing you to blend in a little easier. For a introduction into the Dutch countryside, Claire and I decided to tackle the water world route. It’s a 30+ Kilometer loop that takes you along to little villages, flat as pancake farms, and bay side views. To start, take the ferry across the canal directly behind the train station and follow signs (or maps.me) from there. In Broek in Waterland, there is an excellent pancake house with generous portions to help you refuel before the ride back into Amsterdam.
A trip to the Netherlands would not be complete without getting to see at least one of its iconic windmills. The easiest to reach are just a fifteen minute train ride away from Amsterdam’s central station. The windmills at Zaandijk Zaanse Schans are still in operation and acts as an open air museum. Walking the canals and town are free of charge, making it a really cheap day trip.
Amsterdam in Review
Amsterdam is perhaps the most touristy feeling city in Europe. Drug tourism sprawls onto practically every street and almost every shop within the central area seems to be catering to the hoards of tourists the descend upon the city. However, the locals still command a strong impression here and give it a character that defines it from other European cities. In the end, there is no doubt that this will be one of the most unusual and bizarre cities that you will ever set foot in. From its smokey coffee shops, its glowing red lit windows, and plethora of canals, the city is hard not to go see first hand. Add on the top notch day trips easily done from the city and it makes for a wonderful couple of days that you will not forget.