20 free things to do in Amsterdam

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It's easy to spend a fortune in the Netherlands' stylish capital, but the city has plenty of gratis goodies up for grabs. Check out our pick of the freebies on offer.

1. Canal Ring

'Coloured Amsterdam' by Abderazak Tissoukai / Flickr / Getty Images'Coloured Amsterdam' by Abderazak Tissoukai / Flickr / Getty Images

More canals flow in Amsterdam than in Venice, and get this: the 400-year-old waterways are a UNESCO World Heritage site. So roaming around them is like being in a free, living museum, albeit with a beery cafe every few metres.

2. Civic Guard Gallery

As a free teaser to its collection, the Amsterdam Museum (Kalverstraat 92; www.amsterdammuseum.nl) hangs a gape-worthy slew of Golden Age portraits – peers of Rembrandt’s Night Watch – in the arcade by the entrance.

3. Albert Cuypmarkt

To get a feel for the ‘real’ Amsterdam, trawl its largest street market (Albert Cuypstraat; www.albertcuypmarkt.nl). Moroccan, Surinamese, Indonesian and Dutch residents haggle over shimmering fabrics, cheeses, bike locks, socks and herring sandwiches.

4. Sandeman's New Amsterdam Tours

Young guides working on a tip-only basis show you the Red Light District, Anne Frank House and other top sights on a three-hour, whiz-bang walkabout (www.newamsterdamtours.com). Departure is at 11:15am and 1:15 pm from the Nationaal Monument at Dam Square.

5. Flower Market

    'Tulips' by stevecadman. CC SA 2.0'Tulips' by stevecadman. CC BY-SA 2.0

Breathe deep on a stroll through the Bloemenmarkt (Singel, between Muntplein & Koningsplein), where crimson tulips, yellow daffodils and purple lilies jumble against a dramatic canal backdrop. You’ll have to pay for a bouquet, but it’s free to smell the roses.

6. Begijnhof

To explore this secret courtyard (main entrance off Gedempte Begijnensloot; www.begijnhofamsterdam.nl), find the humble wood door in Amsterdam's busy centre, push it open, and voilà – an oasis of 14th-century houses and gardens appears, along with two clandestine, relic-filled churches.

7. Stadsarchief (City Archives)

You never know what treasures you'll discover in these archives (Vijzelstraat 32; www.stadsarchief.amsterdam.nl): 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. Displays rotate regularly.

8. Concertgebouw on Wednesdays

Sharpen your elbows, because the older women in furs are ruthless trying to get into this famed classical hall's free lunchtime shows (often rehearsals for musicians playing later that evening). Concerts take place from 12:30pm to 1pm on Wednesdays, from mid-September through to June (Concertgebouwplein 2-6; www.concertgebouw.nl).

9. Muziektheater on Tuesdays

Performers from the opera and Dutch Philharmonic also stage free lunchtime gigs at their mod venue. The high Cs fly from 12:30pm to 1pm on Tuesdays, from September through May (Waterlooplein 22; www.hetmuziektheater.nl).

10. Bimhuis on Tuesdays

Mike Reed's People, Places & Things by andre.m(eye)r.vitali. CC SA 2.0Mike Reed's People, Places & Things by andre.m(eye)r.vitali. CC SA 2.0

Here's one more freebie for the musically minded: the Bimhuis (Piet Heinkade 3; www.bimhuis.nl) – the core of Amsterdam's influential jazz scene – hosts a rollicking jam session every Tuesday at 10pm from September to June. Join the band, or just listen in.

11. NDSM-werf

Hop on the free ferry behind Centraal Station and set sail for NDSM-werf (www.ndsm.nl), a derelict shipyard turned avant-garde arts community. Check out the recycled-junk sculptures, graffiti artists roaming the streets and giant wooden tiki head watching over it all.

12. Nieuwe Kerk (New Church)

The historic stage for royal coronations, this soaring building from 1408 is now used for large-scale art exhibitions. They charge admission, but you're welcome to slip through the gift shop and head upstairs for a free peek and display on the church's history (Dam Square; www.nieuwekerk.nl).

13. Gassan Diamond Factory Tour

Don't know your princess from marquise, river from top cape? Get the bling lowdown on Gassan's one-hour tour, and watch gem cutters and polishers in action (Nieuwe Uilenburgerstraat 173-175; www.gassan.com).

14. Hollandsche Manege (Riding School)

Softly sunlit and smelling of horses, this riding school (Vondelstraat 140; www.dehollandschemanege.nl) impresses even non-equestrians with its gorgeous neoclassical architecture and elegant cafe from which to view the regal trotting.

15. Amsterdam Architecture Foundation

ARCAM (Prins Hendrikkade 600; www.arcam.nl), per its Dutch acronym, features exhibits on uber-cool urban design. Staff also point you to free resources, such as digital guides to architecture along tram routes.

16. Cannabis College

This non-profit centre educates about Amsterdam's favourite herb. Chat with staff about coffee shop etiquette, browse bong displays, view hemp-made products or try out a vaporiser (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 124; www.cannabiscollege.com).

17. EYE Film Institute

'EYE' by Kennisland. CC SA 2.0'EYE' by Kennisland. CC BY-SA 2.0

While the art-house movies and main-floor exhibitions cost money, the interactive Dutch film displays in the basement cost zilch. To reach the gleaming facility, take the free 'Buiksloterweg' ferry from behind Centraal Station (IJpromenade 1; www.eyefilm.nl).

18. Centrale Bibliotheek (Main Library)

Sure, you can grab an international newspaper and settle into a cushy sofa for the afternoon. But don't get so comfy that you miss the top-floor cafeteria whose deck unfurls an awesome city vista (Oosterdokskade 143; www.oba.nl).

19. North/South Metro Line Viewpoint

Descend the stairs in the middle of Rokin street and behold the new subway system being excavated. Colossal digging machines roar in the abyss, and the whole place rumbles when a tram passes overhead (across from Rokin 96; www.noordzuidlijn.amsterdam.nl).

20. Multatuli Museum

Renowned novelist Eduard Douwes Dekker (pen name Multatuli) wrote about corrupt colonialists in the Dutch East Indies. This small but fascinating museum-home (Korsjespoortsteeg 20; www.multatuli-museum.nl) chronicles his works and shows artifacts from his time in Indonesia.