Hack the Hidden City: The ultimate guide to fun things to do in Amsterdam

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Local favorites for eating and drinking, free things to do and see off-the-beaten-track places, and how to explore Amsterdam like a local: here’s how to Hack the Hidden City, with Kiwi.com

Amsterdam is known for many things: canals, narrow townhouses, its rich mercantile history, but also for its red-light district, coffee shops, live music scene, and nightlife. No matter which side of the city appeals, here’s our guide to making the most of Amsterdam on a budget.

Explore Amsterdam beyond the city center

The very center of Amsterdam, with its rings of canals, is undeniably pretty. You’ll spend at least a day or two getting happily lost in its labyrinth of streets, canals, and alleyways, but it’s also worth exploring slightly outside of the center.

women making pancakesThe Albert Cuyp market is great for slightly cheaper food and drink options — Shutterstock

We’ll start in De Pijp, south of the center, and traditionally home to the working class. Built mainly in the 19th century, it’s a grid of narrow, brick townhouses, and life in the area revolves around the Albert Cuyp market (more of which below). It’s an easy walk to the city center, and the area is also great for slightly cheaper food and drink options. It’s especially good for brunches and coffee, with a huge choice of hip-looking places to stop and relax.

North and over the River IJ from the Central Station you’ll find Buiksloterham, a former industrial district-turned-new cultural center. The industrial buildings have been refurbished, and some stunning new ones have gone up, meaning the area is at the cutting edge of design, a totally different prospect from the old city. The Film Institute is here, as well as cinemas, theaters, restaurants, and a (literally) underground nightclub.

The Film Institute is here, as well as cinemas, theaters, restaurants, and a (literally) underground nightclub.Stroll along the river and check out the Film Institute — Shutterstock

The best plan is to pick a direction and range outwards. From the Vondelpark and Rembrandtpark green spaces to the west, the industrial heritage and street art of the north, to the boulevards and local bars to the south, choose a day and just see what you can see. Each area has its own flavor, so find your favorite!

Cyclist in Vondelpark, AmsterdamVondelpark is a must-visit in Amsterdam — Shutterstock

You could even get out of town if you’re up for it: the city of Haarlem, for example, is only 20 minutes by train, almost part of Amsterdam it’s so close, and is a laid-back blend of museums, history, and even (and how Dutch is this?) the De Adriaan windmill, dating from 1778.

house facades of the city of Harleem, AmsterdamHow does a day trip to the city of Haarlem sound like? — Shutterstock

Save on souvenirs

Amsterdam is very touristy, of that there is no doubt, and that breeds a specific sort of touristy tat. You know the sort of thing: t-shirts that say “I drink, therefore I ‘dam”, a bong in the shape of a penis, or simply endless rows of small, wooden clogs.

Therefore, why not get something truly special, something exclusive, something that won’t cause you to cringe whenever you look at it? To do so, visit the markets.

trinkets and souvenirs at Waterlooplein marketGet lost in all the treasures Waterlooplein market has to offer — Shutterstock

There is a selection of markets all over the city selling second-hand bits and pieces, ranging from clothes and accessories to ornaments, records, musical instruments, glasses and plates… you name it, you’ll find it.

The daily market on Waterlooplein has pretty much all of those things, and all for reasonable prices. Your humble writer picked up a second-hand wallet for €2 and, pleased with his find, went to one of the bars that line the square for a celebratory beer. I keep the beer label in my new second-hand wallet, so whenever I open it, I think of that sunny day.

woman preparing food at Albert Cuyp street marketthe Get some great street food at the Albert Cuyp street market — Shutterstock

The Albert Cuyp street market claims to be the largest outdoor market in Europe. It’s certainly venerable, dating from 1905 as a rag-tag collection of pushcarts; today, it’s great for fresh food, much of which goes straight into the Surinamese, Moroccan and Turkish restaurants that line the street behind the stalls. It’s also a great place to pick up a fresh Stroopwafel, the famous Dutch caramel waffle. Now that’s a tasty trade.

Catch your breath in some of Amsterdam’s best sights

If you need to slow the pace a bit (Amsterdam isn’t really a go-go-go sort of place, but the number of people can get exhausting), there are a few pockets of calm, some well-known, some hidden.

Entrance to the RijksmuseumThe Rijksmuseum is one of the main draws for tourists but only few visit the gardens — Shutterstock

The Rijksmuseum is one of the main draws for tourists with its wonderful collection of art and historical artifacts, but fewer people know about the gardens. Open daily from 9 am — 6 pm and completely free to enter, they’re 14,500 square meters of sculpted calm featuring lawns, ponds, flowers, and trees, a 19th-century greenhouse, and a post-war playground transplanted from the suburbs, dancing water features, and a giant chessboard.

Another of Amsterdam’s famous markets, but one not mentioned above, is the Bloemenmarkt, a floating flower market. What an idea! Combining two of the things the Netherlands is famous for — canals and flowers —  this explosion of color in the city center (located on the Singel canal between Koningsplein and Muntplein) has been trading daily since 1862 and sells tulips (of course), as well as flower bulbs, bouquets, individual flowers and, in December, Christmas trees. The bulbs are ready to export, so you can buy a selection to plant your own piece of the Netherlands at home. 

Bloemenmarkt, the floating flower market Can’t miss the Bloemenmarkt, the floating flower market — Shutterstock

Finally, the Begijnhof is a hidden square, one of the oldest places in the city, and pretty much the last remaining vestige of medieval heritage. Indeed, the Wooden House (so-called because… well) is one of only two wooden structures in the city, and the entire square was constructed as a Béguinage, a complex similar to a convent for lay religious women who helped the community but didn’t take vows. It’s now a secluded square, accessed through a gatehouse, and features the ‘English Church’ (with pulpit panels by Piet Mondrian), a secret Catholic church, unrecognizable as such from the outside, and a selection of handsome houses. 

Explore in a different way

The BegijnhofThe Begijnhof is a hidden square, one of the oldest places in the city, and pretty much the last remaining vestige of medieval heritage — Shutterstock

Amsterdam is a nice city for walking around, but it can get a bit confusing. The rings and rings of canals and cobbled streets are beautiful, there’s no doubt, but it also gets slightly confusing when one street seems to look just like another. Have you missed something great by heading down what you thought was the right road but just looks very, very similar? However, there are ways you can get your bearings and have fun at the same time.

Sandemans New Europe organizes three-hour-long walking tours run by young, knowledgeable, enthusiastic guides who work for the love of doing it (and the post-tour tips, of course!). Starting at Dam Square, they take in all of the main sights and are a great way to orientate yourself and make a list of things you might like to come back to later.

woman on a bike in AmsterdamThe best way to explore Amsterdam is by bike or on foot — Shutterstock

Not free, but worth the price if you’re looking for something a bit different, there are a bunch of escape room-style city games you and your mates can take part in. Mystery City Games, for example, allows you to choose from two true stories to follow (one about a secret 17th-century society, the other concerning the Dutch resistance in World War Two), and each sends you around the city for two hours, solving puzzles and cracking clues. At €25 per person, they’re not cheap, but they’re something a bit different.

If you don’t fancy the idea of shelling out for one of the myriad canal tours, you can get on the water for free by hopping on one of the public ferries used by locals to cross the River IJ. With boats every few minutes from the Central Station as well as other wharfs and docks around the city, you’ll never be waiting long: simply join the other foot passengers (as well as locals on bikes or scooters) and sail up, down, back and forth for absolutely nothing! The GVB (Amsterdam transport authority) has an interactive map so you can easily find when and where to go next.

Learn about some unusual trades

Another way you can discover what makes Amsterdam tick is by taking one of the free tours of some of the industries that have sprung up in the city over the years. There’s a lot to be said for investigating things you’d never really thought about, and there are some great ways to do this.

The Cannabis College might seem a bit stereotypically Amsterdam, but it’s not the lol-a-thon you might expect. Instead, it’s a non-profit organization that, since 1998, has been researching and teaching on pretty much every aspect of recreational and medicinal cannabis. Across workshops, tutorials, and B2B services, the College has helped to further peoples’ knowledge of the plant and its uses.

For something a bit more high-end, try the Gassan Diamond Factory Tour. The diamond industry has been bringing wealth to Amsterdam for almost 450 years, and sparkly things have never been more interesting than on this one-hour look around one of the city’s most famous institutions. You’ll learn about the Four Cs (carat, color, clarity, cut), and watch the skillful diamond cutters and polishers in action, before getting the chance to purchase your own jewel. Okay, this is Hack the City: you’re probably not buying diamonds. But the tour is worth it all the same.

The Amsterdam Architecture Foundation (or ARCAM, to give it its Dutch acronym) is the place to see exhibits on the most modern urban design around. The staff are friendly and helpful, and there are some cool resources such as maps of the city that highlight buildings from various eras, in selected styles, or that can be seen on certain tram routes. Use these to do your own self-guided tours, or check out what exhibitions are on. Much of it is free; even the temporary exhibitions are only around €4 per person.

So as you can see, there are ways you can see the best of Amsterdam without breaking the bank when you Hack the Hidden City, with Kiwi.com.

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