Amsterdam attracts a worldwide audience, and many arrive on a tight budget. The city's captivating canals and avant-garde culture make it a distinctive destination, but there is much to interest a more traditional traveler, too. Think world-class museums and fine dining. Whatever your pursuit, keep in mind that although Amsterdam is associated with backpackers, it can be a very expensive stop.
When to Visit
Amsterdam has a relatively mild climate for a place so far north, so even winter visits can be quite comfortable. Summer is the most popular season, so stay away at that time if crowds are a problem. Many experienced travelers choose the "shoulder seasons" of late spring and early fall. Amsterdam's status as an airline hub should make for good airfare searches at all times of the year.
Where to Eat
When the Dutch had a colonial empire, they brought home some exotic treasures that became staples of Amsterdam dining. One example is the rijsttafel -- literally "rice table." It is a lazy-susan set-up offering 20 or more Indonesian dishes. Those you enjoy most are refilled. If smoked herring is your thing, you'll find street vendors who serve it up with style. In fact, it's easy to find a variety of tasty foods served from the sidewalks. It makes for a light, economical lunch.
As you search for economical Amsterdam restaurants, consider a staple of the local lunch scene. Broodjes is a Dutch word for sandwich, and it's a distinctive, made-with-care item that doesn't resemble pre-packaged versions so common in European markets and budget grocery stores.
Where to Stay
Hotels are plentiful in Amsterdam, long one of Europe's budget accommodation champions. Shills will approach you touting their particular digs. It's better to rely on recommendations from the helpful VVV (pronounced Vay-Vay-Vay). It is Holland's official tourist information bureau, with 450 locations to serve everyone from the most inexperienced new arrival to seasoned travel veterans. Timeout.com offers nicer B&B links starting at €60. Book well in advance if you go in tourist season.
Another affordable place to shop for Amsterdam accommodations is Airbnb.com, where a recent search revealed 95 entries priced at under $40 USD/night.
Schiphol Airport is one of the busiest and finest in Europe. It is well-connected by train with central Amsterdam. Purchase tickets in the little yellow machines scattered throughout the Plaza area near the rail platform. Amsterdam is a very tough place to drive, so it's best to take public transportation within the city--and that includes floating vehicles on the many canals. Car rentals are practical for trips outside the city.
Few cities in the world boast a better lineup of museums. You can spend an entire day wandering the Rijksmuseum's collections featuring the Dutch Masters and then take in the nearby Van Gogh Museum. Beyond great art, there is the Anne Frank House. Anne was a Jewish teenager during the Nazi occupation who recounted her tragic experiences in a diary that became world famous. The place where her family hid has been carefully preserved and is a must-see.
I Amsterdam City Card (found at the VVV) offers 25% discounts on scores of top attractions and restaurants. It is a significant investment, so consider carefully how many attractions you'll be visiting. A 24-hour pass costs €57, 48-hour is €67, a 72-hour pass is €77 and a 96-hour pass for €87. The Museum Jaarkart is also available at the VVV and worth a serious look for visitors spending more than a day in town. Ask about the guided architecture walks, which offer a stunning variety and an insight into the area's rich history.
More Amsterdam Tips
Explore the Diamond Markets. This might sound like strange advice for budget travelers, but it is actually a penny-pinching tip. Amsterdam is home to some of the world's best diamond cutters, many of whom will give free, fascinating demonstrations. Looking at their finished creations is free, too.
Explore the Countryside. If you're including Amsterdam in a string of European cities, this is a good place to leave the urban world behind and explore the surrounding countryside. Beautiful flower farms, the much-photographed windmills, and charming towns like Haarlem are only minutes away by bus, train, or automobile.
Rent a Bicycle. The Dutch love cycling and that means there are quite a few places to rent some wheels for the day. Be sure to observe the lane markings and common courtesy.
Beware the Steep Staircases. There are winches atop many Amsterdam houses for a reason: The staircases are too narrow and steep to move furniture. To a lesser extent, this is true of luggage, too. Ask about where your room is located and whether assistance with baggage is provided.
Shop Schiphol's Duty-Free Carefully. The Airport's massive Duty-Free offering isn't always the best deal on Delft china and other local favorites. The best advice if you're flying in and out of Schiphol is to check the city prices before buying. You can always make a purchase on the way out of town if the airport offerings are cheaper.
Make Amsterdam "Home Base." The relatively cheap accommodations available in this city make it possible to base yourself here and explore more expensive territories nearby. Rail connections generally are excellent.