Both picturesque and sophisticated, Europe's grooviest canal town delivers many of its Dutch treats for surprisingly little. Discount herring, anybody?
Wild and watery Amsterdam has long been a magnet for folks eager to live it up (sometimes light it up) in the town where almost anything goes. Others arrive to inhale the rich culture-to gaze at Van Goghs and Vermeers, cruise the historic canals, gorge on Gouda at the source, or-in the spring-visit the huge, yearly flower shows. And since the notoriously frugal locals just love to pinch their euros (E), food and drink bargains abound, affordable hotel rooms aren't hard to come by, and if you're game for bopping around town by bike (a very Dutch way to go), you can conquer this cool cosmopolitan village and still have change to spare. (Note: When calling Amsterdam from the U.S., first dial 011-31-20.) Also, at press time, E1 equaled about 98¢. Nice Package! Air/hotel combos are sometimes the cheapest way to get to Europe. Go-today.com (book online) regularly features round-trip airfare from many U.S. cities and three nights in a hotel from as low as $399 per person for two in winter and $499 in summer. IMTC-Pegasus (404/240-0949, imtc-travel.com) offers airfare plus three nights at a three-star hotel for $599 per person in winter and $845 for two nights from June to August. In April, typical rates from Icelandair (800/223-5500, icelandair.com) begin at $599 for two nights' hotel and airfare from several U.S. gateways.
Before leaving home, get briefed at 900/400-4040, 900/551-2512, holland.com/amsterdam/gb, goholland.com, or timeout.com. Once here, pick up the free What's On in Amsterdam at a VVV Tourism Information office. There's one across from Centraal Station, another in the station on Platform 2, a third in the Leidseplein square, and yet another at Schiphol Airport. Free at many shops and cafes, the pocket-size "iN 2 Amsterdam" has cool recommendations for food, drink, and fun. Available at bookstores and at the AUB ticket office at Leidseplein 26, the giveaway flier/magazine Shark has a more alternative focus (it's also online at underwateramsterdam.com).
Getting into town from Amsterdam's well-designed airport couldn't be simpler: From the central hub of the airport's shopping plaza, trains leave every 15 minutes or less for the 15- to 20-minute ride into Centraal Station. Tickets are E2.95 ($2.90) one way, E5.22 ($5.10) round trip; you can also buy a strippenkaart here (E5.67/$5.55), good for seven rides on all public transportation in Holland's major cities. For E7.95 ($7.80), the KLM bus, open to everybody, will drop you off at one of six downtown locations near major hotels; it runs regularly from 7 a.m. till 9:30 p.m.
The snoozing Dutchman
Quite a few smart little hotels right in the city center offer style and comfort at bargain rates. Overlooking the Singel canal, the family-run, eight-room Hotel Brouwer (Singel 83, 624-6358, fax 520-6264, hotelbrouwer.nl; no credit cards) feels like a slice of Vermeer; doubles (all with canal views) start at E80 ($78). In downtown's Negen Straatjes area is the ten-room Hotel Belga (Hartenstraat 8, 624-9080, fax 623-6862), with fine basic doubles with bath for E77 ($75). Tucked away in the Jordaan, the Hotel Acacia (Lindengracht 251, 622-1460, fax 638-0748, hotelacacia.nl) is a friendly little sliver of a spot that also offers nice rooms on its own houseboat; breakfast-included double rates are E80 to E110 ($78-$108) on the houseboat. In the (perfectly safe!) Red Light District, the cool Hotel Winston (Warmoesstraat 129, 623-1380, fax 639-2308, winston.nl) houses a rock club and has 67 rooms, many designed by different artists; doubles start at E71 ($69). On the scenic Prinsengracht canal, doubles with private bath begin at E80 ($78) or without at E60 ($59) at the charming 11-room Hotel Prinsenhof (Prinsengracht 810, 623-1772, fax 638-3368, xs4all. nl/~prinshof). You'll find a younger, hostel-like atmosphere at the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel (Kerkstraat 136-138, 622-0687, fax 638-2060, hans-brinker.com), where bunks start at E21 ($20) and doubles at E29 ($28). An easy bike ride from the center of town, the hip Hotel Arena (s-Graves-andestraat 51, 850-2410, fax 850-2415, hotelarena.nl) has 121 rooms decorated in an airy, minimalist style, and doubles from E102 ($100); also on the premises are a cafe/bar and a live-music venue. You may also book your hotel rooms via the tourist office's Amsterdam Reservation Center (firstname.lastname@example.org) for E2.72 ($2.65).
Amsterdam also has plenty of cheap street eats. Given the large Middle Eastern population, falafel stands are plentiful and often very good. Try one of the Maoz Falafel branches, where E2.72 ($2.65) buys freshly deep-fried balls of mashed chickpeas served in a pita with lettuce and a wide assortment of sauces and toppings (Muntplein 1, across from the Mint clock tower; Reguliersbreestraat 45, right off the Rembrandtplein; Leidsestraat 85, off Leidseplein). Patates frites (french fries, with mayonnaise or curry sauce) are popular, and the best in town are sold daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the take-out window of the Vlaamse Friethuis (Voetboogstraat 33); the small size is E1.36 ($1.30), two can share the medium for E1.70 ($1.65), and sauce is E.45 (44¢). To really go Dutch, get fresh Hollandse Nieuwe haring ("new Dutch herring") at street stands throughout the city. Two reliable vendors of this marinated delicacy, served on a roll with onion and relish for about E1.58 ($1.55), are found on the Westermarkt (beneath the Westerkerk) and on the Koningsplein (by the flower market).
One of the most traditional ways to drink and eat in Holland is at one of the city's charming, classic, candlelit bruine kroegen ("brown cafes"), whose pub grub is basic but often quite good. One of the best in town is Het Molenpad (Prinsengracht 653, 625-9680), where entrees top out at about E11.80 ($11.55). Head to locally popular Moeder's Pot (Vinkenstraat 119, 623-7643), in the Jordaan, for hearty Dutch fare with entrees from E3.85 ($3.70). De Prins (Prinsengracht 124, 624-9382) is cheery, popular, and known for good food, jovial crowds, and a canalside terrace; main courses begin at around E11 ($10.75). Finally, head to the tiny Cafe Gollem (Raamsteeg 4, 626-6645) to sample any of over 200 Dutch and Belgian beers from a couple of bucks a pop.
Some typically Dutch edibles can be had very cheaply. You can't visit Holland and not sample its cheeses, and at the pleasantly pungent Kaaskamer (Runstraat 7, 623-3483), they'll make you a broodje (fresh baguette with cheese or meat) for about E3 ($2.95). Pannekoeken (large crepes with cheese, meat, or sweets) are a lunchtime favorite, the best of them served up near the Rijksmuseum at a spot called Le Soleil (Nieuwe Spiegelstraat 56, 622-7147), from E3 to E8 ($2.95-$7.80). The coolest noshing nook may well be the centrally located Cafe de Jaren (Nieuwe Doelenstraat 20, 625-5771), a soaring grand cafe where Amsterdam hipsters, students, and regular folk stop for snacks. Try a soup and sandwich for about E6 ($5.85).
Dikes and bikes
You won't be in Amsterdam for more than a minute before noticing how everyone zips around via bicycle. It's really the best option given the city's compact size, narrow streets, and flat topography. And while the famous free white bikes are gone, talks are in the works to bring them back. In the meantime you can rent your own fiets (pronounced "feets") at Frederic Rent-A-Bike (624-5509) on the leafy Brouwersgracht. Here you'll find the best value in town-just E10 ($10) a day or E40 ($39) per week.
Top cheap shop
Imagine a Kmart fashioned by glam hotelier Ian Schrager and you've got HEMA, the Netherlands' fabulously stylish bargain department store. The best branch in Amsterdam is located on the lower level of the Kalvertoren shopping center (Kalverstraat 212, 422-8988) and is full of inexpensive but smartly designed housewares, clothing, toiletries, and even food and wine. Examples: toothpaste E.88 (85¢), travel alarm clock Z4.50 ($4.40), cool black long-sleeve T-shirt E9 ($8.80).
Each week there are free lunchtime concerts at both the Muziektheater (called the "Stopera"), home to the Opera House (Waterlooplein 22, 551-8189, muziektheater.nl), and at the Concertgebouw (Museumplein, 675-4411, concertgebouw.nl), the city's classical music grand dame. Many of the city's older churches, such as the Westerkerk and the Noorderkerk, also host concerts for around E3.25 to E6.50 ($3.20-$6.53). Pick up fliers and schedules at the AUB Office at Leidseplein 26 (621-1311), where you can also buy tickets for as little as E5 ($4.90) to nearby rock venues such as the Melkweg (Lijnbaansgracht 234a, 531-8181, melkweg.nl) and the Paradiso (Weteringschans 6-8, 626-4521, paradiso.nl).
Cruising the canals
While there's no shortage of glass-topped canal-boat tours plying Amsterdam's waterways, the best may be the Museumboot (530-1090), with a live guide and stops at city monuments; you can climb on and off from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. year-round. An all-day ticket costs E13.50 ($13.20), which also gets you up to half off at the major museums. Board at the Anne Frank House, Centraal Station, or five other locations. From April to October, there's a canal tour conducted in English by the St. Nicolaas Boat Club on a smaller, open-air boat; you can bring along your own beer and snacks. For E9.08 ($8.90), you get historical and sometimes dishy commentary on life in this liberal town. Reserve at the Boom Chicago bar on the Leidseplein, or at 530-7306.
Pass it up
If you're planning to cram in many activities during a short stay, invest in the Amsterdam Pass, which for E26 ($25) for a one-day pass, E36 ($35) for a two-day pass, or E46 ($45) for a three-day pass, grants passage on all trams, buses, and the Metro; a canal-boat tour; and free entry into almost all major museums, including the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, and the cool Amsterdam Historical Museum. It also gets you a few free snacks and discounts on many other attractions and meals. Buy it at the main Amsterdam Tourist Office (VVV) in front of Centraal Station, or at branch offices on the Leidseplein and at the airport. If you're under 26, get unlimited admission to many museums and discounts for other events with the Cultural Youth Pass, E11 ($10.75) at the Amsterdams Uit Buro (AUB) office at Leidseplein 26 (621-1311).
Walk this way
Another cheap and interesting way to explore the city is through Mee in Mokum, a nonprofit group of lifelong Amsterdammers who guide walking tours through the city center, telling their own stories as well as pertinent local facts. A two-hour stroll through the Jordaan, the city center, or other itineraries costs just E1.82 ($1.80); reserve at 625-1390. Tours are hosted year-round, but call ahead to book an English-speaking guide.
At the Heineken Brewery (Stadhouderskade 78, 523-9666), daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. except Monday, "The Heineken Experience" leads you through the beer-making experience (you even get to ride along like a bottle waiting to be capped!). Though no longer free, it's still a great deal for E5 ($4.90), especially considering all the suds you get to swill at the end.
Park it here
The Vondelpark, a sprawling green expanse right off the city center, is where all of young Amsterdam comes to sunbathe, rollerblade, and be seen. Stop at one of the many local Albert Heijn supermarkets and put together an impromptu picnic. Rent in-line skates at the Rent-A-Skate (Vondelpark 7, 664-5091; E5/$4.90 per hour, all day for E15/$14.70) inside the park's southwest entrance by the Amstelveensweg, catch a free concert or performance at the park's open-air theater during the summer, and visit the llamas in their own grassy pasture. Pause for tea (E1.36/$1.30) and a snack at the popular Blauwe Theehuis (Vondelpark 5, 662-0254) or perch on the patio of the Cafe Vertigo (attached to the Filmmuseum) and mingle with Amsterdam's attractive set.
In the town that spawned Rembrandt and inspired Van Gogh, there's a thriving gallery scene, and on Saturdays, several host show openings with free wine and/or beer. Many of Amsterdam's best contemporary galleries-the Torch Gallery, De Praktijk, AYACS, and the Huis Marseille-are located in or near the Jordaan neighborhood. For a listing of openings, pick up the bimonthly flier Exhibitions Amsterdam Tentoonstelling Agenda at any gallery, or at the very useful AUB Ticket Office at Leidseplein 26 (621-1211). Or check online at akka.nl/agenda.
A couple of famous flea markets are worth a visit. The best known is on the Waterlooplein (9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Sunday), where you can pick up bargains on military gear, clothing, kooky memorabilia, and all manner of tchotchkes. For more everyday purchases (from fresh fish to jogging suits to CDs), you can try your luck at the Albert Cuyp Markt, on the Albert Cuyp Straat (9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Sunday) in the De Pijp neighborhood, south of the city center. Those into antiques, linens, and vintage clothing would do well to riffle through the stalls on Monday morning at the Noordermarkt. If organic food is your thing, ogle the tasty wares of Holland's farmers Saturday mornings (9 a.m.-3 p.m.) at the Boerenmarkt on the Noordermarkt. For used books, don't miss the cool Boekenmarkt, every Friday on the Spui square, with lots of English-language and arty titles. Finally, if you're lucky enough to be here on April 30, the entire city turns into a bustling, partying flea market to celebrate Queen Beatrix's birthday.
Thank God it's Sunday
One of the coolest nights to be out and about is Sunday, when you can do the town without paying through the nose. The very popular Club Vegas convenes every Sunday at the Club Winston, and if you dress "Vegas glam" you can get in for a mere E2.27 ($2.20), E4.53 ($4.40) if you're a frump. Out on the southwest edge of the city, in the recently restored Olympic Stadium, is Vakzuid, a hip restaurant that also hosts a cool Sunday-afternoon club called "The Couch," where you can lounge, drink, and groove to live DJs for no cover. This is also the night to join the festive fray of gay and straight students and hipsters at De Trut (Bilderdijkstraat 165, 612-3524), with cover E1.50 ($1.45) and beers E.91 (90¢); doors open at 11 p.m.-get there early. Collegiate types can dance for next to nothing any night of the week at Dansen bij Jansen (Handboogstraat 11, 620-1779), a disco for students only (bring I.D.), where cover costs range from E1.50 to E3.50 ($1.45-$3.45) depending on the event and the night.
Keep in touch cheaply at Europe's biggest Internet cafe, the 24-hour easyEverything at Reguliersbreestraat 22 by the landmark Tuschinski cinema. For E2.27 ($2.20), you get an hour's worth of e-mail and Internet (there's a smaller branch at Damrak 33, near Centraal Station). But De Waag cafe (Nieuwmarkt, 422-7772) offers free Internet access and lots more character, housed as it is in Amsterdam's castlelike fifteenth-century former gatehouse.
Counting your Euros
To get your hands on some local currency, using ATMs is convenient, but rather than get socked with charges from your bank back home, stop instead at the GWK office (627-2731) at Centraal Station, where you'll get the best rate in town. It also offers hotel booking, traveler's- check cashing, and phone cards.