See the story and a slide show of his photos at tripoutgaytravel.com/amsterdam-on-the-cheap/
Turmoil in the financial markets and a sky-high exchange rate for the dollar against the Euro may have you reconsidering that trip to Europe. A hotel room at 200 Euros is a lot less attractive when it appears on your credit card at 300 dollars or more, and dinner is not so appetizing when you realize the bill may be fifty percent higher when converted into dollars. It can’t be denied that the dollar/euro exchange rate was the worst it’s ever been in 2008, and though it’s impossible to predict the future, 2009 will probably not see much improvement. But before you give up and stay home, let’s consider how you can visit Amsterdam—the self proclaimed “gay capitol of Europe,” and one of worlds most popular destinations for gay and lesbian visitors, without breaking the bank.
Good news and some bad news…
First the bad: Amsterdam will never be as cheap as it once was. Since the introduction of the Euro, prices have steadily risen, and hotel rooms especially, have pretty much doubled in price. Even the locals complain about the increased cost of everything from beer to transportation. Add the poor exchange rate, and it’s even worse for American visitors. The good news is that Amsterdam is still a bargain for a world city, and you can spend far less there than in Paris, London, or even high-priced American destinations such as New York City or Los Angeles. So Google yourself a cheap airfare to Amsterdam’s beautifully organized Schiphol airport and, armed with these money saving tips, prepare for great time…on a budget.
Start saving the minute you arrive
Thanks to a train station smack in the middle of Schiphol airport, getting into Amsterdam (or any other city in the Netherlands) is fast, cheap, and easy. Hit one of the plentiful ATM machines (Geldautomat) — they even have them in the baggage claim area—then buy a train ticket to Amsterdam Centraal and a tram pass (the tourist confusing strippenkaart is currently being phased out in favor of an electronic pass). Avoid taxis if you can—they are among the most expensive in Europe, and frequently get stuck in traffic on the tiny cobbled streets of the city center. And do you need to be told that renting a car, or bringing one into the center of Amsterdam is not only expensive—it’s insane?
Once in the city, you’ll never need a taxi. Amsterdam’s small size makes it ideal for exploring on foot. Should you wish to travel to some of the more interesting areas outside the center, or are just not up to walking, the trams are extensive, frequent and run until about 1 a.m. I used to suggest that every visitor to Amsterdam rent a bicycle. The bicycle is the most common form of transportation in the city, and riding one among the trams, cars, pedestrians, and other bikes, is far less intimidating than it seems, and you can cross the city in minutes— particularly useful when coming home after a late night out. However, with bike rentals now running an average of 10 Euros a day, only rent one if you a really going to use it a lot, or if you are staying outside the central canal ring. Otherwise jsut take one for a day, to explore the Vondelpark, the trendy Eastern docklands, or the hip area of de Pijp.
Tip: when renting a bike, avoid the big rental agencies (MacBike, Yellowbike) with their prominently displayed logos, and look like a native with an unadorned “fiets”. Try the friendly folks at Frédéric Rent a Bike —but most any bicycle shop will also have a few bikes to rent.
Tip: Always buy a tram pass (or strippenkaart, if they are still in use) in advance from newsstands or supermarkets. A single ticket bought onboard is significantly more expensive.
A hotel room is likely to be your biggest single expense in Amsterdam. Fortunately there are a variety of accommodations, as there are a great many small hotels ranging from basic to ultra-luxury. However, the best solution may be to skip the hotel and rent an apartment. You will get more space and privacy for the same price, and if you need two rooms you’ll definitely save money over a hotel. Many well-located apartments can be found in the 100
Euro a night range. The gay online agency EBAB.com offers a number of private apartments in Amsterdam, as well as private rooms (generally under 50 Euros) in the homes of local gays—a great budget option for singles or couples. As the apartments and rooms are owned by gay locals, you can get personal, up-to-date advice and recommendations as well. Another good (non-gay) source of apartment rentals is VRBO.com, offering many more listings.
Amsterdam has quite a few gay male and gay/lesbian hotels (though every hotel is gay friendly!), and all are in the budget to moderate range. Amsterdam’s first gay hotel, The Golden Bear welcomes gay men and women (though the clientele tends to be mostly male) offering both reasonably priced rooms with private baths and bargain rooms with shared facilities. Both the staff and fellow guests tend to be quite convivial. Despite (or perhaps because of) a sign warning that there is a fine for watersports in the bed as well as a fine for smoking in the rooms, the hotel is clean and comfortable, if basic. Located on the Kerkstraat, it’s an easy walk to everything. The Amsistad, across the street is pricier, and Anco, while cheap, is on the chaotic Warmoestraat and caters to a mainly leather crowd. For a complete list of gay hotels (and everything else gay in Amsterdam) pick up the a copy of The Bent Guide—absolutely the best, and most entertaining, gay guide to Amsterdam; it’s published by pinkpoint.org, who also operate a shop and information kiosk adjacent the Homomonument. The guide is available on Amazon.com if not your local bookshop.
OK, you’re on a budget, but you just have to have a touch of luxury and style when you go back to your room. The boutique Hotel Ambassade, in a row of 17th century canal houses in a perfect location on the Herengracht, offers the luxury and service you’d expect in a 5 star hotel at a half to a third of the price—it’s a personal favorite. Stylish and hip, the relatively new Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy is a favorite of artists, designers and fashionistas. Each of the 117 rooms in the fully renovated 19th century building is unique—and the rooms range from one star with shared baths to spacious five star suites. You can live it up in luxury, or stay in a budget room on the down low. Whichever you choose, there’s a lively restaurant, bar and terrace, lending library, and free performances and cultural events on site. Best of all, the hip ambiance is delightfully attitude free, with some of the friendliest and most helpful staff you are likely to find in Amsterdam. It’s a bit outside the center, in the new Eastern Docklands district, and though two tramlines will take you to the city center, you’ll want a bike for late night pub crawls.
Tip: Variety of accommodation does not mean quantity. It is best to book as far in advance as possible, unless you are visiting in the dead of winter. For Queen’s Day (April 30) and Gay Pride (first weekend of August) it is essential.
Eat like locals, eat cheap
Amsterdam, somewhat unfairly, is not generally regarded as a foodie destination. It is, however a city of fine restaurants: Borderwijk, Le Garage, Bond, Christophe, Utrechtsedwarstafel, and a slew of others offer gastronomic delights at corresponding prices. Indulge if you will, but be prepared for the check.
Fortunately, Amsterdam’s reputation for quirkiness means you can have a fine dining experience at a budget price. Would you believe a non-profit restaurant? One of the hottest tickets in town is Restaurant Freud. Operated by a social service agency (and overseen by two restaurateurs) this stylish storefront restaurant near the Westerpark is staffed entirely by persons with psychological difficulties who are transitioning back into the workforce. That said, the service is professional and friendly, the Mediterranean food consistently delicious and any problems are deftly kept behind the scenes by dedicated social workers overseeing the operation. It’s become so popular with locals (their website, unusually for Amsterdam, doesn’t even have an English translation) that reservations are essential. Also recommended is ROC Elements, a beautiful restaurant staffed entirely by culinary students, and offering a four course menu for 25 Euros. Choice is limited to two options per course, and the ambitious preparations can range from outstanding to occasionally mediocre, but the ambiance is great, the service is better than many professionally staffed restaurants, and it’s a bargain for what you get. One caveat: you must arrive by 7:30, with reservations.
Limited menu options are not uncommon in Amsterdam (another local quirk), and restaurants so structured can be a bargain. A favorite is Café Bern, where the thing to order is cheese fondue—it’s delicious, and with a salad and house wine, dinner is about 20 Euros. The best bargain for steak in town may be L’ Entrecote et les Dames— entrecote with pommes frites is all they serve, cooked perfectly to order, sliced, and preceded by a delicious salad of butter lettuce and walnuts. Shockingly, once you’ve cleaned your plate, the waiter passes by with a platter offering you seconds. All this for 22 Euros, plus there’s a choice of reasonably priced wines—they bring a bottle and charge you for only as much as you drink. And in all price ranges, wines are in general a much better value than in the And in all price ranges, wine with any meal is a much better value than in the U.S.
An even better way to save money is to forego a meal and just snack. Most bars offer a range of inexpensive, typically Dutch snacks. Order a beer (or a soft drink, though they’re the same price) and an order of bitterballen (a traditional deep fried mystery snack) or a tosti (a grilled cheese or ham and cheese sandwich.) You’ll be filled up for a few Euros and you can stake out your table for as long as you want to read, write postcards, or people watch. Most brown cafes will have snacks, but a nice option is the modern Spanjer & Van Twist, with outdoor tables lined up along the picturesque Leliegracht.
Self-serve is not really a Dutch concept, but two relatively new cafeteria-style cafes—both with great views—offer an opportunity for an inexpensive lunch or snack. One is on the roof of the Bijenkorf department store on Dam Square, and the other is operated by a department store as well, Vroom & Dressman, but is located on the top floor of the new ultra-modern public library—the Openbare Bibliotheek—next to Centraal Station. For a snack on the run, try a cone of the best frites in Amsterdam, with mayonnaise (or ketchup if you must) at the Vlaams Friethaus. And for a very filling meal for less than five Euros, you can’t beat the Falafel at Moaz, at various locations around the city.
Tip: Make reservations for restaurants. Eat your snacks early. Dining and snacking options are extremely limited after 10pm.
Tip: If you do want to hit the city’s top restaurants, try to come during Restaurant Week—the next one is March 2-8, 2009—where the city’s finest restaurants charge only 25 Euros for a three course dinner. Reservations advised well in advance at restaurntweek.nl.
Tip: Restaurant week is sponsored by diningcity.nl (a kind of Dutch version of opentable.com) an easy way to make reservations online, as well as find information on restaurants.
Tip: Taxes and service are included in the price you see on the menu. It’s nice to leave a small gratuity of about 5% in cash (even when paying by credit card, tip in cash), but this is not required. And note: you will never get your bill until you ask for it.
Nightlife: follow the crowds, follow the bargains
It’s time to celebrate: a night on the town in Amsterdam is likely to cost less than any big city in Europe or the US. Drinks (meaning beer) are cheap, bars don’t have cover charges, and at the few clubs that do, they are minimal. (The exception being the occasional big bash—circuit parties or leather parties or gay pride weekend parties.) Amsterdam boasts a huge number of gay venues—some of the most interesting clubs (Unk, Spellbound, Trash) only happen once a month, once every two months or even more erratically. There are dozens of gay bars that are open every night, though you’re likely to find many of them empty. No matter, everything is close enough that you check them all out. And once you find a crowd—you’re likely to find a drink special as well! One of the most popular is the Sunday “happy hour” from 6 to 8 pm at the Soho bar, where the very happy crowd spills out into the Reguliersdwarstraat. You can find people here most any night too, as well as at the adjacent, and trendier, ARC.
You’ll also usually find a sociable, if older, crowd at the three adjacent bars on the Zeedijk—the long running Queen’s Head, the Barderij, and newcomer De Engel, which has a popular canal-side terrace.
A few other bars deserve mention, particularly the new and quite popular Prik, which has a relaxed and friendly ambiance. The Café t’Leeuwtje is notable as one of the only gay bars to stock a wide range of delicious Belgian Trappist beers; bring a friend though, as they have yet to find much of a following. For women, one of the few Lesbian bars remains the popular Saarein II in the Jordaan.
After midnight, there’s dancing on the Reguliersdwarsrtraat at the Exit, or at the campy (and cover free) Montmartre nearby and a bit later at the men-only Cockring—which features a popular darkroom in addition to two dance floors. If you want cruising without the dancing, the Eagle, the Argos, and the rather shabby Dirty Dicks are all within spitting distance of the Cockring on the narrow Warmoesstraat…but don’t plan on going until well after midnight. Still going strong, the all-volunteer Sunday night queer dance club de Trut offers a fun vibe, the cheapest drinks in the city, and a very young crowd. You have to get here early for a change—the line starts forming at 10 for the 11pm opening.
All bars in Amsterdam are now smoke free—which is definitely giving an advantage to venues with an outdoor area. I’m not sure how people will adapt in the colder months, but my highly subjective observation is that bars are already less crowded. But at least you will save money on laundry.
Tip: Don’t! Bartenders don’t expect it and the Dutch don’t do it. Leave some small change if you really like the bartender. Only Americans leave Euros as tips.
Tip: Drink beer (just ask for a beirtje.) Mixed drinks are expensive and anything more complicated than a gin and tonic is impossible outside the trendiest bars (the ARC comes singularly to mind.) A Dutch happy hour is two drinks for the price of one, so this is the best time to satisfy your desire for strong alcohol should you tire of beer.
Tip: for special events, clubs and happenings and locations, see amsterdam4gays.com (the official city gay website!) and gayamsterdam.com from the publishers of the Amsterdam gay map—which you should pick up at the first gay establishment you enter. Also refer to The Bent Guide—and their online updates at pinkpoint.org.
The Frugal Tourist
Some of the greatest pleasures of Amsterdam are free—or nearly so, and enjoyed by visitors and residents alike. Amsterdam is not a city of monuments, but with its picturesque canals and 17th century brick canal houses the entire city is an attraction that can be explored for free. Walk! Stroll the charming canals, the famous red-light district (still somewhat seedy despite the government encouraged incursion of trendy shops and cafes), and the narrow streets of the Jordaan. Also include a few less touristy spots—like the funky and bustling 19th century quarter known as de Pijp and the ultra modern architecture of the fashionable Eastern Docklands development. Along the way you’ll have numerous opportunities for window shopping—Dutch designers, art galleries, and antique shops are everywhere. And you’ll still find lots of quirky stores selling cast-offs, used books, and oddities at prices that just might entice you to buy. You’ll also find plenty of inexpensive cafes, where for the price of a drink you can linger as long as you want (and sometimes longer, given the city’s notoriously inattentive service) watching the passing parade of people, boats, and bikes. Try peeking (politely) into some of the city’s private gardens, particularly in the Jordaan area, and don’t miss the lovely Beguinehof, a cloistered garden with two churches; it’s just off the bustling Kalverstraat shopping street. If the weather is sunny, do what everyone else will be doing—take a picnic and drinks to the Vondelpark. Gays tend to congregate between the rose garden and the lake.
Make a pilgrimage to the Homomonument, dedicated to gay victims of the holocaust, adjacent the magnificent Westerkerk. You’ll also find the Pink Point kiosk here—a great source of information about all things gay in Amsterdam, and a good spot to load up on tacky gay souvenirs for friends back home. Also stop by the Amsterdam Tourist Office (opposite central station) to load up on free goodies—maps, museum guides, and a wealth of information about Amsterdam’s attractions.
Street markets are an Amsterdam institution. While the daily flea market at the Waterlooplein has been disappointing for years, the Friday book market on the Spui is interesting for everything from cheap English paperbacks to old postcards and prints. Monday mornings bring the “Antique Market” to the Nordermarkt—the fact that there are few real antiques means that some rooting around might net you a few inexpensive doo-dads. The bustling Albert Cuypstraat market is mostly food, clothing and household items; geared towards locals, it’s a good place to pick up any essentials you may need, and a great place to see multi-cultural Amsterdam.
You can spend weeks in Amsterdam’s museums—everything from the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh and the Anne Frank House to the esoterica of the Energy Museum and the Handbag Museum. Museums aren’t cheap though, and admission costs can quickly mount. If you plan to visit three or more museums, it pays to buy a Museum Jaarkaart. Designed for residents, this card will get you into most every museum (The Anne Frank House being the exception) in the country, is valid for one year—and costs just 40 Euros. You can purchase it at any of the bigger museums. If you are in Amsterdam for only three days, and plan to see as much as possible, the I Amsterdam card (available at the tourist office) might be a better option, in that it includes a tram pass and a canal boat ride along with museum entries. It’s 53 Euros though—and if it were good for a week, I’d probably recommend it over the jaarkaart. Card or no, the accompanying website, IAmsterdam.com, is the go to site for up-to-date happenings in the city.
And even if you don’t by the I Amsterdam card, or spend much time visiting museums, do spend the 15 Euros on a canal boat tour. Yes, it’s touristy, the recorded voice narration is tacky, but the view of the city from the water is worth it. Look for a boat with an open deck—the view is much better. Of course, should you manage to make friends with someone who has a private boat…so much the better!
Amsterdam is also a city of theatre and music. There’s opera, the world famous Concert Gebouw for classical and modern music, and the almost as famous Melkweg for rock music as well as the more intimate Paradiso. While Opera tickets or a Madonna concert at the Amsterdam Arena will set you back plenty, there are real bargains to be had. You can find out everything that’s on during your visit—and buy tickets—at the AUB (Amsterdams Uitburo) shop on the Leidseplein. Your best bet—American and British indy bands frequently perform at the Melkweg and Paradiso (both great, intimate venues) at lower than U.S. prices. And even better—tickets to any non sold-out performance in the city can be had for half-price the day of the event at the Half-Price Tickets shop adjacent the AUB.
If you have extra time in Amsterdam, consider leaving the city for a day. The historic cities of Haarlem and Utrecht are less than a half-hour away by train, and Rotterdam and Den Haag, with great museums and architecture can be reached in an hour. The roundtrip day ticket (dagretour) is inexpensive, and the trains are so frequent you don’t even need to look up the schedules (though you can, at ns.nl). Also, your Amsterdam tram ticket is good in any Dutch city, as is the museum jaarkaart.
So why wait? It’s still a great time to visit Amsterdam.
—by Clay Doyle
Clay Doyle, a designer and writer based in Los Angeles, lived in Amsterdam from 1998 to 2003.
The Bent Guide/Pink Point pinkpoint.org, Westermarkt
Museum Jaarkaart museumjaarkaart.nl
AUB (Amsterdams Uitburo) aub.nl, Leidseplein 26
Frédéric Rent a Bike Brouwersgracht 78, +31 20 624-5509
Netherlands Rail ns.nl
The Golden Bear goldenbear.nl, Kerkstraat 37, +31 20 624 4785
Hotel Ambassade ambassade-hotel.nl, Herengracht 341, + 31 20 555 0 222
Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy Lloydhotel.com, Oostelijke Handelskade 34,+31 20 5613636
Restaurant Freud restaurantfreud.nl, Spaarndammerstraat 424, +31 20 688 55 48
ROC Elements heerlijkamsterdam.nl, Roelof Hartstraat 6, +31 20 579 1666
Café Bern Nieuwmarkt 9, +31 20 6220034
L’ Entrecote et les Dames entrecote-et-les-dames.nl, Van Baerlestraat 47, +31 20 679 8888
Spanjer & Van Twist spanjerenvantwist.nl, Leliegracht 60, +31 20 6390109
Bijenkorf bijenkorf.nl, Dam 1
Openbare Bibliotheek oda.nl, Oosterdoksade 143
Vlaams Friethaus Voetboogstraat 33
Moaz Falafel maoz.nl, various locations
Restaurant Week restaurantweek.nl
Soho Reguliersdwarsstraat 36
ARC Reguliersdwarsstraat 44
Queen’s Head Zeedijk 20
Barderij Zeedijk 14
De Engel Zeedijk 21
Prik Spuistraat 109
Café t’Leeuwtje Reguliersdwarsstraat 105
Saarein II Elandsstraat 112
Exit Reguliersdwarsstraat 42
Montmartre Halvemaansteeg 17
Cockring Warmoesstraat 96
Eagle Warmoesstraat 90
Argos Warmoesstraat 95
Dirty Dicks Warmoesstraat 86
de Trut Bilderdijkstraat 157