Living in Amsterdam: University and Beyond

With postgraduate education in the UK only getting more expensive, now might be the time to consider your options further afield. Here’s what makes living in Amsterdam a great candidate for studies and culture

Feature by Andrew Gordon | 25 Jan 2016

So – you’re thinking about doing a masters degree. More so than an undergrad course, undertaking a masters requires serious graft and willpower, not to mention a considerable financial commitment. Before settling down for your hardest year of study yet, it’s important to know why.

The other big question, of course, is where? Surely not the recreational capital of Europe, whose international reputation – especially in the UK – is built upon liberal access to dubious distractions both chemical and carnal? Not the year-round carnival, the stag-do-turned-municipality where revellers go specifically to take leave of their commitments, ambitions and maybe even morals? Better to study in Magaluf than Amsterdam, right?

Study for less

Well, you’d be surprised. First off, there are some very straightforward logistical reasons why Amsterdam is a great place to be student, the most obvious being cost. While living expenses are more or less on a par with Scotland’s big university towns (slightly cheaper than Edinburgh but probably a wee bit more than Glasgow), there’s no competition when it comes to course fees. A typical one-year full-time postgraduate course in Scotland will set you back between just under £7000 and £8500 if you’re an EU citizen, whereas in Amsterdam you’re looking at something more like £1500.

Another is the quality of education. Universities in the Netherlands consistently rank among the best worldwide and, after what can be a bit of a jarring first semester, it’s easy to see why. With fewer contact hours and a tougher workload, Dutch universities place a greater emphasis on independent study than institutions in the UK, and yet (in this writer’s experience) the whole process feels much more intimate. Classes tend to be smaller, and faculty staff are remarkably approachable and genuinely interested in your feedback, almost to the point you wish they’d give your inbox a break once in awhile – it’s Sunday morning for Pete’s sake!

Learning the language

Language is another biggie. Besides the fact that Amsterdam’s universities offer far more courses taught in English than other popular student destinations like Berlin or Vienna, it’s no exaggeration to say that everyone in Amsterdam speaks English: tram drivers, police officers, toilet attendants, checkout clerks, plumbers, children… so yeah, it’s probably time to stop telling people you can speak French because you studied it at Higher half a decade ago.

Being one of the most culturally diverse cities on the planet has seen English become default fallback language for all communication in the Netherlands, meaning almost any information that’s essential for everyday life is available in English, as is most common signage like maps or menus. This is the point where we’re supposed to tell you that, nevertheless, the locals will appreciate you giving their tongue-twister gab a whirl, but the truth is that English is such a prevalent part of life in Amsterdam that lacking the local vernacular holds nowhere close to the kind of (probably valid) stigma you might encounter in the likes of France or Spain.

Should you feel guilty about essentially mooching off historical imperialism, however, there are ample facilities to help you learn Dutch. One is Gilde Amsterdam, a volunteer-run organisation that offers weekly one-on-one coaching for a small sign-up fee (the website's in Dutch, ironically).

Things to do in Amsterdam

Just as important as all these practical reasons, if not more so, is the fact that Amsterdam is just generally a nice place to live. Despite playing nightly host to the world’s seediest windowshoppers' convention, and being treated by foreign tourists like under-agers at an empty round their mate’s house, it’s a pleasant and laid-back city where people are friendly, the streets are clean, the weather is pretty mild and there’s always plenty to do. If you’re a bit of a culture hoover – you’re reading The Skinny after all – then Amsterdam’s definitely got you sorted.

Like all major cities, Amsterdam has a fair few festivals on the go, but more than the sheer number of them (over 300 a year apparently) it’s their variety that most impresses. All the arts are covered, with some events, like ARTZUID or the Amsterdam Light Festival, transforming entire districts into open air exhibitions. The former, for instance, brings house-sized sculptures to the city’s southern neighbourhoods, while the latter decorates the canals around Central Station with futuristic neon enigmas that can be ogled by foot or by boat.

Other highlights include the Canal Parade, Amsterdam’s gloriously resplendent floating procession for gay pride; Museumnacht, which sees museums city-wide open till 2am with booze and live music to boot; and the International Documentary Film Festival, the largest of its kind worldwide, at which you’re guaranteed to peek at some future award-winners.

Cinema Amsterdam

Speaking of films, Amsterdam is nothing short of a film buff’s paradise. Forget about that green stuff: take a stroll beyond the tourist haunts and you’ll soon realise the biggest c-word round these parts is 'cinema' – because there’s bloody hunners of them.

As well as your enormous mainstream ventures like the Pathé Tuschinski – a historic art deco building sporting a charming but ludicrous Eastern-styled interior, envisioned by a man who never left Europe – Amsterdam has a dozen art house film venues to check out, each with its own distinct character. Take your pick: there’s The Movies, a cosy city-centre spot more than a century old with with preserved wooden fixtures to show for it; Studio/K, a cinema-cum-restaurant that’ll do you a three-course meal and a film for under 20 quid; or maybe the Kriterion, a student-oriented establishment that often screens foreign films with English subtitles.

Best of all, you can nab yourself a Cineville card, which grants unlimited access to all the good cinemas for the stupidly cheap sum of €19 a month. It seems daft, but that’s Amsterdam: this, after all, is the city that loves the pictures so much they built space-age monument to them in the form of the EYE Film Institute – another must visit for movie geeks.

Live music

Amsterdam’s music scene doesn’t warrant the same breathless appraisal but it’s no dead zone either. With Schipol being among the busiest and yet actually more competent international airports (we’re looking at you CDG), Amsterdam is often the first leg on many a foreign touring act’s European tour. As such, most of the bigger acts favoured by these pages tend to stop by at some point, and when they do they’re likely to be playing Paradiso or Melkweg. That being said, catching several high quality bands a week like you might do in Glasgow is a rare possibility.

If it’s electronic music you’re after you’ll fare much better, the city being home to the left-field institution that is Rush Hour and the younger but just as noteworthy Red Light Radio. The former, a label, and the latter, a streaming radio station, both boast obsessively curated record shops and are fairly regular in putting on nights geared towards those with eclectic tastes.

Clubs like De School, Closure and De Marktkantine are your best bet for a mix of decent local and international talent week to week, but where Amsterdam’s electronic scene really comes into its own is its festivals. The biggest is Amsterdam Dance Event, the city’s club-oriented answer to SXSW (for which last year the city council temporarily raised the legal limit for ecstasy possession), but two others to watch out for are Zeezout, a collection of one-night blowouts spread throughout the year, and Pitch, a two-day festival which last year hosted the likes of James Blake, Jamie xx and Hot Chip.

Finding a flat

So, you're jumping to find a place in the city ASAP, maybe somewhere central with a nice view of a canal? Well, it’s not so easy unfortunately. Finding a room in Amsterdam is notoriously difficult, with much of the coveted inner-city accommodation tied up with social housing corporations who are obligated to favour locals, and the private market is fraught with fraudsters and scams.

Luckily, as student you’ll have access to number of university-associated properties unavailable to regular folks, though even these are hard to come by. The three main student housing groups dish out their wares via weekly raffles on the Studentenwoning website, a service which gives priority to its longest registered users, so it's worth signing up there as early as you can. There are a number of Gumtree-like sites out there, but most are in Dutch and require sign-up or subscription fees, meaning you’re unlikely to find other international buddies to bunk up with. A better option is one of many Facebook marketplace groups for expats and international students, but again, remember to keep your wits about you.

If you're looking for somewhere to stay while you get your bearings and work out the area that's right for you, check out Wimdu for short term leases. 

Once you do find a permanent place, here’s a couple tips for settling into the 'Mokum' life:

Image: Moyan Brenn [CC BY 2.0]

Get a bike

Get yourself a decent bike. Unless you’re minted and have plenty of time to spend faffing with public transport (which is excellent by the way, just slower than cycling) you’re going to need a bike to go basically anywhere. Don’t worry if you’re a bit rusty on your Cycling Proficiency – a couple of journeys during rush hour will soon learn you the ropes, though you’ll spend little time on the roads anyway thanks to the abundance of dedicated cycle lanes.

Even when you do have to venture out onto the tarmac cars tend to treat you like a god, probably because every driver is or was a cyclist themselves. Nobody wears helmets, which may come as a bit of a shock, but it’s just as testament to how safe the roads are. In fact, take a spin before 9am and you’ll see hordes of primary school children peddling away on bikes no bigger than most dogs. So yeah, no excuses.     

Start drinking less

Dutch students perform a daily magic trick whereby they appear to be drinking all the time and yet are incredibly never drunk. Even the library from which we’re typing these words has a bar in it, and it’s not uncommon to see students crowded around laptops with beers while ostensibly working on group projects.

The secret, it turns out, is volume. Spirits are a different matter obviously, but when it comes to beers you’ll never catch anyone but tourists drinking pints and most of the decent pubs don’t even have the glasses to serve them. Beer’s stronger too, so even if you don’t click with it straight away, you’ll learn to pace yourself soon enough. No one likes rushing a good thing so you’re best heading to one of the top notch local breweries like Brouwerij 't IJ and Brouwerij Prael if you’re needing some encouragement cooling the beans, or if you're really struggling, you could always occupy your hands with classic arcade games between gulps at Ton Ton Club.

It’s time to wrap this thing up, and yet there’s so much more we could have mentioned – Amsterdam’s numerous parks; how easy it is to visit the Netherlands’ other hotspots; the museums, for crying out loud! As anyone inclined towards travel knows, however, half the fun is working it out for yourself. Now we’ve given you a head start, there’s only one piece of information left to bestow; the parting phrase you’ll hear at the end of almost every conversation while living in Amsterdam: “Success!”