Europe is filled with holiday festivities and there are so many amazing places to go. We’ve been to Christmas markets in Cologne and Hannover. Then we took a leap and spent actual Christmas in Prague! The thing is, winter isn’t just about the religious holidays, with so much going on, there are so many things to do in Amsterdam in the winter.
Honestly, it is really hard to choose where to spend winter in Europe. All over, thousands of lights fill windows, trees are sparkly, and there’s a sense of excitement from all ages. From mulled wine to hot cocoa, the drinks of winter bring back memories with their comforting scents.
That leaves the question, what does Amsterdam have to offer?
Well, we do have quite the festive season and just some things that are so…well…Amsterdam. And that’s precisely why I love it. Because all this stuff, all these events, mix with the atmosphere of the city and gives it a whole new vibe.
Sinterklaas comes to Amsterdam
We all have our idea of a jolly fellow who handles presents, and here, his name is Sinterklaas. In November, Sinterklaas heads into town with lots of little ones (and ahm, big ones) lining the Amstel River and lining the streets of Amsterdam to welcome him. You might think that November is not the time for a Santa look-alike. First of all, he is not Santa and please don’t say something like that to a Dutch person! Secondly, it’s just how it’s done here because it’s not about the Christmas holiday. That is celebrated separately.
For me, the Sinterklaas really kicks off all the festivities of the cold season (or Cultural Season) in Amsterdam. It’s fun, it’s cheerful and full of excitement. How can you not love it when the Pieten are handing out pepernoten? Always check the iamsterdam.com page for the most up-to-date details.
Turn on the Lights
This Turn On The Lights event has to be one of my favorites in Amsterdam. Might be number one if it weren’t so friggin’ cold and sometimes rainy, but I digress. It’s an incredible artistic event hosted by the massive department store on the corner of Dam Square, de Bijenkorf.
You might be thinking, what’s the point of a show just to turn on the holiday lights? I have no idea and frankly, don’t care. It’s too spectacular to question. Turn On The Lights is a theatrical show that typically involves cranes, larger-than-life characters roaming the crowds, singing, and big smiles.
The show ends with fireworks and de Bijenkorf stores turning on their hundreds of thousands of lights making it light up like a Christmas tree. You can see videos from previous years on de Bijenkorf’s YouTube channel.
Amsterdam Light Festival
Darkness comes pretty early during the winter, so one way to light it up and make things interesting is to have the Amsterdam Light Festival! Every year there’s a different theme and artists from all over the world try to become part of it. It’s kind of a big deal. If there’s one thing to do in Amsterdam during the winter, it’s this since it spans several weeks.
Basically, it’s a bunch of artworks spread across the center of Amsterdam spreading a certain message each year. The creativity is stunning and the beauty of the lights against the age of the city is striking. There’s always a walking route and a boating route with lots of boating companies happy to take you through the canals for this festival.
You really can’t go wrong with making time to see the whole show. You’ll finish with a smile on your face, that’s for sure. The talent, time, and effort that goes into these installations are obvious, you just must visit. Keep up with all the details on their official website. If you want to book a cruise, you can use my affiliate link. :).
Amsterdam is in the Netherlands, not Germany, so keep that in mind when discovering Christmas markets in the city. The one people get most excited about is the Ice*Village in Museumplein — right in the shadow of the Rijksmuseum. It’s pretty popular because you can ice skate! It’s not a super big Christmas market, but it still holds that spirit!
The Amsterdamse Winter Paradise is held at the RAI (our conference center) and has so much to get into. Rides, food, of course, hot drinks. It’s pretty much a Christmas market paradise in Amsterdam.
This city is kind of known for its markets anyway, so around Christmas, many of them have a Christmas version which is always fun! My favorite is the Funky Xmas Market and they also have a Funky Sinterklaas Market. It’s the Sunday Market in Westergasfabriek turned into a market with holiday cheer, decorations, and you might even see Sinterklaas!
Head to Noord (the north part of Amsterdam, across the water by ferry behind Central Station) for the Amsterdamsche Christmas Market. It’s fun, it’s quirky, and they even have a wrapping station. As a bonus, you get out of the center and see a different part of the city.
If you’re not here for any of the Christmas markets I mentioned above, you can always shop along the nine streets, have a stroll down Kalverstraat, pop into de Bijenkorf, and wander on your own to find little wintery secrets. The streets are beautifully decorated this time of year!
Traditionally eating an Oliebol (Oliebollen is plural) is a New Year’s tradition, but the food trailers that pop up to sell them keep creeping up a little earlier each year, it seems. I’m certainly not complaining because they are delicious, but you’ll definitely want to get yourself one…or five.
It’s basically a fried dough with something inside. My favorite is with a full slice of apple inside. The crisp of the apple is the perfect pairing with the soft dough with some (or a lot) of powdered sugar.
Bonus: Ice skating on the Amsterdam canals
I’m not putting this in the main list because it doesn’t happen often. There’s a big misconception that Amsterdammers are always skating on the canal. It happened for about 3 days in 2018 and it had been 6 years since it had happened before.
In saying that, if it does happen, AWESOME! Just get out there. I went in boots, and so can you 😉
Just by walking around Amsterdam, you will feel the holiday spirit. When it gets cold and darkness comes so early in the day, there are still many reasons to be outside and enjoy the season! It’s a great time to take advantage of the low tourist season and have more of the city to yourself. Each season has its own Amsterdam charm, and we love discovering it all!
Where is your favorite Christmas market? Or where do you dream of going?
This post was originally written in 2015 and updated in 2018.
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- Get more info on your destination through guidebooks.
- Find the right hotel for you on Booking.com through the incredible amount of filters available.
- Discover the perfect experience through GetYourGuide. From transit tickets to food tours, it’s all right here.
- Need a flight? Gotcha covered with Skyscanner (USA people, THIS link is for you).
- Already in Europe and just need a bus or train. We always use Omio because it’s so easy!
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