12 Ways to Celebrate Christmas in Amsterdam

Find more city highlights in my AFAR Guide to Amsterdam.

Forget 12 Days of Christmas. Amsterdam’s year-end holiday season extends from late October through early January, offering more than two months of winter fun that includes ice skating, Christmas markets and holiday theater.

If you’re visiting at this festive time of year, here are a dozen ways to amuse yourself in 2014-15:

Oliebollen stands are the first harbinger of the holiday season in Amsterdam.
Oliebollen stands are the first harbinger of the holiday season in Amsterdam.

1. Eat oliebollen: At the first sign of fall, pop-up stands proffering sugary goodies appear at Leidseplein, Museumplein, Schiphol and other high-traffic spots throughout Amsterdam. Follow your nose to these repositories of sphere-shaped sweets―precursors of the American donut―emanating aromas of apple and cinnamon. Like their US cousins, oliebollen (“oil balls”) are deep-fried dough, sometimes flecked with raisins or currants, sprinkled with powdered sugar. Poffertjes—small, fluffy pancakes with a light, spongy texture—are a yummy variation. Another seasonal option is an appelflapje, filled with apple slices and topped with glaze.

Festive lights add holiday cheer to popular shopping streets like Kalverstraat.
Festive lights add holiday cheer to shopping streets like Kalverstraat.

2. See the city sparkle: Holiday lights add festive cheer to pedestrian shopping streets like Kalverstraat, Leidsestraat, Haarlemerstraat, the Negen Straatjes (Nine Little Streets) and upscale P.C. Hoofstraat. From the illuminated faҫade of De Bejinkorf in Dam Square to Winter Wonderlands in Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein and Museumplein, Amsterdam lights up in the holiday season. Even De Wallen—the city’s most infamous Red Light District—has Christmas lights in colors other than red through early January.

The Neighbourfood Market is a great place to shop for holiday gifts.
The Neighbourfood Market is a great place to shop for holiday gifts.

3. Shop for hand-crafted gifts: Holland may not rival Germany for Christmas markets, but it has its contenders, especially in the south, where Valkenburg becomes a subterranean Christmas village complete with markets, Santa and holiday choirs―all in an underground grotto oozing with seasonal charm.

Shop and eat at the Pure Markt.
Shop and eat at the Pure Markt.

Find more Yuletide fun at the Haarlem Christmas Market or visit Magical Maastricht, a festival of light near the German border, open until January. In Amsterdam, the Neighbourfood Market and Pure Markt are great sources for hand-crafted gifts and international edibles.

4. Take to the ice: When temps dip into the single digits, Dutchies show their passion for skating by taking to the ice at rinks throughout the city. Temporary facilities appear on Leidseplein and Museumplein, where tourists rent skates to join locals practicing jumps and twirls. More ambitious skaters head to an outdoor marathon skating rink, indoor ice hockey and figure skating rink at Jaap Edenbaan, which offers skating to ’80s disco tunes on Saturday nights.

Museumplein becomes a winter wonderland at year-end.
Museumplein becomes a winter wonderland at year-end.

5. Ring in the holidays at a concert (or circus): Churches all around Amsterdam have concerts on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Free holiday services at Sint Nicolaaskerk will feature Gregorian music at 21:00 on December 24 and at 10:30 on December 25 and 26. Classical Christmas concerts are planned at the Concertgebouw on December 24, 25 and 26.

The National Ballet stages Sleeping Beauty at Amsterdam's Muziektheater.
The National Ballet stages Sleeping Beauty at Amsterdam’s Muziektheater.

Through January 1, Het National Ballet brings Sleeping Beauty alive at Het Muziektheater. At Westergasfabriek, Winter Parade returns with its colorful mix of interactive fun involving 500 people at a 120-meter table savoring theater, dance, poetry, art, music and culinary delights. The 30th edition of World Christmas Circus will be at Royal Theatre Carré through January 4, presenting winning acts from festivals in Monte Carlo, Paris, Peking and Moscow.

6. Attend Christmas Mass: On December 7, you can attend Mass in the Attic at Ons’ Lieve Heer Op der Solder (Our Lord in the Attic), home to a unique group of churchgoers: Catholic artists. Perched atop a canal house in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, the church—built during the Reformation, when Catholics were forbidden to hold public services—is a fine place for personal reflection. Holiday services and choral programs also are offered at De Bejinkorf, a serene oasis in the center of Amsterdam founded by the Beguines, a group of 14th century women who practiced charitable work beyond monastic boundaries.  

“A Bright City” is the theme of Amsterdam’s 2014-15 Light Festival.

7. Admire illuminated art: Experience the  Amsterdam Light Festival (November 27‒January 18, 2015) while enjoying a cup of steaming glühwein on a comfy canal boat. On the Watercolors Boat Tour, cruise along the canals and Amstel River, past illuminated sculptures and projections by contemporary artists. Themed “A Bright City,” the festival also offers an Illuminade walking route through Amsterdam from December 5‒January 4, 2015.

8. Museum hop: The RijksmuseumAnne Frank House, FOAM (a photography museum/gallery) and Torture Museum are among city museums that will be open Christmas Day. Families might opt to spend the day at Artis Royal Zoo or Madame Tussauds.

The gorgeous, Art Deco Tuschinski has special holiday screenings.

9. See a movie: The gorgeous Pathé Tuschinski, an art deco gem between the Munt Tower and Rembrandtplein, has special screenings on Christmas Day.

10. Eat out: Holland’s religious make-up is diverse, so many restaurants and cafés serve meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Find listings throughout the Netherlands at DiningCity, including those offering special Christmas menus.

"Christmas Bonus," Boom Chicago's new comedy show, pokes fun at the frustrations of the holiday season.
Sinterklaas will appear at Boom Chicago on December 5.

11. Laugh it off: Comedy Café offers stand-up comedy shows throughout the holiday season. Boom Chicago serves up more hilarity on December 5, when Sinterklaas will appear at a special performance of The 7 Deadly Dutch Sins, where he’ll read sarcastic poems about audience members. On December 31, the American improv-comedy troupe welcomes 2015 with New Years Eve at Boom, a special New Years’ dinner, show and party.

12. Ring in 2015: Throughout town, dance parties, costume shindigs, family fun and quirky theme events are planned at clubs, hotels and entertainment centers for those who want to pull out all the stops on 2014. Find many New Years Eve options at iAmsterdam’s listings of holiday parties and events. Gelukkig NieuwJaar!


  1. Great article about how to spend time in Amsterdam in other ways: not the ones recommended usual touristy stuff.
    Looking forward to my time in Amsterdam

  2. Oh! Excited to try the oliebollen – and that the festivities will continue past christmas, when Emilie and I are in Amsterdam. It sounds delightful to walk the route offered by the Amsterdam Lights Festival enjoying one of these “pre-donuts” and some glühwein. I think Europe really knows how to do Christmas right – I read that in my old home-town, Minneapolis/St. Paul, they are (for the first time) offering a “European-style” Christmas Market. Can’t wait!

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