For decades, Amsterdam has attracted visitors who want to experience lighting up in a way they can’t light up at home. But there’s another draw in winter, when streets, buildings, bridges, canals and monuments are illuminated during the year’s darkest season. Despite cold, wet, short days (or maybe because of them), Dutchies ramp up the gezelligheid (coziness) in winter, when it’s dark by 5pm and the sun doesn’t shine again until nearly 9am. At dusk, twinkly holiday lights begin shining, adding sparkly cheer to city streets. Pop-up stands sell oliebollen (literally, oil balls)—warm, donut-like sweets topped with powdered sugar or flecked with apples and raisins.
Ice rinks sprout up on Leidseplein and Museumplein, tempting tourists to stumble around on rental skates and locals to show off, hoping to race on frozen canals as temps drop in January. Real skating enthusiasts head for the Jaap Eden ice skating centre, where fairy lanterns illuminate a 400m outdoor rink.
As in most countries, Holland’s year-end holidays are wrapped in traditions. Some of the most anticipated—involving light—include these:
Turn on the Lights!
De Bijenkorf, Amsterdam’s luxury department store, launches the holiday season with a light show culminating when 600,000 glistening LED lights are turned on. The giant tree presides over Dam Square until early January. Elsewhere in town, shopping streets like Haarlemmerstraat, Leidsestraat, Kalverstraat, posh P.C. Hoofstraat, the Spiegelkwartier and the Negen Straatjes all twinkle with holiday lights and window displays. Street musicians, church carillons and roving carolers add to seasonal cheer in the days approaching Kerst (Christmas).
Through January 3, 2016, Amsterdam transforms into a spectacle of light for the Amsterdam Light Festival. From projections on historic buildings and in city parks to works you can walk or sail through, the 55-day festival creates extra dimensions in public spaces. Themed “Friendship,” the 4th edition includes a canal cruise option and walking route. Both showcase high-tech, energy-smart light sculptures and installations by contemporary artists from around the world, all highlighting Amsterdam’s charm with light and water as connecting elements.
The Watercolors boat route winds along the canals and Amstel River. See it from the water on a private Rederij Paping Private Canal Tour, warmed by hot chocolate and oliebollen, or follow a route through East Amsterdam on the Illuminade walking route. Throughout the festival, light-related activities at museums and other venues will introduce visitors to light art innovations. In tandem with the light sculptures, they demonstrate how Dutchies are leading the way in an LED revolution that will translate into future energy savings.
Ring In The New
The skies over Amsterdam will explode with light and color long before midnight on Oud en Nieuw (Old and New), which is how Dutchies refer to New Year’s Eve. Amsterdammers party hard at venues throughout the city on the last night of the year. Indeed, almost every café, bar and club hosts New Year’s Eve parties. Find dance parties, costume gigs and family events at iAmsterdam’s NYE 2015/16. But there’s no need to pop for an overpriced shindig. Late December is the only time fireworks sales are permitted in Holland, so stock up and set them off with the rest of the city on December 31st.
It’s FREE to join the public Oud en Nieuw celebration at the Oosterdok, where thousands will usher in 2016 at a midnight fireworks extravaganza. Throughout the evening, party animals will celebrate on Rembrandtplein, Nieuwmarkt, Leidseplein and Dam Square, where tents of beer and live shows have appeared in past years. Prettige Feestdagen!
Disclosure: Rederij Paping Private Canal Tour graciously hosted me and a handful of other travel bloggers on the opening night of the festival, keeping us semi-dry in a comfy canal boat, fueled by hot cocoa and warm oliebollen on a wet Amsterdam evening.