12 Reasons to Love Amsterdam in Winter

When the trees go bare and the sun starts to set before 5pm on those rare days it appears at all, one thing is clear: winter is coming. In Amsterdam, the change from 18 hours of daylight at the height of summer to a measly seven by mid-December can wreak havoc on a body, both physically and mentally.

Circadian rhythms—those hormonal mechanisms that run the internal clock impacted by the amount of light our brains receive—can make sleep/wake cycles go haywire in an Amsterdam winter. When gray skies and rainy days go on for what seems like forever, it’s easy to hibernate and give in to depression. Indeed, many locals experience the “winter blues” in the short, dark days between November and the first signs of spring in late February.

Amsterdam in winter
Twinkly lights brighten winter gloom in Amsterdam. 

Fortunately, there are antidotes (beyond escaping to warmer climes) for winter in Amsterdam. Plus many reasons to visit at a time of year when airfares are lower, museum lines are shorter, and aromas of speculaas and glühwein permeate a postcard-perfect city. Pubs are cozier when a dusting of snow creates a fairytale scene beyond a crackling fireplace. And a hearty plate of stamppot seems more like sustenance than guilty pleasure on a cold, winter night.

Everything’s gezellig when there’s a dusting of snow outside.

Beyond a potato masher, winter wardrobe, and industrial-grade umbrella, here are a dozen reasons to love Amsterdam in winter:

Roam the Rijksmuseum until 2am on Museum Night.
  1. Museumnacht. For a single night in early November, 50+ museums—from the ever-popular Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank House, and Van Gogh Museum to smaller venues like the Resistance Museum, NEMO science museum, and Rembrandt House—welcome guests until 2am. One ticket buys access to all museums, with a few exceptions. At many, the agenda includes live music, DJs, dance, film, special tours, food and drinks. Buy your tickets early, as the annual event routinely sells out to a young, local crowd.
Dam Square sparkles with holiday lights by mid-November. 

2. Turn on the Lights. Amsterdam’s end-of-year holiday season begins in earnest in mid-November, when thousands of LED lights are switched on at the posh de Bijenkorf department store on Dam Square. Fireworks explode in the sky for the free, annual event.

Amsterdam’s holiday season begins when the lights go on at De Bijenkorf. 

Winter Wonderlands with market stalls and twinkly lights also appear around Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein, and Museumplein by mid-November.

Holiday markets pop up in public squares for the winter holidays. 

3. Sinterklaas Comes to TownWhile Santa and his elves hunker down at the North Pole until December 25, the Dutch Father Christmas—who is NOT Santa Claus—makes a splashy entrance in Amsterdam, traditionally on the third Sunday in November. Onlookers line the canals as the beloved Sint and his merry band, the controversial Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes), chug into town from Spain on their steamship, thePakjesboot.

Sinterklaas comes to town.
Sint parades through town on his white horse, Amerigo.

The world’s largest St. Nicholas parade features more than a kilometer of boats sailing down the Amstel River, past the Royal Theatre Carré and Magere Brug. At the Maritime Museum, Amsterdam’s mayor welcomes Sint, who trades his boat for a white horse named Amerigo to parade through town as the Pieten toss pepernoten cookies to onlookers. The party ends at Leidseplein, where Sint addresses his smallest fans from the balcony of the Stadsschouwburg theater.

Smudged faces have replaced blackface makeup in response to widespread controversy. 

In response to controversy that’s gone all the way to the UN, the Pietens‘ get-up has changed in recent years. Smudged faces have replaced the blackface makeup that sparked the outcry over regressive racism. The new look gives credence to the theory that the Pietens‘ faces are dark from chimney soot. The 17th-century slave garb, hoop earrings and ruby lips remain, to the delight of revelers nostalgic for an age when blackface was politically correct.

Amsterdam Light Festival
A light sculpture mimics an iceberg for the Amsterdam Light Festival. 

4. The Amsterdam Light Festival. From late November through mid- January, landmarks along Amsterdam’s historic canals are literally in the limelight. Spectacular light sculptures by both Dutch and international artists highlight a festival that includes programs at local museums, theaters, shops and restaurants. The 2018-19 edition takes its “The Medium is the Message” theme from Canadian scientist Marshall McLuhan.

Amsterdam Light Festival
View the Amsterdam Light Festival at your leisure or on a boat, walking or cycling tour.

5. Ice Skating. Every year, Dutchies pray temps will drop below zero for a few days, so the Elfstedentocht (11 Cities Tour, the world’s longest ice skating competition) can take place. It rarely happens. But even in years when the canals don’t freeze solid, Museumplein reliably transforms into a giant winter experience from mid-November through January. At ICE* Amsterdam, tourists stumble around on rental skates while locals practice jumps and twirls under a replica of the Magere Brug. Non-skaters can warm up over hot chocolate, with the magnificent Rijksmuseum and iAmsterdam sign as a backdrop.

Museumplein transforms into a giant outdoor ice rink every winter.

Rembrandtplein hosts a smaller outdoor ice rink that replaces the one formerly on Leidseplein. Jaap Edenbaan offers skating lessons on a 400-meter outdoor track in winter, as well as skating to ’80s disco tunes in its Ice Hall on Saturday nights.

6. Holiday Markets. Whether you’re looking for a traditional Victorian experience or a trendy food fest, there’s a holiday market for you in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In December, Westergasfabriek presents its Kerst Fair and Funky Christmas Markets, bringing organic farmers, bakers, butchers, chefs, cheese and sausage makers, juice pressers, baristas and other foodies together.

More organic produce and sustainable gifts will be on offer at the PureMarkt in Amstelpark and Frankendael Park. Other holiday shopping options include festive versions of the Local Goods Market at De Hallen and the Amsterdam Kerst Markt in NDSM-Noord, both featuring handmade art and trinkets by local designers.

7. Deventer Dickens Festival. Time rewinds to the Victorian era in the tiny town of Deventer during the annual Dickens Festival. For fans of A Christmas Carol, OliverTwist, Great Expectations and other 19th-century classics, the festival revives Charles Dickens’ fairytale world, replete with sooty orphans, wealthy nobles, chestnut sellers, tramps,hoodlums and holiday carolers.

Deventer Dickens Festival
Twinkling lights adorn windows and bridges in Deventer.

If period-themed festivals are your thing, it may be worth the two-hour train trip to one of the Netherlands’ oldest Dutch cities. While standing in line with masses of others, you’ll have ample time to admire the historic brick houses and cobbled alleyways that provide a fitting backdrop for the revelry.

Deventer Dickens Festival
Expect some 19th-century transport at the Deventer Dickens Festival.

8. Edible Treats. Nothing is more seasonal than oliebollen in Amsterdam. Literally “oil balls,” these deep-fried, sugary treats appear at pop-up stands throughout the city at the first sign of winter. Dutchies traditionally eat them at midnight on New Year’s Eve to ward off evil spirits—if you need an excuse.

Oliebollen stands pop up throughout Amsterdam in winter.

Winter also is the season for hearty Dutch comfort food like stamppot—potatoes mashed with endive, carrots or some other root vegetable, topped with a meatball or sausage and smothered with gravy. A steaming bowl of erwtensoep (Dutch pea soup, also known as snert), so thick you can stand a spoon in it, also hits the spot on a cold winter night. In the Netherlands, it’s traditionally served on New Year’s Day.

Winter is the season for hearty Dutch comfort foods like stamppot.

9. Cultural Fun. At Westergasfabriek, Winter Parade brings its mix of theater, dance, poetry, art, music and culinary delights to a 120-meter table accommodating 500 guests. World Christmas Circus returns to Royal Theatre Carré, presenting somersaults on horseback and other winning acts from festivals in Monte Carlo, Paris, Peking and Moscow.

10. Tango Train Amsterdam. In the last week of the year, the Tango Train promenades into town. Venues throughout Amsterdam host fiery performances and workshops for the week-long event celebrating Argentine tango in the Dutch capital.

11. Oud en Nieuw. “Old and New” is how Dutchies refer to New Year’s Eve—a time to party hard at dance raves, costume shindigs and quirky theme events at venues throughout the city. Many are listed in iAmsterdam’s compilation of New Year’s Eve parties.

In 2018–19, the official fireworks extravaganza moves from the National Maritime Museum to Kop van Java Island in the Eastern Docklands. 

On public squares like Dam, Rembrandtplein, Nieuwmarkt and Leidseplein, restaurants, bars, and pop-up beer tents are jammed with revelers on Oud en Nieuw. You can see the action from on-high at posh restaurants overlooking the Ij, like Moon or Madam in A’Dam Tower or the Sky Lounge at the Hilton Doubletree. Reserve early, as all are booked solid on New Year’s Eve.

Far less choreographed than the city’s fireworks are DIY displays by locals capitalizing on the only time of year fireworks are sold in the Netherlands. Indeed, Amsterdam can resemble a war zone on the last night of the year, when resident pyromaniacs head for bridges and open spaces to ignite their stash as soon as the sun sets.

12. New Year’s Dip. Not for the faint of heart or thin of skin, New Year’s Dip is reserved for those intent on welcoming the new year with a splash—in the icy North Sea. Since 1965, when a swim club decided to start the year with a team baptism in the sea, the tradition has drawn revelers eager to strip off sensible winter clothing to run into the water en masse. After a major soup brand sponsored the event, the number of participants and locations has increased each year.

Join the fun at Zandvoort aan Zee, 30 minutes west of Amsterdam. Those too sensible to splash into 2019 can enjoy the spectacle from dry land with a cup of soup or hot cocoa. Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!

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