Amsterdam in winter is a true treat. The streets are quieter, the city is sleepier, and there’s a general ‘merry’ atmosphere around December. Oftentimes you’ll wake up to a foggy morning, or if you’re lucky, a light snowfall. On even rarer occasions the Amsterdam canals freeze over and you can go ice skating on them, something I was fortunate enough to experience a few years back. No matter what the weather forecast is though, there are always things to do in Amsterdam come wintertime. The Dutch call this ‘gezellig’ (cozy) season, a time for mulled wine, twinkle lights, and hunkering down in the warmth of your favorite cafe. Here are my recommendations for activities and sights around the city in winter:
Go on a canal cruise during the Amsterdam Lights Festival – this festival happens once a year in winter, and it takes place on the canals. Local artists set up larger-than-life light installations on the water that are best seen by boat (they’re spread out around the city, so it’s the best way to see them all). The artwork changes every year, and I haven’t missed a year yet. Tickets available year-round here, and updated when the light festival is running.
Try olliebollen, glühwein, and other winter treats – when November rolls around, you can find olliebollen (fried oil dough balls with powdered sugar) stands popping around the city with lines down the block. Other winter treats I recommend trying: peppernoten (Dutch gingerbread cookies), poffertjes (fluffy dessert pancakes), chocomel met slagroom (literally ‘chocolate milk with whipped cream’ done right), and Dutch apple pie. Winkel 43 and Restaurant Moeders serve up traditional Dutch dishes. I also love grabbing mulled wine to-go and wandering the canals at night in the 9 streets area.
See the winter markets – though not nearly as large or well-known as the German Christmas markets (which I highly recommend fitting in if you’re in Europe during November or December!), the Dutch winter markets are still worth a visit. The most popular one takes place at museumplein with the beautiful backdrop of the Rijksmuseum. It’s also located right next to the outdoor ice skating rink, which is only there in winter. The Noordermarkt and nearby Lindengracht outdoor markets also take place year-round on Saturdays, but are especially festive in winter. Make sure to try the poffertjes (fluffy Dutch dessert pancakes), my favorite! More winter markets here.
Cozy up at a cafe – there are tons to choose from, but my picks for the coziest in the city are Het Papeneiland (famous Dutch apple pie and hot chocolate, on a famous canal), Buffet Van Odette ( right next to picture-perfect Spiegelgracht canal), and Pastini (the tables in front of the window have some of the best views in the city). You also can’t go wrong with glühwein or hot chocolate at Café Sonneveld in the Jordaan (pictured below with the red and white awning). Check out this guide for all my favorite Amsterdam restaurants.
Go ice skating – perhaps my top recommendation if you’re short on time and still want to get in the winter spirit. As mentioned above, the most popular ice skating rink is outdoors in museumplein and serves up hot chocolate, wine and beer to warm up. More info & tickets here.
Dine on Lighthouse Island – Vuurtoreneiland is a private dining experience that takes place on a small island east of Amsterdam. In winter, they trade their modern indoor/outdoor restaurant space for a multi-course dining experience in a centuries-old fort. To get there, you’ll take a small boat from the north of Amsterdam, complete with a wood-paneled bar and views of the Ij river. The atmosphere is magical: picture candlelit hallways, ancient fireplaces and wool blankets handed out for the ultimate cozy experience. I have only experienced the summer restaurant, and can’t wait to return in the wintertime. Books up months in advance, buy tickets here.
Seek out twinkle lights – some of my favorite areas of Amsterdam that are lit up in winter are: Spiegelgracht canal (in front of the Rijksmuseum), the 9 Straatjes (9 streets shopping district), the corner of Leidsegracht and Keizersgracht (also where The Fault in Our Stars movie was filmed), and around Ferdinand Bolstraat in De Pijp. You can also head to Dam Square to see a large Christmas tree on display in front of the Bijenkorf department store, which is always decked out in twinkle lights.
Grab tickets for Museum Night – this event typically takes place in November and books up months in advance. It’s a one night event, and the pass gets you access to over 50 museums in Amsterdam after dark. The first year I went, I ate appetizers in a private Dutch art collector’s home, explored a sculpture garden with wine in hand, and danced until midnight at a silent disco held in front of Rembrandt’s paintings in the Rijksmuseum. It was a surreal experience, and I highly recommend it. More info & tickets here.