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11 Top Things to Do in Winter in Amsterdam

Written by Shandley McMurray
Feb 8, 2021

While spring and fall are the most popular seasons to vacation in Amsterdam, there are a slew of perks awaiting those who visit during winter. In addition to cheaper rates on everything from airfare to accommodation, winter travelers can enjoy crowd-free museums, skate on the canals (if it gets cold enough), and chow down on the most delectable wintertime treats.

Visit during December or early January to witness the magic of Amsterdam aglow with festive lights, charming Christmas markets, and more fresh flowers than you can count on National Tulip Day. Don't worry, you won't freeze. The temperature in Amsterdam rarely plummets below 34 degrees, even in February, and highs hover near 44. Don a couple of layers, and you'll be perfectly comfortable.

Plan your visit to the lovely Dutch capital with our list of the best things to do in winter in Amsterdam.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Be Wowed by the Amsterdam Light Festival

Amsterdam Light Festival
Amsterdam Light Festival

If you thought the city's architecture was impressive, just wait until you catch sight of the remarkable Amsterdam Light Festival. A massive, open-air exhibition descends on the city during December and January, flanking its canals and winding streets with giant light sculptures so impressive, you'll gasp with delight.

The first festival took place in 2012 and has grown into the highly anticipated and beloved event it is today. Nearly one million visitors arrive annually to admire the incredible light sculptures first-hand.

From a giant house of cards to life-sized models of people sitting on a park bench to a display of bacteria fighting the E. coli virus, visitors will be amazed by the innovative creations that light the capital each winter. Some are even set to music.

Each year, the displays vary in size and theme. The walking route invites guests to explore the dramatic works on foot, while the canal route entices them to travel by boat to gape at the intricate displays in, around, and over the romantic waterways.

While you never know exactly what to expect at the Amsterdam Light Festival, you're sure to be mesmerized. You'll never look at festive lights the same way again.

2. Pick a Free Bouquet on National Tulip Day

National Tulip Day in Dam Square
National Tulip Day in Dam Square

While many associate tulips with the arrival of spring, those in Amsterdam like to appreciate this cheerful flower much earlier in the year. The third Saturday of January plays host to National Tulip Day, or Nationale Tulpendag, as it's known in Dutch.

At 8am, locals begin unloading their trucks and arranging over 200,000 tulips into a temporary garden in Dam Square. At 1 pm, they open the garden to the public and offer everyone a chance to pick flowers for free. Watching the setup is almost as much fun as picking the flowers yourself, so arrive early.

Insider's tip: Be prepared to stand in line (sometimes for an hour or more) if you're hoping to leave with flowers.

If you're hankering for more beauty, head to Keukenhof, the gorgeous estate of Keukenhof Castle set just 30 minutes outside Amsterdam. Its colorful spring blooms are spectacular, but it isn't open until the end of March.

3. Skate on a Canal or an Outdoor Rink

Ice-skaters on a frozen canal in Amsterdam
Ice-skaters on a frozen canal in Amsterdam

While skating on one of Amsterdam's famed Golden Canals is one of the most romantic ways to tour the city, this happens very rarely. Sections of the Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht canals last froze enough to support the weight of skaters during the "big freeze" in March of 2018. Prior to that, the canals hadn't frozen in over six years.

If you aren't lucky enough to visit during a deep freeze, take a swirl around one of the city's winter ice rinks. ICE*Amsterdam offers outdoor skating in one of the most picturesque settings: Museumplein, a spectacular venue for a glide. Skaters are blessed with incredible views of the Rijksmuseum from mid-November to March 1st.

Leidseplein also boasts an outdoor rink from mid-November to early January. Rental skates are available at both rinks, as are warm drinks and snacks, which you can enjoy before and after your session.

For a more professional experience, lace up your skates at Jaap Eden Ijsbaan, which is open from October to March.

4. Get Inspired (and Warm) at the Museums

The Rijksmuseum
The Rijksmuseum

Amsterdam is home to some of the world's best museums, which are generally packed during the high season. Winter travelers get to experience their impressive exhibits without the hassle of crowds.

Take advantage of the relative quiet, and explore the unmissable Rijksmuseum (a.k.a. National Museum) the scenic heart of Museumplein. This historic building is home to a vast collection of ancient and modern art and artifacts.

While in town, do not miss a visit to the Van Gogh Museum. Art buffs will be captivated by both the building itself (a modern creation designed by Gerrit Rietveld) and the incredible paintings by Van Gogh himself. Home to the largest collection of the artists' works, you'll find letters, etchings, and paintings on display.

The Ann Frank House is another must-visit. Located on the Prinsengracht, this hauntingly unforgettable museum is housed in the home in which the Frank family hid from the Nazis during World War II. Inside, you'll find the hidden staircase to their living quarters and other items that remain as they were when Anne and her family hid here.

5. Hop aboard a Canal Cruise

Canal cruise in Amsterdam
Canal cruise in Amsterdam

Dubbed the "Venice of the North," Amsterdam is perhaps best known for its romantic, tree-lined canals. And what better way to explore the city's sparkling stars than by getting up close and personal – on a boat cruise? Book one for New Year's and you're in for an unforgettable night!

With over 100 kilometers of canals (a.k.a. grachten) winding their way through the city, there's no shortage of places to cruise. That said, the most popular (and touristy) canals are Prinsengracht, Herengracht, and Keizergracht. Many cruises include a hot chocolate to warm your fingers, although most boats are heated, so you shouldn't feel chilled.

Multiple cruise companies (over 120 to be exact) have made a good business out of shuttling visitors between Amsterdam's tourist attractions or simply touring them around the waterways, pointing out architectural marvels and enlightening them on the area's history along the way. You'll have plenty of options to choose from.

Plan your cruise during the Amsterdam Light Festival for an even more memorable excursion.

6. Fill Your Belly with Classic Winter Dishes

Oliebollen, a famous winter dessert
Oliebollen, a famous winter dessert

Warm and inviting cafés line Amsterdam's streets, enticing visitors to step in from the cold for a warm bowl of soup (Snert is a thick and hearty pea soup served with rye bread), stamppot (mashed potatoes and veggies served with meat), fondue, or a broodje (a.k.a. sandwich).

Once you've finished your meal, it's time to enjoy some of the tastiest treats on offer in Amsterdam. Oliebollen are the most famous winter dessert and are only available at this time of year. Eating these scrumptious, deep-fried dough balls is a delicious and beloved New Year's tradition. They're essentially donuts covered in powdered sugar, and are sold in stalls known as oliebollenkramen, which are positioned throughout town.

Appeltaarts (apple pie), Dutch pancakes, and Poffertjes (pancake-like treats doused in powdered sugar and butter) are also on offer. Wash it all down with a mug of hot chocolate, and you'll be reenergized for a day of sightseeing.

7. Shop the Boutiques along the 9 Straatjes

Amsterdam's 9 Straatjes at sunset
Amsterdam's 9 Straatjes at sunset

Engage in some retail therapy among the eclectic boutiques of Amsterdam's 9 Straatjes (a.k.a. nine little streets). This unique shopping area consists of nine scenic streets, which lie within the city's most prominent neighborhoods: Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. Each neighborhood houses three of the streets. Part of the fun is crossing bridges over the canals to reach the other side.

No matter what you're searching for, you'll find it here. Each street is lined with art galleries, designer shops, cafés, restaurants, and vintage clothing stores. You'll also find jewelry boutiques, book shops, and flower stores. Also, it wouldn't be Amsterdam without design stores and a bevy of shops selling lingerie.

Around Christmas, the streets are beautifully decorated, adding to their picturesque allure. Be sure to bring a camera.

8. Tour Amsterdam's Christmas Markets

Christmas market shopping
Christmas market shopping

There's no shortage of festive markets in Amsterdam in winter. Boasting hand-made crafts, delectable treats, and skating rinks, these markets up the fun factor of any cold-weather Dutch vacation. A few faves include the Ice*Village Amsterdam, which surrounds the skating rink in Museumplein and features vibrant lights and dozens of vendors selling festive treats and wares.

In pure Amsterdam style, the traditional Sunday Market in Westergasfabriek is transformed into the Funky Xmas Market for one day in mid-December. Quirky handmade goods are on display by their unique vendors.

Pure Winter Markt Amsterdam is the perfect place for the environmentally conscious shopper. Sustainability is the theme here, which is what makes this such a rewarding place to visit. In addition to purchasing guilt-free gifts, the market – with 70 percent of its space devoted to food vendors – features the freshest local dishes around. This is a traveling market, so check their site to determine where they'll be when you're in town.

For a truly Dutch experience, head to Leiden, an adorable town about 40 minutes away, for their floating Christmas Market. Multiple stalls and food stations are set upon a floating platform on the Nieuwe Rijn, creating a majestically festive aura.

9. Step Back in Time at the Museum of Willet-Holthuysen

Carved wooden bench at the Museum of Willet-Holthuysen
Carved wooden bench at the Museum of Willet-Holthuysen | Kristina D.C. Hoeppner / photo modified

A perfect example of a historic canal home, the Willet-Holthuysen museum is located on the Herengracht. Last home to Abraham Willet and Louisa Holthuysen, the museum serves as an enchanting example of what life was like for wealthy members of Dutch society (and their staff) in the mid-1800s.

From December to early January, the house is converted into a 19th-century festive wonderland as part of the Christmas Exhibition. The museum is decorated with trinkets and festive décor from the time of its last inhabitants. The remarkably decorated Christmas tree, complete with unwrapped children's gifts is a stunning centerpiece.

Visit during the last week of December, and you'll be graced with live music, including Christmas songs, and a reading of Christmas stories. Coffee, tea, and board games are on hand during these times, which will tempt you to prolong your stay.

10. Catch a Performance of Wereldkerstcircus

A much-loved tradition, the World Christmas Circus (a.k.a. Wereldkerstcircus) has been gracing Amsterdam's stages since it began as a one-man show with circus performer Oscar Carré in 1887. Locals flock to see this exciting performance at the Royal Theatre Carré each holiday season.

Much larger and more diverse than its original show, today's Christmas circus includes thrilling acts featuring circus performers from across the globe. If you're used to attending The Nutcracker ballet or a performance of Handle's Messiah to get in the holiday spirit, you'll be amazed by the fun you'll have ringing in the season at this entertaining event.

Hold your breath as you watch trapeze artists fly through the air and acrobats fling themselves around the stage. Contortionists, jugglers, clowns, and the "Italian Horse Whisperer" are a few of the featured acts.

11. Sled, Ski, or Snow Tube at Winter Paradise

Each December, the RAI and its surroundings are transformed into a wonderland of wintery goodness. We're talking real snow, tube slides, sledding, curling, and multiple skating rinks (both indoors and outside).

No matter the weather, Amsterdam's Winter Paradise (a.k.a. Het Amsterdamse Winterparadijs) brings the best parts of the season to its guests. Board the giant 40-meter-high Ferris Wheel for a spectacular view of the city, cross-country ski around Christmas trees, or have a snowball fight with friends. In need of a rest? Put your feet up as you enjoy a Christmas movie at the Christmas Cinema.

When hunger strikes, roast marshmallows over a fire, or grab a bite from one of the pop-up restaurants or cafés.

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imageEuropean Places to Visit in Winter: Amsterdam isn't the only winter wonderland in Europe. Prague is a fantastic winter destination if you are looking for cities to visit. Germany boasts spectacular, snow-covered landscapes and expansive Christmas markets. Austria is another must-visit in the colder months. Ski down (or across) majestic mountains, and visit a snow-dusted castle.

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