Amsterdam is best known for bicycles and canals. So it’s probably not a good place to be during the cold winter months, right?
Amsterdam is a magical place in the winter, with lots to do both indoors and out. Here, we’ve singled out 10 of our favorite ways of what to do in winter in Amsterdam.
10. Welcome Sinterklaas into the Dutch capital
Sinterklaas sounds just a bit like Santa Claus. In fact, it’s thought that the former was the inspiration for the latter. After all, they both wear red, have long, flowing white beards, and bring presents to children (preferably delivered in footwear, be it a stocking or a shoe).
But the similarities end there.
Sinterklaas gets a head start on the fat man in red (known in Dutch as the Kerstman, or Christmas Man), hopping on a steamboat from his home in Spain in early November. From there, along with his horse Amerigo and his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes), he makes his way to the Netherlands.
While he manages to make an appearance all over the country, the most resplendent reception occurs in Amsterdam. The Good Sint arrives by steamboat at 10am on the appointed day (some time in mid-November), docking at the Maritime Museum.
Then, the party really gets started, with brass bands, clowns, extravagant floats, and parading officials. Hundreds of Pieten fling thousands of pounds of pepernoten and other sweets into the gathered crowds as the parade snakes through the Prins Hendrikkade and the Damrak on its way to Dam Square, where they kick off a children’s music program.
Then, it’s on through Rokin, Muntplein, Remprandtplein, Utrechtsestraat, Weteringcircuit, and, finally, to Leidseplein. There, Sinterklaas addresses the public from the balcony of the Stadsschouwburg Theater to cap off the day’s festivities.
This is, without a doubt, the most festive occasion of the year in Amsterdam, and one you won’t want to miss.
9. Catch a movie at the EYE Film Institute
There’s a lot of Dutch influence in major motion pictures. You’ve got Carice van Houten (Melisandre in Game of Thrones), Famke Janssen (Jean Grey in the Xmen saga), Jeroen Krabbe (Dr. Charles Nichols in The Fugitive), director Paul Verhoeven (Hollow Man, Starship Troopers, Total Recall), and storyboard artist Wilbert Plijnaar (Despicable Me, Rio, Shrek 2), to name a few.
So it seems appropriate for Amsterdam to be the home of an institution whose job it is to catalogue and preserve Dutch and foreign film.
A ferry ride across the IJ from Amsterdam Central Station is the EYE Film Institute, a museum of sorts housing 37,000 films, 60,000 posters, 700,000 photos, and 20,000 books dating from 1895.
Highlights include shops, tours (including an eye-walk video tour for ages 7-12), concerts, activities for kids (like their free scavenger hunt), film screenings, exhibits, lectures and workshops, a restaurant, and a panorama room.
The current exhibit, Jean Desmet’s Dream Factory: The Adventurous Years of Film (1907-1916), runs through 12 April 2015 and focuses on the dream world inherent in the early years of film. Jean Desmet was, during that time, a pioneer of Dutch cinema.
In 2011, the Desmet Collection was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register due to its “unique value as a document of world heritage,” according to EYE’s website.
You can also drop by the EYE to catch a showing of one of the thousands of movies on file there. Here’s a look at some of the selections playing this winter:
- The New Rijksmuseum – A behind-the-curtains look at the 10-year renovation of the Netherland’s most frequently-visited museum.
- Gone With the Wind – The Clark Gable/Vivian Leigh classic set during the American Civil War.
- Boyhood – Director Richard Linklater followed the same cast for 12 years to capture one boy’s journey into adolescence.
- Solan & Ludvig: Christmas in Pinchcliffe – It’s almost Christmas and the snow has not yet arrived in the Norwegian town of Pinchcliffe. Here’s what happens when a local inventor decides to build a snow machine.
8. Put a dent in your holiday shopping
There is absolutely no reason to wait until you get home to do your holiday shopping (unless you’ve run out of suitcase space, of course). Amsterdam is a fabulous place to shop, and you’re sure to find something for even the toughest person on your list.
Here are our recommendations:
De Bijenkorf – The Beehive, as we would call it in English, is the luxury department chain of the Netherlands. The Amsterdam iteration of the company dates back to 1870 and has been at its current location on the Dam Square since 1912.
At 21,000 square meters and 6 floors, it’s Amsterdam’s largest department store. You’ll find international labels like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Hermès, Burberry, Chanel, and Apple, to name a few, as well as a restaurant, coffee bar, art gallery, and hairdresser.
The Nine Streets – Amsterdam’s Negen Straatjes are the Dutch equivalent of New York’s Fifth Avenue. You could easily spend a day at least, browsing the designer boutiques, art galleries, jewelers, specialty businesses, and other fashion shops in the heart of Amsterdam’s bustling canal district.
Albert Cuyp Market – Over in De Pijp, one of Amsterdam’s most coveted neighborhoods, you’ve got the Albert Cuyp Market, located on – wherelse? – the Albert Cuypstraat. It’s been around since 1905 and is the largest outdoor market in the Netherlands.
The street is closed off to traffic to make room for the crowds milling about the 300 or so stalls selling shoes, clothing, jewelry, fresh produce, toys, fabrics, and any other good or product the imagination can conjure up. You’ll also find cafès and bars, restaurants and specialty shops.
7. Enjoy a drink at a brown cafè
The Dutch name for pub is bruin kroeg, or brown cafè, so called because of their dark, smoke-stained wooden interiors (though these days, with the smoking ban, the color of the interior is due to design, not nicotine).
Brown cafès are known for their laid-back, ‘gezellig’ (cozy) atmosphere, simple fair, and large selection of local and regional beers.
Knitted table cloths, piles of board games and reading material, kitsch decorations, and diverse clientele set these bars apart from other cafés in Amsterdam – or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. They’re also stocked with jenever, a Dutch gin-like spirit that’s absolutely worth a try.
Order a brewski and a traditional Dutch ‘hapje,’ or snack, such as bitterballen, deep-fried balls with a meat-based filling, dipped in mustard. Just make sure to have some cash on hand as many brown cafès don’t accept credit cards.
There’s no shortage of brown cafès worth checking out in Amsterdam. Each café has its own unique attributes.
There are several dating back to the 1600s, including Amsterdam’s oldest brown café, which opened in 1624. One sells only Dutch brews, giving you a true taste of the Netherlands. Another is more crooked than the tower of Pisa. There’s one with an impressive selection of 130 Belgian beers and one with a sand-covered floor. And Amsterdam’s smallest pub measures in at fewer than 18 square meters.
Amsterdam’s brown cafés have gotten nods from Lonely Planet, The Guardian, and Time Out Amsterdam. Duck into any one of them to thaw out and fuel up during your tour of the city.
6. Pay tribute to the Ice Age
From 27 November 2014 through 1 March 2015, the Amsterdam Expo over in Amsterdam Zuid plays host to Giants of the Ice Age. This exhibition takes visitors back 30,000 years to the time when giant mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, woolly rhinos, and Neanderthals roamed the earth.
With samplings of prehistoric art, a replica of the best-preserved mammoth ever found, an original skeleton of a woolly mammoth, remains and fossils from the prehistoric age, it’s the largest travelling exhibition focusing on the Ice Age.
For the kids, there’s a special audio guide, a scavenger hunt, and a Play Zone where they can try their hand at archaeology.
Take this fascinating journey back in time (complete with a free audio guide) and learn the latest scientific findings regarding the Ice Age.
5. Play the day (or night) away at Kermis op de Dam
The Kermis, or carnival, is now open pretty much year-round in various locations throughout the city.
Twice a year, the Kermis swings by the Dam Square, whose stately structures and proud monuments provide the perfect backdrop for this much-anticipated fun fair. And there’s a certain magic about it brought on by the winter months.
Tents and stages spring up all over the makeshift fairground, rife with shooting galleries (parent-approved), bumper cars, a swing carousel, ferris wheels, a fun house, and more. Stalls sell goodies like oliebollen, poffertjes, and cotton candy.
It’s amazing how much fun they manage to squeeze into a relatively small space!
4. Grab a bite to eat at the Foodhallen
You’ve got the Chelsea Market in New York City, the Borough Market in London, the Torvehallerne in Copenhagen, Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, and, as of the fall of 2014, the Foodhallen in Amsterdam.
The Foodhallen is located in Amsterdam West, close to the Jordaan and Amsterdam’s city center, in a renovated tram stall at Bellamyplein. It’s the first indoor food market in the Netherlands, where local food entrepreneurs gather 7 days a week to sell their delicacies.
Take you prick from pastries, sandwiches, pizza, hotdogs, sushi, raclette, frozen yogurt, tapas, pies, and burgers.
Whether it’s Turkish, Italian, Mediterranean, Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Dutch, organic, or vegetarian you’re after, you can find it at the Foodhallen.
The hardest part is making a selection from this incr-edible array. Be prepared to go back for seconds!
3. Let the Amsterdam Light Festival brighten your day
Winter brings with it the joy of the holiday season. But it also brings the shortest, darkest days of the year. And that can often be anything but joyful.
So, the city of Amsterdam got together with various cultural institutions, businesses, and knowledge institutes to create the Amsterdam Light Festival: more than 50 days of light installations to brighten up the city.
The exhibition brings new and established artists from all over the world and includes tours, workshops, walking routes, and other special packages that make this an exciting, stunning, and interactive event.
2. Get into the holiday spirit at the Christmas Village
From December 18th until the 27th the Museum Square in front of the Rijksmuseum is transformed into a winter wonderland.
Traditionally, the square hosts an open air ice rink during the winter months (for three months after November 21), made even more special this year with the Christmas Village on Ice.
Many wooden chalets form a cozy mini village on the lively square where you can shop for your lifestyle or fashion Christmas presents and enjoy tasty winter delights accompanied by some warming glühwein.
And don’t worry when you forgot to bring your skates, they can be rented.
1. Go skating on natural ice
If you paid attention during the most recent Winter Olympics, you’ll know that the Dutch take ice skating very seriously. But their favorite way to skate, by far, is on natural ice. There’s even a whole book written about this Dutch craze (Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, anyone?).
What makes skating on natural ice so magical is that it’s not always possible. The water has to be frozen solid, which usually only occurs when the weather drops below -4°C (25°F) and stays there for at least four nights in a row.
In addition to the canals, any of the lakes around Amsterdam, Ankeveen, and Loodsdrecht make for perfect skating locations. The Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve, not far from Amsterdam, is also a fantastic place to skate.
Should the weather refuse to cooperate, there are plenty of indoor skating opportunities as well, including a covered rink in Amsterdam’s Westergasfabriek next to Pacific Park, the Jaap Eden skating rink, ICE*Amsterdam on the Museumplein, and, of course, the rink at Winterplaza Leidseplein.
So don’t wait till the ice thaws to visit this beautiful city. And definitely don’t miss out on all the winter treats Amsterdam has in store. After all, it only comes once a year.