After I shared my post on Amsterdam in winter, I umm-ed and ahh-ed about penning a post that was all about Christmas in Amsterdam, because surely the existing winter in Amsterdam posyt would cover all the basic information about things you can do in Amsterdam at Christmas and at New Year, but then I realised that actually this is a worthy standalone post to write because visiting Amsterdam over Christmas, or shortly before or after, is actually one of the best times to come over here, and it's quite different from the rest of the season in many ways.
Not only is Amsterdam at Christmas quite quiet - relatively speaking for a busy time of year - but it's absolutely stunning and very Christmassy and festive and romantic and memorable in all the right ways. So here we go, a little round-up of what an Amsterdam Christmas is like, how the locals celebrate, how you should celebrate if you fancy coming here over the festive season (and where you should stay!), and finally some tips for things to do and also a bit of information (and a warning!) about New Year in Amsterdam. Just don't forget your Christmas jumper... actually, you can totally forget that as that trend really hasn't caught on here... yet!
PSST!! If you're still planning your Amsterdam trip, bookmark these posts so you can make your Amsterdam Christmas holiday the very best: Where to Stay in Amsterdam - Neighbourhood Guide, The Best Hotels in Amsterdam for All Budgets, Tips for Staying in Self-Catering Accommodation in Amsterdam, Ultimate Amsterdam Weekend Bucketlist, 100+ Free Things to do in Amsterdam, The Best Photo Spots in Amsterdam, Guide to Visiting Amsterdam on a Budget, and Tips for Cycling in Amsterdam.
What is an Amsterdam Christmas Really Like?
My instinctive answer to this question is one word: calm. That doesn't mean the streets of Amsterdam are empty at Christmas, nor does it mean that nobody comes to visit, and it absolutely doesn't mean that there is nothing going on (because there is A LOT going on) but I always find Christmas week in Amsterdam a relatively quiet time compared with say London where I feel there is non-stop activity and fuss and SHOPPING, SO MUCH SHOPPING among locals and visitors alike all the way until the shops close on Christmas Eve, at which point the city does go a bit quiet but still nothing close to silent. Christmas in Amsterdam just feels a bit more civilised.
Amsterdam may not fall completely silent over Christmas but I feel it does have this quiet sense of calm about the festivities. Many Amsterdammers leave the city over Christmas, heading to friends or family elsewhere, or others go on holiday, escaping to warmer climes or going on a ski holiday. This leaves a little extra space for visitors to fill and while accommodation prices certainly aren't low at this time of the year, it is true that availability is good and some will have special offers for you to take advantage of. It's also fair to say that with people going away there should be a good supply of Airbnb apartments to stay in. If you'd like some tips on where to stay in Amsterdam check out this neighbourhood guide, and this list of hotels suitable for all styles and budgets.
Before I go on about how romantic and beautiful an Amsterdam Christmas can be, I suppose I should come clean and admit that Amsterdam can of course be very cold at Christmas. It's also a very dark and grey time of year with it being just a few days after the longest day of the year. While this makes for cosy winter nights where the canals are all lit up and Christmas lights sparkle all over the city, it does mean that your daylight hours are limited and likely to be chilly, so of course, come with plenty of layers, a decent winter (and ideally, waterproof!) coat, warm shoes, and a hat, scarf and gloves.
So, back to being cosy and romantic. Personally, I have always thought Amsterdam suits winter. The leaf-less trees open up the canals allowing you to check out the grandest mansion houses along the canals. If you're lucky the sun can shine and the sky can turn bright blue on some lucky days bringing a lovely clear light to the city for photo opportunities. Amsterdam is full of wooden-interior bars or cafes with fireplaces to warm up next to. And there are plenty of Christmas-themed things to do, or just generally cosy, wintry activities to do to make your Amsterdam Christmas very special. Oh, and you really can't get a much more winter-friendly, stomach-warming meal than most Dutch foods!
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How do the Dutch celebrate Christmas in Amsterdam?
So what's a typical Dutch Christmas like. Well, that's still quite hard for me to answer as I'm a) not Dutch, and b) have yet to go to my first Dutch Christmas (and in any case, I probably shouldn't judge a single one as setting the tone for all), so I honestly don't know what a typical Dutch Christmas looks like but having lived in Amsterdam for five years and spending a few of those Christmases in the city, I can tell you a bit about how Christmas is celebrated by the Dutch.
Firstly, you need to know that gift-giving and specifically Father Christmas (or Santa Claus) is a bit different here. They don't have Santa in the Netherlands, but rather they have Sinterklaas, which yes, means Saint Nicholas so of course Santa Claus and Sint share the same roots, but as far as the Dutch are concerned, they are not one and the same person. Indeed Sint is a much more efficient character who does his gift-giving duties a lot earlier than Santa and Father Christmas, no doubt so he can go on holiday to Thailand or the Caribbean for actual Christmas.
First sightings of Sinterklaas happen in the middle of November when his boat from Spain arrives in the Netherlands (funnily enough in most Dutch cities and towns at roughly the same time, though there is one official arrival spot that is considered THE Sinterklaas' arrival!) and often a small parade takes place to celebrate. From then until 5th December, children leave little treats or offerings - drawings, poems, stories, a piece of fruit - for Sinterklaas in their shoes at night, and often (but definitely not always!) their efforts are rewarded with a small gift. On the final night they are given a more substantial collection of presents, and that is that for Sinterklaas for another year.
A Short Note About Sinterklaas, Piet and Dutch Christmas Traditions
You may or may not be aware that the Sinterklaas festival has become something of a controversy in the Netherlands due to his helpers, who are all called Piet. Traditionally for the last 100 years, Sint's helpers have been called Zwarte Pieten, and this means "Black Pete". When the parades and appearances of Sint and Piet have taken place, it has involved a white person using blackface to depict Zwarte Piet. In the last few decades or so this has very understandably caused controversy and a considerably backlash from many Dutch groups and citizens, and there has subsequently (and rather sadly in my mind) been kickback from those who want to keep the tradition as it was (and still is in many parts of the country).
Personally, as soon as I was aware of the tradition, I found it instantly offensive, and yet what was perhaps more shocking is how fiercely some Dutch people will defend it. They see it as an innocent tradition because it's for children, and they claim (among other arguments) children are not inherently racist, nor aware of the issues. They talk about Piet being black because he came down a chimney - despite the Piet's traditional dress (bloomers and a flat cap) looking suspiciously like typical 17th century clothes, i.e. the time when slavery began in colonial countries like the Netherlands.
The campaigns against Zwarte Piet have had considerable if hard-fought success as most cities and larger towns now only refer to "The Petes" as Sint's helpers and the blackface has gone or been replaced with charcoal smudges (to represent the chimney he is supposed to descend down) or they are Rainbow Petes with brightly coloured wigs and face paint. It is true that Piet is the character that most children find the most endearing. There are numerous songs, books and TV shows about him, and kids like to dress up as him around this time of year, so should you come and visit Amsterdam at Christmas or in November and early December you'll almost see his image plastered around town, so it continues to be a situation that is evolving and changing, and I hope, eventually for the better!
Father Christmas or Santa Claus - as children in other countries know him - does exist for Dutch children but he is called the Kerstman ("Christmas Man") and it's really dependent on the family if he is a tradition in your house, i.e .if they get any more gifts on the night of Christmas Eve.
Other Traditions at Christmas in Amsterdam and the Netherlands
Now let's talk about how the Dutch do Christmas. Firstly, food. The main meal for Christmas is eaten on Christmas Eve, normally in the evening. There is no turkey, or traditional set menu, as such for this meal, but most Dutch families will eat some kind of roast meat with vegetables and trimmings not dissimilar from those eaten on British or American tables on Christmas Day.
Christmas Day is known as Eerste Kerstdag (First Christmas Day) and the day after, what I as a Brit call Boxing Day, is then known as Tweede Kerstdag. Both of these days are national holidays and are typically spent with family or friends at gatherings where more special foods are prepared and eaten, or leftovers are enjoyed! Gifts can be given among families and friends but it's not my experience from what my Dutch friends tell me that they have vast numbers of gifts each or elaborate, long-running present-opening sessions.
In terms of decorations, the Dutch do have Christmas trees, and often hang Christmas lights in windows or outside, and what I think they happen to do particularly well are beautiful Christmas wreaths on front doors, or seasonal displays of winter and Christmas flowers. For me, it's one of my favourite sights watching people balance (often very tall!) Christmas trees on their bikes in the run up to Christmas.
In general, when you walk around the streets of Amsterdam on either Eerste or Tweede Kerstdag, the city is very, very quiet. Yes, hotels and some restaurants and cafes will stay open to host people, but most shops and businesses are closed, though I believe some museums will be open on Eerste and Tweede Kerstdag (if it happens to be a week day) but with possibly reduced hours, so that's worth looking into (this page lists more info in Dutch!)
Where should I stay in Amsterdam at Christmas?
If you're planning on visiting Amsterdam at Christmas then you will find most hotels are open and many will offer Christmas special deals, though don't necessarily expect these to be super cheap offers! As I wrote here in this article about finding the best time to visit Amsterdam, the winter months are actually the quietest in Amsterdam in terms of the number of visitors so whatever your budget, there should be enough hotel or hostel availability to choose from. Likewise, as I've mentioned above there may be a decent amount of Airbnbs available as many Dutchies leave Amsterdam over Christmas time. We've actually had a few staycations in Amsterdam at Christmas time and enjoyed really lovely, luxury and very Christmassy stays at Hotel Ambassade, The Amstel Hotel, and Sofitel Legend Amsterdam The Grand.
I've listed more of my favourite hotels and hostels in Amsterdam for all budgets here, but the following are hotels I think would be love and cosy for a winter's stay in Amsterdam: Waldorf Astoria, Pullitzer Hotel, The Dylan Hotel, and Banks Mansion, for a little luxury. There's also Consicous Hotels in Westerpark and Vondelpark, The Hoxton Hotel, The College Hotel, The Tire Station, the very new Sir Adam, and the Volks Hotel for a little affordable style, and Citizen M, Meininger Hotel, The Student Hotel, Cocomama, and Generator Hostel for some very decent budget accommodation that also have cosy areas to hang around in when you need to warm up or grab some downtime between sightseeing.
The Best Things to do in Amsterdam at Christmas
Below are a selection of things you can (and should!) do at Christmas in Amsterdam, some of which are directly copied from my Amsterdam in winter post because there is an obvious overlap!
Meet Sint (but come early for that!)
As mentioned above, Sinterklass comes a lot earlier to Amsterdam, and in many ways his arrival really kicks off the Christmas season in the city so timing your visit with Sint's arrival could be a great way to make you feel festive too. You can find all the details about Sinterklaas' arrival and parade in Amsterdam here.
Eat some Christmas sweet treats!
Should you make it to Sint's arrival parade or any other appearance of Sint and his Pieten you will very likely have some small round biscuits thrown at you. No, this is not punishment because you weren't good enough for presents this year (although Piet does traditionally keep track of how good kids have been all year!) but these small pepernoten are some of the traditional Christmassy sweet treats that are dished out around this time of year.
Meaning "pepper nuts" as a literal translation, they aren't nuts and they aren't remotely peppery, rather spiced small biscuits that taste similar to the speculaas flavour that the Dutch developed using spices they acquired from countries they colonised once upon a time. While eaten all year round, speculaas cookes (which are slightly larger than the coin sized pepernoten) are also popular biscuits at this time of year.
Other sweet treats you should be able to find in abundance in Amsterdam are oliebollen and appelflappen. Oliebollen are round, deep-fried balls of doughy goodness, normally filled with chopped apples and raisins, but they can also come with other yummy fillings. You can often find oliebollen stands serving them in the afternoons and evenings, and they'll also most likely have appelflappen too which are very similar to apple turnovers in the UK, which are just sweet pastries filled with apple sauce.
Other Christmas delicacies you should look out for include chocolate letters (typically you are given your initial as a gift from Sint), Kerststol (Christmas dried fruit loaf) and Kerstkrans (a pastry wreath filled with dried fruits).
See the Christmas Lights at Damrak and Bijenkorf
Amsterdam's answer to London's Oxford Street lights going on in the run up to Christmas, the Christmas lights and decorations inside and outside Bijenkorf are where locals and visitors alike go to soak up some sparkly sights and festive atmosphere. The Bijenkorf is Amsterdam's premier department store so it's also where you go to spend some serious money - you have been warned! The Christmas tree in Dam Square outside Bijenkorf is considered Amsterdam's main Christmas tree so definitely worth seeing.
Go to a Christmas Carol Concert
It is very possible to go to a Christmas Carol concert in Amsterdam, and it's very likely some of the songs performed will be in English. Each year dates and times will vary but a quick Google search in the run-up to your visit should tell you what's on. The best and most iconic Amsterdam music venues for such performances are Concertgebouw and the National Opera & Ballet Theatre, however, you'll also find several smaller venues, including beautiful churches, hosting Christmas music and carol concerts at various times.
Go to Church in Amsterdam at Christms
And if you do want to go to church for a Christmas service during your visit to Amsterdam, that's very possible and arguably quite a jolly lovely thing to do. There are a handful of churches in Amsterdam who regularly hold services or perform Mass in English so again a quick Google search will show you where these churches are and what time their Christmas services are to be held. Alternatively, you'll be very welcome to pop into one of the city's churches or cathedrals for their Christmas celebrations in Dutch, you just may again need to check the timings which should all be listed online, and it's worth remembering that most of the biggest Christmas celebrations will take place on the evening or during the night of Christmas Eve.
Go on a special Christmas or Winter-themed Walking Tour
If you think simply wondering the streets of Amsterdam spotting the Christmas trees, wreaths and lights that give the canals a special glow and atmosphere will be enough to get you in the festive spirit during a Christmas-time visit to Amsterdam (and I whole-heartedly agree with you that it really is enough!) then why not go on a special Christmas walking tour. There are a few available and best of all they include warm-up refreshments spots in cosy Amsterdam brown bars, cafes or restaurants where you can try some of those Dutch Christmas delicacies I was talking about. I like the look of this Christmas walking tour or this winter walking tour which will also include highlights from the Amsterdam Light Festival (see below).
Christmas and Sales Shopping
While Amsterdam at Christmas is certainly not the shopping mecca that perhaps London is - and I personally prefer it that way, I think it's fair to say that the shopping in Amsterdam is still pretty good and while it's definitely busy in the weeks preceding Christmas it won't be anything like the crowds you find on Oxford Street. The main shopping street in Amsterdam for high street shops is Kalverstraat (which I honestly try to avoid at any time) but if Christmas or sales shopping is your thing (and all respect to you if it is - you're made of sturdier stuff than me!) then this is where you need to go to find both Dutch and international high street stores. For quirkier, more unique and independent boutiques and a prettier area to wander around, head to the 9 Streets (9 Straatjes) or take a stroll down Utrechtsestraat, Haarlemmerstraat or Rozengracht to name but a few streets lined with more unusual shops and stores. Again, like Christmas shopping, the January sales aren't as huge a deal as maybe they are in UK and USA but most shops will definitely have some reductions and special offers so come armed with a credit card... or not depending on your budget!
Enjoy Amsterdam's Christmas Markets
Not as famous as its German or even Belgian neighbours but there are some very decent Christmas markets to be found in the Netherlands. In my honest opinion, Amsterdam isn't necessarily home to them as they tend to be quite a touristy, over-priced affair, however, they still have the potential to charm if you don't mind paying twice as much as usual for a small cup of mulled wine or hot chocolate. You can find out where all the Christmas markets are this year on this page, which will get updated for the coming year shortly before December.
Go See a Beautiful Christmas Tree or Two!
If markets and Christmas lights don't make you feel Christmassy, then this should. Go find one of the most beautiful Christmas trees in Amsterdam. In addition to the one just outside Bijenkorf as mentioned above, you will find the most impressive Christmas trees in the most luxurious hotels in Amsterdam (the Amstel Hotel, the Waldorf Astoria, the Conservatorium to name a few) and in other shopping centres and public spaces like Magna Plaza and inside Bijenkorf too.
See the Canals All Lit Up at Amsterdam Light Festival
Amsterdam Light Festival is reason enough to visit Amsterdam in the winter months, and it's a highlight of our year certainly and we always try to see them around Christmas time.
The best way to see the lights is by boat of course, on one of the special evening canal tour cruises, but it's also very possible to walk the route one evening, while wrapped up warm, taking your time to read about each installation and of course, popping into bars and cafes along the way to stay warm and errr, lubricated. You can also cycle the Amsterdam Light Festival route like we did.
Ice-skating at the Rijksmuseum
The most famous place to go ice skating in Amsterdam is on the temporary rink set up in front of the Rijksmuseum, called Ice*Amsterdam, and indeed it's a pretty special place to glide around, or shuffle awkwardly from one side of the rink to the other. Kids and adults in need of some support (literal!) they will give you chairs, and of course you can hire skates. It's strongly advised that you book a time to go ice-skating in advance.
Amsterdam at New Year
Go out and party...
I feel the least qualified person to comment on where you should go out and party for New Year's Eve in Amsterdam because I've never ventured much further than a friend's house for a New Year's party and since I became a mother they very much involve staying at home and simply doing my best to stay up until midnight.
However, I've heard from (younger, child-free!) friends of mine that Amsterdam is a great place to celebrate New Year. Not only is there an abundance of parties and club nights to choose from but the whole city comes alive with fireworks meaning you don't even need to have a spot close to the official fireworks display to enjoy some pyrotechnics - from almost anywhere you're bound to see something. However, if you do want to watch the official and city-organised fireworks display, check out the details on this page (in Dutch).
And if you want to find yourself a party to go to then this is probably the best place to start doing your research or here for club listings, and it also shares some other things going on in town on New Year's Eve and on New Year's Day.
But please watch out for fireworks!
Update for New Year 2019: Last year was the last year that people could buy fireworks and light them mostly unregulated anywhere they pleased, and this year Amsterdam's council (Gemeente) will be clamping down on such unauthorised firework displays from just anywhere. This year there will be special firework zones where you can set off your fireworks. It remains to be seen exactly how this will help or improve the situation but I will let you know in early 2020!
My last suggested thing to do in Amsterdam in winter is less an activity and more a thing to do in order to stay safe. One of the few times I wish I didn't live in Amsterdam happens on New Year's Eve, and it's because the whole city turns into a huge, disorganised, chaotic, highly flammable (and of course fairly drunken!) fireworks display. This sounds amazing (and is if you love pyrotechnics and don't have sensitive ears or mind risking life or limb for a few "oohs" and "aahs"!) but for me, it feels and sounds and looks a bit like living in a war zone.
The reason this happens is that the country relaxes fireworks laws especially for New Year and most take full advantage setting off the first rockets once the sun goes down at around 4 or 5pm and then this continues all the way through until midnight when of course it goes up a notch. I consider it a quiet New Year's Eve if the sky is quiet and dark enough for me to sleep around 2 or 3 in the morning. Fireworks are let off from outside front doors on the street, off of small balconies and from roof terraces - basically anywhere! Miraculously, my son has (mostly) slept through this night for the last three years, but I still dread the noise and subsequent disruption and mess on the streets the morning after, which has without fail included a burnt out car somewhere in our neighbourhood (I wish I was joking). Also this year, we'll have a newborn so who knows what they will be like!
So if you're heading to Amsterdam for New Year, I encourage you to be very cautious and careful about moving around the city, and to pack ear plugs if you want to get more than a few hour's kip!
And that's it. That's how to come and have a magical Christmas in Amsterdam. If you would like some more Amsterdam travel advice to plan your trip, the posts listed below may help.
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Frances M. Thompson
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