Amsterdam in winter time is absolutely beautiful. Christmas markets and lit up canal houses are only a part of this city’s charm.
The truth is that there are so many things to do in Amsterdam in December: you can visit festivals and seasonal exhibitions, discover museums and performances. Buy oliebollen at a food stall and top them off with champagne and snacks as you say goodbye to the old year!
So are you ready to add some winter activities to your Amsterdam to-do list? Let’s get started!
Hey, this is important: I wouldn’t count on a lot of snow during your visit. FYI, it only snowed for two days last year, during which I snapped that picture of the canals above.
But it will still be cold, depending on what you’re used to, and oh so very beautiful. So make sure your packing list is ticked off: you’re going to need some warm clothes.
15 Irresistible Things to do in Amsterdam in December:
Take a boat tour during Amsterdam Light Festival
The Amsterdam Light Festival is one of the highlights of the Amsterdam winter months. This seasonal festival is held each year from 28th November to 19th January (information updated to reflect 2019-2020 season). The beautiful light show brings wonder to the city as the art installations stand out against the historical Amsterdam city center.
You can experience the light installations in two ways: by taking the boat tour and getting a unique perspective from the water or by taking the walking route.
The boat tour is more immersive and will offer a better view of the canal route. All available boat tours are listed on the Amsterdam Light Festival page but regular boat tours during that time of year will pass through the installation route as well.
Keep in mind that open boats might offer a better view, although if the weather isn’t great, you might be somewhat uncomfortable. Some boats offer blankets and warm drinks. So check the weather and make sure you’re happy with your choice!
But to truly get a feel for the festival you should take the walking route as well. It will lead you towards the spots that you wouldn’t see from the canals and introduce you to many talented artists.
It is a romantic, light-filled journey that will make you appreciate the historical city center from a new perspective. The artworks are picked anew every year by a strong jury so you won’t know what awaits you until you follow the route.
Shop the boutiques of the 9 Straatjes neighborhood
Beautiful decorations, a festive mood, and quality wares: you will find them in the 9 Streets area. From art to clothes, this neighborhood is full of surprises. No two shopping sprees are alike!
Take the opportunity to explore the area around Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, and Herengracht: the shops here are quaint and once you walk in, chances are that you will be greeted by its owners.
There is a big variety of design, concept stores, and amazing vintage and second-hand boutiques next to premium lingerie and discounted luxury bed linens.
You could find anything here as long as you keep an open mind! Coincidentally, the buildings in this area are everything you would want from Amsterdam.
To get to this neighborhood, leave the Dam Square in favor of the canals. Explore the streets between the Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. Wondering which stores you should check out? Take a look at my Amsterdam shopping guide!
Enjoy a jenever tasting experience at Amsterdam’s oldest pub
Have you ever tried jenever? You might have heard of the House of Bols which was the first biggest Dutch manufacturer of jenever. It now runs a cocktail & jenever tasting experience.
Jenever is a juniper-flavored traditional Dutch liquor from which gin eventually evolved. While you’re in town, take the opportunity to go for a real jenever tasting and discover the liquor that is a big part of local culture. It’s also a great ingredient of many amazing cocktails!
De Drie Fleschjes on Gravenstraat 18 is the oldest tasting house in Amsterdam. The distillery was opened in 1650 and now offers a unique jenever and liquor tasting experience to those in the know.
De Drie Fleschjes is one of the so-called brown cafes: those are traditional Dutch bars that have wooden interiors, a cozy feel, and a local audience. Once you walk into the small pub you will notice the many caskets of spirits.
You can buy one in which case you will receive a key and will be able to bring your friends and family to sample liquor from that particular cask, but I hear the waitlist for those is really long.
Visit the Christmas exhibition of Museum Willet-Holthuysen
Discover how the wealthy 19th-century Willet family celebrated Christmas. The Museum Willet-Holthuysen preserved the lifestyle of its last occupants: the wealthy Dutch family of Willet-Holthuysen.
As part of the collection, you get to see all the rooms with the original artwork and furniture, from the ballroom to the kitchen.
Abraham Willet-Holthuysen was a socialite and was a collector of glass, art and more. He was also a bibliophile: his study and collector’s room are both open for visitors.
But what makes the winter visits special, is the special “Christmas in Willet” exhibition during which the house is decorated with various Christmas ornaments. The splendor of the house together with the decor really bring a lot of merriment!
You get to experience the fairytale that is life on Amsterdam’s canals for yourself, season’s greetings included! And did I mention that the entry is free with the Iamsterdam card?
Go ice skating on Museumplein
Museumplein is the place to be during the winter season in Amsterdam. The Ice Amsterdam begins around mid-November and stays until the end of January.
There is plenty to explore but the main feature is the ice skating rink in front of the Rijksmuseum. During the winter months, the surface of the pond is converted to a rink.
A little wooden bridge is raised over it. Once you ascend it and dislodge the other tourists posing for a photo, you will enjoy the amazing view of the Rijksmuseum in all its festive glory.
On both sides of the rink, you will find plenty of Christmas Market stalls that are most active in December. If you like to skate, be prepared to pay 13 EUR for 2 hours of rent and entry. The little Ice Village stalls have plenty of warm drinks, snacks, and food to warm you up after you’ve had your fun.
Eat hearty Dutch winter dishes
Traditional Dutch food is simple, filling, and somewhat unvarying. And yet, that is exactly what you want during the winter months. Make sure your hunger is satisfied and you are ready to spring into action: there’s a city waiting to be discovered, after all.
If you’re wondering what you should order off the menu, try these typical Dutch dishes that will give you the strength and confidence to brave even the most annoying weather.
- Erwtensoep met roggebrood: Pea soup served with rye bread. Also called ‘snert’.
- Stamppot: a mash pot made from a mix of potatoes and vegetables, usually consisting of sauerkraut, endive, kale, spinach and served on the side of meatballs, bacon or sausage. The classic option is ‘boerenkool‘ which is made out of kale.
- Hutspot: also a version of stamppot with mashed potatoes, onions and carrots.
Enjoy the Christmas Market on Rembrandtplein
The Rembrandt square is peppered with cafes on all sides but during winter you will find several market stalls that sell warm snacks as well as an ice skating rink.
The square is in the heart of the city center a couple of steps away from the Amstel river and you will definitely come across it in your exploration of the city.
Eat hot oliebollen from the street vendors
Oliebollen are delicious hot balls of dough fried in oil and topped with sugar powder. They can come with raisins or be plain. The treats are specific to the winter season and are a New Year tradition. There are many vendors selling them on the street starting as early as October but don’t rush it!
It’s one of those things to do in Amsterdam in December that adds a little New Year magic. You should definitely try them for yourself as you stroll through town because you will love them, I guarantee it!
Check out the Christmas decor in Amsterdam’s malls
Amsterdam’s stores and malls are getting very festive during the Christmas season. Walk past the Bijenkorf luxury mall to enjoy the grand window displays or hop in for a quick tour of the premises.
There are many beautiful toys and displays inside the store as well. Check out the Schelterma bookstore and the Magna Plaza mall: those are only a couple of the beautiful stores surrounding the Dam square.
Attend the unique Winter Parade art performance & feast
This one is a little bit weird and I haven’t tried it myself yet. The Winter Parade is a mix of performance with food where diners are seated across the length of a 120-meter-long table.
They are served by waiters walking on that very same table. Like a catwalk. Or so I hear. There are artists, singers, and musicians accompanied by food. Oh, and it’s also set in a church.
Unusual? Yes. Experimental? No doubt. This is a chance to participate in something out of the ordinary, even if it costs you 45 EUR. I’ll let you know once I visit myself.
Enjoy Christmas dinner in De Waag
How would you like to dine in a 15th-century Amsterdam city gate? I’m talking about De Waag on Nieuwmarkt square: an imposing building that won’t go unnoticed as you explore the city center.
One of Rembrandt’s paintings was actually set in The Waag which was used as an anatomical theatre at the time. You wouldn’t recognize it though, as only the corner of the wall appears on ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’. Sounds appetizing, I know.
Aside from that, the building was used as a weighing house, guildhall, museum and for other purposes. Now though it houses a candle-lit restaurant that blends age-old woodwork with plenty of modern features.
The prices are on par with other restaurants in the city center, so if you can get good food in a great setting, why wouldn’t you? De Waag runs a Christmas menu all through December, which means you can get your dinner and then head straight to the Red Light District area as it is a stone’s throw away.
The Nieuwmarkt square also has a great market on Saturdays and offers a great view over the Kloveniersburgwal canal.
Visit Muiderslot’s Winter Castle exhibition
Travel beyond Amsterdam and visit the beautiful Muiderslot Castle which lies just outside the city limits. This medieval castle will host a winter castle exhibition during the winter months.
The castle exhibit will plunge you into the castle winter life back when it caused many inconveniences and forced the residents to find whatever entertainment they could to distract themselves from the dark and bad weather.
Come over to find a winter feast, taste some food and discover what the people’s lives were like back in the day.
If you love medieval castles as much as I do, you will appreciate the beautiful rooms and the history behind this resplendent moat-surrounded property. If you pick a guided tour, you will visit the Kitchen, Knight’s Hall, Prince’s Room and more.
For a bit of extra fun, you can follow the so-called Tower Route which will show you just how tricky the castle’s passages can really be… Dead ends, staircases, and just lots of fun. You can get to the castle by bus from Amsterdam Amstel or by train.
Take a tour of the Red Light District and the city center
If you’re in Amsterdam for the very first time, you will most likely want to stroll through the Red Light District to satisfy your curiosity.
De Wallen area comes alive after dark and attracts a lot of tourist traffic so be prepared: you will not be the only person interested in exploring this neighborhood.
But remember that while there is so much to discover and be surprised by, there are still locals living in that very area so please keep respectful and enjoy walking through the wild sex shops, exploring the museums, cafes and the neighborhood.
Watch the Wereldkerstcircus performance in the Royal Theater Carré Amsterdam
The World Christmas Circus is an annual part of the gorgeous Carré theatre during the winter season. In winter 2019-2020 the circus will appear on the theatre’s stage from 19th December to 5th of January.
The famous theatre is easily noticeable from the Magere Brug on the Amstel river. This year’s performance is celebrating the 35-year anniversary of the circus and the circus brought the world’s top acts to the circus. I’ve seen the show last year and have fallen completely in love, so much in fact, that I may be unable to resist and just go again.
The circus is focused on human performers with horses being only animals that will appear on the stage. The tickets start from 20.50 EUR and sell out fast so snag it while you can!
BONUS: Stay for the National Tulip Day in January
While National Tulip Day is not in December, but in the second half of January, I feel it should still be part of the list of Amsterdam winter activities.
During this day The Netherlands celebrate their national flower and the start of the new tulip season by offering to pick tulips for free to anybody who comes to the Dam Square in Amsterdam.
You get a free bag and are allowed to pick 15 tulips from the many colors and varieties! In 2020 the National Tulip Day will be held on 18th January starting at 13:00.