Frozen Canals. Cheese. Culture: This Is Amsterdam In Winter.
Amsterdam has gone from being a sleepy 13th century fishing village to one of the most visited cities in the world. The weather in the Dutch capital is typically Western European, which means January and February tend to be the coldest months of the year. But they're also the quietest in terms of tourism, and the time of year when you're most likely to get the best deals to go and visit. Plus, with most of Amsterdam designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site, so it's beautiful - no matter how low the thermometer goes. So if you're visiting during the colder months, here's our guide to winter in Amsterdam.
1. Get free access to the major museums
The I Amsterdam City Card really comes into its own during winter, as you get free access to the major museums (although you only get a discount at the Rijksmuseum) and unlimited transport options. The passes last one, two, three or four days and include a canal cruise. You can get it delivered or pick it up at the airport or the main train station.
2. Get your skates on
As you can see from the picture above, if the temperature remains at minus four centigrade for four nights in a row, Amsterdammers can take to the canals on foot or skates. The council stop traffic at certain spots so the boats don't break the ice. However if the winter's mild, don't worry, there are plenty of other ice skating options always open. If you've got some stamina, visit the Jaap Eden ice skating rink (Oct-Mar) - the route is a 400m loop.
3. Go walking in Vondelpark
Amsterdam has some superb city centre parks and gardens, and Vondelpark is one of the finest (and the largest). It's a little less busy in the colder months, but you can take a wander through the park - and even have a game of winter tennis if you don't mind removing a few layers. The Groot Melkuis, which is open in the winter (Wed-Sun), is a good place to stop for a warming cup of coffee - they even had a fireplace.
4. Warm up in a traditional 'brown café' (bruin café)
The Dutch equivalent of a British pub is named due to their wood-paneled interiors and living-room look. Once inside, you can browse the beer options, sip a jenever (a gin-like spirit) and try a bar snack. Some date back to the 17th century, like the Café de Sluyswacht, which is in a old-fashioned townhouse which leans just a little, or Café Chris in the Jordaan neighbourhood.
5. Cosy up in front of an open fire
Many of the cafes and restaurants in Amsterdam have a real fire to warm up in front of. Head upstairs in the historic Café de Wetering and grab a spot in front of their 17th century open hearth. Shipping containers might not sound inviting, but the refurbished ones at Pllek are worth a short boat ride to find a warm welcome in winter.
6. Catch-up in a coffee shop
While for many, a trip to a "coffee shop" in Amsterdam is a rite of passage - make sure you familiarise yourself with the rules on soft drugs before heading in - there are around 150 shops to choose from.
7. Take a trip to the Red Light District
If you want to see the seedier side of the city, then this famous tourist hot spot is the place to head to. The rosse buurt is actually one of the oldest parts of Amsterdam.
8. Peruse some paintings
The Van Gogh Museum unsurprisingly holds the largest collections by the Dutch master, including the iconic Sunflowers and several self-portraits. The Rembrandt House Museum has preserved the feel of the workroom the painter used for 20 years, and they do a daily demonstration of his paint preparation process. They hold a huge collection of his etchings, and you can even try making an etching yourself. The Hermitage Amsterdam shows parts of the collection, including portraits, from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, showing the close historical links between the two countries. If you like your art bang up-to-date, visit the Stedelijk Museum, which focuses on modern and contemporary design and art, from the 1870s to the present day.
9. Photograph the historic architecture
Amsterdam’s photogenic 17th century Canal Ring is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is very well preserved. Dam Square was built in the 13th century and remains a major meeting place, surrounded by beautiful buildings including the Royal Palace (see below). You can visit Amsterdam’s oldest building and parish church, Oude Kerk. The 800-year-old building started off as a wooden chapel, where sailors prayed for their safe return from sea. The equally picturesque Begijnhof is one of the oldest inner courts in the city, and is named after the Beguines' (sort of non-religious nuns) who lived there from the 13th century. You'll probably travel through Amsterdam Centraal Railway Station (est 1889), especially if you've flown into the city. The Gothic building is an example of Renaissance Revival architecture and known for its vast cast iron platform roof.
10. Explore the Museum Quarter
Amsterdam's equivalent to London's South Kensington is a great place to head to if the weather's bad. First stop should be the world-famous Rijksmuseum, where you can see masterpieces like The Milkmaid (Vermeer) and the Night Watch (Rembrandt). The collections cover 800 years of Dutch history. Closer to the centre is the Amsterdam Museum, which will teach you all about the city from the past to the present, and the Amsterdam of the future. The Scheepvaartmuseum (National Maritime Museum) is naturally next to the IJ (bay) in the cultural Plantage area, and charts the sea-faring nations history. Check out the replica ship outside the museum.
11. Visit the home of Anne Frank
The poignant Diary of Anne Frank is a classic of children's literature. It charts the ultimately tragic time Anne Frank spent hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, in a building that became her home during WWII. Anne Frank's House was originally going to be demolished, however a campaign to protect this special bit of history won out, and now you can visit the annex where the teenager and her family and friends lived before their capture.
12. See the Royal "Winter Palace"
The Royal Palace Amsterdam became the official home of the Royal House when Queen Wilhelmina moved in and used it as her cold weather base in the 1930s. If the reigning monarch isn't home (which isn't often), you can go and have a look round - this is where State Visits take place as well as major official functions, including royal marriages.
13. Wrap up and go wildlife watching
You can see giraffes, gorillas and zebras among the hundreds of species at the Natura Artis Magistra (aka Artis), the oldest zoo in the Netherlands. In the colder months the opening hours are slightly shorter, and there's an indoor planetarium if you're feeling the chill.
14. Visit a winter windmill (molen)
While the tallest wooden windmill in the Netherlands, De Gooyer, is not open to the public - in its shadows is a brewery, Brouwerij ‘t IJ, which very much is. You can buy tickets in the bar for English tours behind scenes every Friday, Saturday and Sunday (3.30pm). A windmill that is open is Molen van Sloten in Amsterdam, while you can visit Zaanse Schans, a living museum which has eight windmills, as well as clog factory, which is 15 minutes away by train.
15. Get on your bike
Take to two wheels by either hiring a bike or by taking a cycling guided tour of the city. There should be less tourists on the road during the off-peak season - here is i amsterdam's recommended bike rental places.
16. Buy some bitterballen
One of the favourite winter snacks in the Netherlands is Bitterballen, which are small, rounds of gooey goodness. Beef is usually the main ingredient, but you can get them with chicken or veal, and this and the roux is breadcrumbed and deep fried - before being served up with mustard and a bitter- flavoured side drink. Eating Amsterdam do foodie tours around the city, where they show you all the spots to try the traditional cuisine in, like Stamppot (Dutch stew) and Snert (creamy, pea soup). If you're in a rush - Amsterdam's vending machines also sell hot snacks.
17. Did someone say cheese?
This city has a Cheese Museum, but you'll find all sorts of cheese in the specialist shops around Amsterdam. You can even try cheese in pubs, as most cafes worth their salt will have a cheese-based snack on the menu.
18. Indulge your sweet-tooth
Start the day with Pannekoeken (pancakes) smothered in strawberries and cream, or pick up a stroopwafel (syrup waffle) along the way. The Dutch are the biggest liquorice (Drop) consumers in the world and they have different textures, strengths and flavours - the main two being on various levels of the salt or sweet spectrum. Browse the confectionery in Pompadour while drinking one of their hot chocolates. Visit one of the city's food markets, like the famous and sprawling Albert Cuyp Market, to try some of the finest sweets and street food.
19. Step inside the Vintage shops
Vintage shopping is huge in Amsterdam, and no more so than in the De Negen Straatjes area. Wander through the nine cobbled streets, close to Dam Square in the heart of the city, and you'll find stores selling men's and women's vintage clothes. In January you can also get involved in all the events surrounding Amsterdam Fashion Week.
20. Watch the football
Amsterdam is home to one of the most stylish football teams in world, the mighty AFC Ajax. Founded in 1900, they've won their league title more than 30 times as well as the European Cup, Champions League and UEFA Cup in their illustrious red and white history. Johan Cruijff is their most famous player. You can get a guided tour of the Amsterdam ArenA or if you time it right, see a game. The Dutch Eredivisie (league) does take a winter break, so check the fixture list first.
21. Buy yourself a clever umbrella
Amsterdam can be bright one minute and rainy the next. In the winter months, the average is eight wet days a month, so chances are you might find yourself caught out. If you didn't pack an umbrella, you can pick up one of these unusually shaped ones in the city - senz° umbrellas were developed by three students in the Dutch city of Delft. These technical whizzes created umbrellas that won't flip inside out in the wind, and some attach to bikes.
22. And if it isn't cold enough....
You could always visit Amsterdam's IceBar - you can have a drink from a glass made of ice in minus ten degrees celsius
23. Take to the slopes in the city
If there isn't any snow outdoors, there are indoor ski-centres. Snow Planet has a massive indoor slope which is 230m long. You can also improve your ski or snowboarding technique at Ski-Inn under expert tutelage.
24. Take a winter walking tour
The Winter Wonder Walk gives you a guided tour of the city, which starts and ends in Dam Square, and has plenty of stops along the way to try the local produce and warm up a bit. If you want a nature walk, head half an hour west of Amsterdam to the coastal resort of Zandvoort. Once there, you can wander round the sand dunes and get great views from the ridges - you might even spot some local wildlife.
25. Experience the illuminating Festival of Lights
The Festival of Lights is fast becoming a firm favourite in the calendar, with the canals artistically lit up from the end of November to the middle of January. They have two main routes to admire the different installations, one by boat and the other on foot - with historic buildings the backdrop for projections or trees in the parks used for new light systems.
26. Enjoy Christmas by the canals
Christmas comes a lot earlier in the Netherlands, with Sinterklaas putting in his appearance at the longest Saint Nicholas street parade on the planet in November. You'll be joining 400,000 festive revellers watching Sinterklaas and his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, arrive by boat along the Amstel River in convoy. He then hops on his trust steed and continues through the streets on horseback, giving out sweets and treats.
27. Bring in the New Year in Amsterdam...
They like to party in Amsterdam, so there are few better cities to say farewell to the old year and hello to the new one - Gezondheid! The official fireworks take place in the Oosterdok (close to the central station), and fittingly the water, the Scheepvaartmuseum (National Maritime Museum) and the VOC Ship, The Amsterdam, provide a nautical backdrop for the pyrotechnics. Food wise, visit one of the festive stalls and pick up a tasty oliebollen (doughnut) or appelflappen (kind of apple-flavoured fritter).
28. ...or wait a few more weeks for the Chinese version
Chinese New Year usually takes place between January 21 and February 20, depending on when the new moon is. In Amsterdam the traditional lion and dragon dances and fireworks take place in two locations - Dam Square and their historic Chinatown in Nieuwmarkt.
29. Pick a Tulip from Amsterdam
They celebrate National Tulip Day in January to mark the start of the season, and in Amsterdam you can pick one flower for free from Dam Square. Although if you want to see them in full bloom in the fields - you'll have to wait for spring (March to May). Visit the only floating flower market in the world, The Bloemenmarkt, to see what flowers are available at the time - you can buy bulbs to take home if a bunch takes your fancy.
30. Get romantic down by the canals
Valentine's Day in Amsterdam is all heart, flowers and romantic cruises along the water. You can float under the beautiful bridges and pretty buildings by candlelight, or go for a longer dinner cruise on an old-fashioned boat. If you want to stay on land, love and marriage go together like... a horse and carriage. You can take romantic rides through the city or parks. Popping the question? You can easily find a quiet spot in the moonlight along the canals. Brouwersgracht, Prinsengracht, Leidsegracht and Reguliersgracht are all very pretty, and you're never far away from a cafe or bar to toast the engagement if it all goes well. The Magere Brug or Skinny bridge is illuminated at night and looks rather lovely, but it is extremely popular with courting couples, so you might want to try somewhere quieter.
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What are your favourite ways to while away the winter in Amsterdam?
We'd love to know what you think the best things to do in Amsterdam are when the weather is cold. Let us know your top tips by leaving a comment below.