Visitors’ guide to the best things to do in Amsterdam in December: festivals, museums, Amsterdam Christmas market, and best food to try in Amsterdam in winter. Updated for 2020
The first time I visited Amsterdam I thought ‘wow, this city must look magical at Christmas’. And indeed, it does.
Its architecture seems made for the festive season.
The elaborate facades of its houses acquire a distinctive gingerbread feel and the calm waters of its canals reflect the many light displays creating a cheerful yet romantic atmosphere.
The city gets cold in winter, make no mistake: you need to wrap up and you want to watch your step when Amsterdam’s cobbled streets get enveloped by winter humidity, but magic is in the air.
Cheerful shoppers, fairy lights and Christmas foods tickle your senses and the city has so many cultural events you can move here for the whole month of December and never run out of things to do.
Want a quick preview? Check out our short video below
Amsterdam in December 2020 need to know
If planning on visiting Amsterdam in December 2020, please make sure you check and abide current regulations and travel advisory that may impact your trip and experience.
Some useful resources to this end are:
- Netherlands travel advisory – US
- Netherlands travel advisory – Ireland
- Netherlands travel advisory – UK
- Netherlands travel advisory – Canada
What are the best things to do in Amsterdam in December?
The best things to do in Amsterdam in December are those activities that allow you to enjoy the wonderful Christmas atmosphere that takes hold of the city without leaving you in the cold for too long.
|List of things to do in Amsterdam in December||Free: Yes /No||Outdoor: yes /no|
|Marvel at the Amsterdam light festival||Yes||Yes|
|Go Ice skating||No||Yes|
|Stroll around Christmas markets||Yes||Yes|
|Go Shopping / window shopping||No / Yes||Yes and no|
|See the tree in Dam Square||Yes||Yes|
|Visit one of the city museums||No (with exceptions)||No|
Scout out the works of art of the Amsterdam lights festival
The first event I heard of, when looking at the best things to do in Amsterdam in December, was the Amsterdam lights festival.
This is a recurring event taking place each year during the month of December and part of January and is a public display of light art in several locations around Amsterdam city centre.
The light displays are created by artists from all over the world and are scattered along Amsterdam’s canals.
You can see the main structures during the day but the lights are just put on in the evening, after dark.
Some of the artwork can be easily enjoyed on foot but since some of the artists make use of the many Amsterdam bridges and canals to reflect and interact with their creation, the real vantage point is from the water.
Several companies offer canal cruises and boat tours specific to the lights festival and we had a lovely night our aboard one the boats of ‘The blue boat company‘, with offered a cozy experience in a nice boat and low prices.
This is a gorgeous way to visit Amsterdam in winter since it allows you to make the most of hours of darkness that would otherwise likely go to waste.
It is also a great way to learn facts about Amsterdam: the guides are fun and very informative
Go ice skating in Amsterdam city centre
Amsterdam doesn’t see much snow in the winter but the city compensates with beautiful ice rinks across the city.
The most scenic one is probably on Museum Plein, just in front of the Rijks Museum: the ice rink is open day and evening and welcomes skaters of all levels of ability.
Music and lights attract adults and kids alike and inexperienced skaters have chairs they can use to help them get more stable on their feet.
This is a fun way to experience Museum Plein one of the most famous places in Amsterdam and to go ice skating even if the canals do not freeze (which happens, but not every year).
Another gorgeous ice rink is in Rembrandt Plein, which is also a lovely square to visit (albeit touristy) because of the statue of Rembrandt in its centre and the many cafes and restaurants.
These two ice rinks are right in the centre of town and are a fun thing to do in Amsterdam in December and can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike
Explore Amsterdam Christmas markets
Amsterdam’s peculiar architecture means the city acquires the unmistakable air of a fairy village, at Christmas.
However, if you want an even more full on Christmas experience with mulled wine and all, you can have your fix at the square at the Ice Village Museum Plein.
The Christmas market here is in the same location as the ice rink mentioned above and it is fun to explore.
The stalls have from food to design items and can be a nice change of pace in between museum visits.
Please note: dates and details about the Christmas Markets in 2020 have not been released yet. Once they are decided, they will be published here
Other good markets with Christmas editions are the ‘Funky Market‘ and the Pure Market (almost every Sunday, more often in December), recurring events dressing up for Christmas on specific dates in December.
Go shopping and window shopping
Amsterdam is fabulous for shopping in all seasons but the shops in December are something special.
Big department stores decorate their fronts with lights and bows while smaller, independent shops light up with decorations and light displays.
My favourite area in Amsterdam for shopping is the famous ‘9 streets’, full of smaller shops and boutiques but Amsterdam also has well stocked high street shops and good markets.
One I visited recently was the Albert Cuyp one which has many stalls selling anything from traditional herring to Christmas trees and clothes.
During the weeks leading up to Christmas shops in Amsterdam tend to have longer opening hours, often until 9pm.
The big department stores are your best option for out of hour shopping but they tend to close on Christmas day to then reopen, with some exceptions, on the 26th.
If you are visiting Amsterdam in December you absolutely have to try the sweet treat called ‘Olienbollen’.
An ‘olienbol’ is a sweet ball of dough, fried: I tasted it recently and while pretty heavy on the stomach, they are delicious.
While I am not familiar with the specific recipe, they reminded me of Italian panettone (sweet, raised dough with sultanas and candied fruit) but with a crispy, fried crust.
You can find them in bakeries and markets and they are a specialty of this type of the year as well as one of the foods I highly recommend you try in the city
Go for high tea
You may not immediately associate Amsterdam with high tea or afternoon tea however, you have quite a choice of places serving it and it can be a real treat during a wintery afternoon.
See the tree in Dam square
Christmas trees are in several locations around the city and all it takes is to step out of the central station to see beautifully lit one.
The tree to see,however, is in Dam square. The tree is tall and beautiful and the ceremony to light is up is accompanied by the singing of Christmas carols (the date of the ceremony hasn’t been confirmed yet, check here for updates).
The tree stays lit over the holidays for everyone to admire.
Last year, I was personally quite fond of another Christmas tree too: this is not a real one but a hologram,projected in the entrance hall of the Rijks museum!!
If you are lucky enough to be in Amsterdam in early December you may arrange to meet Sinterklaas, the man with the red suit and the white beard that brings presents to the children who have been good.
Non Dutch people tend to think of Sinterklaas as the local equivalent to Father Christmas but he is not.
St Nicholas is said to have ties with Amsterdam since 343 AD: he goes around with his faithful travel companion Amerigo (a horse) and he is said to be from Turkey.
Legend tells us that from his original Turkish home St Nicholas moved to Spain and makes his way to Amsterdam every ear on the 5th of December, on St Nickolas’ eve.
While not season specific I couldn’t publish recommendations of things to do in Amsterdam in December without mentioning the city’s stunning museums.
Amsterdam has an incredible concentration of museums catering for pretty much all interests from classical art (Rijks museum), to history (Anne Frank house) to fashion (Bags and Purses museum) to cats (Katten Kabinet) via Van Gogh and house boats!
If you are visiting Amsterdam with kids, you cannot miss Nemo, the science museum that will keep them (and you!) cozy and entertained for hours!
While I advocate visiting museums in all seasons, in December I find them exceptionally pleasant since their cozy interiors will also hep you defrost after your city wanderings.
I hope you enjoyed our tips on the best things to do in Amsterdam in December! Are you going to Amsterdam soon?
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