Amsterdam at Christmas
Updated: Feb 27, 2019
When we think of festive European destinations, Amsterdam may not be the first one to spring to mind. But if you're looking for a calmer, low-key Christmas experience without the crass commercialism that so often accompanies the festive season then Amsterdam could well be the spot for you. Think wintry strolls along picturesque canals followed by hot chocolate (or something stronger) in cosy cafés and bars; sipping mulled wine and munching on roasted chestnuts at the outdoor ice-skating rink or getting lost in the tiny streets of the Grachtengordel while browsing through a myriad of independent shops and boutiques. Now that's my kind of Christmas break.
If you haven't been to Amsterdam then your preconception may be a less than savoury one. But I'm going to dispel that straight away. There is so much more to this gorgeous city than coffee shops and the Red Light District (De Wallen). In reality the RLD is confined to a relatively small area of the city, south of Amsterdam Centraal and east of Dam Square so you can completely avoid it if hordes of drunken stag parties aren't your thing.
Where to stay:
Choose any of the neighbourhoods outside De Wallen really and you're on a winner: Jordaan, the Museum Quarter and De Pijp are all really cool areas of the city, as are the tiny streets off the Grachtengordel, the ring of three canals surrounding the centre of the city: the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. We stayed in a really nice hotel Westcord Fashion Hotel which was a little outside the city but a short walk from both Vondelpark and the Museum Quarter. We'd booked late so there weren't many options available in the city but we were happy with our stay here. For starters it was very easy to get to and from the airport: a seven minute train ride followed by a short tram ride (stop Suriname) and we were there. We got a great deal - €236 for three nights, room-only, which was a steal. It was beautifully and tastefully decorated for Christmas and the staff were friendly and helpful though the rooms weren't huge. We were able to buy our public transport passes from reception which was great and I'd highly recommend buying one for your stay. They're unbelievably good value and are valid for buses and trams: €22.50 for four days. You can find out more here.
What to do:
Get your walking boots on and explore the different neighbourhoods on foot. Each one is distinct with its own unique character and best appreciated on foot. Our favourite was Jordaan to the north-west of the city. A nice walking route is to start at the iconic and ridiculously picturesque Brouwersgracht near Amsterdam Centraal and walk west, crossing the three main canals of the Grachtengordel,
then walking south along the outer ring of the Prinsengracht. It really couldn't look more Dutch if it tried. Perfectly symmetrical and very tall townhouses line the canals, beautifully painted and maintained, often in bright colours and all with those traditional gabled roofs. We spent hours strolling along here, stopping off every now and then for a coffee or a beer. There are loads of cool spots to choose from.
De Pijp in the south of the city has a completely different vibe but is very hip with loads of cool bars. This is where the students, the artists and the creative types hang out so you can eat and drink much more cheaply.
We also loved the Museum Quarter close to where we were staying. Here you'll find some very upmarket and beautiful townhouses that will make you green with envy. We loved strolling through the streets at night to check out their elegantly minimalist and always classy Christmas decorations. They could definitely give the Danes a run for their money.
Just to the west of the Museum Quarter is Vondelpark, the city's largest green space and a must-visit when in Amsterdam, as popular with the locals as with visitors. It's a wonderfully serene place to start your day if you just fancy a lazy stroll but if you're feeling active you'll be in good company as it's also favoured by joggers and cyclists.
What struck me most was that the park stayed open late into the night and felt completely safe. The paths throughout are well lit by street lamps and people were walking, running or sitting on benches chatting into late into the night so it's always busy. We commented on it every evening as it felt like such a civilised city. I can't think of many places where you'd feel completely comfortable and safe wandering through a park at midnight. It speaks volumes about Amsterdam.
Get your skates on (quite literally) and head for the outdoor rink which can be found between the Rijksmuseum and Museumplein. The setting is beautiful, especially at nighttime when the surrounding buildings are illuminated and shown off to their best advantage. After you've fallen over and had quite enough of being trampled on / laughed at by five year olds, take yourself off to one of the nearby stalls for some warming spiced punch or mulled wine and some roasted chestnuts. It's beginning to look a lot like...
Seriously though, how gorgeous is Amsterdam at Christmas? It's like a life-sized scene from a fairy-tale.
All things cultural
You will be spoilt for choice in Amsterdam particularly if you're interested in art as it has not one, but two of the greatest museums in the world: the Van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum. The Stedelijk Museum is a terrific third option if contemporary art is more your taste. They can all be found in the aptly named Museum Quarter. Even if art is not your thing, I defy you not to be impressed by the Van Gogh museum. I'm a huge fan so maybe I'm biased but I imagine there are who who could fail to be moved by his lonely interiors or his powerful and extremely affecting self-portraits. They seem to look straight into your soul. Tickets can now only be purchased online and cost €18. I'd highly recommend a visit.
Van Gogh Museum: Museumplein 6
The Rijksmuseum is home to one of the world's most famous paintings, The Night Watch by Rembrandt so expect to be elbowed out of the way as people vie for space to get their photo. It's absolutely enormous and as impressive as you'd expect in real life. His dramatic use of light is remarkable. There are many other reasons to visit as they have a huge collection of art by the Dutch masters including other masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals. The building itself is stunning with its red brick and typically Dutch gabled roof and is worth a wander up to the grand entrance from Museumplein and around the grounds, even if you're not going in.
Rijksmuseum, Museumstraat 1
Get on your bike
As everyone knows, Amsterdam is a city of bikes. You can't avoid them. They're everywhere and take precedence over pretty much everyone else on the roads. It is estimated that almost half of all journeys in this city takes place on two wheels. Very impressive but made easy by the fact there are approximately 400 kilometres of cycle tracks to make your journey safer. All I can say is, we have a lot to learn in Dublin. Just to give you an impression of the volume of bikes in Amsterdam: I read an article while I was there about the new bike storage facility close to central station which was under construction and which would hold 4000 bicycles. Yep that's a lot of bikes in one spot. It's a safe and quick way to get around the city so if you feel like getting on your bike, you can find out about where to hire them and some cycling routes here.
Where to eat
Though not always known as a haven for foodies, Amsterdam has come a long way since my first trip while interrailing in the early noughties. Now there are loads of great spots and a variety of cuisines at your fingertips but be warned - this is not a cheap city. However better value can definitely be had in neighbourhoods like De Pijp.
On our first night in the city we splashed out and booked a tasting menu in Daalder in the Jordaan area. This is a high-end spot but with none of the pretensions you'd expect and the staff were extremely friendly. We opted for a five-course tasting menu with wine pairings for €105 each. The menu on the night is a surprise, as in you don't know what you're getting. I'm not usually so daring but you can inform them in advance if there's anything you don't eat like meat or fish and they will create a menu accordingly. The food was really excellent and the chef very skillful and inventive offering curious combinations that shouldn't go together but worked really well. The wine pairings were also perfect. I'm also going to be very honest and say that while the food was delicious, the portions were verrrry small throughout. I'd expected one or two slightly larger portions as we progressed through our meal. However the glasses of wine were very big so that made up for it, though this possibly wasn't the best combination. We left €210 poorer, still a little hungry and definitely a bit tipsy. But in saying that it was a nice treat and we had a fabulous evening and enjoyed every second.
Close to the Van Gogh museum was the fantastic but strangely named Blushing café, a great find with the most delicious coffee and a variety of tasty (and healthy) breakfast and lunch options. We wandered in one particularly cold day for a coffee and it was so good we ended up popping in most days for one to take away. We also had breakfast here twice. Their eggs Florentine and eggs Benedict were great and their breakfast wrap was also particularly good: a multigrain tortilla filled with scrambled egg, rocket, mozzarella and cherry tomatoes. They also make some mean cakes. Definitely one of our favourite spots.
Paulus Potterstraat, 30A
We opted for a more casual option for dinner on our second evening: Café Schinkelhaven close to Vondelpark. This is a vibey little café bar serving delicious burgers and craft beers. It was full of locals enjoying a casual bite and a drink and we loved the atmosphere. Very friendly staff too and it was beautifully adorned for Christmas with some classy Scandi-style decorations.
On our last evening in Amsterdam we headed for De Pijp and to Surya, a fantastic Nepalese restaurant we’d heard nothing but good things about. The interior is dimly lit and tables are arranged as booths with comfy couches in the round: great for conversation and a romantic night out. Service was excellent and friendly and we were made feel very welcome. I opted for two veggie options: the samosas for starters and the Paneer Makhni as a main. Both were excellent and full of flavour. Martin’s lamb dish was also pretty fantastic. De Pijp is a cool part of the city and there are loads of great bars close by. You’ll be spoilt for choice.
In short Amsterdam is a fabulously chilled place to spend a few days in the lead up to Christmas. We experienced none of the mass hysteria and the panicked last-minute shopping we see often see in Ireland. It seemed less about the commercial and more about people spending time with family and friends in cafés, bars and restaurants. It was festive but relaxed and an enjoyable city to experience the Christmas season. I would heartily recommend.