The Netherlands can get seriously cold. When the sleet blows across the flat countryside from the North Sea, the hardy Dutch (who cycle in all weathers) need places and celebrations that are warm both in temperature and atmosphere to brave the dark winter days.
We love Amsterdam at this time of year and here are ten reasons why:
November is the start of the Festive Season in The Netherlands with the arrival of the Father Christmas-like Sinterklaas who sails into the country from Spain with his (somewhat controversial) army of assistants known as Zwarte Pieten. The Intocht is when festivities kick off as the big man sails down the canals lined by hundreds of excited children singing seasonal songs. It’s a huge spectacle that involves more than a kilometre of floats and boats, 400 colourful assistants and nearly half a million spectators. The parade starts with the departure of the steamboat down the Amstel River as it heads towards the Scheepvaartmuseum where Sint is greeted by the Mayor before riding off through the streets on his horse Amerigo ready for musical fun in Dam Square. It’s a truly unforgettable experience but you’ll need to arrive early for a good spot.
The primary role of Sinterklaas’ helpers, the infamous Zwarte Pieten, seems to be to throw pepernoten into the crowds. These small spiced biscuits along with their chocolate covered bretheren kruidnoten are beloved by little kids and big kids alike and you’ll find them for sale all over the city at this time of year.
One of the most anticipated goodies that Sinterklaas pulls from his sack for children who have been especially good are chocolate letters. Available in dark, milk and white chocolate these delicious initials can be bought throughout Amsterdam at shops like Dutch-favourites HEMA and Jamin and are a wonderful (if short-lived!) memento of a wintery visit to the city.
Winter also sees the arrival of Oliebollen trucks which seem to pop up overnight and fill the crisp air with the smell of cinnamon. Serving up a type of warm and heavy spiced doughnut, these treats are packed with currants and raisins; candied fruit or apple and are dusted with icing sugar. There’s no delicate way to eat one but they are just the thing to warm you inside and out on a cold winter’s day.
Kids just can’t resist a hot chocolate, and ours make us stop frequently in winter for a “warme Chocomel met slagroom” (a Dutch hot chocolate with cream). This wonderful drink is always served warm rather than hot with lashings of squirty cream which means its guaranteed to disappear in seconds at this time of year (head to our favourite spot, Winkel 43 where you can grab one alongside the world's greatest apple pie).
Restaurants with fireplaces
Although we love Amsterdam’s terraces even when we have to snuggle under blankets or heaters, there’s something incredibly alluring about Dutch restaurant interiors at this time of year. Whilst not all of the brown cafés or pubs are ideal for little ones there are numerous larger cafés and restaurants with roaring fires which are the perfect spot to stop off when the weather outside is frightful. Why not sink into an armchair by the fire at the back of De Ysbreeker one of the city’s most historic grand cafés; or have tea at the incredibly cosy College Hotel. And don’t forget about the pancake restaurants which offer year-round appeal to hungry youngsters.
When it comes to activities, nothing is more Dutch than an energetic skate. Although canal skating is only possible about once a decade, ice skating rinks pop up across town in winter and none are more wonderful than the iconic ICE*Amsterdam which opens in front of the Rijksmuseum each year. Surrounded by a winter market and framed by the museum, it’s a wonderfully seasonal spot for old and young alike.
Amsterdam Light Festival
For the last five years, Amsterdam has hosted a light festival in which over 50 hotspots across the city are decorated with magical light instillations. The spectacular exhibits can be seen by boat on one of the many light festival tours, or simply see the best bits on foot at Marineterrein Amsterdam. Many of the canal tours offer warm blankets and hot chocolate or gluhwein so make the most of dark winter afternoons and evenings and settle back to enjoy the visual treat.
Although historic Christmas markets are really the preserve of Germany and Austria, this year sees the first ever Amsterdamse Winterparade open at the RAI conference centre. Promising food trucks, a skating rink, a circus, a children’s disco, a funfair, a marshmallow experience (!) and a Christmas market it sounds like it might be the perfect family treat. Open from 21 December to 1 January, let’s hope it takes off and becomes a permanent fixture on the Amsterdam winter calendar.
Amsterdamse Bos and Meerzicht
If it’s snowy outside (or even if it’s not) why not head off to the woods for ultimate outdoor adventure, topped off with a steaming pile of pancakes. Het Amsterdamse Bos is a vast man-made wood packed with activities throughout the year. It’s the perfect place for a bracing walk, an energetic cycle, a visit to the lovely goat farm or best of all a visit to Meerzicht - the wonderful pancake house which serves the world’s very best sweet and savoury pancakes (well, according to my boys anyway) So there’s your ten. With one notable omission.