It's only happened a couple of times in the last decades: that temperatures plunge so low that the canals freeze over, creating a visual spectacle in the centre of our own little winter wonderland. The icy waterways delight visitors as well as locals, who dust off the skates they keep stored away in their basements and take a spin on the ice. 

The Golden Bend

The Canal Ring, a network of canals that gives Amsterdam its unique and world-famous layout, dates all the way back to the 17th century, when its construction began as part of a plan to extend the city for housing and commercial developments by draining the existing marshland. It was an exemplary feat of town planning and hydraulic engineering and much talked about across Europe. 

In the same century, the Netherlands entered its Golden Age, quickly rising to economic prosperity as a centre of international trade. The canals became a prestigious address, and grand mansions arose, particularly on the ‘Golden Bend’, a notable stretch of the Herengracht. Many of these canalside homes have been carefully preserved over the years, and the Canal Ring itself was officially recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. 

Dutch national sport

When harsh winters prevented boats and barges from passing through the frozen canals, Amsterdam got its skates on, and ice skating has been a national pastime ever since. Paintings by artists such as Hendrick Avercamp, depicting idyllic, snow-dusted ice-skating scenes from the early 17th century, paved the way for the image of the Netherlands as a winter wonderland to be imprinted in the international consciousness forever more. And while US reporter Katie Couric was endlessly mocked for her suggestion that skating is an everyday mode of transport in the Dutch capital, the nation’s combined 121 speed skating Olympic medals do indicate an affinity for sports on ice. 

Since 2012, the canals have held another prominent position in Amsterdam’s advent calendar of festive entertainment. While Christmas lights in many cities largely feature grinning Santas and flickering Frosty the Snowmen, Amsterdam (as usual) takes a more artistic approach. The Amsterdam Light Festival is an outdoor exhibition that showcases light installations by local and international artists on and by the water. The works can be viewed by walking or cycling through the canals, or, for the most immersive experience, from a boat. The major canal tour companies host dedicated Amsterdam Light Festival tours that transport passengers through the inspiring exhibits in around 90 minutes.    

Twinkling lights

Of course, there is no shortage of traditional seasonal displays either. You can always rely on a grand department store to bring the festive atmosphere and theatrical window displays, and Amsterdam’s De Bijenkorf is no exception. The store on Dam Square hosts a special ceremony in mid-November every year to switch on the thousands of (energy-efficient) twinkling lights that decorate its building. Crowds gather to admire the spectacle, which includes performances, a fireworks display and a late-night shopping event.  

Even if frozen canals are not on the forecast for this year, you can still practise your pirouettes on one of the temporary ice rinks that pop up around the city during the winter months. The popular rink Ice*Amsterdam can usually be found on Museumplein, with smaller rinks enticing crowds on Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein. Skates are available to hire (if you don’t happen to have your own on hand), and the surrounding Christmas market will soon warm you up with a hot cup of gluhwein or chocolademelk. However, if you’re after more of a pro-athlete experience, the Jaap Eden ice skating rink, home to the Amstel Tijgers ice hockey team, is open to the public several days a week and even offers disco skating on Saturday nights. 

Christmas markets

Christmas markets, like the one by Ice*Amsterdam, provide the perfect opportunity to shop for one-of-a-kind Christmas gifts, or simply to get your fill of speculaas and poffertjes. Beginning in late November, markets are held almost every weekend in neighbourhoods across the city. They’re the perfect place to find art, jewellery, artisanal food products, locally designed homeware and handcrafted decorations. Shopping is usually accompanied by a soundtrack of carol singers and festive entertainment, and perhaps best of all, you can enjoy the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes with the knowledge that you’re supporting local makers and artists. Quaint and cosy markets also spring up throughout the Amsterdam Area in cities like Alkmaar, Edam, Amstelveen and Lelystad. Haarlem’s Christmas market is another seasonal favourite.

Winter landscapes in art 

Hendrick Avercamp painting in the Rijksmuseum

For a glimpse into Amsterdam’s winters of the past, look no further than the Golden Age masterpieces on display in the Rijksmuseum. In the 17th century, Dutch landscape artists such as Hendrick Avercamp, Adam van Breen and Jan van Goyen painted emotive scenes of entire communities wrapped up warm and enjoying ice-skating, sledding, socialising and even ice fishing.  

Whether we’ll be treated to the same snow-capped scenery and natural ice rinks again this winter remains to be seen. In any case, there are countless opportunities to experience a fairytale winter season straight out of an Avercamp painting.  

Find more inspiration for celebrating the holiday season in Amsterdam.