Despite the chilly wind and the cloudy sky, winter is still a pleasant time to visit Amsterdam. The Dutch capital is painted in softer tones, with smaller crowds and bearable temperatures. Yet that doesn’t lessen its remarkability. On the contrary, the city looks even more enchanting thanks to magnificent Christmas decorations as well as numerous activities to light up the mood.
For a long time, the world has been attracted by Amsterdam’s artistic heritage and its extraordinary cityscape. Millions of visitors come here every year just to see this watery wonder. However, the massive crowd and the pungent smell of the streets might make a summer trip uncomfortable.
While winter in Amsterdam can be shivering, it is a surprisingly nice time to explore the European gem. I didn’t have to push through the crowd to see the beautiful lanes and canals. Nor did I have to wait too long to visit museums or galleries. The colder months also see the descendence of Christmas decorations, making canals, streets, and nearly everything twinkles in fairy light.
A Brief History of Amsterdam
Around 1200, Amsterdam was founded as a small fishing village on the Amstel River. Its name derives from Aemstelredamme, which means the dam across the Amstel River. The town soon grew into a center of maritime trade, largely thanks to progressive ideas and the absence of heavy taxes bestowed by the Spanish rulers.
By the 17th century, Amsterdam was the central stage of the Dutch Golden Age. It was Europe’s busiest port where ships sailed to every continent, forming the basis of the present-day trading network. With trade came wealth, and with wealth, art flourished. Historians have suggested that about three million paintings were produced during this time of extraordinary affluence. It encourages new ideas and significantly raises the standard of artworks. Architecture also blossomed, with magnificent canal houses sprung up from the water as Venice had done centuries earlier.
Nevertheless, international wars and stiff competition in the next centuries brought this miraculous growth to a halt. These days, the Dutch capital is still a major economic and cultural center of the western world. It is also a creative hub, with hundreds of start-up companies based around the city.
About three million paintings were produced during this time of extraordinary affluence.
1. Stroll along the canals of Amsterdam
Amsterdam is renowned for its picturesque canals. Known as grachten in Dutch, these waterways were created in the early 17th century, after the city’s population grew beyond its medieval wall. An ambitious and elaborate project was carried out, resulting in a canal network that measures over 100 kilometers with multiple rings. They fan out south from the Central Station and the main street Damrak.
Far from being simply decoration, these waterways were necessary for defense, transport, and most importantly, water management. Therefore, UNESCO has listed this unique canal system of Amsterdam as a World Heritage Site since 2010.
1.1 The Canal Houses
Lining the waterways are Amsterdam’s iconic canal houses. They were built at the height of the 17th century for the city’s wealthiest. Most follow Dutch Renaissance style, featuring stepped and ornate gables, as well as brick wall facades.
The houses come in a variety of colors, from charcoal grey, dark brown to burgundy. Interestingly, there is always a hook located atop every building which I thought was for decoration. But in fact, this serves to pull bulky objects up into the narrow building via the large windows.
1.2 Jordaan District
Just outside the canal rings are the charming Jordaan district. This area came to life in the early 1600s as the living space for immigrants from France, England, Spain, and Portugal. Today, the neighborhood is favored among artists, students, and young professionals. It is teeming with cozy cafés, pubs, and eateries.
In comparison to those built in the city core, canal houses in Jordaan look more simple, with little to no decorations. Instead, they are adorned with pots of plants and flowers. Interestingly, many streets in this district are also named after different florals. Hence, it fits the name Jordaan which originates from the French word jardin.
2. Warm Up in the Museums
Due to its geographic location, the Dutch capital can be icy-cold during the winter season. Fortunately, visitors to Amsterdam have over 75 museums to warm themselves up and, at the same time, improve their knowledge or artistic sense. Many of these cultural establishments are famous worldwide, such as the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, the Anne Frank House, to name a few. They cover a wide array of topics, ranging from art, history, science to even tulips.
Among many museums in Amsterdam, Rijkmuseum is probably the most prominent. In this cathedral of art, masterpieces from the Dutch Golden Age are proudly presented. There are Milkmaid by Vermeer, Meagre Company by Fran Hals, and the larger-than-life Night Watch by Rembrandt. All are bathed in pale yellow light and accentuated by a black-grey background.
They look so surreal, with extraordinary depth and beauty. Alongside these majestic paintings are over 8000 art objects, including magnificent Delftware, exquisite dollhouses, and Asian artifacts. They occupy three floors of the historic building which overlook an ice-skating pond.
2.2 NEMO Science Museum
If you are more into science, the NEMO located right next to the Central Station might be a preferred destination. This is the Netherlands’ largest science center, containing eight collections with over 19,000 items: from human biology, innovative technology to the broad universe. The museum itself dates back to 1923 as the Museum of Labour. But it moved to the present home in 1997.
Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the NEMO takes the appearance of a ship docking on the bank of the IJ River. Its façade is even clad in pre-oxidized copper, referencing the hull of a real vessel. There is also a public piazza on top of the building’s sloping roof. It offers a nice view over the harbor and the Amsterdam replica – an 18th-century cargo ship of the East India Company.
3. Crossing the IJ River to Amsterdam Noord
Leaving the Central Station through the northern exit, I boarded the ferry to Amsterdam Noord. This is the city’s newest district where the avant-garde flourishes. I remember how surprised I was when seeing the futuristic EYE Film Museum. It resembles an alien spaceship, featuring a pristine white façade covered by mysterious patterns. The light-filled interior is equally extraordinary, with halls and windows in irregular form. The building offers a huge collection of Dutch and foreign movies as well as exhibitions of costumes and film art.
Right next to the museum is the modern A’DAM Tower. The 22-story structure used to be the office of Royal Dutch Shell. But now it has become a hub of music businesses, as well as one of the trendiest locations in town. The unmistakable tower boasts two dance floors, a revolving restaurant, and a swinging observatory. Various building projects are underway, promising to turn the northern district into one of Amsterdam’s hippest areas in the near future.
4. Be Enchanted by Amsterdam Light Festival
If you thought the city’s architecture and cultural scene were impressive, just wait until the sun has set. Every night, from January to March, the downtown of Amsterdam is transformed into a massive open-air gallery. It features a series of light installations created by local and international artists.
Since its debut in 2012, Amsterdam Light Festival has grown into a highly anticipated event. The display changes from year to year, varying in size and theme. From a rainbow bridge, floating houses to oversized, colorful tulips, I was delighted to see these spectacular artworks. They illuminated the Dutch capital and certainly lit up the mood of any passerby.
5. Savour a Beer at Heineken’s First Brewery
On the last day in Amsterdam, I made a trip to Heineken’s oldest factory. Located in De Pijp District, the brick structure was constructed in 1867 and it had served as the company’s main brewery facility for over 120 years. These days, the production is shifted to a more modern, larger establishment at the outskirt of the city. Meanwhile, the historic building has been converted into a multimedia visitor center.
Named Heineken Experience, this facility is like a theme park where visitors will learn about the most renowned Dutch beer, including its heritage, brewing process, involving technologies, and global achievements. They will also “become” a beer in a 4D theater by getting shaken up, sprayed with water, and subjected to heat. At the end of this fun and informative ride, every guest will be rewarded with a bottle of Heineken. I must say it was refreshing, even on a chilly winter day.
Tips for visiting Amsterdam
- The ferry from Central Station to Amsterdam Noord is free of charge. It runs continuously during the day and takes about five minutes.
- Even in low season, Amsterdam’s museums and galleries remain popular. Therefore, it is recommended to book ticket online in advance and avoid the lengthy queues.
- Cliche as it may sound, the Heineken Experience is quite informative. You will have a closer look at the birthplace of a conglomerate and there is many information related to the famous beer. The admission ticket costs 18€. Yet buying it online will save you 2€.