Amsterdam - the watery wonder

Amsterdam: A Winter Break in the Dutch Capital

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.

Amsterdam Central Station
Damrak – the main street

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.

The iconic canal houses
A closer look at the canal houses

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.

Jordaan District

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.

2.1 Rijksmuseum

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.

NEMO Science Museum
Public piazza on top of the NEMO Science Museum

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.

Amsterdam Noord

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.

Heineken Experience
Wall made of countless Heineken bottles

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€.

32 thoughts on “Amsterdam: A Winter Break in the Dutch Capital”

  1. Andrea R Huelsenbeck – Arizona – Andrea R Huelsenbeck is a wife, a mother of five and a former elementary general music teacher. A freelance writer in the 1990s, her nonfiction articles and book reviews appeared in Raising Arizona Kids, Christian Library Journal, and other publications. She is currently working on a young adult mystical fantasy novel and a mystery.
    Andrea R Huelsenbeck says:

    Wonderful article! Great take on the prompt. Thanks for posting.

  2. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
    Jolene says:

    Merry Xmas! I’m so excited you’ve discovered another IAmsterdam sign (no longer would we need to get up at the crack of dawn)! You have given me a lot of pointers and I’ll be sure to cram in as many as possible.
    If you don’t mind me asking – who is Master?? 🤔

      1. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
        Jolene says:

        Then that begs the next question – how did you get a name like Len Kagami – Master just chose it for you?

      2. I only wrote the story from the camera’s perspective. But for communication, I would prefer to do it as human 🙂 It is easier haha

        Well, I chose this name based on a popular Japanese android named Len Kagamine 🙂 My camera was produced in the same country so i took that name haha.

      3. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
        Jolene says:

        😂 You are a mastermind…

  3. LostViivi – Finland – I'm a little lost in this big world. I find my home in unknown streets and forgotten forest paths. As passionate as I am about traveling I'm also about writing, books, and movies. I don't know where this writing blogs thing is going so anything is possible.
    Viivi Severina says:

    Amazing article and beautiful photos! I was really surprised to hear that there is another IAmsterdam sign but that’s good to know when I some day in the future can visit this city. There was many interesting tips in your post so thanks for sharing them. I will definitely remember them when visiting Amsterdam 🙂

    1. My pleasure! In case you visit Amsterdam Noord, check out the observatory in A’DAM Tower. When I was there, I could barely see the downtown of Amsterdam because it was clouded in fog. But on this side of the river, I had a blue sky 🙂

  4. I’m going to Amsterdam in 3 days, so this is very helpful! I definitely want to do a cheese tasting and see the light festival!

    1. You welcome! I am glad that this post could help 🙂 In case you could not find the map for the Light Festival. Google Map also showed where the artworks are located. So it won’t be difficult to find them 🙂 Will you celebrate New Year there?

      1. Yep! 29th December to 1st January!

  5. Great info! And that ‘IAmsterdam’ sign you discovered- I hadn’t heard about it 😀 Amsterdam looks special during Christmas. I’d have loved to see the light show!

  6. thepetalpusher – gardener, procrastinator, teacher, wife, daughter, friend, step-mother, pet owner, bike rider, angler, daydreamer, exerciser, not-a-very-good listener, walker, house cleaner, over-eater, lover, reader, voter, hiker, tutor, avoider, writer, fantasizer, painter, eye glass wearer, giggler, vacationer, traveler, photographer, Facebooker, Twitterer, shopper, pooper, stooper: Alas, a retiree!
    thepetalpusher says:

    It looks nice at Xmastime, we were there in hot, hot weather a few years ago.

    1. And I could imagine how crowded it is 🙂 I prefer city trip in winter because it is most likely less crowded, and i don’t sweat while walking around. Thanks for visiting 😉

  7. jmacindoe – Toronto, Ontario – New blogger writing about travel, photography and whatever else peaks my interest.
    jmacindoe says:

    Wonderful collection of shots and article! You can never take enough photos of that Amsterdam sign!

  8. Amy – Photographer and Wordsmith at Can be found out chasing those simple moments of beauty that are often found in the midst of chaos if one only looks closely. 'The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.' -Eden Phillpotts
    bedlamanddaisies says:

    I am going on my first overseas trip in April and Amsterdam will be the first part. So glad to have come across your post! 🙂

    1. You welcome! 🙂 I am glad that my post could help you plan your trip. Spring is a great time to visit Amsterdam, there could be some rains but overall it will be nice and colorful (tulips season haha). Enjoy your trip! If you have any further question, just ask. I will try my best to answer 😉

    2. If you travel to Amsterdam with children, then you should not miss NEMO 🙂 NEMO is a really interesting Science Museum, where your kids can spend the whole day in it. It is not far from the Central Station, and you can walk there by feet.

    1. It was great and the exhibition changes annually, so you might see something much different next year 🙂 The only disadvantage is the cold weather. Thanks for visiting, J

      1. Haha, I’m used to cold weather so that wouldn’t be too much of a problem.
        If you’re interested at all, I wrote my own post recently about a trip to Amsterdam too (in the Summer this time 😛).

  9. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, Egypt, Japan, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We travelled full-time for nearly six years, and then re-established a home in Vancouver. We now travel 2-3 months per year. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, photography, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    This makes me want to return t Amsterdam; it’s a great city. I enjoyed your photos very much.

    1. Thank you, Alison 🙂 It has been 4 years since I made those photos. I wonder how much Amsterdam has changed. This Christmas might be tough…

  10. justbluedutch – Bavaria, Germany – Expat- lifestyle Blogger from the land of Lederhosen & Dirndls. A self-taught Aquarelle & Mixed Media visual artist.
    justbluedutch says:

    Oh Amsterdam, the city of canals and endless rows of Bicycles. I am glad you featured the Flower market, it´s my favourite place to relax…and yes, getting lost in the labyrinth of Canals. Once you see Utrecht then you must know the difference.

    1. I bought some seeds at the flower market. But none has survived haha. I just googled Utrecht’s canal system. It certainly looks larger and more straightforward than the one in Amsterdam. It somehow reminds me of Groningen old town. Only one canal ring.

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