Guide to Christmas in Amsterdam: Festivals, Lights, and Things to Do

Christmas decorations in Rembrandtplein, Amsterdam
George Pachantouris / Getty Images

The Netherlands is a country with rich and longstanding Christmas traditions. The Dutch figure of Sinterklaas served as a model for the American version of Santa Claus, and the name "Santa Claus" even comes the Dutch word. December is full of holiday celebrations, but the most important day is St. Nicholas' Eve on December 5, when Sinterklaas visits homes and delivers presents to children around the country.

As the capital and largest city, Amsterdam hosts a variety of holiday-themed events for visitors of all ages and predilections, from traditional tree lightings to a holiday circus.

Visit the Amsterdam Christmas Tree

Dam Square, the historic and cultural center of Amsterdam, adorns a 65-foot tree in December with nearly two and a half miles of LED string lights. With the Royal Palace and 15th-century Nieuwe Kerk church as backdrops, visitors flock to the square all season long to get a look at this majestic view. During the tree lighting ceremony on December 6, 2019, the plaza is filled with carolers, musical performances, and plenty of warm food and drink to celebrate the beginning of the holidays. As the city center of the country's capital, it's the most important Christmas tree in the Netherlands. If you miss the initial ceremony, you can visit the tree every evening from December 6 until early January.

Navigate the Canal Lights

Even though the winter months at this high latitude mean long nights, Amsterdam brightens them up with the Amsterdam Light Festival, running from November 28, 2019, until January 19, 2020. Local and international artists project elaborate light shows onto the buildings and bridges surrounding Amsterdam's iconic canals, turning this already-charming city into even more of a fairytale. The best part is that spectators can enjoy the light shows either from the quays or the water. For an unforgettable experience, reserve a dinner cruise and dine while you pass under these illuminated spectacles.

Play Around at Winter Paradise

The huge RAI Amsterdam center transforms at the end of each year into a winter wonderland known as Winterparadijs, packed with fun holiday activities for the entire family. Start with the carnival rides, like the Ferris wheel or 130-foot chair swing for views of the city. Later, rent some ice skates to glide around the massive ice rink, try your hand at curling, or experience snow travel as they did in yesteryear on a pair of cross-country skies. For the après-ski, head straight to the bar which serves cold-weather favorites like schnapps and mulled wine. After warming up with a beverage, sing your heart out at karaoke or dance away in the silent disco.

Winter Paradise is open daily from December 21, 2019, until January 5, 2020.

Shop at Christmas Markets

Christmas markets are a holiday staple of Northern Europe, and the Netherlands is no exception. Once December arrives, Christmas markets begin to pop up all around the country, and Amsterdam boasts more than a few.

Sunday Market is one of the most popular, located in the reformed historic gas building, Westergas. In December, this monthly event becomes the "Funky Xmas Market." As the name implies, shop for all types of quirky and fun gifts, many of which are designed and made by local crafters and artists. The Funky Xmas Market takes place on December 15, 2019.

Located in the same building just a week later is De Amsterdamsche Kerstmarkt, or the Amsterdam Christmas Market. Although it doesn't provide the same artsy and eccentric vibe as the Funky Xmas Market, the Amsterdam Christmas Market is larger and guests can ice skate, eat at food trucks, and enjoy live music all while shopping in the numerous stalls. Check it out in the Westergas from December 20–23, 2019.

For true fans of European Christmas markets, you must stop in Haarlem, a city about 30 minutes outside of Amsterdam. It's billed as one of the largest holiday markets not only in the Netherlands but neighboring Belgium and Luxembourg as well. Get lost in the labyrinth of over 300 stalls that overrun the city center, each one selling some type of traditional Dutch trinket. Carolers parade the streets to spread Christmas cheer and Dutch pea soup is available to warm you up from the inside. Visit the Haarlem market on December 7–8, 2019.

Experience the Absurdity of WinterParade

WinterParade is hard to classify. In some ways it's theater, in other ways it's a sit-down meal, and then it's also "that warm feeling of togetherness," according to the creators. Whatever you want to call it, this one-of-a-kind event will appeal to anyone who appreciates the ludicrous and silly. Enter and sit down with other spectators at one massive table that stretches nearly 400 feet, while servers climb the tabletop to serve drinks. In between each part of your three-course meal, expect to interact with dancers, actors, acrobats, musicians, and more. The allure of WinterParade is difficult to capture in words, so you'll just have to experience this crazy festival for yourself.

WinterParade has been canceled for 2019 but has plans to return in December 2020.

See a Show at the Dutch National Ballet

"The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" premiered in 2019 and quickly turned into one of the most successful Dutch theater productions of all time, already promised a return for the winter season of 2020. This adaptation of the famous ballet changes the setting from Christmas Eve in Germany to a night during the Dutch feast of Sinterklaas in early 19th century Amsterdam. "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" is playing from December 14, 2019, until January 1, 2020.

If you are curious about the behind-the-scenes workings of the National Ballet, sign up for a guided tour. See for yourself how stage sets, costumes, and props are all designed and crafted in the theater. Tour groups take place on Saturdays, and you must contact the box office for tickets.

Catch a Holiday Concert

The Concertgebouw is one of Amsterdam's most architecturally impressive buildings, delighting residents and visitors with renowned musical shows since 1888. Each winter, the concert hall hosts a variety of holiday-themed performances, such as the annual "Festive Concert" by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra featuring holiday music from around the world. This year's show, on December 14–15, 2019, highlights music from Hungary and the U.S.

A special concert of "The Nutcracker" is specially adapted for families and recommended for everyone 6 years of age and older. Although the narration for this show is only in Dutch, English speakers can still sit and enjoy the music from this traditional holiday piece on December 15, 2019.

Take a Trip to the Circus

When the circus is in town in Amsterdam, it's an event not to be missed. The Wereldkerstcircus, or World Christmas Circus, is celebrating its 35th year and bringing together some of the world's most impressive acts for an unforgettable show. You'll be mesmerized by the awe-inspiring performances including acrobatics, live music, and stallion dressage. The Wereldkerstcircus isn't just your everyday big top circus, but rather a dynamic and interactive art show that unfolds before your eyes. See the magic for yourself at the Royal Theater Carré beginning December 19, 2019, until January 5, 2020.