Amsterdam has always been a popular place to go for a city break – and it’s a particularly great spot to visit in winter. So, if you are planning a holiday in the coming months, here’s why the Dutch capital should be right at the top of your list of possible destinations…
Let there be light
The Amsterdam Festival of Light, that illuminates the city’s streets and waterways, begins its sixth season on December 1. ‘Previous years benefitted from involving lighting designers,’ says curator Lennart Booij. ‘Now we are involving artists too, and partnering them with technical experts to help realise their visions.’ One such artist is Ai Weiwei whose installation ‘thinline’ will run for almost five miles, encircling the city’s historic centre – a meditation on boundaries in an age of Brexit and mass migration.
Most of the 35 artworks will be sited in the old harbour area to the east of the central train station. ‘We have a great tradition of shipbuilding in that part of the city,’ explains Booij. ‘This supported the trading routes and the colonies that the Netherlands once had. It created pools of technical skills and professional connections, still alive today.’
One work takes inspiration from Sint-Elmusvuur, or St Elmo’s fire – not the eponymous 1980s brat pack movie, rather the phenomenon caused by the sea’s electro-magnetic charge throwing light up onto the masts of Golden Age ships. Green orbs of light will float among the masts of a replica 18th century vessel moored beside the National Maritime Museum.
The festival can be enjoyed both on foot and by travelling by boat on Amsterdam’s canal network. While other European cities can boast similar light festivals, none showcases water, cityscape and heritage quite so spectacularly.
Amsterdam’s harbour enabled the city to project its power globally during the country’s Golden Age. The National Maritime Museum explains the seafaring heritage in style. This elegant stone building encloses a central courtyard with a glass roof to rival the British Museum’s. A new exhibition, Game Changers, explores technical innovations through the ages. Turning to the darker side of the Netherlands’ colonial past, the Tropenmuseum, also in the eastern docklands area, is hosting a ground breaking exhibition on slavery as considered from the perspective of the enslaved and their descendants.
And no trip to Amsterdam would be complete without a visit to the Rijkmuseum. As well as The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s portraits are unmissable – as are the maritime paintings of Willem van de Velde, who worked as the war reporter of his day, chronicling the Anglo-Dutch wars on canvas. After visiting the gallery, check out the ice-skating rink in the adjacent Museum Square and the Christmas market offering mulled wine and sweet treats.
A date has not been set for start of the long-awaited direct Eurostar service from St Pancras International, so train travel will involve a change. British Airways, KLM, Easy Jet and other major airlines fly direct to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. From there, you can buy a travel pass that covers local trains and trams. This will allow you to get around easily. In the city, adventurous souls can join locals on two wheels by hiring a bike.
Hotels, restaurants and more
Amsterdam offers a vast array of fine hotels, many housed in former merchants’ residences. The Hoxton Amsterdam is a fitting ‘home from home’ that occupies an unusually attractive canal-side property in the Jordaan district; the canal happens to be Herengracht, which will host part of Ai Weiwei’s installation.
If you are keen to explore a different side of the city, consider North Amsterdam – specifically NDSM wharf, the former shipbuilding site that has undergone its own imaginative regeneration. The DoubleTree there offers rooms (from €119) with entrancing night-time views back towards the city. Local waterside cafés Pllek and Noorderlicht combine an industrial aesthetic with ‘gezellig’ (cosy) interiors; both cafés feature real fires.
Christmas shopping at the landmark Bijenkorf (Beehive) department store in central Dam Square is a local tradition. If that leaves you in need of nourishment, check out Hemelse Modder (Heavenly Mud), a modern take on Dutch food found between Central Station, the Red Light District and the harbour.
Daniel Pembrey is the author of the Amsterdam-based Henk van der Pol detective series. He was a guest of the Hoxton Amsterdam (rooms from €119) and the DoubleTree NDSM Wharf (rooms from €131)