Amsterdam at Christmas was magical and the perfect place to start our European holiday. The original shops and restaurants that line the streets along the canal were aglow with colorful bulbs and adorned with Christmas decorations. Everywhere we turned we were treated to small sparkling white lights strung upon the many bridges and houseboats within the canals. It was truly like being in a winter wonderland, especially at twilight. Despite the cool temps (low 40s), there was no shortage of picturesque parked bicycles as well as moving ones as most locals use two wheels as their main mode of transportation. As tourists, we needed to get used to the speeding bikes and our first night venturing out, we had to jump out of the way again and again as bicycles almost barreled us over. It was scary and fun at the same time.
During our too brief time in Amsterdam, we hit the popular areas, visited a few main attractions, cruised the canals, shopped a bit, walked a ton, and as always enjoyed the local dining scene. We indulged at some great venues, and eagerly tried new foods like bitterballen, stroopwafels, oliebollen, rooster, stews and Dutch pancakes. We are coming home vowing to make stamppot and roasted chestnuts. Finally, we culminated our stay perfectly with a traditional Christmas feast at a local home where we dined with some of the folks who live in this beautiful city.
Amsterdam was our base for 3 nights and we loved every minute of it-hitting the tourist spots, exploring by foot, tasting the cuisine, shopping, hanging with the locals and dodging the bikes.
Here are the highlights……
Walking Tour Of Amsterdam
With only two full days to explore, I thought it would be best to get an overview of this small and manageable city. Our first morning we met our guide, Lisa, at Dam Square (where the big Christmas tree is located) and began our private walking tour. We visited many of the main areas of the city-Dam Square, the 9 Streets, the Jordaan district, the Jewish Quarter and of course the Red Light District. (more about the Red Light District below). Lisa was animated and knowledgable as she took us around and taught us about the history and culture of the city including the “coffee shops” (more about this below too). Even the kids were engaged and especially liked tasting yummy free samples at a Jordaan cheese shop, taking a photo at the house where Rembrandt lived and having a look at the narrowest house in Amsterdam.
Other highlights included a visit to the Amsterdam Duck Store which sells various rubber duck characters and Van Stapele, a shop that sells only ONE TYPE of cookie, yep just one. The unique cookie is made using chocolate dough on the outside with melted white chocolate on the inside. The staff is preparing and baking the cookies throughout the day, all in plain sight, so often the cookies that you purchase are still warm and gooey. As you can imagine, It was one of the most popular shops we stopped in.
As for the Red Light District and the coffee shops, we were very clear with Lisa to hold nothing back from our three teens and she obliged. Our teens listened intently, but said nothing as she talked about the “girls” and how so much is accepted in Amsterdam as long as it meets 3 requirements….
1. It doesn’t hurt anyone
2. It doesn’t offend anyone
3. It brings tax revenue into the city
I think that my kids snap chatted stories about the condom shop, Condomerie, whose windows we looked in. (It was closed).
It was less awkward for my family when Lisa spoke about the “coffee shops,” especially since we may be heading in that cultural direction in the US with the legalization of marijuana in some of the states (Despite some recent possible setbacks!). Note-coffee shops are located throughout the city, not just the Red Light District. If you want a real coffee in Amsterdam, go to a cafe.
Unfortunately, we could not visit a coffee shop as the city requires you to be 18. There’s always next time 🙂
FYI, we booked our tour through a company and got really lucky with Lisa. She also books her own tours and has a company called Journeys Through Amsterdam. You can reach out to her at [email protected] You can also find her on Instagram and Facebook at Journeys through Amsterdam.
Back To The Red Light District
During the morning tour we got a small glimpse into what life is like in the district, but not enough. We actually took our kids back for a short walk thru the area later that night just to truly experience it. Rob and I wouldn’t have done this with younger kids, but we were good for a night peek with our 3 high schoolers. The best part for me is that it is definitely something that they will always remember.
Anne Frank House
Get your timed tickets for the Anne Frank House in advance, as it was impossible to buy same day tickets when we were there. We saw numerous people being turned away as they showed up ticketless trying to purchase one on the spot. You can secure advance tickets online starting 60 days in advance. (That’s what I did 🙂 ). Getting through the house takes about an hour using a head set as your guide. In addition to listening, there are many photographs, memorabilia and items to read. You marvel at the rooms and secret annex where Anne and her family hid for over two years. There are printed excerpts from the diary on the walls in each room. At the end, you can see pages from the real diary. The tour was so interesting and very moving. We all really enjoyed it.
The Rijksmuseum (AKA The Rijks)
With Paris up next in our trip. I was nervous about “museuming out” my kids. However, while in Amsterdam, I kept hearing that the Rijks is to Amsterdam as the Louvre is to Paris and this was enough to convince me. I purchased our advance tickets in Amsterdam (during our walking tour) for me and Rob. All kids under 18 are free and this is standard with many of the other Amsterdam museums. How great! (The kids however still need a physical ticket). We found a website featuring the top 10 things to see in the museum. We made a game out of who could find the painting first. We spent a good five minutes in front of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (with everyone else!) and added a peek at the three van Goghs that are housed on the first floor. Despite our brief visit, I now have no guilt that we skipped it. I do, however, have guilt that we skipped the van Gogh Museum. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time for this one too. Missing it will be just another reason for me to go back…
Canal Boat Ride Through The Amsterdam Light Festival
At Christmas time the canals showcase the Amsterdam Light Festival. We took a light festival cruise with Blue Boat Tours. There are many tour boat companies in the city and I am sure they all offer similar tours. Ours was a covered boat with a small sitting area outside. If it is not freezing, I would opt for a smaller, more intimate boat where you are outside the entire time. The cruise took us by the light installations and through the lighted tunnel, the highlight of the tour. I thought we would see more artsy light works than we actually did. Overall I was a little disappointed with the “festival”. However, IMO no visit to the city would be complete without a ride through the canals and going in the lighted tunnel was quite fun! We even sat outside for a bit on the boat with some cozy drinks and took in the cold air and nighttime sights of the city.
The iconic sign is directly in front of the Rijks Museum. We visited the sign two times. We walked to the sign our first night in the city and posed with the letters. It was Impossible to get a shot alone as there were a bunch of people there all trying to do the same thing as us. We went back to the sign the day we went to the Rijks. During the day there were even more people competing for pictures. I had high (unrealistic) hopes of waking up at 6 am and going (alone) to get the token sign shot. In the end, I opted for sleep. The jet lag was particularly tough the first few days. Also noteworthy, there was an ice skating rink right in front of the sign. We didn’t skate, but had fun watching the skaters from the bridge above the rink.
The Cheese Museum is really a store and is right down the street from the Anne Frank House. It is a good place to kill time if you are waiting for your timed entry into the house. Here you can taste some cheese and go downstairs to learn about the cheese making process. The people who work in the shop are quite nice and like fielding questions and encourage people to take pictures, like this one. There is also a tulip museum next door which was closed when were were there (Christmas Day).
Shopping On The 9 Streets
While the boys were napping, Jessie and I hit all 9 of The 9 Streets which were very close to our hotel. We popped in and out of the quaint shops and original boutiques. I got a scarf and Jessie a sweater. We do not often shop together so this was a big treat for me (maybe her too:) ).
The Restaurants And Food
We ate quite well in Amsterdam whether we were dining at a restaurant, debating between waffles or crepes for dessert, or having a traditional Christmas dinner at a local Amsterdam home.
We went to four quite different types of restaurants in Amsterdam.
Dinner at Cafe Panache-This hotspot in Amsterdam was a bit off the beaten track but worth the trek. It was a young, hip, happening restaurant with amazing food. It was recommended to us by a trusted family who had traveled to the city a couple years back (Tema B!). Jessie and I shared a whole salted fish bringing me back to my Italy days this past summer. Daniel got got the rooster (tasted like chicken) and Rob and Mason, gearing up for Paris, had steaks and fries.
Lunch at Cafe Sonneveld-We had a traditional Dutch lunch at this spot located close to the Anne Frank House, but not in the touristy part. Our walking tour guide, Lisa, directed us to this restaurant that felt a bit like an English pub. We all tried bitterballen, but nobody seemed that impressed. On the contrary , we loved our main meal, stamppot which consists of potatoes and some sort of seasonal veggie (we had carrots) mixed together and topped with a meatball or a sausage. Daniel and I each got one of the meats and shared. It was so delicious and I am definitely going to try to replicate the meal at home. The kids are cautiously optimistic.
Indonesian Dinner at Indrapura-From all of my prior research, I knew that dinner at an Indonesian Restaurant was a must when visiting Amsterdam. We did the Rijsttafel (rice table) which consists of side dishes served in small portions accompanied by rice. Some of our side dishes included satay, fish, potatoes, vegetables, pickles, and nuts. It was a fun sharable meal and quite good. We were very happy at Indrapura, but also had some other Indonesian restaurant recommendations like Restaurant Blauw, Temple Doloe and Jun, a hidden gem on Frederik Hendrikstraat. I honestly don’t think you can go wrong with any you choose.
Brunch at The Pancake Bakery
Don’t confuse this place with the pancake place next door to the Anne Frank house. We mistakenly almost did (I am sure this other place is good, just not as authentic). The one called the Pancake Bakery is about 5 minutes past the Anne Frank house on the same side of Prinsengracht. It has a tiny little red door (duck when you go in) and feels a lot more intimate and traditional. The Pancake Bakery serves both Dutch and American pancakes and on each table is a gigantic bowl of maple syrup. We all got Dutch pancakes filled with items such as cheese, ham, bacon and veggies. The Dutch pancakes are kind of like a pancake omelet (see the picture up top). This is a great spot to dine before your Anne Frank timed entry. I had also heard about another special pancake place, but it was closed when we were there for Xmas week. It’s called Upstairs Pancakes. There are only 6 tables in the restaurant and it sounds like a unique and delicious pancake experience. We’ll try it next time!
Many dessert places are scattered throughout the city and we sampled many delicacies after our dinners. Stroopwaffles, which are a waffle made from two thin layers of baked dough with a caramel-like syrup filling in the middle, are everywhere. We tried those as well as regular waffles, crepes, cherry turnovers, churros and oliebollen, which are fried dough balls. Each night we had such a hard time deciding which treat to choose. Sometimes we shared or traded with each other, not without fights!
Dine with the Dutch
Having previously been to London during Christmas week where almost nothing was open on Christmas Day, I was nervous that we would face the same situation in Amsterdam. (We didn’t!) I took action and did a google search “dine with a dutch family”. Jackpot, I was taken to the site Dine With The Dutch. After answering some questions about my family, our interests, etc, we were matched with our host, Jo. We had Christmas dinner with Jo and her 4 friends, all who live in Amsterdam. They were all eager to share information about the city, culture and people of Amsterdam. We asked lots of questions….Why doesn’t anyone wear bike helmets? Do the houseboats ever move? How much is it to rent a spot on the canal for your houseboat? Where do car owners park? Is there an Amsterdam college? How much in advance do we need to be at the train station for our train to Paris? They asked us a lot of questions too about living in New York and our time in Amsterdam thus far. In retrospect, I may recommend doing this meal at the beginning of your stay so that you could use the information you obtain. For dinner, Jo made a wonderful turkey (Rob carved it) with lots of Thanksgiving type sides-sweet and mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and yummy veggies, one which contained roasted chestnuts. I am adding roasted chestnuts to the home menu (gulp). By the end of the night, we felt like friends. In fact, I plan to keep in touch with Jo via email and Facebook. In fact, she may even write a blog for me.:-)
We stayed at the Andaz Amsterdam, Prinsengracht. This new space is just four years old and you can tell. The hotel is modern and sleek and the lobby constantly abuzz. It has a popular restaurant, Bluespoon, which we did not try. We had two adjacent rooms and both rooms were spacious and contemporary with the sink in the middle of the room instead of the bathroom! The concierge and staff were quite helpful. One small negative-we finally ate at the breakfast buffet our last morning before our train to Paris and it was a bit overpriced. The best thing about the hotel was its location. We were central to many areas. We were right next to the 9 Streets, 10 minutes from the Jordaan district and the Anne Frank House and about 20 minutes to Dam Square, the Rijks Museum and the Red Light District. How great is it that we were able to stay at this hotel for free on points!
Some Other Thoughts…..
Christmas-I was wrong when I assumed we would have nothing to do on Christmas Day. Amsterdam, on Christmas, is a great place to be. Unlike London, there was so much for us to do. All of the museums were open and many restaurants too. Even some of the stores were open.
Bikes-If the weather was warmer and if we had more time, I would have had us rent bikes one day and spend time like a local biking to our various destinations and locking our bikes along the canals when we got there. Next time….
Taxis-As I touched upon above, we walked everywhere. We barely even saw a taxi as we traversed the city. The two times we were in a cab during our three days in Amsterdam was arriving from the airport and heading to the train station. We love to walk and Amsterdam is a small and manageable city to do so-just be careful of the bikes!
The temperature-It was cold Christmas week and drizzled at times. We made sure we had our winter jackets, hats and gloves and we were ok. The nights felt warmer than the days which was odd.
I am sad we missed..the van Gogh Museum and a day trip to the countryside to see the windmills and cheese markets and obviously the tulip fields (in the spring).
Off to Paris…..
We departed our hotel the morning of the 26th for the train station and took the easy, quick and convenient RailEurope train ride to Paris. Daniel, just because we rode through Belgium doesn’t mean we have been there. We will save that for another trip. 🙂