Keep your spirits warm during the cold weather with our guide to the best Dutch winter events, from Dutch Christmas markets, fairs and winter wonderland festivals.
Winter in Holland can be a cold and unpleasant affair. However, the Dutch know how to battle the freezing temperatures by celebrating with some of the warmest and most colorful events. The Netherlands in winter is a magical place if you know where to look. Expatica looks at some of the best Dutch winter events from Christmas markets in the Netherlands, to Dutch festivals and fairs that will warm your heart and keep your spirits high.
Gouda by Candlelight
The second Tuesday in December sees the annual lighting of the candles in Gouda known as Gouda bij Kaarslicht (Gouda by Candlelight). This magical celebration takes place in the medieval town of Gouda, which is a short train ride from Amsterdam or The Hague.
Thousands of candles are lit in one magical instant as the main square (Markt) lights up for Christmas. You’re taken back to the 16th century as the lights are completely extinguished around the square. Darkness is then turned into light by 1,500 candles in the City Hall (Stadhuis). The gorgeous stained-glass windows of the nearby St. Janskerk are also specially illuminated for the event and a there’s a lively concert.
This Dutch winter event features a full schedule of activities for the entire family, including a traditional Christmas market on the Wilhelminastraat. It runs from 12.00 – 23.00, with the candle and Christmas tree lighting ceremonies starting at 19.00.
Winter Efteling welcomes visitors with an enchanting winter atmosphere in the theme park. People marvel at twinkly fairy lights and dance with the Snow Princess and Fire Prince on the covered ice skating rink.
There’s also fun activities for all the family with cosy apres-ski drinks and food and crackling campfires. If you want to make it into a winter vacation, stay at one of the delightful holiday homes there.
In Deventer, the 19th-century English city of Charles Dickens is brought back to life with the Dickens Festival. In the historical Bergkwartier, more than 950 characters from the celebrated books of the English writer stroll across the streets and lanes. Costumed characters walk around dressed up as Scrooge, Oliver Twist, Fagin, David Copperfield, and Miss Havisham. Even Queen Victoria attends, along with Christmas Carol singers, orphan children, and distinguished citizens.
Each year more than 125,000 visitors come to visit the picturesque streets of Deventer. Access is free and cafés and galleries are open with delicacies; from fragrant English punch to roasted chestnuts and freshly baked waffles. It’s a winter wonderland of twinkle lights and Christmas trees reaching as high as the houses. There’s also a Christmas market with around 200 different stands, an orchestra, and several live choirs.
Valkenburg Christmas market and parade
One of the most iconic Christmas markets in the Netherlands takes place at Valkenberg. Feel mesmerized with the enchanting underground caves and fairytale décor. Listen to enticing seasonal music and take in the hundreds of Christmas stalls, impressive sand sculptures and miniature villages.
The town of Valkenburg also hosts a Christmas Fairytale parade with an illuminated procession and magical Christmas floats. The historic center is filled with lights, dancers and seasonal music and attracts thousands of enthusiastic visitors each year.
Take a stroll down the culinary walking route ‘Route d’amuse’ and choose from one of three routes. You’ll see different parts of Valkenberg in winter and it’s a enjoyable way to walk off those delicious pastries and hot chocolate with family or friends.
In the month of December, every day is filled with magic in Maastricht. The city center transforms into a magical Christmas shopping village with beautiful lighting and decorated shop windows.
The Vrijthof Square turns into a winter paradise and there’s a large ice skating rink, big ferris wheel, and differently themed Christmas stands. Take the family to see the exquisite twinkle lights that shine on every corner. Additionally, there’s countless winter concerts, workshops, walks, and festivals to experience.
Sounding of Dutch winter horns
Midwinterhoornblazen is the northeastern Dutch tradition of sounding 18th century mid-winter horns. Five notes carry this unusual sound far and wide, across Twente and Veluwe.
The most well-known midwinterhoornblazen event in the Netherlands is the Twentse Midwinterhoornwandeling, which takes place in Denekamp in 2019.
Ice skating in the Netherlands and the Elfstedentocht
The Dutch are champion world-class speed skaters and love to take advantage of the winter to sharpen their ice-blades. Almost all major cities in the Netherlands – and even smaller towns have their own skating rinks for holidaymakers to visit. Our guide to skating in the Netherlands shows you the world of ice-skating – Dutch style – and where to go to get your skates on.
If you want to up the ante and are keen to experience something uniquely Dutch, look to Friesland where locals celebrate the Elfstedentocht, or Eleven Cities Tour. A 200 km skating tour takes place on natural ice with around 16,000 skaters gliding through 11 historic Frisian cities. It happens once a year but only if the ice is at least 16 cm thick. After the cold of winter, it’s also a lovely route to cycle during the warmer summer months.
Dutch Ice Sculpture Festival
Is there a better way to celebrate winter than with a festival showcasing delicate ice sculptures? More than 100,000 visitors flock to the magnificent Dutch Ice Sculpture Festival every year. It’s no surprise that this cold festival has become one of the biggest Dutch winter events.
The theme of this years Dutch Ice Sculpture Festival is “World famous stories”. The best ice artists from around the world come to Zwolle and work in a 1,200 m2 freezer hall with 275,000 kilos of ice and snow. Magical stories will be transformed into ice sculptures such as Romeo and Juliet, the Three Musketeers, and Alice in Wonderland.
Amsterdam Light Festival
Winter can be a dark and depressing season but the Dutch capital Amsterdam ensures this is not the case. Visitors flock to see the ever popular annual Amsterdam Light Festival where around 30 artworks make up the festival’s brightly colored installations. The theme of this year’s festival is ‘Disrupt!’ and you’ll spot all kinds of sculptures across the city center of Amsterdam that illuminate and transform familiar settings and routes.
Take a canal boat tour to see them from the Water Colours Route and marvel at the bewitching, twinkling works of art. Or pop your winter gloves and hat on, and take a stroll along the Illuminade walking route.
Scheveningen New Year’s Dive
Don your swimsuit and start the new year by joining in this gallant Dutch tradition: the New Year’s dive. The freezing cold doesn’t deter anyone as you see people jump into seas and lakes to start the year fresh and anew.
There are over 60 locations across the Netherlands that host a New Year’s dive but the largest one is at Scheveningen beach where more than 10,000 people bravely take the frosty plunge.