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 sometimes be a cold and unpleasant affair. But one thing the Dutch know is how to battle the season’s freezing rain by celebrating some of the warmest events in Netherlands for the year. Amsterdam in winter can be a magical experience if you know where to look.
Here is a collection of the best Dutch winter events from an assortment of Christmas markets, festivals and fairs that will warm your heart and keep your spirits high. To add some sparkle to your Christmas celebrations, read more in our Dutch christmas guide.
Here are the top winter events in Holland you shouldn’t miss this winter.
1. Gouda by Candlelight
The second Tuesday in December sees the annual lighting of the candles in Gouda (South Holland) known as Gouda bij Kaarslicht (‘Gouda by Candlelight’). This magical celebration takes place in the medieval town of Gouda, a short train ride from Amsterdam or The Hague. It is strongly recommended to go by train, as the centre of town is closed to traffic that day.
Thousands of candles are lit in one breathtaking instant as the main square (Markt) lights up for Christmas. It’s not hard to imagine that you’re in the 16th century as the lights are first completely extinguished around the square, and then the darkness is driven back by no less than 1,500 candles in the City Hall (Stadhuis) with thousands more glowing throughout the town. The gorgeous stained-glass windows of the nearby St Janskerk are also specially illuminated for the event and a concert is given there.
The all-day event features a full schedule of activities for the entire family – including a typical Christmas market on the Wilhelminastraat – and runs from 10am to 10pm, with the candle and Christmas tree lighting ceremonies beginning around 7pm. See the complete schedule for Gouda by Candlelight here.
2. The Winter Efteling
The Winter Efteling offers visitors a phantasmagorical winter atmosphere in its theme park that celebrates more than 60 years. Fairytale lighting, a covered ice skating rink with cosy ski hut, a 385-metre langlauf slide, crackling campfires, extra entertainment and fun for all. See www.efteling.com.
3. Dickens Festival
In Deventer (Overijsel), the 19th-century English city of Charles Dickens is revived in full glory during the Dickens Festijn held for the 19th consecutive year. In the historical Bergkwartier, some 750 characters from the celebrated books of this English writer will come to life on Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 December. Costumed towns people portray them all, from Scrooge to Oliver Twist, Fagin, David Copperfield and Uriah Heap, to the distinguished Mr Samuel Pickwick and Miss Havisham. Even Queen Victoria attends, along with the Christmas Carol Singers, orphan children, drunkards, office clerks and distinguished citizens.
The Dickens Festival is visited each year by more than 100,000 visitors. The festival takes place in the picturesque streets in the city centre and access is free. The stores, cafés and galleries are open with delicacies in abundance, from fragrant English punch to roasted chestnuts and freshly baked waffles. It’s a winter wonderland of thousands of small lights and Christmas trees as high as the houses, along with the atmosphere in the shops and the antics of the characters form the nostalgic Dickens setting. There is also a Christmas market on the de Brink square on 17 and 18 December with around 200 stands, plus a Christmas market in the Grote of Lebuïnuskerk from Thursday 15 to Saturday 17 December. See www.dickensfestijn.nl.
4. Christmas in Palace Het Loo (‘Kerst op Het Loo’)
From 17 December through 8 January, the Royal Palace Het Loo in Apeldoorn (Gelderland) will celebrate three centuries of Christmas with the ‘Oranjes‘, the Royal family. The entire palace is beautifully decorated with garlands, greens and flowering plants from the palace’s Orangerie greenhouses. Victorian Christmas trees are decorated with ornaments formerly belonging to Queen Wilhelmina and Prince Hendrik; other trees feature themes and antiques. The lavish tables are decked out in authentic style with beautiful damask, gleaming crystal, polished silver candelabras and colourful fruit. This annual event draws many curious visitors. See www.paleishetloo.nl.
5. Valkenburg Christmas market and parade
Perhaps the most iconic Christmas market in the Netherlands, shopping in the Velvet Cave of Valkenburg with fairytale décor and seasonal music (from 18 November to 23 December) is one-of-a-kind. The market’s popularity has grown considerably throughout the years and this year’s version features more shops and a chance to tour Limburg’s famous castle ruins.
The town of Valkenburg also hosts a Christmas parade with illuminated and magical Christmas floats between 19 November to 23 December. Check the full schedule for the parade and Christmas market here.
6. Magical Maastricht
The city centre of Maastricht is a delight for shoppers and every year is transformed into a magical Christmas shopping village with beautiful lighting throughout the historic shopping streets and shop windows. From 2 December 2016 to 1 January 2017, the Vrijthof Square is transformed into a Winter Paradise: Magical Maastricht, with a great many attractions, including a large skating rink, a big wheel, and a variety of interesting Christmas stands. You can download an informative brochure in several languages including English here.
7. Sounding of horns
Midwinterhoornblazen, the northeastern Dutch tradition of sounding 18th century mid-winter horns, which have five notes that carry sound far and wide, takes place during the winter in several places around Twenthe and Veluwe. The most well-known midwinterhoornblazen event in the Netherlands is the Twentse Midwinterhoornwandeling, which is scheduled on 18 December in 2016. Twenty-five groups will walk an 11-kilometre route where they will blow the horns to welcome the mid-winter. Horn-blowing typically occurs during the first Sunday in Advent to Epiphany.
8. Ice skating in the Netherlands and the Elfstedentocht
The Dutch are champion world-class speed skaters and many of them take advantage of the winter and sharpen their blades on the ice. Almost all major cities in the Netherlands – and even smaller towns – have their own skating rinks for holidaymakers to enjoy. Our guide to skating in the Netherlands introduces you to the world of skating Dutch style and shows you where to go to get your skates on ice.
If you’d like to up the ante and are keen to experience something uniquely Dutch, look north to Friesland where locals celebrate the Elfstedentocht, or Eleven Cities Tour. A 200-kilometre skating tour on natural ice, the Elfstedentocht takes 300 competitors and around 16,000 skaters along 11 historic Frisian cities. It is held once a year but only if the ice is at least 16 centimetres thick. If the ice is found suitable, the tour is announced and starts within 48 hours. Skaters who wish to participate in the sensational tour can sign up here. To date, the sensational event has only been held 15 times since its inception in 1909; the last Eleven Cities Tour was in 1997. It is also a lovely route to cycle during warmer months.
9. Dutch Ice Sculpture Festival
Is there a better way to celebrate winter than with a festival featuring intricate ice sculptures? More than 100,000 visitors in last year’s Dutch Ice Sculpture Festival certainly didn’t think so. Running from 10 December 2016 to 5 February 2017, the festival has become the biggest winter event in the Netherlands. Forty of the world’s most lauded ice sculptors gather in the Low Lands to craft spectacular works of art using around 275,000 kilograms of ice. This year’s masterpieces will follow the theme of ‘Music Inspires’, and will touch upon various music genres like hiphop, classical and homegrown Hollandse muziek. The ice sculptures can be admired in the 1,500-square-metre ice hall near the Amsterdam’s Arena Boulevard. Tickets are priced at EUR 16.50 for adults and EUR 10 for children up to 11 years of age.
10. Amsterdam Light Festival
Winter can be a dark and depressing season but the Dutch capital makes sure this will never be the case during winter in Amsterdam by putting on the annual Amsterdam Light Festival. From 1 December 2016 to 22 January 2017, special light installations sparkle around Amsterdam to brighten up long winter nights. Spectators can choose between two routes: the walking Illuminade route and the Water Colours route, which takes you on a boat tour along the canals.
11. Scheveningen New Year’s Dive
Don your swimsuit and start 2017 right by partaking in this Dutch tradition: the New Year’s dive. The freezing cold is just a footnote as thousands of 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 take the frosty plunge each year.
12. Christmas markets in the Netherlands
Apart from the Valkenburg Christmas market and Magical Maastricht, you will find various Christmas markets throughout the Netherlands in December. Notable ones that you shouldn’t miss are the Dordrecht Christmas market, which is known as the largest Christmas market in Holland, and the Haarlem Christmas market for high quality handmade goods. Visit this website to find the schedule for Christmas markets in the Netherlands.
13. Winter music events in the Netherlands
Christmas concerts in the Netherlands are performed in many churches while other special concerts take place in many cities. Check with the local VVV‘s for listings.
Click to the top of our guide to winter events in Netherlands.
Expatica / Here’s Holland
Part of this article includes excerpts from Here’s Holland by Sheila Gazaleh-Weevers, Shirley Agudo and Connie Moser – “Simply the best all-in-one guide to travel and life in Holland.” Available in bookshops and via www.heresholland.com. Photo Credits: Tsnoei (Gouda by Candlelight), CMFRIESE (Christmas market), Steven Lek(Ice sculpture festival), Alexader Fritze (Scheveningen New Year’s Dive). / Updated 2016.