I’ve always wondered what Europe’s Christmas markets were all about .. I’ve also never been to Europe in the winter, just because (in my head) there can’t be a better place to spend winter other than California. But having done some tropical vacays in the last year, we decided to plan a trip to Amsterdam and Belgium, through the entire week of Christmas!
Now keep in mind, I’m writing this post more than 6 months later, so my memory is a little vague, but I’ll do my best to recount the places we visited. I’d say these are likely pretty amazing places, if they’ve stood out in my memory so many months later 🙂
QUICK TIP: the first thing we did upon checkin was rent couple bikes for the entire stay in Amsterdam. Even in winter, despite the light rains, it was the best way to explore the city.
STAY: Hotel Atlas Vondelpark – we chose this boutique hotel because it was smack in the middle of everything we wanted to see. We hopped on our bikes and were able to get to really any place of interest within 5-15 mins.
3 day ITINERARY: Dec 22 – Dec 24, 2019
DAY 1 : Vondel Park, Van Gogh museum, Lunch near Leinsplein / Prinsengracht, Dam Square, 9 Streets / Jordaan area, Light Festival Canal Cruise, Ferry to North Holland
DAY 2: RAI Christmas Market, Lunch in Jordaan area, 9 Streets, (Prinsengracht area), Gingerbread Houses, Anne Frank House, Redlight District, Dam Square
DAY 3: De Pjip, FoodHallen
It was freezing cold (and raining) when we got out of the airport in Amsterdam. Dragged our luggage to hop on a bus to take us to our hotel. Once we checked in and warmed up with the kind hostess at Atlas hotel, with some hot coffee and Stroopwaffle, we were ready to take on Amsterdam! The hotel let us rent bikes for all 3 days so we had it easy.
Vondel Park: The hotel was right by the gorgeous Vondel park, I believe it is the largest in Amsterdam. We biked through it soaking in the afternoon rain, and hungrily biking toward the closest lunch area.
Van Gogh Museum: After some time in Vondel park, we decided to turn around and bike in the direction of Dam Square, and planned to hit some attractions and grab lunch along the way. The first spot was Van Gogh museum – if you’re an art lover, this is a pretty amazing experience. The museum contains some of the artist’s best work and a detailed account of his life.
Lunch at Cafe de Sergio: When my hubby and I are hungry, and I mean starving jetlagged hungry, nothing hits the spot better than buttery garlicy plain on Pasta! We were on the hunt for a basic Italian restaurant. While biking past Leinsplein, it started to pour really hard and we had to fund a place to just park our bikes and walk around. This was the perfect spot – in between Leinsplein and Prinsengracht, there is like a hidden kingdom of restaurants of all possible cuisines! no kidding, it felt like we were in Food heaven (and no this isnt Foodhallen haha, but it very well couldve been). There was rows of Italian, Indian, Nepali, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican.. restaurants. We found our way into Cafe de Sergio and were greeted with warm bread from the oven, beer and some of the BEST Aglio e’Olio I’ve had in my life! Brat had their house Pesto pasta which was fantastic too!
Dam Square: We then made our way through the busiest part of town – Dam Square. From rows after rows of high fashion/ standard retailers and coffee shops, we were a little overwhelmed – I had no intention of shopping so we kinda went past it and made our way toward the Jordaan area
Jordaan – 9 Streets & Canals: Such a lovely experience it was to simply bike along the canal and experience the city. We weren’t really aiming for a specific location or store or cafe, so we took our time just biking around, stopping by cute vintage shops, picked up some vintage prints for our house. We stopped by a coffee shop to get some afternoon pick-me-up. We would just pick a spot by the canal, have a beer and just soak in the city. We’d then hop back on our bikes, go a few blocks further and do it again haha. Such a fun, relaxing and vibrant city to spend a day in. We didn’t even feel the rain or the cold (despite it being 2-4 C degrees weather the entire time we were there! 🙂 )
Light Festival Dinner Cruise: We got back to the hotel around 5pm, and decided to nap for an hour so we could be awake for the night we had planned 🙂 Though we were exhausted, the 1 hour nap got us enough rest and we decided to quickly change and hopped on an Uber to get to our Dinner Cruise by Amsterdam Centraal! 🙂 The Light Festival in Amsterdam runs between November – January and is quite the highlight of winter! We booked our tickets before we left for Amsterdam so we wouldn’t miss the experience.
Amsterdam Light Festival is a highlight of the holiday season and 2020/2021 marks its ninth edition. As in previous years, a whole host of Dutch and international artists will contribute to the festival, creating spectacular light sculptures in Amsterdam’s east. No matter how you choose to view the installations – by boat, on foot or by bike – you’ll be amazed by their technical brilliance and beauty.
Ferry to North Holland: After the cruise and the delicious 5 course meal, we met with one of our friends who lives in Amsterdam. She suggested we take the ferry to check out North Holland by the night! She recommended the EYE, that would give us a panoramic view of the entire city. Although the EYE was already closed to visitors (given it was already 11pm 🙂 ), we decided to hop into one of their pretty amazing clubs and grab a few drinks! We were likely out till 2am, and decided we should call it a night and headed back the ferry and to our hotel.
Christmas Market at RAI: Well, I’d researched several Christmas markets before I headed to Amsterdam. The good news is there are SO MANY! Here’s a quick summary of all the Christmas markets and the locations & dates. We chose to checkout The RAI which transforms into a winter wonderland in December with both indoor and outdoor ice-skating rinks, seasonal parties, dining galore and a giant Ferris wheel that looks out over the city of Amsterdam. You can tube across real snow, cross-country ski between Christmas trees or goof off with a classic snowball fight.
We were really there to experience first hand what the fuss was all about, and we get it! We got our tickets quite easily, the line wasn’t huge when we got there. We walked around and played a few games and partook in some of the activities there – its really mostly catered toward younger folks and kids. But, Brat and I haven’t been to a Fair (christmas or not) in so many years, maybe over 2 decades! The last time I went to one was when I was probably 7 years old back in India! We used to call them “Exhibitions” back then – I don’t even think Fairs take place in big cities in India anymore. I felt like a little kid – although we kept ourselves warm with some Hot Stroopwaffles, local Beer and fire heaters all around haha
Overall, I thought the whole experience was fun, even though I think I’m not going to run to the next Christmas market personally – if you have kids or have a larger group of friends who love the rides and Ferris Wheel, you’ll have a total blast!
Lunch in Jordaan area / 9 Streets, (Prinsengracht area): After spending the entire morning at RAI, we got back to the hotel, took our bikes and headed back to Jordaan. We did the same thing – biked, stopped for beer, biked again, shopped a little, biked again, ate a little.. such a fun day 🙂 We were desperately looking for the Italian place we went to the da before but somehow couldn’t find it so we decided to try one of the cafes for lunch along the canals.
My fav spot was Cafe t’Smalle! The cafe literally sits on the canal itself with cute bistro tables laid out above the water! Its traditional dutch cuisine – can’t complain when the beer is so good and the view beats everything!
PolaBerry: This was one of those instagram spots I wanted to check out! Essentially its the prettiest set of strawberries you’ll ever and eat! PolaBerry is a combination of artistic presentation, fresh strawberries and fruit, covered in Belgian chocolate.More than a feast for your tummy, its really a feast for the eyes – the combinations and bouquets of flowers and fruit are exquisite!
Gingerbread Houses: As we made our way past the canals we stopped by the soak in the adorable Gingerbread houses across the water. It was POURING by now and we weren’t unfortunately able to capture a good photo, but the memories are certianly vivd ! They really do look like Gingerbread houses!!! 🙂
Anne Frank House: I’m sure you’ve all at some point heard and/or read Anne Frank’s diary that details her life during the Nazi occupation of Netherlands. The Anne Frank Museum is essentially the house that she was hiding in and articulates the traumatic experiences of her and her family during the regime. I had read Anne Frank’s diary back in the 9th grade and was ecstatic to check out the museum. However, it was simply impossible to get a ticket ! The tickets open up at specific hours each day and every time I tried to book a couple, the website would time out and such. I’d recommend, if you’re keen on visiting the museum, work with a service that is able to secure tickets for you before hand.
Red Light District: After several hours of biking and eating and drinking in the Jordaan, the sun started to set and we decided to visit the Red light District in De Wallen. Both of us really didn’t know what to expect – we imagined we’ll see women by windows offering sex and that’s about it. We were mostly right about that, except we didn’t expect it to be literally the most crowded and seemingly tourist-popular part of the city. Just a few blocks from Dam Square as we made our way toward De Wallen, we got sucked into a crowded narrow lane which wasn’t lit perfectly greatly. As we made our way through we started to pass by the famous windows with attractive women and eager tourists taking pictures and/or having conversations with them. We went further past into the main street and got to take it all in – from Erotic stores to Peep Shows with crowded lines all the way outside the buildings, it really was a bit overwhelming to handle the crowd. Both of us felt we’d rather leave if we weren’t there to partake and let the workers do their thing without adding yet another tourist to the mix!
Dam Square & back: After we got out of there we felt like a breath of fresh air! It had already started to get really windy, so we made our way back to Dam Square to grab dinner by Leinsplein and head back to the hotel.
De Pijp : On Day 3, we decided to explore a new area – the De Pijp district – known for its Bohemian artistry vibe. De Pijp is a lively Latin Quarter, lined with really cute and interesting stores – lots of vintage clothing, old vinyl records stores, plethora of cafes and restaurants.
Original Stroopwaffles: Hunting for the best Stroopwaffles around town, I passed by so many amazing stores serving warm freshly baked stroopwaffles topped with everything you can possibly think of! I had saved my palette for the one and only “Rudy’s Original Stroopwaffles” in Albert Cuypmarkt right in the De Pijp area, so after 2 days of waiting I indulged! But if you haven’t planned on visiting the De Pjip area or want to try other places too, “van Wonderen Stroopwafels” I’ve heard is pretty amazing and the lines outside the store and the samples by the windows were convincing enough!
Rainbowls: Where would I be if I didn’t get my Acai Bowl fix? Of course I hunted down the perfect spot that served ambiance along with the prettiest and yummiest acai bowl in the whole town! If you’re in this neighborhood, get in early coz it a lot of locals certainly love this spot!
Hipster Food & Art: We kept our agenda really light for Day 3 and just explored the neighborhood on foot. We walked past cute stores, photographed by some adorable graffiti and such. Overall a chill and relaxing day. This area has a lot of the urban hipster vibe, and the food options reflect the same. You’ll get your Avocado Toast, Chia Seed Puddings and such a lot more in this neighborhood than the other parts we visited. I felt perfectly at home here 🙂
Foodhallen: After spending the day out, we went back to the hotel and packed up since we were planning to leave for Belgium around 4am the next morning. We grabbed a quick nap, showered and ventured out to Foodhallen for the evening. Foodhallen is an incredibly vibrant food district – from shrimp tacos, to craft cocktails, to Falafel and pita, to Pho, to Chicken tikka masala – name it and they had it! Just remember to get there early. We went there around 9pm and felt like it was starting to wind down! Had we gotten there by 7 the place wouldve been popping! Even so, we ate and drank to our tummy’s content! Later in the evening the music started to pick up and the spot seemed to be turning into a fun dance floor! Might’ve been just that evening but it certainly looked like the scene was very chill and fun. Highly recommend hitting Foodhallen multiple times if you’re in Amsterdam. We will absolutely want to visit here again when we get a chance!
That’s a Wrap!
And… that concluded our 3 fantastic winter days in Amsterdam! We cannot wait to go back there in Summer and do the canal cruise without 5 layers of winter coats, and sit out in the sunshine and have beer while watching the city walk past you! It is easily one of the most vibrant, socially & culturally conscious city I’ve visited. We will most certainly be back!