Paris in springtime. Chamonix in winter. Corfu in summer. So where does Amsterdam go on the expat travel calendar?
That’s a tough one.
The summer package-tour traffic and drunken revelers have gotten so bad that Dutch officials routinely beg tourists NOT to come to Amsterdam but rather enjoy other lovely cities such as Haarlem, Den Haag and Utrect. Now, that’s starting to be true in the winter.
We just got back from taking British friends to Amsterdam, promising them winter really is the best time to visit. Trust us … no tourist crowds. Empty restaurants and trams. Piece of cake.
In our dreams.
It used to be this way when we first started coming to Amsterdam in 2006. In the winter, it was empty. We waltzed into the museums, waiting in line for a few minutes to get into the Anne Frank House. Had our pick of restaurants and hotels.
But in the intervening 10 years we lived in the United States, Amsterdam became wildly popular. Even in winter.
There really is no magical season when Amsterdam is empty, says our friend Charlie de Wilde, a native of Belgium who’s been in hotel management for years. Before moving to another property this week, Charlie was at the five-star W Amsterdam just south of Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station.
While Christmas business is terrible for the overall hotel industry, W Amsterdam is busy all year-round, Charlie said … because it’s Amsterdam.
“There are tourists year-round,” he said. “Somewhere in the world, there’s someone with a week off … and they’re going to Amsterdam.”
We’ve rendezvoused with friends in Amsterdam. We’ve shown them around. And what we’ve learned is that Charlie is right: Amsterdam is never quiet … which is why people love to go there. That and the pot and the Red Light District. (Kidding.)
Whatever the season, a visit takes planning because of the seven billion people on earth, at least half of them are in Amsterdam at any given moment.
Christmas: Bad for hotel business, great for travelers
Okay, it’s too late for this year, so this really is for you planners.
If there’s one week that’s slightly quieter than the rest, it’s the week around Christmas and before New Year’s Eve, Charlie says, at least in the hotel business. That’s when people tend to stay home with family and friends.
We went with our English friends the Rendells on the day after Christmas, and Amsterdam was bustling and twice as fun as during the summer. The restaurants and the Dam square were still packed, as were the trams. But the feel was different because the travel-package tourist hordes really were gone.
We noticed the lines were shorter at the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum on the Museumplein. Most of the people we saw seemed to be Amsterdamers just hanging out.
Here’s another reason to visit at Christmas: Ice*Village Amsterdam. (There really is an asterisk in Ice*Village.)
This is just one of the Amsterdam region’s multiple Christmas markets. But it’s a good one, and it’s right in front of the Rijksmuseum and that big white “I amsterdam” sign everyone loves to climb on.
This is really a hipster Christmas market. Or at least a Bohemian Christmas market.
So, what makes a hipster Christmas market?
• Lots of funky apparel including those thick wool hoodies from the Andes my teenage daughters call “drug rugs.” Oh, and man jewelry.
• Locals wearing funky apparel including drug rugs, scarves and those wool caps from the Andes. And that one woman wearing the goggles.
• Artisan sausages and pork belly at a food stall with no identifying signs or menus, but a line a mile long.
• Original art instead of those goofy cowhide rugs and leather pants at the other Christmas markets we went to.
• And all the signs were in hipster English, including one that read, “Don’t panic; it’s organic!” Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re in Boston or Amsterdam.
There were also the regular Christmas market touches including a skating rink. A really nice, if crowded, skating rink. But Ice*Village had an entirely different feel than all the rest of the Christmas markets we visited this year.
There was more of a sense of gezelligheid, or coziness, with people eating, drinking and chatting around the smokey log fires in steel fire pits.
Dare we say it? This small Christmas market of maybe 50 booths was the best we went to this winter.
So, you can’t swing a Christmas visit.
Expats are hardy souls. Obviously, we’re willing to up-end our lives to relocate to other countries for opportunities and adventure. So, what’s a little cold and clouds if you can have a more authentic Amsterdam experience?
Winter in Amsterdam is a little less busy because it’s colder. But NOT that much, Charlie says. Again, planning is the key to getting in all the places you want to visit.
We’re guessing everyone knows this, but we’re going to remind you: Book everything you can in advance. And the farther out, the better.
That way, you won’t spend your entire visit standing in line.
For example, for the foreseeable future, you can ONLY buy tickets the Anne Frank House via their website because of renovation work.
Also, you have to buy those tickets at least TWO MONTHS in advance of your visit.
You’re also wise to buy your tram tickets online in advance, which you can do here. And while you’re buying those tickets, take a look at how the trams, airports, metros and trains actually work and where they go.
Another option is to buy the I amsterdam City Card, which gets you free admission to many museums, including the Van Gogh Museum, and unlimited use of public transportation. And now that you can no longer buy tram tickets on the tram, this card is even more convenient.
From the website:
With the City Card you get free entry to the best museums and attractions, unlimited use of GVB public transport in Amsterdam, great discounts, free giveaways and special offers – all included in a single card.
Check out the options here.
(We’ll have a follow-up post soon.)
Remember, there are several Amsterdams. Sure, the center of tourist Amsterdam is all quaint streets and canals. But like Paris, London and other European capitals, the metropolitan area goes on forever, with mostly uncharming corporate business parks and a dodgy industrial/warehouse district or two.
Know where you’re going.
• Amsterdam is one of the safest cities in Europe. But even here, the pickpockets and petty criminals drawn to the coffee shops and Red Light District are looking for easy targets. Don’t be one.
• It might make more sense to do what we used to do and stay outside Amsterdam, then trek in during the day. Charlie recommends Zaandaam, just north of Amsterdam and about 20 minutes by train.
• One negative about winter: It can be really, really difficult to find a hotel on the spur of the moment when it snows because travelers get stuck. People rush in from Schiphol Airport after flights get canceled, Charlie said.
• Sunday night is also not the time to be scrambling for a place to stay. Monday is the busiest business-travel day of the week as business travelers arrive early for meetings, Charlie says.
• If you’re tempted to stay in some of the cheapie hotels near Amsterdam Centraal that hand out the flyers saying, “Rooms available,” don’t.
“There are lots of sketchy hotels on the Maartelaarsgracht,” Charlie said. “I ask myself, ‘Would I stay there as a tourist?’ No. Hell no.”
If you really didn’t book a hotel in advance, go to the southeast edge, Zuidoost Amsterdam, and find a hotel close to any metro station, he said.
• Charlie recommends another option. The Sir Adam Hotel in the A’dam Tower in on the north side across the IJ River/bay from Amsterdam Centraal is in the same building as Amsterdam Lookout observation tower. The Sir Adam rack rate is 112 euros per night.
• We stayed at the Van der Valk Hotel Schiphol last April, and we recommend it.
The Van der Valk is a large hotel. Really two hotels – an old convention hotel, and a new section with large, well-appointed rooms.
Size is a plus, in this case. While the Van der Valk is not a boutique hotel, there are plenty of rooms and plenty of amenities including one upscale restaurant.
We got a special deal and used Expedia credits to get an 80-euro-per-night rate.
The room in the new section was huge and extremely well appointed. The advantage to staying outside the city is that the rooms are far larger and food less expensive than at 5-stars in the city.
The Van der Valk is outside the city, so it has a long walking path with horses, ponds and critters.
If you get frazzled with the pace of Amsterdam, the hotel has a lot of amenities to help you recover including a wellness center, indoor pool, saunas and a gym.
While it’s not actually at the airport, there’s a shuttle to the airport, where you can get the train into Amsterdam, about 15 minutes on a direct line to Amsterdam Centraal.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.