(Editor’s note: Also check out Dispatches’s 2016 list of the best Christmas markets in Europe.)
BY WILLEKE VAN DOORN
Get a rich hot chocolate, a glass of glühwein and a stack of poffertjes (a deep-fried oliebol) and make your way to one of the Netherlands’ best Christmas markets.
Often combined with ice skating rinks, rides, Ferris wheels, music and most of all delicious snacks, these five markets will surely get you in the Christmas spirit!
One of the great benefits of living in the Netherlands is our country’s central location within Europe. We are just an hour away from a fabulous weekend of Christmas shopping in London, a four-hour drive to the magical city of Paris and very close to all the great Christmas markets Belgium and Germany have to offer.
With so many great holiday activities just over the border it is tempting to plan a trip abroad this Christmas. But you shouldn’t because there are plenty of great Christmas markets in the Netherlands as well.
These are my five favorite markets that you won’t want to miss this holiday season:
Maastricht is a lovely city all year around, but the Holidays are without a doubt the best time to visit this city in the south of the Netherlands. Thousands of flickering lights light up the entire town. A giant ice skate rink lures tourists and locals to the city’s central plaza. The plaza, called the Vrijthof, is the bustling center of Maastricht’s Christmas activities.
A giant Christmas tree and an even higher Ferris wheel surround the 900-square-meter ice skating rink and the Christmas market in the center of the Vrijthof. When your carriage on the Ferris wheel reaches its highest point at 45 meters, you will enjoy a magical view of the city and the stalls of the Christmas markets below.
Once you have grown tired of ice skating and strolling around the Christmas stalls, it is time to explore the rest of the city. After sunset, follow the festive lights to the hidden gems and secret alleyways of Maastricht. You can download the Magical Lights Route on the city tourism board’s website or just follow the lights and see where they will take you…
Magisch Maastricht – Magic Maastricht – hits the town from December 2nd until January 1st.
The ice skating rink and Ferris Wheel are open daily from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. The Christmas Market closes at 10 p.m. apart from the food stalls which are open until midnight.
Santa Claus arrives in Maastricht on the 7th of December. He then moves into the “Home of Santa Claus” on the Vrijthof which children and adults can visit each day from then on. Entrance is free for kids; parents pay two euros.
A short drive south from Maastricht you will find yourself in the city of Valkenburg. Located in the southern part of the province Limburg – the only area in the Netherlands which has some actual hills – Valkenburg calls itself THE Christmas town of the Netherlands. Are they right?
Well they might be. According to CNN, Valkenburg is one the top fifteen places to spend Christmas around the world. The city finds itself among other cities known for its Christmas celebrations like Salzburg in Austria and Nuremberg in Germany on CNN’s list. So what sets Valkenburg apart from the crowd? How about an underground Christmas market?
Both the Gemeentegrot and the Fluweelgrot caves are turned into spectacular Christmas markets. Dozens of stalls filled with Christmas decorations and ornaments light up the dark caves and transform the historical sights into a one-of-a-kind, magical Christmas market.
The city also has plenty to offer for those who are not too fond of descending into dark caves. In December, a Christmas parade roams the streets of Valkenburg’s city center twice each week. If you are starting to feel hungry from all the festivities, make sure to join one of the Christmas-themed culinary tours throughout the city. Route d’Amuse takes you on a walk through Valkenburg. You make stops for an appetizer at five of the city’s best restaurants.
The Christmas markets in Valkenburg are open daily from the 18th of November until the 23rd of December. The Gemeentegrot is open from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The Fluweelgrot closes down a bit earlier: at 7 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and at 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Christmas Parade takes place each Wednesday at 7 p.m. and each Saturday at 7.30 p.m.
The Christmas market in Dordrecht is one of the most popular markets in all of the Netherlands. Not without reason.
With a total of 300 stalls, Dordrecht’s Christmas market is the biggest one in the country. The markets in Maastricht and Valkenburg run all through December, but this one is different. The Christmas market in Dordrecht may be the biggest, but you also need to be quick to sneak a peek. Dordrecht’s Christmas market is a three-day event in mid-December. You can easily spend a full day roaming the hundreds of Christmas stalls that fill the streets of Dordrecht each December.
Dordrecht itself is a charming old city which is located only fifteen minutes from Rotterdam. It is also nearby one of our country’s best national parks the Biesbosch. Grab a hot chocolate and a stack of poffertjes – tiny fluffy pancakes that are served with butter and loads of powdered sugar which are to die for – and enjoy the Netherlands’ biggest Christmas fair.
This year, Dordrecht’s Christmas market is held from December 16th until December 18th. The market is open from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The opening hours for Sunday are from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m.
Deventer is one of the Netherlands’ oldest cities. Each December the city turns back the clock a couple of centuries. In addition to a traditional Christmas market, the city has been hosting the Dickens Festijn for a quarter of a century now. Over the years the festival that brings to life the characters from Charles Dickens’ beloved stories has grown into a Christmas favorite. Each year more people visit the Dickens Festijn and the Christmas market in Deventer. Just last year, 125,000 people made a trip to Deventer to check out the holiday festivities.
Over the course of a weekend, 950 local actors, singers and entertainers get dressed in 19th century British costumes to turn the old city centre into Dickens’ world. Walk around the old town and take a step back in time together with Oliver Twist, Scrooge and Mr. Pickwick.
Dickens Festijn in Deventer takes place on the 17th and 18th of December from 11 a.m. till 5 p.m.
Entry to the event is free, but because of the popularity of the festival, be prepared to wait in line for a bit. The crowd is smaller after 1 p.m. You can only enter the festival at the entrance in Keizerstraat (across from the city’s theatre).
Last but not least, let’s not forget about Amsterdam. Our capital hosts not one but several Christmas markets spread out around town.
To start off the holiday season, head over to the Dam square on 17 November. A special ceremony will light up department store the de Bijenkorf to kick off the season. Amsterdam’s most famous store will from that night on be decorated by 600,000 festive lights. De Bijenkorf is open until late that evening to give you a head start on your Christmas shopping.
While the Dam square in the heart of the city looks absolutely stunning around Christmas time and there are plenty of Christmas stalls to check out, there are more markets in Amsterdam worth a visit.
Amsterdam’s Museum Square hosts a Christmas market right next to the ice skating rink which is located just in front of the famous Rijksmuseum. Ice skating is a big part of Dutch culture in the winter and even though most years it does not get cold enough to skate on lakes and rivers, there are plenty of man-made ice skating rinks all around the country to chose from. The one on Museum Square is definitely one of the most picturesque ones!
And there is more! On December 11th and 18th, Puur Winter Markt hits the Amstelpark and Park Frankendael. Here you will find organic and sustainable products and gifts. There is also a Christmas market in the Westergasfabriek on the 17th and 18th of December.
The Turn on the Lights ceremony at de Bijenkorf is on the 17th of November at 7 p.m. The department store is open until 10 p.m. that night.
The Ice Village on the Museumplein is open from the 17th until the 30th of December. Check out their website for the opening hours and admission prices.
About the author: Willeke van Doorn is a journalism student at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Tilburg. Her experience includes an internship at National Geographic Traveler in Amsterdam.