Featuring snug bruin cafés, canalside hotels and the city’s best skating destinations, this definitive winter guide to Dutch capital is guaranteed to leave you feeling gezellig.

If I ever go missing, you should know that I’ll be found tucking into homemade apple pie in Café Papeneiland in Amsterdam while listening to the whir of bicycle wheels and tinkle of bells as locals cycle by. For seven blissful years I lived in The Netherlands, never happier than in winter when the swoosh of blades on ice could be heard on outdoor rinks and the temperature dropped to freezing so that I never needed an excuse to hole up with a steaming cup of hot chocolate. The Dutch have a special word for the lovely warm feeling of contentment this induces: gezellig. Meaning cosy, intimate and conducive to good times, it can be used to describe a place, an occasion, or even food – think a candlelit café, a best friend’s birthday or traditional pea soup thick enough to stand your spoon in and you’ll be on the right track.

To Stay

Sofitel Legend, The Grand

Staying here feels like a cross between a night in a museum and a private members’ club. Through its many reincarnations since 1578, this place has been a convent, royal lodgings, admiralty headquarters and a town hall, until its most recent metamorphosis into a luxury hotel. Rooms are vast and individually designed and feature some unusual artwork – the large cartoons of former 17th-century guests on the walls are, in true Dutch style, wonderfully self-deprecating. (Admiral de Ruyter graced mine.) Nice touches include the complimentary travel diaries. Take the daily 11am historic tour of the hotel to see the wood-panelled art-deco chamber in which Beatrix of the Netherlands got married in 1966. Further on, the tiny arts-and-crafts salon with olive-green and gold murals by Chris Lebeau is a popular location for well-heeled Amsterdammers to get hitched.

Canal House

Three 17th-century merchants’ houses are forged together to create a luxurious retreat for loved-up couples, design gurus and savvy travellers alike. It’s a bit like stepping into a painting by the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer with its moody palette of grey and purple, high ornate ceilings and elegant windows with views over Keizersgracht canal. Only the power showers and iPhone docks give the game away. Thirty-five of the 37 bedrooms have decadent open-plan bathrooms (apart from the toilet, thankfully).

To Eat


Like popping into a friend’s house for lunch, Goodies on Huidenstraat in the heart of De 9 Straatjes (one of Amsterdam’s coolest shopping areas) is immensely welcoming. “Hey, good to see you,” shouts the waiter. It’s been a year and they remember me (or at least pretend to). It’s that kind of place. From the postage stamp of a kitchen, it serves up doorstop-style broodjes (sandwiches) smeared with honey-and-mustard mayonnaise. Try the warm goat’s cheese, honey and homemade walnut pesto served on pumpkin seed bread, washed down with a speciality fresh juice.

Kantjil & De Tijger

Just like the British who have adopted the Indian curry as their own, the Dutch love nothing more than an Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table), a meal of several small hot and cold, spicy and mild dishes designed to share. Across the city there are Indonesian takeaways, no-frills cafés and fine-dining options, but for my money you can’t beat Kantjil & De Tijger – authentic food in an art-deco style restaurant that has dished up Amsterdam’s best chicken satay and beef rendang for some 25 years.

Vinkeles at The Dylan

This one Michelin-starred French restaurant is just about as laid-back and unpretentious as fine-dining can be thanks to the friendliness of its staff. Housed in what was once a bakery, it showcases a wall of preserved antique bread ovens and the original exposed brickwork, both of which glow warmly by candlelight, making it feel surprisingly snug. Views are to the courtyard garden of The Dylan, elegantly framed by the three 17th-century buildings that make up the hotel. If you can’t decide from chefs Jurgen van der Zalm and Dennis Kuipers’ menu, ask restaurant manager Tiffany for recommendations. The scallops with artichoke, apple and ice-plant leaves had me turning to Google to discover that their frosty appearance are actually tiny cells filled with water. Make sure you leave room for the toffee souffle with earl-grey sorbet.

To Shop

De 9 Straatjes

Big on charm, this is my favourite area in which to browse, not only for the quality of shops but because of the architectural interest of these nine streets which run between Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. In this so-called Canal Belt, art galleries rub shoulders with smelly delis peddling cheeses alongside eclectic independent shops. Check out Hester van Eeghen, a Dutch designer who creates a rainbow of colourful shoes, bags and accessories, Catwalk Junkie for well-priced on-trend pieces from a Dutch design collective and Bij Ons for high-quality vintage clothes.

To Drink

Vesper Bar

Sandwiched between the bustling Haarlemmerstraat and picturesque Brouwersgracht, Vesper Bar is a friendly squeeze with just three tables and the bar to sit at. It pays homage to James Bond in a tasteful way with a vast collection of retro SodaStreams among its memorabilia. Order a Sauna Club Sour cocktail – a blend of Napue gin, pine liqueur, cucumber cordial, egg white and burning pinecone (yes, really).

Café Pieper

You can’t visit Amsterdam and not spend at least an hour idly watching wax drip from a candle in a bruin café. All dark-wood interiors and flickering candlelight, De Pieper on Prinsengracht is one of the oldest, established in 1665. Inside it feels like the clocked stopped around that time too, making it the perfect place for a detox from all things digital.

To Do

Get Your Skates On

Come winter, Amsterdam has a few open-air ice-skating rinks from which to choose. My favourite is ICE* Amsterdam found on Museumplein, in front of the magnificent red-bricked Rijksmuseum, where the locals like to show off their moves, weaving in and out of the foreigners and learners.

Go to The Movies

I’ve never yet visited a cinema to rival the comeliness of this art-deco theatre. The Movies was built in 1912, and with its sumptuous red-velvet cinema seats it feels like a hug on a cold day. Order homemade cake instead of popcorn and red wine in place of fizzy drinks, as this is the antidote to a soulless multiplex. It often shows English-speaking films, so book ahead as size of The Movies is reminiscent of a plush trinket-box.

Food Tour

Join Amsterdam Food Tours around Jordaan (once a 17th-century ghetto, now the most appealing of neighbourhoods) to taste the best of traditional Dutch cuisine. Tour guide Rudolph Kemper cracks jokes as free flowing as the Bok beer, hot chocolate and red wine included on the excursion. Highlights include sausage sampling at Slagerij Louman (a butcher’s shop established in 1890), cheese-tastings at JWO Lekkernijen and fresh herring with pickles at Vishandel Centrum (one of the city’s oldest fishmongers). Plus, you can also enjoy a glimpse into the modish abodes of the Amsterdammers, who still adhere to the Dutch belief that those who draw curtains have something to hide.

Festival of Light

Forget Blackpool’s illuminations because this annual Festival of Light, which runs from 28 November until 19 January, is all about cutting-edge art. Twenty six installations are found in, above and along the canals that run from the Amstel to the Maritime Museum, all sharing the theme of “Disruption!”. By far the best way to view them is by boat, and Stromma Cruises offers commentary in English. Expect optical illusions, political statements and topical themes such as global warming all to feature this winter – don’t miss Atlantis by Dutch light artists Olof Wiese and Edvin Buregren, in which a vast metropolis is submerged in water after devastating floods.

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