It’s that time of the year again, when the thermometer hanging outside my window shows a lower reading than the display on my freezer. When I first moved to the Netherlands more than 20 years ago, one of the first things that caught my attention was the Dutch people’s preoccupation with ice. As soon as the first frost arrives, you can almost literally feel the excitement build up. The media joins in with vigour and if the frost continues, so does the frequency of weather updates whilst the discussions about the condition of the ice in the rivers, lakes and canals across the Netherlands gain momentum. The reason: ice-skating is the national winter sport – the large number of speed-skating medals the Dutch have amassed at the Winter Olympics only confirms this. But this is only the start of the Dutch winter frenzy!

Ice-skating on a frozen waterway in North Holland (image courtesy of Peter Jordan).

The ‘Elfstedentocht’

As temperatures stay below the freezing point, you’ll soon find people out on their skates and the media is flooded with images of ice-skating fever from around the country. Technical terms like ‘black ice’ (describing the quality of the ice) become commonplace. Soon, all eyes are focused on the province of Friesland, home of the (in)famous ‘Elfstedentocht‘ or the Eleven Cities Tour. The ‘Elfstedentocht’ is the world’s longest speed-skating competition, with a course that winds 200km along frozen lakes, rivers and canals and past eleven historic Frisian towns, such as the idyllic Hindeloopen.

The Elfstedentocht route in the province of Friesland (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The competition is held only when strict conditions are met, such as the thickness of the ice along the entire 200km course – the last Elfstedentocht was held in 1997. Each ‘Elfstedentocht’ is preceded by a period of intense speculation and once the start-shot is sound, it’s met with something akin to national hysteria. The past winners were hailed as national heroes.  The name is on everyone’s lips as soon as there’s a prolonged freeze, and not an hour goes by without a mention of it on the radio or television.

The Elfstedentocht in 1956, passing the town of Hindeloopen (image courtesy of Anefo/Wikimedia Commons).

Set against a decor of quintessentially Dutch winter scenes (think snowy fields, frozen canals, quaint villages and windmills), participating in or standing at the sidelines of the Elfstedentocht is an extraordinary experience for both locals and visitors alike.

Elfstedentocht on 1985 (image courtesy of Anefo/Wikimedia Commons).

Ice-skating on the canals of Amsterdam

Ice-skating fever hits the country as soon as the authorities give the green light for enthusiasts to venture out onto the ice. In my town, that means one thing: getting your skates out for a fun afternoon out on the frozen canals of Amsterdam. Here are photos of the frozen canals in February 2012:

Amsterdam winter scenes: bicycles, canal mansions and people out on the ice!

Canal boats are barred from passing through selected canals, such as the Keizersgracht, and that’s where you’ll find Amsterdammers out on their skates.

Skating on the Keizersgracht.

Amsterdammers come out in full force with their friends and families to enjoy the cold weather and a fun afternoon on ice-skates!

A group of friends out on the ice
A mother takes her baby out for a err… skate!
Me out on the ice. 🙂
Mum on skates and her child in a sled (with hot choco!). Sweet!

Canal boat landings double in the winter as benches for the skaters to get geared up for the ice!

Getting ready for the ice!
The frozen Keizersgracht canal.

For visitors, it’s a special treat to witness these winter scenes in the UNESCO World Heritage listed Amsterdam city centre. If this frosty period continues, expect more activities on the ice such as speed-skating competitions, marathons and festivals!

Read about the frozen canals of Amsterdam in the winter of 2018 and the Amsterdam winter of 2021 when it snowed heavily and the canals froze. Check out my Amsterdam travel guide.

18 Responses

  • Hi Jessica,
    That’s a good question. It took me about a year to learn the language – it’s a bit hard in Amsterdam to learn Dutch because everyone speaks English. I got used to living here fairly quickly. Learning the language, reading up about the country’s history, culture and customs and travelling around the country certainly helped. Almost 30 years on, I’m still surprised by certain aspects of the Dutch mentality and/or customs but I love living here! In addition, easy accessibility to the rest of Europe makes it a great base from which to explore the rest of the continent.


  • How long did it take for you to get use to living in Holland ? I’m from Holland , although I’ve been living here in the US most my live would like to go back home to retire .

  • […] the canals freeze up this winter (like they did last winter), you can be sure that festivals and parties will be planned on the […]

  • I wasn’t aware you could skate on those canals. It must have been an incredible experience. Hope to do the same someday. Great pics btw Keith!

  • […] I have made it to Amsterdam, but it was freezing cold here when I met my dear friend Thiago Ribeiro Do Nascimento from Brazil. In fact it was so cold, that he had to flee to a warmer place like Barcelona right the next day for reasons of survival. We spent the only day we had together in fast food restaurants and Thiago took about 3000 pictures (well, thank you for this one!) of the frozen river and the ice scating kids. […]

  • […] s1); })(); EmailWhat a difference a few days make. Last weekend, I went for a long walk along the frozen canals of Amsterdam and in the countryside. There were many activities on the ice in Amsterdam – a classical […]

  • We have been in Holland, near the Northern Sea in Fryslan. It’s very nice to see the people skating along the canals. Our children were amazed about this sensation, they know the canals only filled with boats. Great show.

  • Woohoo, thanks Claudia! Don’t get me wrong, the Dutch complain about the weather all the time. Hahaha! But, on the other hand, they always know how to make the best of things and they certainly know how to enjoy themselves on the ice. I don’t do photography coaching but I do know others who do such as @KirstenAlana. She’s fab!


  • Love this post! It shows Dutch are innovative and adaptable. Instead of complaining about the weather, you are having fun. BTW beautiful photos. Do you coach? Looking for a photography coach for my daughter (16 year old). 🙂

  • Keith, what a beautiful set of pictures, but although I am dutch, i don’t know how to skate. But it’s lovely to watch anyway `(now let us all pray for a big meltdown and get it over with!)

  • Hi Deepa,
    Use a chair – that’s how I learned to skate. Have fun and make sure you’re padded up!


  • This is one of the good things about all the cold weather in Europe right now. This is an awesome idea! Not only would ice skating the canals be a lot of fun, what a unique way to get outdoors and explore the country. I know it’s been a while since you’ve been able to do this but this is an awesome event! I love the idea of this (even if I suck at ice skating)!

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