It doesn’t happen very often – in the past decade, the Amsterdam canals have frozen only three times, in 2012, 2018 and 2021 – so when it does, locals and visitors alike venture out onto the ice in full force to experience something truly unique: walking or ice-skating on the frozen canals of Amsterdam! The Dutch have a special relationship with the ice, probably because the country is full of lakes, rivers and canals. Every winter, as soon as the temperatures drop below freezing, excitement about the prospect of skating on natural ice builds. During a prolonged freeze, websites and news items begin to focus on the safest places to venture out on the ice. In Amsterdam, various locks are closed and canal boats are barred from cruising along certain canals to allow the ice to build. Once it’s deemed safe, locals organise all sorts of activities on the frozen canals: from speed-skating competitions to dance parties!
The winter of 2018
A cold front that originated in Siberia brought howling winds and bone-chilling temperatures to Western Europe in early-March 2018. Nicknamed the ‘Beast from the East’, the cold front resulted in freezing temperatures that lasted about a week. Daily reports in the media kept everyone informed on the state of the ice around the country, and as soon as the authorities gave the green light, ice-skating marathons were organised and people all over the country took to the ice. The weather experts warned that a big thaw was approaching quickly so the Dutch basically had one to two days to enjoy their time on the ice before it was gone.
My stroll around the frozen canals of Amsterdam
I grabbed the opportunity and planned a stroll around and on the frozen Amsterdam canals, arguably one of the most unique things to do in Amsterdam in the winter. It’s an extraordinary experience to walk on the ice and be surrounded by the UNESCO World Heritage-listed canal houses on both sides. I started my stroll at the Reguliersgracht (canal).
I continued my stroll from the Reguliersgracht to the Prinsengracht.
As I walked further down the Prinsengracht canal in the vicinity of the Nine Streets neighbourhood, I noticed lots of excited looks on people’s faces. I quickened my pace and found this incredible scene:
The locals were out in full force with their ice-skates, hockey sticks and toboggans! Tourists joined in the fun, gingerly treading on the ice and taking lots of photos. The ice was still quite thin in certain areas so everyone had to be very careful – there were various cases of people falling through the ice, but luckily, there were no serious incidents in Amsterdam.
I knew I had to capture one more scene before I ducked into a warm café: a photo of one of the most photogenic canals in Amsterdam:
Gone in a day!
The weather experts were spot on. After two days of fun on the ice, temperatures rose dramatically and the ice was quite literally gone in a day! I’m glad I got to experience the frozen canals of Amsterdam yet again!
The winter of 2021
In February 2021, the canals froze again. A week after heavy snowfall in Amsterdam, the ice was just about thick enough for people to walk or ice-skate on.
Stay on a canal
For the ultimate canal experience, I recommend a stay in a houseboat on one of the canals. My favourite is the 2 Houseboat Suites (Booking.com) on the Prinsengracht canal. There are just two suites: Rembrandt and Van Gogh. In addition to the lovely hosts and a fantastic location in the historic city centre, this newly-built boat has large windows, a comfortable bed and all the amenities that will make your stay comfortable, such as an en-suite bathroom, heated floors, a Nespresso coffee-maker and mini-bar. When the canals freeze, you can hop onto the ice straight out of your suite!