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Going to see the Amsterdam Light Festival this winter is a no brainer. It’s fun, easy and most people like looking at lights at night. But HOW you see it is important. Your choice is between open-air boat, closed boat, walking and biking. Each of those options is good for a particular goal and none is good at all of them.

There are a few things to consider: The time it takes, how warm you’ll be, how important the actual art is to you, how much information you want to hear, the importance of drinking and if you will be high. And of course the most Dutch question of all: How gezellig (cozy) is it?

The Amsterdam Light Festival Itself

a boat is docked next to a body of water

On one hand, the festival is a great and popular event in the dark and cold winter months. Like the Christmas illumination on shopping streets, lights make people happy. After a non-year due to covid, the ALF is back, baby!

On the other hand, the festival is somewhat underfunded and the quality of the installations could be better. This year delivers fewer new pieces and features a lot of hits ‘back by popular demand.’ 

For comparison, GLOW in smaller and less-cool Eindhoven, packs more creative punch and attracts almost as much people in its one week (about 700K) as the Amsterdam Light Festival attracts in seven weeks (900K). 

Side note: How do they count those numbers in the first place? When I, as a resident, walk past light sculptures in my regular life, do I get counted once or 30 times? Or not at all if I don’t buy the audio tour? And who is even doing this counting? Still, let’s assume it’s right. Almost a million is a lot of people.

The other disappointing development is the separate walking route, the best experience, has been swallowed up by the boat route. Sure you can walk the boat route, but it’s too long on foot and the more thoughtful art pieces for walkers have been replaced by bigger light tunnels style pieces for boats to sail past without too much contemplation about the human existence.

a lit up city at night

By modern Disney/Efteling attraction standards, the Amsterdam Light Festival doesn’t hold up. A rock concert, dance event or even the Boom Chicago pop-up Christmas cocktail bar is a more impressive spectacle with a better December atmosphere. Indeed haters say the ALF is barely artistic and just a way for tour boats to get people onboard in the winter when the weather sucks. 

Well it worked. On busy weekend nights, full boat after boat sails through the route, selling thousands of tickets a night. A fee from each ticket goes to the festival organization who then turn reward the money generators and create a more boat-focused event.

So the answer is go on a boat? Not so fast. Let’s look at each option in more detail.


Closed Boat

a boat docked at night

Gliding on any boat at night in Amsterdam is great. And a closed boat is the only way to be truly warm without buying extra clothes and bundling up. Since they sell you beer, wine and soft drinks, what’s not to like? 

Of course a closed boat or, more accurately, floating tour bus can be a bit lame and people on them look bored for a reason. Furthermore, windows can get foggy and visibility is poor in the rain. The audio can be a combination of too-quiet and blah text either read live or on a recording. 

Buuuuuut, if you are with your sweetheart or friends, you will have a good time. A good, warm time. Who cares if you might tune out some of the art? The numbers are in…

a group of people sitting at a table

Closed Boat Score (Out of 10)

Time it takes: 10 (75 minutes is a perfect length)
Warmth: 10
Best way to see the art: 6
Learn about the art: 6
Ease of drinking: 9
Variety of drinks: 5
Fun place to be high: 7
Gezellig/Cosy: 7
Price: €26,50
Dec 12 corona update: Boat hours only 7:00-9:00am and 15:00 to 17:00 daily. Boo.

Open Boat

a person standing in front of a building

It is cold on the water and there is a reason no one would be on an open boat at night without the Light Festival. Of course you understand it’s cold in the winter and you know you should dress warmly, but somehow you stopped too soon. 

It’s not, ‘Gloves?’ It’s, ‘Which gloves?’ It’s even: Can I wear two pairs of gloves at once? It’s not, ‘Do I bring my scarf.’ Think ‘do I buy a second one?’ Don’t ask ball cap, beanie or hoodie. It’s all three, plus a jacked with a hood! Wear three pairs of socks. You have to be warm for this to work.

Now if you are warm (and yes grab their blanket because you need that too), then an open air boat is GREAT! With no glass, you can see everything. You can feel the fresh air. You can enjoy the Gluhwein. You can talk to strangers. You can probably smoke weed in the back. An open-air boat is always fun.

The only downside is the captain reading the laminated cards can’t be heard unless you are next to her. So you only have the first reaction to the installation: ‘Hmm, that’s pretty and green.’ You don’t get much else. So even though the art watching experience is better on an open boat, the listening is better on a closed boat. Still if you are warm and with your friends, this is absolutely the best boat experience.

Open Boat Score (Out of 10)

Time it takes: 10 (75 minutes)
Warmth: 3-8 (depending on you)
Best way to see the art: 8
Learn about the art: 4
Ease of drinking: 9
Variety of drinks: 7 (many let you bring yours)
Fun place to be high: 10
Gezellig/Cosy 9
Price: €26,50
Dec 12 corona update: Boat hours only 7:00-9:00am and 15:00 to 17:00 daily. Boo.
Best open boat: Those Dam Boat Guys



a fountain in front of a building

Sure you COULD walk the route, but it’s like salads at McDonalds. Most people want fries. No one actually walks the whole festival route. The boats are fries. 

The problem is you are really walking a route planned for boats. At 6,5km, sometimes in the rain or cold, it’s too long with too much space between the installations. Just the walk takes an hour and a half plus the time you spend at each of the 20 or so pieces. 

So it fails as a straight attraction. Buuuuuuuut, if you look at it like a Pub Crawl, then it’s one of the best winter ones in the world. You’re in Amsterdam!

Start early and stop at lots of bars. You warm up, have a great selection of drinks, and many will sell you a to go cup for drinking and walking. It is dark by 4:30 so start early and plan a nice meal half way. 90 minutes of walking spread over a whole evening is just getting your steps in – while you look at art. And drink!

They sell you a map and an audio tour (both for your phone – don’t forget headphones) and stopping at each sculpture means you can appreciate the whole story. All of a sudden they’re not just things to sail past, but art. In fact a lot of the naysayers who call the festival shallow, just haven’t listened to the audio tour. The art is more artistic than anyone on a boat realizes.

Just dress warmly. You won’t enjoy it if you’re cold.

Walking Score (Out of 10)

Time it takes: 3-7 (depending on stops and drinking)
Warmth: 6-9 (depending on you)
Best way to see the art: 10
Learn about the art: 10
Ease of drinking: 8
Variety of drinks: 10
Fun place to be high: 9
Gezellig/Cosy: 8
Price for map and audio tour: €15
Dec 12 corona update: Walking hours 7:00-9:00am and 15:00 to 22:00 daily.


a bicycle is parked next to a body of water

We have a winner! The boat mafia will not be pleased, but biking is the best way to experience the Amsterdam Light Festival. (Godfather voice: ‘We love bikes! And if you’re not careful, you might fall into a canal and sleep with the bikes.)

Biking the Amsterdam Light Festival combines the art appreciation and audio tour experience of walking with none of the boring, art-less stretches in between installations. You bike to the next piece, and then park your bike and enjoy each light sculpture.

Best of all, you can still hop from bar to bar and eat halfway through. Entering a new bar is super gezellig and biking speeds are more fun than walking speeds. Win-win-win! Just make sure your phone is charged so you don’t get lost!

Biking Score (Out of 10)

Time it takes: 9 (45 minutes + stops)
Warmth: 5-9 (depending on you)
Best way to see the art: 10
Learn about the art: 10
Ease of drinking: 8 (easier to walk and drink)
Variety of drinks: 10 (order what you want!)
Fun place to be high: 9
Gezellig/Cosy: 8
Dec 12 corona update: Biking hours 7:00-9:00am and 15:00 to 22:00 daily.
Price for map and audio tour: €15


More fun in Amsterdam this winter!

a group of people sitting at a table with wine glasses

Miracle at Boom Chicago | Amsterdam’s Pop Up Christmas Bar 

The creative folks behind Boom Chicago launch a highly anticipated pop-up bar concept this year: High quality, shaken holiday cocktails served in wonderfully themed glasses. It all takes place in a very festive environment that is over-the-top Christmas all December long. Scrooges and Grinches need not apply.

Entrance is free or reserve your table. Rozengracht 117,
Dec 12 update: Open daily 12:00 – 17:00.
More information and table reservations here.


a group of people standing on a stage

Sitcom | Sketch and Improv Comedy Show
Boom Chicago, the Amsterdam comedy theater that launched the careers of Seth Meyers, Jordan Peele and Jason Sudeikis (plus the creators of
Ted Lasso) is an Amsterdam comedy institution. Their current show Sitcom is their best in years. The sketch and improv show about the 90s is now playing in their big theater.

Rozengracht 117. Get tickets here. No show December 25 or 31. Hangover Show Jan 1 at 20:00.