The Amsterdam Light Festival is a highlight during the winter months and one of my favourite times to visit Amsterdam. From late November to late January, the city transforms, with enchanting displays of light and colour.
I’ve visited the Amsterdam Light Festival twice; once in 2014 and again in 2023 for the festival’s 12th edition.
When I visited in early December 2023, I wanted to see what would be the best way to experience the lights, so I tried three ways of seeing the festival; a boat cruise, a walking tour and using the Amsterdam Light Festival’s own app for a self-guided trip.
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About the Amsterdam Light Festival
The Amsterdam Light Festival first took place in 2012. Each year, the festival has a unique theme, adding an exciting twist to the experience.
The artworks spread around the historic canals are not just pretty to look at; they often carry meaningful messages or stories, making your light festival experience both beautiful and thought-provoking.
For the Amsterdam Light Festival 2023-2024 the theme is LOADING… Revealing Art, AI and Tech. Across more than 20 light installations, artists explore how technology and AI shape how we talk, connect, and express ourselves in the digital world.
The festival happens at around the same time every year, from late November to late January, brightening up the darkest time of year. The first time I visited was in 2014, when I caught them purely by accident!
I was really excited to come back to Amsterdam and see this year’s lights, and this time I decided I’d try out three ways to experience the festival.
Let’s start with the most popular way to see the festival light installations; taking a canal boat cruise.
Canal boat cruise
Pros: Lots of boat cruise options, relaxing and scenic, no walking
Cons: You won’t be able to experience the interactive installations, can be difficult to take photos
The most popular and relaxing way to see the Amsterdam Light Festival is by taking a canal cruise. Quite a few of the artworks are designed to be seen from the water, so if you want the full Amsterdam Light Festival experience, it’s a good idea to take a trip on a canal boat.
There are lots of options to suit the size of your group and the type of cruise you want to take.
On my most recent trip to Amsterdam, 8 of us took a private dinner cruise with Smidtje Luxury Cruises, with drinks and a buffet of Indonesian food.
Our boat, the Terra Nova, was a very classy wooden saloon boat built in 1900, with heating (very important in Amsterdam in the winter), opening windows at the front of the boat (great for taking photos of the lights) and even a toilet on board. If you were travelling to Amsterdam as a group then this would be a great option.
If you don’t fancy a private cruise, most of the canal cruise companies in Amsterdam offer evening cruises to see the canals by night.
I absolutely love an evening canal cruise in Amsterdam, particularly at Christmas. On my first trip to the Amsterdam Light Festival in 2014 we took a canal cruise on one of the big tour boats that depart from Damrak.
It was the middle of December, and Amsterdam was fully into the Christmas spirit after the Sinterklaas festivities had ended on December 6th. Seeing all the Christmas trees in the windows of canals and houseboats was a brilliant way to get into the festive spirit.
One downside of taking a canal cruise is that the canals get very busy with tour boats during the light festival, so while your skipper may be able to slow down a little as they go past the installations, they won’t be able to stop. This can make taking photos a little challenging.
If taking photos is important to you, I’d recommend the self-guided walking tour option, as you’ll be able to go at your own pace to get the perfect picture.
Pros: The best way to see the interactive installations, local insight, no getting lost
Cons: The tour concentrates on the Herengracht, so you’ll only see around half of the installations; not ideal if it’s raining
While the vast majority of the installations at the Amsterdam Light Festival can be seen from the water, in most years there are some that are best experienced on foot.
For the 2023-2024 festival, these include three interactive pieces of art; Gali May Lucas’s Absorbed by Light, VOUW’s Chairwave and Jacqueline Hen’s Light High, which can only be seen by walking into its metal box.
I took a walking tour on the first night of the 2023-24 light festival. I met my guide Enno at Torensluis and from there we set off to the Herengracht, seeing 11 of the artworks along the way, including all three of the interactive pieces.
I was on a solo trip to Amsterdam and Enno was more than happy to be my personal photographer, which I really appreciated!
Enno was very knowledgeable about the art and was able to give me a local’s insight into the places we passed along the way, including why some of the pieces had been placed in particular spots.
There’s a piece at Gouden Bocht (Golden Bend) where columns of golden light rotate, looking like stacks of shiny gold coins or a stock exchange ticker; a fitting piece of art for the area which was the most expensive part of Amsterdam in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The walking route in total was around a mile and a half (2.5km) and took 75 minutes. We stopped halfway along the route for some warming mulled wine and delicious Dutch Christmas stollen.
You can book the Amsterdam Light Festival walking tour that I took on Get Your Guide.
Self-guided tour with the Amsterdam Light Festival app
Pros: The cheapest way to have an Amsterdam Light Festival experience
Cons: It can be a long-ish walk to see all the installations, not as relaxing as a boat trip, no opportunity to ask questions
The organisers of the Amsterdam Light Festival have produced a mobile app which you can use to create your own self-guided tour around the light installations.
The app, which is available for both iPhone and Android, includes some limited information for free. For €7.99 you can upgrade to buy the excellent in-app map, which you can use to see where each artwork is, and get more information about it.
If you want to see all the artworks, and have time to linger at each one, then using the paid-for version of the app will probably give you the most in-depth Light Festival experience. It’s also a good option for photographers who’ll need more time than you’ll have on a boat tour or group walking tour.
I found the paid-for version of the app really useful while I was on the canal boat cruise. With the map open, I was able to see when an art installation was coming up and which side of the boat it would be on.
While we did have a guide on our dinner cruise, the food was the main focus. It was useful to be able to have all the information about each art piece at my fingertips.
Tips for visiting the Amsterdam Light Festival
The 12th edition of the Amsterdam Light Festival takes place between 30 November 2023 and 21 January 2024. The lights are switched on at 5pm each night and can be viewed until 10pm on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, and 11pm every other day. The lights will be on all over the Christmas period; the only day they’re off is on New Year’s Eve.
The only exception to these timings is Jacqueline Hen’s Light High, which is in an enclosed box rather than being out in the open. This artwork can be seen Thursday to Sunday, between 4.30pm and 9pm.
I like a canal boat tour in the early evening, when there’s a tiny bit of light left for that cosy glow, but if you want to see the lights at their most impressive, then visit after dark.
Remember, Amsterdam in winter can be chilly, so dress warmly! It can be a good idea to book your boat tour in advance as they can get quite busy during the festival.
Final thoughts – is the Amsterdam Light Festival worth it?
I really enjoy visiting the Amsterdam Light Festival; I like other cities’ light festivals, but there’s something very special about the combination of Amsterdam’s characteristic architecture and the beautiful, other-worldly and thought-provoking light installations.
For the best light festival experience, I recommend taking a canal boat tour to see everything, but also buying the app so you have a better understanding of whereabouts you are in the city and the details of each piece.
Having the app also means that, once you’re back on dry land, you can retrace your steps to see any artworks you might have missed, and see the interactive pieces.
If you have a little more time in Amsterdam, I’d recommend taking the walking tour as well. I really found it gave my understanding of the light festival and of Amsterdam itself a big boost.
The Amsterdam Light Festival is one of those things that you can visit year after year, particularly if you come during those magical couple of weeks just before Christmas. I’ve loved both my visits to see the light festival and I’ve got no doubt that I’ll be back!