A tale of two Christmas cities – it’s easy to enjoy a twin-centre break in Amsterdam and Munich over the festive season, writes Tamara Hinson.
Recently, a flurry of new train routes (including several sleeper services) will make getting between the Netherlands and Germany – home to some of Europe’s best Christmas markets - even easier, although it’s worth noting that the cities are already connected by a daily direct train route. Short on time? Europe’s huge number of budget airlines means there are dozens of flights between the two cities every day. In summary, if you’re after a twin-centre festive break, you’ll struggle to find more perfect partners than Munich and Amsterdam. Here’s our guide to the ultimate Christmas collab.
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
With its meandering canals, rich history and ridiculously cosy bars, the Netherlands’ capital is a fantastic destination to retreat to in winter.
Check into the fabulously cosy (and very luxurious) Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam, a former convent built in the 1400s. In the 1600s it became a city hall, before being transformed into a hotel in the early 1990s. A fun fact? Its events spaces include five listed historic monuments. Wedged between two canals and just a 10-minute walk from the city’s Centraal Station, it’s the perfect base for visitors.
Sample local delicacies on Eating Europe’s food tour of Jordaan, one of Amsterdam’s oldest neighbourhoods. The tour is all about winter-friendly comfort food – you’ll visit independent cafés, restaurants and delis to sample Dutch delicacies like Gouda cheese, bitterballen (Dutch meatballs) and stroopwafels – waffle-like cookies. The highlight is a slice of warm apple pie in one of Jordaan’s traditional canal-side bruin cafes (brown cafes). These tiny cafes are an Amsterdam institution, and many date back hundreds of years.
Head to the city’s Museumplein to explore its Ice*Village Amsterdam, complete with festive food and drink, market stalls and stunning Christmas decorations. This year it will remain in place until December 26. A side note – while a conference centre might not be the obvious spot for festive frivolities, this doesn’t apply here, because another fantastic Christmas market can be found at the city’s RAI Amsterdam – every year, it’s transformed into the sprawling Amsterdam Winter Paradise. This year, it will be in place until December 30. You’ll find market stalls, indoor and outdoor ice rinks, a curling rink and a festive Ferris wheel. Love a Christmas movie? Head to the winter cinema to watch a Christmas classic or two.
Time to restore energy levels. Amsterdam is full of places designed for what the Dutch refer to as winter’s “donkere dagen” (dark days). Our favourite is The Lobby at the Nesplein hotel, close to Dam Square. One-thousand candles, a roaring fireplace and marshmallow-like sofas make this one of the most welcoming spots in town. Try the worteltaart (carrotcake).
Offset indulgences with a canal-side stroll. Winter is a great time to do this on account of the annual Amsterdam Light Festival. Between later November and the end of January, dazzling artworks are projected on to the historic bridges and buildings that line Amsterdam’s city centre canals.
Head over to Amsterdam Noord, a former dockyards transformed into Amsterdam’s hippest ‘hood. Get there via the free ferry (squeezing alongside bicycles and Amsterdam’s tiny two-person cars) which departs every few minutes from the rear of Centraal Station. The crossing takes just five minutes. Once there, start with pre-dinner drinks at Pllek. To get to this Tardis-like bar, you’ll walk into a shipping container before emerging into a cathedral-like space on Noord’s waterfront. Bag a spot by the firepit if you can.
For dinner, head to Noord’s hip Corner Store restaurant, which offers Asian cuisine prepared with local ingredients. We recommend the duck leg confit with a pear glaze, washed down with a glass of one of the delicious organic wines on offer. Afterwards, toast Amsterdam at the very cool bar – its shelves are lined with vinyl as well as bottles, and it doubles as a DJ booth.
Crank up the cosiness at the Heineken Experience – a hops-scented tribute to the Dutch beer brand. When it opened a new brewery outside Amsterdam, Heineken transformed its former home (a heritage building on canal-side Stadhouderskade) into a museum. Highlights include the chance to peek inside the original brewing room and the museum’s fantastically high-tech 4D experience.
Set sail on the Blue Boat’s canal tour to learn about the history of Amsterdam’s waterways. If you have a City Card (which provides free entry to dozens of attractions), you can do it for free. As an aside, we’re also fans of the tours run by Rederij Lampedusa, which employs former refugees as guides. The fleet includes boats used by refugees to flee to safety in Europe, and the tours provide a fantastic insight into not only Amsterdam, but its diverse population.
Toast Amsterdam with dinner and drinks at the Pulitzer, a beautiful, rambling hotel inside a cluster of restored, historic canal-side houses (prepared to get lost at least once). Enjoy some Dutch fine dining at Jansz, a homely restaurant with a stunning open kitchen and great views over the canal, before a nightcap at the Pulitzer’s Bar. Try the Spitfire Punch, made with Jack Daniels, pistachio and peach.
Less pretentious than Germany’s capital (sorry, Berlin) but with just as many historic landmarks, Munich is a great year-round destination. That said, its cavernous breweries and beautiful old town, which doubles as a backdrop for some of Germany’s best Christmas markets, make it a fantastic winter retreat.
Check into the Rosewood Munich, a five-star hotel in a former bank. You’ll find the hotel, which opened in late 2023, on Kardinal-Faulhaber-Straße (one of the city’s swankiest streets). Don’t be afraid to ask staff for a quick tour – they’ll happily show you the building’s historic highlights.
Many of Munich’s most important buildings are open the public. This includes the Residenz München, a former residence of Bavarian dukes and kings. Ninety per cent is open to the public. The building’s must-sees include the Residence Museum, where you can learn about its past, King Ludwig I’s former apartments and the Reiche Kapelle, a small chapel filled with gilt reliefs.
Time for some Christmas markets. The best thing about Munich is that its festive markets are all close together. Start with the Munich Christkindlmarkt in Marienplatz square – this one, which has a backdrop of the city’s neo-gothic town hall, dates back to the fourteenth century, and is a great place to pick up traditional crafts. Must-have items include beautifully carved nativity scene figures. Foodies will love the nearby Viktualienmarkt (food market) Christmas market, where the highlight is a nativity scene in the beer garden (whether baby Jesus would approve remains to be seen). But for stunning backdrops, it’s hard to beat the Christmas Village, held in the Kaiserhof (Emperor’s Courtyard) of the Residenz (city palace). There are regular performances by a Bavarian brass brand, and this particular Christmas market is famous for its crafts - visitors can watch the stalls’ goldsmiths and glass-blowers at work.
The afternoon teas at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski München (try saying that after a mouthful of bratwurst) are the best in town, incorporating German elements without skimping on staples. They’re served in the Nymphenburg Room, a listed monument, and there are seasonal tweaks – for example, during the colder months highlights include a baked quail egg, green apple puree (shaped like an apple) and a cube of salmon served with sour cream and pumpkin. kempinski.com
Time to toast Munich at the Hofbräuhaus, a huge beer hall built in 1589 by the Duke of Bavaria. Locals come here to swig one-litre steins of beer, often from their own steins. At the rear of the beer hall are small lockers next to a sink – regulars can rent a locker and store their stein on-site. Grab a seat at one of the long wooden tables – ideally near the small stage reserved for the traditional Oompah bands which perform most nights - and marvel as waiters ferry armfuls of steins to the hundreds of tables.
Time for some retail therapy. Top of your list should be ornate ceramic beer steins with hinged lids (you’ll find the best ones at the Hofbräuhaus gift shop), Lebkuchenherzen (gingerbread hearts) and Nymphenburg porcelain, made at Munich’s Nymphenburg Palace for hundreds of years. The best souvenir stores can be found on Kaufingerstrasse (one of Munich’s oldest streets) and Maximilianstrasse, which has some of the city’s top independent boutiques, and nearby Sendlinger Strasse.
Time for another church, this time Asamkirche (Asam Church) on Sendlinger Strasse (look for the ornate wooden doors). Trust us – this is as far removed from your typical church as it’s possible to get. Built by two brothers in the 1700s and wedged between two townhouses, it’s considered one of Germany’s most spectacular examples of baroque architecture. The Tardis-like church is filled with frescos, paintings, sculptures and stuccowork.
Hop on the metro to east Munich’s Container Collective, where restaurants, bars, studios and boutiques fill recycled shipping containers. During winter there’s an ice rink and ice curling course here, and there’s a range of food on offer. We recommend franzbrötchens (cinnamon buns).
For stunning views over Munich, you can’t beat dinner at the Bayerischer Hof hotel. Dine at either the Garden restaurant, with its roaring fire and focus on seasonal ingredients or, during the winter, the rooftop Polar Bar (open from late November until spring) with its firepits and city views.
You’ll struggle to find a more fitting place to toast Munich than the Bar Montez at the Rosewood Munich. Named after 19-century jazz singer Lola Montez, also known as the mistress of King Ludwig I, this art deco bar has daily live jazz sessions and a huge cocktail menu featuring classic tipples alongside inventive twists on much-loved staples. Prost, Munich!