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Amsterdam Light Festival (and a much needed alternative)

Amsterdam Light Festival, by bike, boat, or on foot

The 9th edition (winter of 2020-2021) has come and gone. The 10th edition of the Amsterdam Light Festival will take place in the winter of 2021-2022.

Due to the coronavirus measures — which include social distancing rules — 9th edition took place in a different format than usual. Unlike in previous years there was a walking edition only.

Amsterdam doesn’t do Christmas well. But it does have the annual Amsterdam Light Festival® — a winter event that combines light, art and — of course — water.

Dotted around canals in the center of the city are 20 light sculptures created by international artists.

The art installations can be viewed from canal tour boats, on foot, and by bicycle.

light art installation
Bridge of the Rainbow, by Gilbert Moity. Amsterdam Light Festival, 2016. Photo by Marion Golsteijn. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Amsterdam Light Festival, Edition 8

The Winter 2019-2020 edition takes place from November 28, 2019 through January 19, 2020.

This year’s theme is: DISRUPT! Disruptions can be negative. Think of conflict, chaos, or danger events such as an earthquake or an economic crisis.

But disruptions can also be the positive. Sometimes they are essential triggers we need for change to take place.

“Disruptions aren’t time bound but can spread even faster these days with the help of new, digital, and social media. That’s how cryptocurrency like the bitcoin turned the financial world upside down, the #MeToo movement generated attention for sexual intimidation, and it’s become easier and more transparent to share knowledge thanks to Wikipedia. In a city like Amsterdam just about anyone can run their own hotel with Airbnb or become a taxi driver thanks to Uber. In short, disruptions like these change our normal way of thinking and do so in a direct but crucial way.”

“Light can be disruptive in unique ways and provide us with new desires… Disruption and light as components of interruption are central to the 8th edition of Amsterdam Light Festival. In the context of the theme Disrupt!, the festival calls on artists, designers and architects to interrogate, test and awaken the city of Amsterdam with intriguing light artworks. We challenge artists to create light sculptures that really explore the theme but might also examine other figurative or poetic ways to depict disruption. To provoke, to enlighten, and perhaps even to frighten the city’s visitors during the darkest days of the year…!” 1

Amsterdam Light Festival Tickets

The festival can be enjoyed free of charge. You can walk, bike, or sail along the route. But to no one’s surprise, canal cruises (Amsterdam’s top tourist attraction) along the route are heavily promoted.

Amsterdam Light Festival tours and tickets

Tips for Amsterdam Light Festival Visitors

A word to the wise: Most people prefer to see the works of art from the water. Almost all the canal boat companies offer tours.

You can choose glass-topped or open top boats. But you will want to keep the weather in December and January in mind.

If you are a good photographer, familiar with nighttime photography, an open boat (or, indeed, a walking tour) would probably be your best choice since the windows in a regular tour boat would present a challenge — particularly in inclement weather.

Reviews often mention things like ‘dirty windows,’ ‘rain-splattered windows made it hard to see,’ or ‘the windows kept fogging over.’

So, walking or cycling might even be the better option. [1-day bike rental with hotel delivery and pickup]

This year’s route is a bit different and shorter than in previous editions. That is due in part to ongoing public work projects in and around the water in front of Central Station.

The boat route is 5.8 kilometers (3.6 miles).

The walking route is 6.3 kilometers (3.9 miles).

The length of the bicycle route is about equal to that of the walking route.

Dress warmly!

Video: Amsterdam Light Festival Aftermovie

Amsterdam Light Festival 2017-2018 edition

A Closer look

‘One of Europe’s largest light art festivals’

Now in its eight year, the Amsterdam Light Festival Foundation claims to be “one of the largest light art festivals in Europe.”

To wit, the organization has realised 240 artworks, 7 exhibitions and 5 million visitors since 2012.

Official visitor numbers are hard to come by. The Wikipedia entry for the Amsterdam Light Festival lists statistics for the first six editions:

  • Editie 2012 – 2013 – 375.000
  • Editie 2013 – 2014 – 570.000
  • Editie 2014 – 2015 – 730.000
  • Editie 2015 – 2016 – 840.000
  • Editie 2016 – 2017 – 900.000
  • Editie 2017 – 2018 – 900.000

We haven’t found any attendance figures for the 2018 – 2019 edition. But if we subtract the 4.315.000 figure from the Wikipedia listing from the reported 5 million visitors in total we arrive at 685.000 for year seven.

Reportedly, this year the organization expects some 400.000 visitors. 2

If true, that would be a mere 25.000 more visitors than reported for the first year. [Perhaps negative reviews have something to do with that.]

GLOW Festival Eindhoven

Compare those visitor numbers with the totals for this year’s edition of GLOW Festival Eindhoven. The 2019 edition of this light festival drew 770.000 visitors — in just eight days (November 7 through 14).

In terms of visitor numbers, GLOW ranks among the top five light festivals in the world.

First held in November 2006, the free-for-all GLOW festival will see its 15th anniversary next year.

Brand researcher Hendrik Beerda from Amsterdam conducts annual research into the public awareness of city events in the Netherlands. Last year it listed Glow among the top ten best-rated city events.

The Amsterdam Light Festival does not rank in the top ten. (By the way, in first place is Amsterdam’s quinquennial maritime festival SAIL, which will next take place in August 2020.)

Asked about the Amsterdam Light Festival’s self-reported ‘5 million visitors’, Beerde says that number is a bit sketchy. “The majority of visitors are people who happen to live there or stay as tourists, because the Amsterdam Light Festival is not yet at the level that many people come to the city specifically to see it. But that is true for Glow and that is quite an achievement.”

Video: Glow Eindhoven 2018 Aftermovie

Every year in November the international light art festival GLOW takes place in Eindhoven. A large exhibition in the public space of the city with around 35 light artists from home and abroad. The light art projects are connected by a 5km (3,1 miles) walking route.

Amsterdam Light Festival: Reviews, and our Opinion

As Amsterdam locals, the Amsterdam Light Festival leaves us underwhelmed.

By now we have seen the complete route during 5 of the 6 editions. The first one was a novelty. We visited the second one — and subsequent editions — in order to review the festival for this website.

When the sixth edition came around (2017-2018) we finally decided that it wasn’t worth our time and money.

We did see some of the art installations on our way to and from other destinations. The same is true for the seventh edition, in the winter of 2018-2019.

Mind you, none of us are really into contemporary art. Perhaps as a result most of the art installations left us puzzled, bemused, or both.

There were some notable exceptions, but they were far and few between.

Now, if you appreciate modern art installations, particularly when they involve light, your mileage may well differ.

But us Amsterdammers much prefer to take one of the regular canal cruises at night.

Amsterdam is a city of lights. In our opinion the illuminated bridges, the monuments lit up by spotlights, and the gezellige interiors of countless different houses along the way provide a much better light show than anything we have seen at the Amsterdam Light Festival.

Amsterdam Light Festival Reviews

Tellingly, the festival reviews we have seen on Google through the years are rather bleak:

“Waste of time,” “boring,” “couldn’t wait to get off the boat,” “BIG disappointment,” “an embarrassment for the city,” “epic waste of time and money,” and “low budget light installations” are among the phrases we would use as well.

This year around we haven’t found a business listing for the Amsterdam Light Festival Foundation on Google Maps — and thus no related reviews.

Tripadvisor: 26% says its ‘terrible’

However, the reviews on TripAdvisor, the largest “social travel website” in the world, tend to give pause for thought as well:

Amsterdam Light Festival reviews on Tripadvisor. Screenshot taken Monday, December 23, 2019 – 5:45 AM CET.

434 reviewers gave the festival an average of 3 out of 5 points. Fully 26% of the travelers rated the event as ‘terrible.’ The site lists the festival at “#707 out of 868 things to do in Amsterdam.”

Suggested alternative: Candlelight canal tour

For a much more enjoyable light show, tour the canals of Amsterdam at night — for instance with a Dutch Wine & Cheese Cruise, a 2-hour 4-Course Dinner Cruise, or an Amsterdam Evening Cocktail Cruise

These are tours we can heartily recommend — from (repeated) experience.

Amsterdam Light Festival
The Amsterdam Light Festival … and why we suggest an alternative. (Yes, you are welcome to share this graphic)

Can you guess how many canals and bridges Amsterdam has?


  1. Quoted from the Amsterdam Light Festival’s Call For Concepts, Artists Briefing
  2. We have only seen this number in publications by the University of Amsterdam (UVA), some of who’s buildings are situated along this year’s route.
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An Amsterdammer last updated this post on CET (Central European Time)

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