It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of weekend breaks, but for a short trip I’d usually go for somewhere in the UK and get there by train or car. Having to drive for four hours to get to Gatwick, braving the weekend check-in queues and the budget airline scrum always seemed a bit too much effort to fly somewhere just for a couple of days. So when KLM contacted me about doing a one-night trip to Amsterdam to check out the city’s Light Festival, I was a bit sceptical. But it turns out that they fly from 17 different regional airports across the UK, which makes a huge difference. I could fly from Birmingham, which is less than an hour from home, and being a smaller airport means it’s not so busy and hectic. So I headed off to try it out.
The Amsterdam Light Festival has been running for the last five years and takes over the city’s canals during December and January. Over 1800 different artists, designers and architects from around the world submitted different concepts and designs, ranging from the beautiful to the bizarre. Then the festival judges whittled them down to a final list of 35 artworks, which were built along (or sometimes even in) the canals. It all adds a dose of light and colour during the gloomy winter nights – especially at the start of January when the Christmas decorations are all packed up but spring still seems like a really long way away.
In winter it’s dark by 4.30pm in Amsterdam, so as we arrived into Schipol airport we were treated to a gorgeous sunset from the plane window. I’m so used to no-frills airlines that it was a nice surprise that you still get a free drink and a snack on KLM, even on our short 50-minute hop. It’s an easy 20-minute train journey into the centre of Amsterdam from the airport. So after checking into my hotel room (complete with grand piano and biggest bed I’ve ever seen!), I bundled up in plenty of layers and headed out to explore.
There are two different routes for the light festival – the Water Colors and the Illuminade. The Water Colours route is a boat route, so lots of different companies run night-time tours which take around 75 minutes and start near Centraal station. The bonus of the boats is that you get to see a lot without having to walk miles or freeze in the cold, but the glass in the windows mean it’s not so good for photos. So if you don’t want to take a boat trip you can see a lot of the same sculptures by walking along the canalside.
There’s also the shorter Illuminade walking route which takes about an hour to wander around. Each Illumade has a theme, and this years was ‘biomimicry’ – aka using nature to solve human problems. So a lot of the sculptures were inspired by nature, like a giant tree projected onto the walls of the greenhouse at the Hortus Botanicus – Amsterdam’s Botanical Garden. And the colourful ‘Nest’, which was built to look like a giant nest of twigs that change colour. Or the slightly creepy ‘You Lookin’ at me?’ – with a row of eyeballs poking up out of the ground – and the giant ‘Rhizome House’, a multicoloured sparkly root system.
One of the good things about the festival is that the sculptures are so varied. Some are huge, some are tiny, some are bright and bold, and others are so subtle you could walk right by them. I stood next to a concrete tower before noticing there was a projection with silhouettes of people on the side that made it look like an apartment block. Some sculptures are obvious and some are baffling (giant colour-changing, DNA-stealing creatures climbing up a building anyone?). But there are information boards by each of the exhibits so you can find out who the artist was and what the inspiration behind their design was.
By this time it was starting to get pretty cold, so when my camera lens started to freeze up, I took it as a sign to go and warm up. Along the Illuminade there are fires and stalls selling hot drinks – and in a greenhouse in the Botanic Gardens I came across a hot concoction of whisky, schnapps and apple juice which kept me radiating heat from the inside for a while. So I headed back out to see some of the biggest sculptures along the canals, featuring Dutch-inspired designs like lace handkerchiefs dangling over the water, neon bike silhouettes and of course a giant bunch of tulips (Amsterdam fact of the day: did you know that in the 1630s tulips were so popular here that they were as expensive as an Amsterdam canal house?).
As my fingers went numb it felt cold enough to snow – and during the night it did. Next morning Amsterdam was blanketed in fog with a thin layer of snow covering every surface. With just one night I was never going to have time to see everything I wanted to, so I decided to focus on my two favourite Amsterdam activities for the rest of the day – wandering around the canals and eating pancakes. The washed-out colours and sprinkling of snow made the city’s canals look even more beautiful than usual. I came across some of the sculptures I’d missed in the daylight along the way, before it was time to head back to the airport.
Schiphol is KLM’s hub, so you can fly there from the UK and then easily connect on to destinations all over the world, from Africa to South America. It’s one of Europe’s busiest airports and is almost like a mini city, with restaurants, shops, a casino and even a library. There are lots of Dutch touches as well as some quirky design features – my favourite was the projected clock which looked like there was someone inside cleaning it. One of my airport pet hates is not having enough seating, so it was good to see so many seating areas, as well as workstations with plenty of plug sockets and unlimited wifi so you can get some work done. But I just had time to stock up on as many stroopwafels as I could fit in my bag before it was time to head home.
Many thanks to KLM for hosting me in Amsterdam. All views and opinions are, as always, my own.