Do the Dutch: Go Ice Skating through 11 Cities

As a senior purser with KLM, I’ve been crisscrossing the world for over 27 years. My job suites my passion: travelling. I have visited almost every country in the world; just three more to go! When I tell people I’m from Holland, it’s usually the start of a conversation about tulips, windmills, marijuana, football and, of course, the Red-Light District. Understandable, but I feel that one Dutch tradition is never mentioned: the Elfstedentocht, our Eleven-Cities Tour on ice skates!

In the Netherlands, where I was born and raised, things really start to heat up when temperatures drop below zero. Whenever I hear it has been freezing for a few days, with ice thickening on ditches, waterways and lakes, I start to feel restless and want to get home as quickly as possible!

Winter wonder Netherlands

The colder it gets and the longer it freezes, the more life in the Netherlands revolves around the ice. Makeshift stalls selling warm cocoa, pea soup, glühwein and snacks pop up alongside the ice, helping skaters make it through the day. Wooden benches appear to help skaters lace and unlace their skates in relative comfort. Proud grandpas and grandmas gather on the side to watch tiny tots taking their first uncertain steps, boys playing ice hockey and girls attempting pirouettes on figure skates. No matter who you are, how old or skilled you may be, everyone has fun on the ice!

11 cities on ice skates

If temperatures stay below zero long enough, various skating races are organised in the Netherlands. The greatest skating race of all is the Elfstedentocht, a 200-kilometre, one-day event that passes through eleven cities, towns and villages in the northern province of Friesland. The race was first reported in historical documents dating from 1760 and has been an official event since 1909. Because the freezing temperatures required to hold the event are relatively rare, so is the Elfstedentocht. It has only been organised 15 times, the most recent being in 1997!

Is it a Go, or No Go?

When the cold sets in and persists, the first rumours start to spread. Special ice masters keep a close eye on the quality of the ice. The minimum thickness of 15 centimetres is a must to organise an event of this magnitude. As the ice approaches the required thickness, the national news bulletin crosses to Friesland for live updates from the eleven Frisian cities. And the question uppermost in the minds of Dutch skaters as well as spectators is: Go or no go? Pandemonium breaks out when the chief ice master gives the go-ahead. Dutch people everywhere – including myself, wherever I may be – go CRAZY.

How to become a Dutchman

Around 16,000 skaters take part in the Eleven-Cities Tour, with millions of spectators cheering them on from the waterside and many millions more following the race on television, preferably at home with family and friends, from the crack of dawn until long after midnight. It bears repeating that the Elfstedentocht is a truly unique, typical Dutch tradition. Speed-skaters from around the world believe their career is incomplete unless they have finished the tour at least once. As Norway’s three-time Olympic ice skating champion Johan Olav Koss puts it: “After finishing the Elfstedentocht, I wanted to become a Dutchman.”

Better than cheese, windmills and tulips

I’ve had the good fortune of completing the Elfstedentocht three times. And I certainly recommend all non-Dutch readers to try to experience this unique event in the Netherlands at least once in their lives. You’ll enjoy the memory a lot longer than you would a slice of Dutch cheese, a photo of a windmill or a visit to the Keukehof Gardens!

Posted by:   Boris  | 
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Heleen de Haan

Love this. The last 11 cities tour, in 1997, I was in Goa, India. And in a little bar, the bartender started talking about this. Very surprised I asked him, how do you know about this. It turned out , he had lived in Friesland for a while and watched everybody go mad, when you could go skating on the lakes in the cold. When my husband and I were there, my daughter and son in law, where fortunate to be allowed to skate the tour. My son in law made it, my daughter not, but it turned out she was pregnant and she didn’t know it then, but something inside her warned her, not to take any risks.

Atie van Doesburg

It’s an amazing event, stopped only due to warm winters.
Followed it for years!! Only in Nederland can you find this!!!!!!


This is the first time i heard of Elfstedentocht – 11 cities. This is amazing. Just love to hear all the lakes are freezing. Glad to hear that. Visiting Amsterdam next month, March 2017.

Cheers. …..

Allan Apel

Lovely summary of a truly Dutch event which I’ve never had the opportunity to experience fist hand in the 12 years I’ve lived here. This hasn’t stopped us of course driving up over the Afsluitdijk causeway and checking out these quaint towns in the warmer months. Watch ‘De hel van ’63’ with English subtitles to get a good idea of the Eldstedentocht

Thomas Leffers

I’m impressed, which are the three countries you still have to visit?
I hope that the Elfstedentocht will be able to be run in early 2018 when I plan to be in the Netherlands – I won’t go (far too cold for an Australian!), but watch it on a big screen in a warm and ‘gezellig kroegje’.

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