Amsterdam is so easy to get around. It’s flat, has a world class network of cycle routes together with a staggering 800,000 bicycles (that’s more bikes than people!) but if that sounds too energetic there’s also a great tram system and trains that actually seem to run on time, so what’s stopping you from heading out of Dam Square and exploring some of the more historic towns and neighbourhoods within easy reach of the City?
If you’ve covered the Red Lights, visited the coffee shops, trawled the 9 streets and studied the old masters then how about heading to Centraal Station and checking out the sights just beyond the canal ring? In just 20 minutes you can be transformed to old Amsterdam to see working windmills, traditional cheese markets and Holland’s largest tulip fields.
Zandaam looks like a toy town partially built from Lego; green buildings and green bridges lead to shops and waterways. Take a trip on a boat and see where Monet stayed for four months and made his way through numerous paintings. Only 10 minutes by train from Central Station each house is covered in a distinctive green paint with white window frames – status symbols the paint was more expensive and a subtle way to show wealth. In the words of Monet: “Zaandam is quite remarkable and there is enough to paint for a lifetime… Houses in all colors, hundreds of mills and delightful boats.” The Amsterdam bargain loving locals are also pretty keen on Zandaam too as it has a Primark.
Stay: The Inntel Zandamm is an iconic building but don’t be fooled by its quirky facia – this doesn’t transfer to the inside which is instead contemporary and minimal in style. It’s a prefect location for visiting Zandamm and Zaanse Schans.
Zannes Schans summons up images of old school books showing Holland’s windmills, clogs, cows and those pointy Dutch hats. The Zaanes Schans, just a 20 minute train trip from Amsterdam Centraal with trains (to Koog Zaandijk) departing every 30 minutes, is a unique heritage site that showcases the ‘golden age’ of the region. Visit the picturesque windmills and the small, quaint Dutch houses for the quintessential ‘chocolate box’ town experience. You can go inside some of the windmills and get a closer look at how they work and what’s produced inside them. From the thatch covered saw mill ‘Het Jonge Schaap’ rebuilt 10 years ago using the same tools that would have been used in the 17th century to the ‘Zaans Gedaan’ CacaoLab housed in another one of the beautiful windmills where you can see demonstrations on how to make chocolate. There is a Bakery museum and a replica of the first ‘Albert Heijn’ store as well as an opportunity to see the clog maker and cooper at work.
Dutch architecture is well served here with many of the houses (which people rent – so no peeking through the windows) saved, donated and moved to the site. Dinner at Restaurant De Hoop op De Swarte Walvis is a real treat. While the dining rooms are traditionally decorated and tiled throughout the three buildings that make up the restaurant the food is European contemporary. For a traditional dutch dish then pancakes of every sweet & savoury variety you can think of are served up for lunch at De Kraai pancake bakery.
We know that Holland is very flat but a ride in a Cessna across the largest tulip fields in the country is a great way to see Flevoland the biggest reclamation project in the world (which started in 1926). The newest province in Holland encapsulates towns and nature reserves as well as a dyke that is 6m above sea level. The largest wetland in The Netherlands (56k sq KM) is here and is home to the Dutch Oostvaardersplassen Konik Horses. It is also perfect for bike rides as it’s so flat and offers a harbour for boat rides and water sports. The new land features modern architecture mixed with areas of natural beauty and irresistible attractions including the chance to explore the ‘sea floor’ and discover the former islands of Urk and Schokland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Take a walk through the quiet, pretty village of Monnickendam, a small picturesque village located not far to the northwest of Amsterdam which was famous for its shipyards and smokehouses. Originating from the 11th century when monks from the St. Salvator on the Monnekemeer and the Marienburg on Marken monasteries decided to build a dam between the Gouwzee and one of the Waterland lakes. The town has a rustic and unblemished vibe and ambling around by foot is the best way to get the most of the area’s historic splendour.
Small and quaint, Edam is still relatively untouched by tourism and has some interesting sights to offer. The best way to explore its narrow canals and pretty houses is by taking a boat ride through the canal network with a glass of red and of course some of its famous big, round, cheese! Edam used to serve as a well-trafficked port for cheese and timber traders and until 1922, the town hosted a market where farmers from miles around sold their wares at a cheese market. Every Wednesday in July and August, this market is recreated complete with cheese carriers, inspectors, farmers and traders.
Visit the old-fashioned art Hotel Spaander located in a prime position in Volendam on the banks of the IJsselmeer. Opened in 1881 it accommodated artists who would donate their paintings in return for lodgings. The walls are covered in over 1400 art works of many styles and has a truly authentic Dutch feel to it. The restaurant serves up great, hearty local dishes with a view of the lake as a beautiful backdrop – what’s not to love. Once you’ve had your fill of art and food you can take a stroll down De Dijk, the main harbour strip of lively shopping, bars, restaurants and residential street.
Alkmaar – for more cheese than you’d eat in a lifetime
Alkmaar is known as the city of cheese in Holland, and if you are serious about your Dutch cheese then Alkmaar is the place to go. Here cheese is big business and on Fridays through the Summer months you can’t get away from the traditional cheese market which takes over the town. The town hall sets the backdrop for the cheese men who race along carrying huge cylindrical cheeses and makes a fun morning out. So serious are they about their cheese that the ‘Waagplien’ square where the auction takes place has been enlarged 8 times, seeing houses demolished over the centuries to make it large enough.
It’s yet another great place to get on a boat and see the sights – but be warned the bridges are low which means literally lying back in your seat to go under them so go easy on that Edam chubby! The cheese market is enacted weekly during the summer months. And nearby cheese warehouses keep alive the memory of a colourful and cheesy smelling past.
You can find further information about old and new Amsterdam alongside suggested ideas here.