If you think that Amsterdam is only about architecture, art, and freedom, you are wrong. There is one more superb thing the coolest city in Europe has: nature. What’s more, it is just a step away from the city center, in North Holland province. All we had to do was bike to Amsterdam’s Central Station, hop on a train, and in no time we were in the middle of green lush fields and lovely canals admiring all sorts of birds and animals.
We are talking about Oostzanerveld, Het Twiske and Ilperveld, three gorgeous places where nature and humans have been coexisting for centuries. Hard to believe that such a peaceful and relaxed area is next to one of the busiest cities in the world. We had delicious food and coffee, learned a lot of things, and traveled through the canals. To top it all, our hosts were simply splendid. Do yourself a favor and discover one of the best things North Holland has to offer.
Old Holland is the area just north of Amsterdam, rich in history and nature. The area was a powerhouse back in the 17th and 18th centuries when it produced most of the best products in The Netherlands. Today, Old Holland is a natural paradise and an architect’s dream. Historic buildings, contemporary architecture, and nature stand side by side. While walking, biking, or boating around the area, you will experience the old and the new in an unbelievable setting.
Alkmaar is famous around The Netherlands and Europe for its cheese. Yes, it is that good. However, the city offers much more: fantastic museums, historic architecture, loads of cafes and restaurants, and a sandy beach. Zaanse Schans is a one-of-a-kind open-air museum famous for its old windmills, authentic wooden houses, and traditional workshops. Only the Dutch could accomplish such a feat. In the 1960s, dozens of buildings were brought to Zaanse Schans for you to enjoy today.
Please take a look at our post about Alkmaar and Zaanse Schans.
If you want to relax and experience nature at its best, you have to visit The Waterland. The area extends from northern Amsterdam to the sea. Quaint little towns dot this magical place. You will find delicious food, shopping, and fabulous accommodation options. The Waterland is an engineering marvel dating back to the 17th century. No wonder that UNESCO included both the Beemster Polder and the Dutch Water Defense Lines in its World Heritage List.
This is where you get the whole picture of what The Netherlands is all about. The Beemster Polder is land reclaimed in the 17th century. Since back then The Dutch were able to manage nature to improve their lives. You will see the original canals, dykes, and roads built to establish fields and settlements in Old Holland. The Water Denfese Lines were built from 1815 to 1940 on the 200 km border of the country’s capital. Today, The Waterland is pretty much alive, inhabited by farmers and people who love nature.
Our first recommendation is Oostzaan, in the province of North Holland. Oostzaan is a cute little town made of fields and channels. Don’t get fooled by the town’s quaint appearance. This ancient town has a glorious past. It played a key role in the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company, building ships and shipping. One of the world’s most famous pirates was born and died here, Klass Kompaan. Another famous son of Oostzaan is Albert Hiejn, founder of The Netherland’s biggest supermarket chain.
We took a boat trip from Theetuin De Vaarboerderij, an authentic teahouse and farm. It was mid-morning and the air was fresh, we hopped into the barge, and the fun began. Our guide Jan took us all around the channels. Jan is an Environmental Ambassador and knows the area by heart. After all, the Dutch built these canals by hand centuries ago and still farm to this day. Farmers here respect and take care of bird species as if they were their children. We had tea and muffins while admiring the landscape. Loved every minute of it!
Het Twiske Recreational Area
After our boat trip, we went to the Het Twiske Recreational Area. The area is lush green, full of canals, little beaches, and peaceful. You can rent canoes and all sorts of boats. Of course, if you have your own, bring it! Bikers will be happy to know that you can go to Het Twiske directly from the heart of Amsterdam. The city’s bike trails reach the recreational area, providing a spectacular bike ride from urban to rural.
Since we didn’t have our bikes, we walked and enjoyed one of the best nature walks near Amsterdam. The terrain is flat and the air is clean. Even if it’s raining, you will have a great time. All you have to do is wear the proper gear and enjoy nature! Do not worry if you get hungry. We had lunch at Pannenkoek De Appel. The restaurant is in the heart of the park and offers a wide range of food, from vegetarian to delicious hamburgers. Their coffee and cakes are top quality too.
Ilperveld is a vast area of lush green nature, canals, and islands. The place is famous for bird watching in The Netherlands. During the migratory season, Ilperveld is a spectacle not to be missed, with thousands of birds visiting. In addition, there are cows, sheep, and goats walking about the area. Once there, you will completely forget about Amsterdam, just half an hour away. In fact, you can bike all the way to Ilperveld from the center of the city.
There is loads of information along the trails and visitor’s center to help you. Remember, this is a protected natural area, so enjoy with care. We strongly advise renting a boat or canoe. It’s the best way to admire the area. We did just that and had a blast. There is nothing to worry about. You will be taken care of by an expert guide. Take note that boats only operate from May to October.
As you can imagine, the area produces some of the best meat, dairy, vegetables, and food in The Netherlands. In fact, North Holland is known for its outstanding produce. That’s what happens when animals live in such a beautiful place and are taken care of with love. After seeing so many of them around, we went to Natuurboerderij Hardebol. The farm is authentic and sells meat, ice cream, apple pie, tea, coffee, and other delicious food directly from the producer.
We were surprised at how an animal farm is possible in such a natural environment so close to Amsterdam. We found out that farmers here have to take care of the natural areas around them, in particular of areas used by migratory birds. We have to admit that we were quite taken by the farm. You see, we are urban people, so we have no exposure to rural life. The farm is a real cooperative that sells directly from producers. That’s why everything is of such great quality. People here love what they do, and it shows.
Organizing Your Trip to Old Holland
As you can imagine, getting to such a natural area can be a bit of an adventure. There are no direct trains or buses to any of the above-mentioned places. Instead, you should rent a bike or e-bike and cycle through this lovely area. If you don’t want to cycle all the way from Amsterdam city center, you can put your bike on a train to Zaandam or on a metro to Noord Station. From Noord Station, there is even a bus to Oostzan town. You can find a map of cycle routes in the area on the I Amsterdam website.
If you are interested in exploring the area by boat, you’ll be happy to know there are several options. From July 18th to August 1st, Koeman Express organizes a 2-hour boat tour of Oostzanerveld. The tour starts at Theetuin De Vaarboerderij. For Ilperveld, you can either join a boat tour organized by the Visitors center of Landschap Noord-Holland (from July 24th to September 26th) or rent a whispering boat and explore the canals on your own (from June 26th to September 30th).
Spending the Night in the Area
As you can see, North Holland is big and there are loads of things to do. Therefore, we strongly recommend spending a night in the area. By doing so, you won’t need to rush through the day. In addition, you get to enjoy North Holland at night. The first hotel we recommend is the Van Der Valk Hotel Oostzaan, just outside Amsterdam. This is a contemporary building with state-of-the-art facilities perfect for relaxing after a long day in nature. The hotel has an onsite bar, restaurant, pool, sauna, and gym. They also rent bikes. You can book a room with your own private hot tub!
The Inntel Hotels Amsterdam Zaandam is a one-of-a-kind hotel a step away from Oostzaan. You will recognize it immediately for its original façade: traditional Dutch houses piled one over the other. However, everything is top quality inside. Rooms are big and super comfortable and offer great views of the area. The hotel has a wellness area that offers massages and has a pool and a gym. The Inntel Hotel Amsterdam Zaandam has an environmental program designed to reduce its impact. Feel free to ask how you can contribute too.
Why You Should Visit Old Holland
To be honest, we had no clue nature around Amsterdam would be so raw and fun. However, you have nothing to worry about. The terrain is flat, the trails are clear, and there is plenty of information. Please bring warm clothing, even in summer. The weather in North Holland can be unpredictable and you don’t want to get cold. Likewise, bring a hat during summer since the sun can be hard. Though you can bring your own food, we strongly recommend that you try the local produce, especially on the farms. You can’t get any closer to the source than in local farms.
Take note that the area is absolutely perfect for solo travelers, friends, couples, and families. Likewise, you can challenge yourself with long walks, boat, or bike rides. At the same time, the area is perfect to just sit around and do nothing but admire nature. You decide what you want to do. To us, Old Holland provided a real adventure. We felt in the middle of nowhere! Nevertheless, we had a safe, comfortable adventure, as we like.
We saved the best for last: The Dutch. As pretty as the place is, it is the people that make the magic happen. Everywhere we went we were greeted with a smile. People in the area are funny, relaxed, and know their trade. We reckon that that’s what happens when you work in such a lovely environment. Therefore, all you have to do is to chill and enjoy: you are in good hands.