Amsterdam embodies the Netherlands since it lays at sea level, it’s full of canals and medieval merchant houses and is known for its free spirit. However, what sets Amsterdam apart from the rest of the country is its wild nightlife, its large international community and several world class museums. Additionally, there are plenty of things to see and do. You can feel the city’s vibe by hanging out on one of the cool squares like the Dam Square or Rembrandtplein. Museum lovers should visit the Museumplein, and nature lovers the Vondelpark. Finally, Amsterdam houses the only floating flower market in the world, Bloemenmarkt.
As you can see there is no way you can get bored in Amsterdam!
Day Trips from Amsterdam
Nevertheless, if you do get bored, or have some extra time, a couple of places make for great day trips from Amsterdam. The Netherlands is a minuscule country with top notch infrastructure, thus you can get anywhere in no time. If you are into historical cities visit Utrecht. If you like cute small towns head over to Delft or Leyden. On the other hand, if you have a thing for contemporary architecture, don’t skip Rotterdam. Beach lovers should not miss the nice sandy beaches of the Hague. For both fantastic nature and architecture visit Alkmaar and Zaanse Schans in North Holland.
Alkmaar is the most northern of all Dutch historical towns. It was built in the 9th Century on top of a natural sand ridge. Alkmaar was granted city rights in 1254 and was the most important market town for agricultural products north of Amsterdam during the Middle Ages. In fact, the famous cheese market has existed in Alkmaar since the 13th Century. The city also pioneered land reclamation from water. Indeed, at the beginning of the 16th Century, a lake near Alkmaar was the first ever to be pumped dry by windmills. In 1573 the brave locals defeated the Spanish Army after an 8-year long war, marking a turning point in Dutch History.
Alkmaar has hosted its cheese market for more than 700 years. In the past, there were at least four markets every week which would last until late at night. Locals do not trade cheese anymore. Thus the market today is a mere show for tourists. Nevertheless, it gives a great insight into the local cheese market tradition. Every Friday morning (10:00 to 12:30) from April to September, you can watch actors simulate the cheese trade. There is even a special program dedicated to children in summer. Take note that the Cheese market has taken place on charming Waagplein, downtown Alkmaar, since its foundation.
Do not forget to stroll around Alkmaar’s pretty streets after or before the show, they are full of historical buildings. Three of them stand out: the Alkmaar Weighing House, the Grote or Sint-Laurenskerk, and the Stadhuis (City Hall). The Alkmaar Weighing House or Waag is a historical building used for weighing cheese. It is currently the Cheese Museum and the Tourist Info Center. Built in 1470, the Sint-Laurenskerk was Alkmaar’s main protestant church. Nowadays it’s a secular building used for weddings and functions. Don’t forget to pop in and check the famous colorful organs. Finally, the Gothic City Hall dominates Alkmaar’s main street. You will recognize it by its onion dome spire.
Unlike Alkmaar, which is a real city, Zaanse Schans is a collection of historical houses brought from all around the Netherlands. But the place is absolutely gorgeous, full of astonishing windmills from the 16th Century and cool green colored houses. Of course, there are canals everywhere. For some reason the place is never overcrowded so you can spend hours walking about numerous paths on your own. Actually you might meet some swans or sheep. Several windmills and workshops still operate and there are few museums. The whole place is just magical!
The first windmills in Zaanse Schans appeared along the River Zaan in the late 16th Century. These used wind to produce everything from rice and barley to wood and paper. Of the more than 1100 historical windmills that used to exist, only a dozen survive today. Ten are large mills and two miniature ones. While most are the original mills from Zaanse Schans, a couple were brought here from elsewhere in the Netherlands. As impressive as it sounds, several mills still produce saw, paint, and oil. Take note that each mill has its own operating hours. Therefore, check schedules before visiting. You’ll get to travel back in time and enjoy nice views!
Since most houses in Zaanse Schans are residential you cannot access them. Nevertheless, there are plenty of museums and workshops to visit. The Zaans Museum dedicated to regional art and heritage is the main historical museum in the area. On the other hand, the Zaanse Time Museum centers on the country’s rich clockwork history and has a large collection of old timepieces. The Bakery Museum In De Gecroonde Duijvekater is a real bakery that opened back in 1658! They sell traditional local sweet bread and other delicacies. Eat something and go afterward to the Distillery Museum on De Tweekoppige Phoenix to try Dutch liquors. The Grocery Museum Albert Heijn tells the story of supermarkets.
Alkmaar to Zaanse Schans and vice versa
Both places are great day trips from Amsterdam. You can visit them in the same day. To do so, take any of the frequent and efficient trains that operate throughout the day. The journey from Amsterdam to Alkmaar takes less than 40 minutes. From Amsterdam to Zaanse Schans it takes only 18 minutes. The journey is pretty interesting. The country is so densely populated that it seems a giant urban sprawl interspersed by small green spaces. Alkmaar’s train station is a short 15 minute walk to the Cheese Market. For Zaanse Schans you have to get off at the Zaandijk Zaanse Schans Station, and walk for about 15 minutes across the bridge over the Zaam River. The train ride between Alkmaar and Zanse Schans takes between 20 and 25 minutes.
Where to Stay in Alkmaar and Zaanse Schans
As mentioned above Alkmaar and Zaanse Schans are easy day trips from Amsterdam. But if you really want to feel the two places stay in one of them or both. In Alkmaar stay in the Wolf Hotel Kitchen & Bar or Grand Hotel Alkmaar in the center. The Amrath Hotel Alkmaar close to the train station is another great option. The Heerlijck Slaapen op de Zaanse Schans is the only hotel in Zaanse Schans proper, but you should book it in advance since it gets full. On the other hand, the B&B Boterton is a fabulous choice only 20 minutes away on foot. If you are into the historical buildings, the Landgoed Huize Glory is an old castle 15km away from Alkmaar.