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People cycling next to the iconic Zaan hotel in Zaandam
Image from Koen Smilde

Things to do in Old Holland

Old Holland towns such as Volendam and Zaandam remind of times of more honest crafts, showcasing traditional skills like shipbuilding, fishing and cheese making. But there’s also the heritage of the Dutch industrial revolution – when smoking chimneys and windmills enabled the mass production of goods in the Netherlands. Time to discover Old Holland's best sights, towns, villages and hidden gems.

Get the perfect Instagram shot at Zaanse Schans

Zaanse Huis
Image from Cris Toala Olivares

 Thanks to its awe-inspiring collection of perfectly preserved windmills,  Zaanse Schans is the perfect introduction to Old Holland. Sitting along the banks of the Zaan River, the much-loved attraction’s still-working windmills and museums offer a glimpse at Dutch life as it once was. Once you’ve taken your selfies, head into the Jisper House Museum, a genuine fisherman’s cottage, or roam around the Bakery Museum and grab a bite of something sweet.

Eat fish in Volendam

De Dijk at night in Volendam seen from the harbour.
Image from Koen Smilde

 You can’t visit Volendam without throwing your head back and eating some herring like the Dutch do. As the Netherlands’ most famous fishing village, there’s plenty of opportunity to get your hands on some fresh fish, whether it’s the less intimidating kibbeling — little pieces of fried fish — or the aforementioned herring, which is best eaten raw with onions. Visit a few fish stalls along the harbour or take a seat at one of the many seafood restaurants to get your fill.

Look beyond the cheese in Edam

People walking over a bridge in Edam.

Known for its eponymous cheese, Edam has much more to offer than just a wheel of its finest dairy product. Of course, visiting in July and August when the world-famous cheese market is on is certainly a plus, but taking a tour of the city at any time delivers myriad sightseeing opportunities, including: Fort bij Edam, part of the Defence Line of Amsterdam; Kwakelbrug, a hand-operated drawbridge; and the town’s collection of centuries-old houses, including the 16th century “Oldest Wooden House”.

Explore the Beemster Polder

People cycling in the countryside
Image from Koen Dijkstra

To discover one of the Netherlands’ UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it’s best to get on a bike. That’s because on two wheels, you can experience almost all the Beemster Polder, the country’s most famous polder. For the uninitiated, a polder is a piece of land reclaimed from the sea – and building these feats of engineering is a skill that the Dutch people have perfected throughout their history. Cycle around the area and marvel at the mansions lining the canals, or admire the famous De Eenhoorn farmhouse, a Dutch national heritage site that’s worth the trip alone.

Sail through Broek in Waterland

Cows graze in the meadow of Broek in Waterland.
Image from Koen Smilde

Once a vacation village for sea captains in the 17th century, Broek in Waterland has become a hotspot for all types of tourists, not just the sea captain variety. The so-called “cleanest town in the Netherlands” has certainly earned its reputation, and the picturesque waterside homes are best seen from the Netherlands’ pride and joy: the water. Rent a boat and sail to Het Havenrak, a lake in the centre of town that becomes an ice-skating hub in the winter when the water freezes over.

Go bird-watching

Wormer- en Jisperveld is a patchwork of water and meadows surrounded by reed beds and narrow ditches. It is the largest continuous peat meadow area in Western Europe.
Image from Koen Smilde

With its winding channels, unique vegetation, and exquisite bird-watching opportunities, the best way to experience the natural beauty of North Holland is undoubtedly with a guided nature cruise. Under an experienced skipper's and nature guide's direction, the Visitor Centre De Poelboerderij organises various boat trips through the Womer and Jisperveld nature areas - the largest peat meadow in Europe. Many tours are themed, focussing on specific flora or bird of prey species or combined with an activity such as landscape photography or sketching.

Enjoy the outdoors at Het Twiske

Het Twiske is a recreation and nature area and a typical Noord-Holland peat lake area in the Zaan region.
Image from koen smilde

The recreational area at Het Twiske is more than just a few bike routes, trees and some water; it’s the ideal place to play, relax and enjoy the outdoors. Stretching from the north of Amsterdam – and therefore easily reachable by bike – Het Twiske offers many outdoor activities, such as picnicking along the water, going for a leisurely boat ride, or even eco-camping.

Catch some culture on the Costa del Zaan

Het HEM, an art institution in a former bullet factory on the Hembrugterrein in Zaandam.
Image from Koen Smilde

Once a hub for the production of ammunition and weaponry, Zaandam's Hembrugterrein has now transformed into a cultural centre housing various design ateliers, cultural spaces and exciting food and drink spots. The focal point is Het HEM, a former munitions factory in a remarkable architectural space where multidisciplinary art programmes unfold. Just around the corner, you’ll find The Museum of Humanity featuring dozens of thought-provoking portraits of people from all over the world to pose questions about what it means to be human. Also, check out Bakkerij Sollinger for artisanal sourdough bread, Bind - a cute cafe and mini creative hub for tea, cake, poetry nights and community barbecues, and restaurant LAB-44 for innovative fine dining.

Have a read of our culture guide to Old Holland for more.

*Please note that Het HEM is closed for renovation until autumn 2024. Keep an eye on the website for updates.

Learn the art of Dutch cheesemaking

Cheesemarket Edam
Image from Geert Snoeijer

Cheese is a way of life in the Netherlands, and the Dutch take their cheese very seriously – and you should, too! There are several cheese farms still operating in Old Holland, many of which you can visit to learn the cheesemaking process (and, of course, sample the products). Three cheese farms are under the oversight of the Henri Willig brand, including Jacobs Hoeve, located in Katwoude; Alida Hoeve, in Volendam; and Catharina Hoeve, in Zaandam, but others are worth a visit as well. De Simonehoeve in Katwoude, for example, also makes traditional clogs.

Go shopping in Zaandam

People cycling next to the iconic Zaan hotel in Zaandam
Image from Koen Smilde

See the new and the old come together in Zaandam, a historically significant city that was once known for its milling operations. Nowadays, Zaandam is a mix of the metropolitan and the rural, with a car-free shopping centre that boasts dozens of shops selling everything from clothing to traditional Dutch foods. While you’re there, you can take a peek at (or even stay in) the Inntel Hotel, built to look like old Dutch fishermen’s houses stacked on top of each other.

Make your mark in Marken

The lighthouse on the island of Marken.
Image from Koen Smilde

Much like Volendam and Edam, Marken is brimming with characteristic green wooden houses and traditional buildings that seem to transport you back in time. Once an island (and now a peninsula), Marken is accessible by a single road from the mainland, and the entire area can be traversed on foot in a single day. While there, don’t miss Het Paard van Marken, a 19th-century lighthouse converted into the fascinating heritage monument.

Take a photo in traditional Dutch clothing

Image from Geert Snoeijer

Round out your trip through the past by dressing up just like the Dutch! There are numerous spots around Old Holland, such as Volendam, where you can don the village costume – the typically pointed hats and wooden shoes – to record your memorable trip throughout historical Old Holland.