Windmills, clogs (klompen) and tulips: those are the hallmarks of Holland that almost everyone immediately recognises. While you can see them all in Amsterdam in the form of trinkets for tourists, head further north to historic Old Holland to see and experience them for real.
Old Holland, which comprises a number of villages including Marken, Volendam and Edam, is just a 30-minute train ride from Amsterdam Central Station. Its accessibility makes it a perfect destination for a day trip – though with so many things to see and do, you might end up staying longer.
Here’s our pick for the best things to do and see in Old Holland:
Get the perfect Instagram shot at Zaanse Schans
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 some fish in Volendam
You can’t visit Volendam without throwing your head back and eating some herring the way 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
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 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
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 first and 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
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.
Enjoy the outdoors at Het Twiske
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 a plethora of outdoor activities, such as picnicking along the water, going for a leisurely boat ride, or even eco-camping.
Learn the art of Dutch cheesemaking
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 process of cheesemaking (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 there are others that are worth a visit as well. De Simonehoeve in Katwoude, for example, also makes traditional clogs.
Go shopping in Zaandam
See the new and the old come together in Zaandam, a historically important 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
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 that’s been converted into the fascinating Rijksmonument.
Take a photo in traditional Dutch clothing
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 costume of the village – the typical pointed hats and, of course, wooden shoes – to permanently record your memorable trip throughout historical Old Holland.