Amsterdammers may tell you that there’s nothing remotely worth seeing outside their own city, but the fact is you’re spoilt for choice. Fast and efficient rail connections in the Netherlands make about a third of the country easily accessible for a day-trip. The easiest trip you could make is to Haarlem, a pleasant provincial town, or to the Keukenhof Gardens to see the best of the country’s flower growers. North of Amsterdam the most obvious targets are Volendam and Marken, two old seaports, while the bus ride from Amsterdam also takes in beguiling Edam. A little further afield is the charming seaport of Enkhuizen.
An easy 15-minute train journey from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, Haarlem has a very different feel from its big-city neighbour. An easily absorbed place, it has an attractive centre studded with fine old buildings. The major draw is the outstanding Frans Hals Museum. Chief among the Hals’ paintings is the set of “Civic Guard” group portraits with which he made his name. The museum also boasts a handful of works by other Haarlem painters, with canvases by Jan van Scorel, Karel van Mander and Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem.
The pancake-flat fields extending south from Haarlem towards Leiden are the heart of the Dutch bulbfields, whose bulbs and blooms support a billion dollar industry and some ten-thousand growers, as well as attracting tourists in droves. The small town of Lisse, halfway between Leiden and Haarlem, is home to the showcase Keukenhof Gardens, the largest flower gardens in the world.
Some seven million flowers are on show for their full flowering period. You could easily spend a whole day here, swooning among the sheer abundance of it all and taking millions of pictures, but to get the best of it you need to come early, before the tour buses pack the place.
There are several restaurants in the extensive grounds, and well-marked paths take you all the way through the gardens, which specialise in daffodils, hyacinths and, of course, tulips.
This picturesque, hip city has something for everyone, from beautiful canals and architecture to fascinating museums and galleries. Enjoy coffee and culture with a city break in Amsterdam.
Edging the freshwater Markermeer, the former fishing village of Volendam was once something of an artists’ retreat, visited by Renoir and Picasso and a favoured location for local painters. The Volendams Museum tracks the village’s history and has loads of local artwork on display. It’s also worth popping into the waterfront Hotel Spaander, where the public rooms are decorated with paintings and sketches given to the hotel by impoverished artists in lieu of rent.
The tiny island of Marken was pretty much a closed community, supported by a small fishing industry, until its road connection to the mainland was completed in 1957. Nowadays, the fishing has all but disappeared, but the island – or rather its one and only village, Marken – retains a picturesque charm of immaculately maintained green wooden houses, clustered on top of mounds first raised to protect the islanders from the sea. It’s a perfectly Dutch scene, appearing almost frozen in time.
There are two main parts to the village: waterfront Havenbuurt, which is dotted with souvenir shops, often staffed by locals in traditional costume, and the quieter Kerkbuurt, centred on the church, whose narrow lanes are lined by ancient dwellings and one-time eelsmoking houses.
Considering the international fame of the red balls of cheese that carry its name, you might expect the village of Edam to be jam-packed with tourists. In fact, Edam usually lacks the crowds of its island neighbour and remains a delightful, good-looking and prosperous little town of neat brick houses and slender canals. Nowadays, the one real crowd puller is Edam’s cheese market, held every Wednesday morning from July to mid-August on the Kaasmarkt, but the real pleasure is in wandering its charming streets and canals, and maybe renting a bike to cycle down to the Markemeer lake.
Enkhuizen, 1 hour’s train ride from Amsterdam, was once one of the country’s most important seaports. Nowadays things are much quieter, but the town centre, with its ancient streets, slender canals and pretty harbours, is wonderfully well preserved. Strolling in from the train station, you soon reach the picturesque Buitenhaven, with its sailing boats and barges, and just beyond is the Oude Haven, which stretches east in a gentle curve to the conspicuous Drommedaris, a watchtower built to guard the harbour entrance. Not far from the Drommedaris is the town’s star turn, the excellent Zuiderzeemuseum. Nearby is the outdoor section, the seasonal Museumpark, which comprises a collection of original buildings moved here over the last decades.
This is a great attraction for children and anyone with an interest in life on the water. Highlights of the indoor section are in the impressive ship hall, where you can get up close and personal with a number of traditional sailing barges and other craft.
In the Museumpark, there are vintage stores, workshops and even streets that have been transported here from every part of the region, and together provide the flavour of life hereabouts from 1880 to around 1932. The museum strives to be authentic: sheep and goats roam the surrounding meadows, its smokehouses smoke (and sell) herring and eels, and the sweetshop sells real old-fashioned sweets.