Stretching north from Amsterdam to the island of Texel, the province of Noord-Holland is largely rural, its polder landscapes of green, pancake-flat fields intercepted by hundreds of drainage canals and ditches, and its wide horizons only interrupted by the odd farmhouse or windmill. The province’s west coast is defended from the ocean by a long belt of sand dunes, which is itself shielded by long and broad sandy beaches, and it’s these that attract holidaying Netherlanders. Much of the east coast has been reclaimed from what was once the saltwater Zuider Zee and is now, after the construction of two complementary dykes, the freshwater Markermeer and IJsselmeer. Here, along this deeply indented coast, lies a string of old seaports which flourished from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century on the back of the sea trade with the Baltic.
Noord-Holland’s principal urban highlight is Haarlem, an easy-going town with more than its fair share of Golden Age buildings, the province’s best art gallery, and ready access to some wild stretches of dune and beach in the Nationaal Park Zuid-Kennemerland. Northeast of the capital, the old Zuider Zee ports of Marken, Volendam and Edam are a bit touristy in summer, but have considerable charm if you visit off-season. Further north, Hoorn and Enkhuizen were once major Zuider Zee ports, and their historic wealth is reflected in a scattering of handsome old buildings. Enkhuizen, in particular, is very attractive and has one of the country’s best open-air museums, the Zuiderzeemuseum. A short train ride north of Amsterdam is the Zaanstad conurbation, whose chief attraction is the antique windmills and canals of Zaanse Schans. Further up the line, the pleasant provincial town of Alkmaar has a much-touted summer cheese market, and makes a good base for exploring two protected coastal zones, the Noordhollands Duinreservaat (North Holland Dune Reserve) and the Schoorlse Duinen Nationaalpark. Beyond, in the far north of the province, the island of Texel is the most accessible of the Waddenzee islands. It can get crowded in summer, but don’t be put off: with a bit of walking – or cycling – you can easily find some solitude.
Most of Noord-Holland is located north of Amsterdam, though the borders of the province also dip round the city, taking in an area known as Het Gooi, where the highlights are the small town of Muiden with its castle and the old fortified town of Naarden.