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.
Top image © Sara Winter/Shutterstock
Cheese has been sold on Alkmaar’s main square since the 1300s, and although it’s no longer a serious commercial concern, the kaasmarkt (cheese market;Fri 10am–12.30pm, from the first Friday in April to the first Friday in Sept) continues to pull the crowds – so get there early if you want a good view. The ceremony starts with the buyers sniffing, crumbling, and finally tasting each cheese, followed by intensive bartering. Once a deal has been concluded, the cheeses – golden discs of Gouda mainly, laid out in rows and piles on the square – are borne away on ornamental carriers by groups of four porters (kaasdragers) for weighing. The porters wear white trousers and shirt plus a black hat whose coloured bands – green, blue, red or yellow – represent the four companies that comprise the cheese porters’ guild. Payment for the cheeses, tradition has it, takes place in the cafés around the square.
You might expect Edam to be jammed with tourists, considering the international fame of the rubbery red balls of cheese that carry its name. In fact, Edam usually lacks crowds and remains a delightful, good-looking and prosperous little town of neat brick houses, high gables, swing bridges and slender canals. Founded by farmers in the twelfth century, it experienced a temporary boom in the seventeenth as a shipbuilding centre with river access to the Zuider Zee. Thereafter, it was back to the farm – the excellent pastureland surrounding the town is still grazed by large herds of cows, though nowadays most Edam cheese is produced elsewhere, even in Germany (“Edam” is the name of a type of cheese and not its place of origin). This does, of course, rather undermine the authenticity of Edam’s open-air cheese market, held every Wednesday morning in July and August, but it’s still a popular attraction and the only time the town heaves with tourists. From here, it’s a couple of hundred metres south to the fifteenth-century Speeltoren, an elegant, pinnacled tower that is all that remains of Edam’s second most important medieval church, and roughly the same distance again – south along Lingerzijde – to the impossibly picturesque Kwakelbrug bridge.
Stroll back from the church along Matthijs Tinxgracht, just to the west of Grote Kerkstraat, and you soon reach Jan Niuewenhuizenplein, site of the summer cheese market. It’s overlooked by the Kaaswaag, where they used to weigh the cheese, whose decorative panels feature the town’s coat of arms, a bull on a red field with three stars. It’s a good deal humbler than Alkmaar’s market, but follows the same format, with the cheeses laid out in rows before buyers sample them. Once a cheese has been purchased, the cheese porters, dressed in traditional white costumes and straw boaters, spring into action, carrying them off on their gondola-like trays.
Like Hoorn, Enkhuizen, just 19km to the east, was once one of the country’s most important seaports. From the fourteenth to the early eighteenth century, when its harbour silted up, it prospered from both the Baltic sea trade and the North Sea herring fishery – and indeed its maritime credentials were second to none: Enkhuizen was home to Holland’s largest fishing fleet and its citizens were renowned for their seamanship, with the Dutch East India Company always keen to recruit here. Enkhuizen was also the first town in Noord-Holland to rise against Spain, in 1572, but unlike many of its Protestant allies it was never besieged – its northerly location kept it safely out of reach of the Habsburg army. Subsequently, Enkhuizen slipped into a long-lasting economic lull, becoming a remote and solitary backwater until tourism revived its fortunes. It’s not a big place – about twenty minutes’ walk from end to end – but the town centre, with its ancient streets, slender canals and pretty harbours, is wonderfully well preserved, a rough circle with a ring of bastions and moat on one side, and the old sea dyke on the other. It also has a major attraction in the excellent Zuiderzeemuseum and is a good place to visit for its summer passenger ferry connections across the IJsselmeer to Stavoren and Urk.
It’s a short walk from the centre of Enkhuizen to the landbound part of the Zuiderzeemuseum, around a dozen rooms devoted to changing annual exhibitions on different aspects of the Zuider Zee. At its heart is the impressive ship hall, where you can get up close and personal with a number of traditional sailing barges and other craft. There is an ice-cutting boat from Urk, once charged with the responsibility of keeping the shipping lanes open between the island and the mainland; a dinghy for duck-hunting, complete with shotgun; and some wonderful fully rigged and highly varnished sailing vessels.
The main event, however, is the so-called Museumpark, whose main entrance is about 100m to the north along Wierdijk, and which stretches north along the seaward side of the old dyke that once protected Enkhuizen from the Zuider Zee. It’s a fantastically well-put-together collection of over 130 dwellings, stores, workshops and even streets that have been transported here from every part of the region, and which together provide the flavour of life hereabouts from 1880 to around 1932. There are many highlights, and just about everything is worth seeing, but the best include a reconstruction of Marken harbour as of 1900, a red-brick chapel and assorted cottages from Den Oever, old fishermen’s houses from Urk, a post office and a pharmacy, which has a marvellous collection of “gapers” – painted wooden heads with their tongues out, which were the traditional pharmacy’s sign. The museum works very hard to be authentic: sheep and goats roam the surrounding meadows and its smokehouses smoke (and sell) real herring and eels, the sweetshop sells real old-fashioned sweets, the beautifully kept schoolrooms offer geography and handwriting classes, and there’s even a woman in a 1930s furnished house who will make you a traditional Dutch lunch. There’s also a nature reserve, where you can take a picnic and walk through the woods for some great views over the water. All in all not be missed, especially if you have children.
It’s only fifteen minutes from Amsterdam by train, but Haarlem has a very different pace and feel from its neighbour. A former cloth-making centre, it’s an easy-going, medium-sized town of around 150,000, with a good-looking centre that is easily absorbed in a few hours or on an overnight stay. In 1572, the townsfolk sided with the Protestant rebels against the Habsburgs, a decision they must have regretted when a large Spanish army besieged them in December of the same year. The siege was a desperate affair that lasted for eight months, but finally the town surrendered after receiving various assurances of good treatment – assurances which the Spanish commander, Frederick of Toledo, promptly broke, massacring over two thousand of the Protestant garrison. Recaptured five years later, Haarlem went on to enjoy its greatest prosperity in the seventeenth century and was home to a flourishing school of painters, whose canvases are displayed at the outstanding Frans Hals Museum, located in the almshouse where Hals spent his last, and according to some his most brilliant years.
Haarlem is also within easy striking distance of the coast: every half-hour trains make the ten-minute trip to the modern resort of Zandvoort-aan-Zee, while frequent buses serve the huddle of fast-food joints that make up Bloemendaal-aan-Zee just to the north. Neither is particularly endearing in itself, but both are redeemed by long sandy beaches and the pristine stretches of the dune and lagoon, crisscrossed by footpaths and cycling trails, that make up the nearby Nationaal Park de Zuid-Kennemerland.
Haarlem’s biggest draw, the Frans Hals Museum, is a five-minute stroll south of the Grote Markt, housed in the almshouse complex where the aged Hals lived out his last destitute years. The collection comprises a handful of prime works by Hals along with a small but eclectic sample of Dutch paintings from the fifteenth century onwards, all immaculately presented and labelled in English and Dutch. There’s also a small separate section consisting of a life-size replica of a seventeenth-century Haarlem street.
The Hals paintings begin in earnest in Room 14 with a set of five “Civic Guard” portraits. For a time, Hals himself was a member of the Company of St George, and in the Officers of the Militia Company of St George he appears in the top left-hand corner – one of his few self-portraits. See also Hals’s Haarlem contemporary Johannes Verspronck’s (1600–62) Regentesses of the Holy Ghost Orphanage – one of the most accomplished pictures in the gallery, which echoes Hals’s own Regents of St Elizabeth Gasthuis, a serious but benign work of 1641. Perhaps the museum’s most valuable and impressive works, however, are Hal’s famous twin portraits, Regents and Regentesses of the Oudemannenhuis, which depicts the people who ran the almshouse when Hals was there – a collection of cold, self-satisfied faces staring out of the gloom, the women reproachful, the men only marginally more affable. There are those who claim Hals had lost his touch by the time he painted these pictures, yet their sinister, almost ghostly, power suggests quite the opposite.
Little is known about Frans Hals (c.1580–1666), born in Antwerp, the son of Flemish refugees who settled in Haarlem in the late 1580s. His extant oeuvre is relatively small – some two hundred paintings, and nothing like the number of sketches and studies left behind by his contemporary, Rembrandt. His outstanding gift was as a portraitist, showing a sympathy with his subjects and an ability to capture fleeting expression that some say even Rembrandt lacked. Seemingly quick and careless flashes of colour characterize his work, but they are always blended into a coherent and marvellously animated whole. He is perhaps best known for his civic guard portraits – group portraits of the militia companies initially formed to defend the country from the Spanish, but which later became social clubs for the gentry. Getting a commission to paint one of these portraits was a well-paid privilege – Hals got his first in 1616 – but their composition was a tricky affair and often the end result was dull and flat. With great flair and originality, Hals made the group portrait a unified whole instead of a static collection of individual portraits, his figures carefully arranged, but so cleverly as not to appear contrived. Hals’s later paintings are darker, more contemplative works, closer to Rembrandt in their lighting and increasingly sombre in their outlook, giving meaning to van Gogh’s remark that “Frans Hals had no fewer than 27 blacks”.
You could do worse than spend a day exploring Haarlem’s hofjes – small, unpretentious complexes of public housing built for the old and infirm in the seventeenth century. The best known and perhaps most accessible is the one that was home to Frans Hals in the last years of his life and now houses the Frans Hals Museum. But there are others dotted around town, most of them still serving their original purpose but with their gardens at least open to the public. The most grandiose is the riverside Hofje van Teylers, a little way east of the museum of the same name around the bend of the Spaarne at Koudenhorn 64. Unlike many of the other hofjes, which are decidedly cosy, this is a Neoclassical edifice dating from 1787 with solid columns and cupolas. To the west, the elegant fifteenth-century tower of the Bakenesserkerk on Vrouwestraat is a flamboyant, onion-domed affair soaring high above the Haarlem skyline, that marks the nearby Bakenes Hofje, at Wijde Appelaarsteeg 11: founded in 1395, it is Haarlem’s (and indeed the country’s) oldest hofje, with a delightful enclosed garden. Five minutes’ walk away, the Hofje van Oorschot, at the junction of Kruisstraat and Bartelijorisstraat, dates from 1769 and is also rather grand. To the south of here, the Brouweshofje, just off Botermarkt, is a small, peaceful terrace of housing with a courtyard behind, and windows framed by brightly painted red and white shutters, while the nearby Hofje van Loo, on nearby Barrevoetstraat, is equally diminutive, and open to view from the road.
The pristine woods, dunes and lagoons of the National Park de Suid-Kennemerland stretch north from Zandvoort up to the eminently missable industrial town of IJmuiden, at the mouth of the Nordzeekanaal. Bus #81 leaves Haarlem bus station every thirty minutes to cross the national park via the N200 before reaching the coast at the minuscule beachside settlement of Bloemendaal-aan-Zee. En route, several bus stops give access to the clearly marked hiking and cycling trails that pattern the national park, but the best option is to get off at the Koevlak entrance – ask the driver to let you off. Maps of the park are available at Haarlem tourist office, and there are three colour-coded hiking routes posted at Koevlak (and indeed all entrances). The most appealing is the 4- to 5-kilometre (1hr) jaunt west through pine woods and dunes to the seashore, where the Parnassia café (April–Nov), provides refreshments with a view of the North Sea. From here, it’s a 1.5km walk back to Bloemendaal-aan-Zee, where you can catch bus #81 back to Haarlem (or of course you can do the whole thing in reverse).
The old Zuider Zee port of Hoorn, 15km north of Edam, “rises from the sea like an enchanted city of the east, with its spires and its harbour tower beautifully unreal”. So wrote the English travel writer E.V. Lucas, who passed through here in 1905, and Hoorn is still a place that is best approached from the water. During the seventeenth century this was one of the richest of the Dutch ports, referred to by the poet Vondel as the “trumpet” of the Zuider Zee, handling the important Baltic trade and that of the Dutch colonies. The Dutch East India Company had one of its centres of operation here; The Tasman left Hoorn to “discover” Tasmania and New Zealand; and in 1616 William Schouten sailed out of Hoorn to navigate a passage around South America, calling its tip “Cape Hoorn” after his native town. The good times ended in the early eighteenth century when the harbour silted up, strangling the trade on which the town was reliant and turning Hoorn into one of the so-called “dead cities” of the Zuider Zee – a process completed with the creation of the IJsselmeer in 1932.
Until its road connection to the mainland in 1957, Marken was an island in the Zuider Zee, and pretty much a closed community, supported by a small fishing industry. Today, it mainly lives off its tourist industry, and can get pretty busy on summer weekends, though it’s of the day-tripping, coach-driven variety, and when the crowds have left, or out of season, it’s a rather special place, very peaceful and remote, despite being within just a few miles of Amsterdam’s urban sprawl.
Out towards the coast, 10km northwest of Alkmaar and beyond the artists' retreat of Bergen, the village of Bergen-aan-Zee marks the northerly limit of the Noordhollands Duinreservaat (North Holland Dune Reserve), whose bumpy sand dunes stretch north from the suburbs of IJmuiden, and the southern boundary of the Schoorlse Duinen Nationaalpark (Schoorl Dunes National Park), where a band of sweeping, wooded dunes, up to 5km wide, extends north as far as Camperduin – one of the widest undeveloped portions of the whole Dutch coastline. The dune reserve and the national park are both crisscrossed by footpaths and cycling trails, but the most lauded is the well-signposted, 42km-long De Brede Duinen route that takes cyclists on a loop through Alkmaar, Bergen, Bergen-aan-Zee, Schoorl and Camperduin, passing the highest of the national park’s sand dunes (54m) on the way. Both Bergen and Alkmaar tourist offices sell detailed maps of local hiking and cycling routes but if you just want a taster of the landscape, there’s a carpark and and access to marked trails halfway between Bergen and Bergen-aan-Zee on Uilenvangersweg.
Stuck out in the Waddenzee, Texel (pronounced “Tessel”) is the westernmost of the string of islands that band the northern coast of the Netherlands. Some 25km long and up to 9km wide, Texel is a mixture of natural island – in its southeast reaches – and reclaimed polder, mostly on the western side. Overall it’s a flat landscape of green pasture land dotted with chunks of woodland, speckled with small villages and protected by long sea defences. The west coast boasts magnificent stretches of sand that reach from one end of the island to the other, its numbered markers (paal) – from 6 in the south to 33 in the north – distinguishing one section from another. Behind the beach, a belt of sand dunes widens as it approaches both ends of the island. In the north it spreads out into two nature reserves – De Muy and De Slufter –the latter incorporates Texel’s finest scenery in a tidal inlet where a deep cove of salt marsh, lagoon and dune has been left beyond the sea defences, exposed to the ocean. It’s this landscape, and of course the beaches, combined with the island’s laid-back rural charms, that attracts holidaying Dutch and Germans by the ferryload in summer, and the island has scores of holiday bungalows and cottages, plus a scattering of hotels and campsites. The island’s villages are fairly humdrum places, though the "capital", Den Burg, has its lively moments. Den Hoorn, is probably the prettiest place on the island, while Oudeschild still boats a working harbour with a small fishing fleet. Overall, for UK visitors at least, it’s a bit of an untouched gem.
The former fishing village of Volendam is the largest of the Markermeer towns and has had, by comparison with its neighbours, some rip-roaring times. In the early years of the twentieth century it became something of an artists’ retreat, with both Picasso and Renoir spending time here, along with their assorted acolytes. Evidence of the town’s artistic connections can be seen in the antique-filled public rooms of the Hotel Spaander on the waterfront, whose collection of paintings and sketches were given to the hotel by various artists in lieu of their lodgings. The hotel opened in 1881 and its first owner, Leendert Spaander, had seven daughters, quite enough to keep a whole bevy of artists in lust for a decade or two. The artists are, however, long gone and today Volendam is more or less a tourist target, crammed in season with day-trippers running the gauntlet of the souvenir stalls arranged along the length of the cobbled main street, whose perky gables line the picturesque yet workaday harbour.
Largely a dormitory suburb of Amstedam, the modern town of ZAANDAM is not especially alluring, though it does deserve a brief stop. The town was a popular tourist hangout in the nineteenth century, when it was known as “La Chine d’Hollande” for the faintly oriental appearance of its windmills, canals and row upon row of brightly painted houses. Monet spent some time here in the 1870s and, despite being under constant police surveillance as a suspected spy, went on to immortalize the place in a series of paintings.
About 4km north of Zaandam, Zaanse Schans is a re-created Dutch village whose antique houses, shops, warehouses and windmills, mostly dating from the eighteenth century, were brought here from all over the region half a century ago and re-erected amid a network of narrow canals. It’s a popular day-trip from Amsterdam and can get very crowded in summer, but it’s a real village too – all the businesses are real, even though they derive most of their income from tourists, and all the houses are lived in year-round by people who have opted to move and work here. It’s also the closest place to Amsterdam to see fully functioning windmills.
The towns and villages that string along the east coast of Noord-Holland flourished during Amsterdam’s Golden Age, their economies buoyed up by shipbuilding, the Baltic Sea trade and the demand for herring. They had access to the open sea via the waters of the Zuider Zee (Southern Sea) and, to the north, the connecting Waddenzee (Mud Sea). The business was immensely profitable and its proceeds built a string of prosperous seaports – most notably Volendam, Hoorn and Enkhuizen – and nourished market towns like Edam, while the Zuider Zee itself supported a batch of fishing villages such as Marken and Urk. In the eighteenth century, however, the Baltic trade declined and the harbours silted up, leaving the ports economically stranded.
The Zuider Zee continued to provide a livelihood for local fishermen, but most of the country was more concerned by the danger of flooding it posed, as time and again storms and high tides combined to breach the east coast’s defences. The first plan to seal off and reclaim the Zuider Zee was proposed in 1667, but the rotating-turret windmills that then provided the most efficient way of drying the land were insufficient for the task and matters were delayed until suitable technology arrived – in the form of the steam-driven pump. In 1891, Cornelis Lely (1854–1929) proposed a retaining dyke and his plans were finally put into effect after devastating floods hit the area in 1916. Work began on this dyke, the Afsluitdijk, in 1920 and, on May 28, 1932, the last gap in it was closed and the Zuider Zee simply ceased to exist, replaced by the freshwater IJsselmeer.
The original plan was to reclaim all the land protected by the Afsluitdijk, turning it into farmland for settlers from the country’s overcrowded cities, starting with three large-scale land-reclamation schemes that were completed over the next forty years: the Noordoostpolder in 1942 (480 square kilometres), Oostelijk Flevoland in 1957 (540 square kilometres) and Zuidelijk Flevoland in 1968 (440 square kilometres). In addition, a second, complementary dyke linking Enkhuizen with Lelystad was finished in 1976, thereby creating lake Markermeer – a necessary prelude to the draining of another stretch of the IJsselmeer. The engineers licked their contractual lips, but they were out of sync with the majority of the population, who were now opposed to any further draining of the lake. Partly as a result, the grand plan was abandoned and, after much governmental huffing and puffing, the Markermeer was left alone and thus most of the old Zuider Zee remained water.
There were many economic benefits to be had in the closing of the Zuider Zee, not least great chunks of new and fertile farmland, while the roads that were built along the top of the two main retaining dykes brought Noord-Holland within twenty minutes’ drive of Friesland. The price was the demise of the old Zuider Zee fishing fleet, and today these placid, steel-grey lakes are popular with day-tripping Amsterdammers, who come here in their droves to sail boats, observe the waterfowl, and visit a string of dinky towns and villages that pretty much rely on tourism to survive. These begin on the coast just a few kilometres north of Amsterdam with the picturesque old fishing village of Marken and the former seaport of Volendam, just up the coast. From here, it’s a couple of kilometres further to Edam, the pick of the local bunch, a small and infinitely pretty little town of narrow canals and handsome old houses.
A former Rough Guides Managing Editor, Keith Drew has written or updated over a dozen Rough Guides, including Costa Rica, Japan and Morocco. As well as writing for The Telegraph, The Guardian and BRITAIN Magazine, among others, he also runs family-travel website