Holland’s Open-Air Folk Museums: A Treat for All Five Senses

Zaanse Schans features tourable, working windmills.
By Rick Steves

Any Netherlands native will tell you: To really experience everyday Dutch life, take a day trip out of Amsterdam. In a country as tiny as Holland, it’s easy to do. Within a half hour of leaving Central Station, you can be deep in the Dutch countryside — lush, green, and filled with tulips and black-and-white cows. It’s a refreshing break from urban Amsterdam.

And while you’re enjoying the Dutch countryside’s dairy air, visit one of these excellent open-air folk museums for a slice of Dutch life and history — including, of course, cheesemaking, windmills, and wooden shoes. The Netherlands are tiny; any of these three sights is an easy day trip by bus, train, or car from Haarlem or Amsterdam.

Enkhuizen Zuiderzee Museum

This lively museum is named for the great inland bay called the Zuiderzee (ZOW-der-zay, “South Sea”), which disappeared after the bay was diked off in 1932 and made into a lake. With the ensuing transition from saltwater to freshwater, and the later reclamation and repurposing of land, the traditional culture on display at this museum became virtually extinct; this museum was created to preserve that culture.

You’ll meet people who do a convincing job of role-playing no-nonsense 1905 villagers. You’re welcome to take their picture, but they won’t smile — no one said “Have a nice day” back then. On weekends, children enjoy trying out old-time games, playing at the dress-up chest, and making sailing ships out of old wooden shoes.

The museum is a delight to explore, with something for all the senses: Smell the wood fires and tanning vats, savor a bite of aged cheese and old fashioned licorice, watch a windmill turn, hold a lump of coal, and catch the sound of wooden clogs on a brick road. Don’t be afraid to poke into houses and backyards (the curious get lots more out of this experience — any open door is open to you).

A trip here works seamlessly as part of a “Historic Triangle” day trip: a three-part journey that starts with a ride on a cute steam train through the countryside from Hoorn to Medemblik, then a sail on a 1920s-era boat to Enkhuizen (home of the Zuiderzee Museum), and ending with a train ride back to Hoorn (itself a short trip from Amsterdam or Haarlem).

Arnhem Open-Air Folk Museum

Arnhem has the Netherlands’ first, biggest, and best folk museum. You’ll enjoy a huge park of windmills, old farmhouses and other buildings (gathered from throughout the Netherlands and reassembled here), traditional crafts in action, and a pleasant education-by-immersion in Dutch culture. It’s great for families.

You could spend the whole day exploring this wonderful open-air museum. Be sure to at least drop by some of its highlights:

  • Village Square: You can play here with toys from the 1800s. See if you can make the “flying Dutchman” fly, or try to ride an original “high-wheeled velocipede” without falling off. On the square is a restaurant specializing in poffertjes (puffy mini-pancakes dusted with powdered sugar), with indoor and outdoor seating.
  • Laundry: Inside, an industrial-strength agitator furiously pounds stubborn stains to smithereens. (There was no “delicate cycle” back then.) On nice days, the clean sheets are spread out on the lawn to dry.
  • The rustic Pancake House serves hearty and sweet splittable Dutch flapjacks.
  • Four Laborers’ Houses: These houses offer a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyles of four generations of workers: from 1870, 1910, 1954, and 1970. See how home fashion and amenities progressed from the rustic 1870s to the garish 1970s.
  • Platform Windmill: Hike up the steep steps of the park’s centerpiece for an aerial view over the museums.

Zaanse Schans Open-Air Museum

This re-created 17th-century town puts Dutch culture — from cheesemaking to wooden-shoe carving — on a lazy Susan.

Located on the Zaan River in the town of Zaandijk, the museum is devoted to the traditional lifestyles along the Zaan — once lined with hundreds of windmills, used for every imaginable purpose, and today heavily industrialized (including a giant corporate chocolate factory you’ll pass on the way). In the 1960s, houses from around the region were transplanted here to preserve traditional culture. Most of the exhibits are run by quirky locals who’ve found their niche in life, and do it with gusto.

Zaanse Schans (ZAHN-ze skhahns), a hodgepodge of loosely related attractions in a pretty park with old houses, feels less like a museum than Arnhem’s or Enkhuizen’s open-air museums. And, since each attraction charges a separate entry fee (and those that are free are either selling or promoting something), it also feels more crassly commercial...you’ll be nickel-and-dimed for your cultural education. But it’s undeniably handy, just 15 minutes by train (plus a 15-minute walk) from downtown Amsterdam. Two of the attractions here — the Dutch Clock Museum and the tourable, working windmills — are unique and genuinely interesting. Because it’s the easiest one-stop look at the Netherlands’ traditional culture, Zaanse Schans can be flooded at midday by busloads of tour groups. To avoid the hordes, come early or late.