The Netherlands: Beyond Amsterdam
By train, bike, and boat, we visit the top Dutch sights outside of Amsterdam: from Haarlem to Rotterdam, and from Delft to the disappeared Zuiderzee. Along the way, we enjoy charming towns with fragrant cheese markets, soggy polderland, mighty dikes, and windmills both new and old. Rolling through the Netherlands and connecting with its people, you can't help but think, "Everything's so…Dutch!"
New Church (Delft)
Delft has two grand churches that hold tombs of prominent local residents. The can't-miss-it New Church rockets up from the Markt: It's the needle around which Delft spins, and holds the most important tombs of Dutch royalty. If you want to work off your pannenkoeken, you can climb the New Church's tower (three levels and 376 steps in a very narrow staircase). This is a particularly dizzying tower climb, one of Europe's more dramatic. On a clear day you can see the towers of The Hague and, in the other direction, Rotterdam.
The Delft Blue earthenware made at this factory (known as the "Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles" in Dutch) is famous worldwide, making this the biggest tourist attraction in town. The Dutch East India Company, partly headquartered in Delft, imported many exotic goods from the Far East, including Chinese porcelain. The Chinese designs became trendy and were copied by many local potters. Three centuries later, their descendants are still going strong, and you can see them at work in this factory — the only one left of an original 32. While some may think this is just an excuse to shop for Delftware, it's a worthwhile stop for those who enjoy porcelain.
Get a bird's-eye view of the huge Dutch flower industry in this cavernous building where the world's flower prices are set. You'll wander on elevated walkways over literally trainloads of freshly cut flowers. About half of all the flowers exported from Holland are auctioned off here, in four huge auditoriums. The flowers are shipped here overnight (for maximum freshness), auctioned at the crack of dawn, and distributed as quickly as possible. For the best floral variety and auction action, the earlier you visit, the better (best before 9:30).
Haarlem is the hometown of Frans Hals, the foremost Dutch portrait painter of the 17th-century Golden Age. This refreshing museum displays many of Hals' greatest paintings, crafted in his nearly Impressionistic style. Stand eye-to-eye with life-size, lifelike portraits of Haarlem's citizens — brewers, preachers, workers, bureaucrats, and housewives. Take a close look at the people who built the Dutch Golden Age, and then watched it start to fade.
This 15th-century Gothic church is worth a look, if only to see Holland's greatest pipe organ (from 1738, 100 feet high). Its more than 5,000 pipes impressed both Handel and Mozart. Note how the organ, which fills the west end, seems to steal the show from the altar. Quirky highlights of the church include a replica of Foucault's pendulum, the "Dog-Whipper's Chapel," and a 400-year-old cannonball. Consider attending — even just part of — a concert to hear the Oz-like pipe organ (regular free concerts Tue at 20:15 mid-May–mid-Oct, additional concerts Thu at 16:00 July–Aug).
Located in the town of Hoorn, this museum — with a curiosity cabinet, still lifes, devotional art, city bigwig group portraits, and elegantly furnished living rooms and a kitchen — takes the art and heritage of the Rijksmuseum and the Dutch Masters and puts it in the context of a real town and Golden Age community. The building that houses the museum is perfectly suited for its task, dating from the 1630s, with a distinctive, ornate facade.
The museum's original buildings were collected from around the Zuiderzee. 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. A visit here meshes well with the Amsterdam–Hoorn–Medemblik–Enkhuizen–Amsterdam "Historic Triangle" train/boat loop trip, as boats from Medemblik dock directly at the museum.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. The people here claim if you stand on a chair you can see all across their country. This is the Best of the Netherlands. Thanks for joining us!
Traveling here, it's easy to see how the Netherlands is a lot like its people: efficient, a good balance of old and new, hard work and fun, innovation and tradition. Even with a dense population and an ongoing battle with the sea, the Dutch are warm and even-keeled.
We'll cruise through a mighty port, go for an old-fashioned sail, and visit the ultimate flower market. We'll marvel at Dutch masters, smoke some eels, pull out all the stops on an unforgettable organ…and start up a classic windmill.
In the west of Europe is the Netherlands, with 12 provinces, including North and South Holland. Everything we'll see is within an hour of Amsterdam. We'll sail what was the Zuiderzee, blocked off by long dams, explore characteristic towns from Delft to Rotterdam and Haarlem to Marken, with lots in between.
Most Dutch travel dreams are set in the area called "Holland," and that's where we'll be spending most of our time.
Like many fortified old cities, Delft, welcomes you with the twin towers of its city gate, graced by an old drawbridge, and a canal moat. Its delightful architecture recalls the Golden Age — the 17th-century pinnacle of Dutch trade and sea power. Quaint scenes line intimate canals.
It's Thursday, and that means market day in Delft. In towns all over the Netherlands, main squares become thriving markets one day a week. It's late June, and the herring are in season.
And every market comes with a cheese monger, almost evangelical about the tastiness of Dutch cheese. Ask a question, and you're in for an education — complete with samples.
Rick: This is young — how young is this?
Cheese monger: Um, about four to six weeks.
Rick: So, tell me about this one.
Cheese monger: Four and a half years old, handmade and quite strong. We have — sometimes is, we have them even older.
Rick: I like that — give me a glass of port and I don't — this is my dessert.
Towering over the square is the church, with its brick steeple rocketing skyward. And facing that, overseeing the town's commerce as it has for nearly a thousand years, is the City Hall. Much of the Netherlands is built on soggy land. The City Hall, with its heavy stone jail, was built on the most solid land in town. The leaning church, just down the canal…not so much.
The town's historic canals both drained the land and provided a transportation network for barges. Today the old barges are retired, and many are permanently moored in front of cafés and restaurants for outdoor dining. Over the centuries, these little canals shipped out countless barge loads of the town's famed earthenware.
Delftware is famous all around the world. Royal Delft, the oldest surviving workshop — established back in the 1600s — welcomes visitors to drop in and see how it's made.
Visitors to the factory follow the process: First the liquid clay is poured into plaster molds. When dry, it's removed, and the seams are smoothed off. Then it's baked. And then, lovingly painted by hand. It's a mesmerizing scene, unchanged for centuries. After being glazed, to fix the paint, it's baked a second time, during which the paint turns blue. That's the secret of Royal Delft Blue since 1653. The finished product: this highly valued earthenware. Rooms of historic Delftware show off this art. This table setting is laid out as if it was the home of a wealthy person here in Delft.
The Netherlands is small — smaller than West Virginia — and the most densely populated country in Europe. Most of the country is below sea level, reclaimed with great effort over many generations from the sea. That's why they like to say, "God made the world, but the Dutch — we made Holland."
This is polder land. Much of it once covered by the sea, it was encircled by dikes and dams and then drained. To pump out all that water, the Dutch used one of their leading natural resources: the wind.
For centuries, the Dutch built windmills. Over a thousand survive, and many still work. Some welcome visitors interested in a peek at the clever engine that powered the creation of this land.
I'm standing on reclaimed land, 12 feet below sea level. The challenge for the Dutch: to keep this land dry by pumping water uphill. Many windmills used their wind power to turn an Archimedes' screw — like this — which, by rotating in a tube, lifted water up and over the dike.
To catch the desired amount of wind, millers, like expert sailors, know just how much to unfurl the sails — or furl them back — as necessary. Mills are built with sturdy oak timber frames to withstand the constant tension. These timbers have stood strong since the 1600s. When the direction of the wind shifts, the miller turns the cap of the building — which weighs many tons — to face the breeze. As he spins the winch, it all slides on these wooden roller bearings. Then, with a hefty chain, he anchors it in the correct spot. As the wooden cogs connect, wind becomes clean power, Archimedes' screw rotates, and the water spirals up.
The Dutch had long eyed what was the vast inland Zuiderzee as a source of new land. This 18-mile-long dam was built as one of many steps in turning that sea into farmland.
The master plan? Cordon off sections of the shallow sea with hundreds of miles of dams and dikes like this. Then, by draining each section dry, piece by piece, build a bigger country.
These fields were once the bottom of that wide-open sea. Gradually, land was reclaimed and today the Netherlands is twice the size it was 400 years ago. Because of this reclamation, what had been fishing villages on little islands — like Schokland — are now high and dry mounds rising above fertile farmland.
Behind this sturdy stone-and-wood seawall, this tiny community once harvested the sea. In its day this cannon warned villagers of a high tide.
I'm standing below sea level. I know that because I picked up a handful of dirt and it came with some shells, and this marks sea level according to the official Amsterdam measure…zero.
Imagine: A couple generations ago, this buoy bobbed in the harbor. What was the bottom of the sea is now productive farmland.
The salty seabed soil — with a mix of rain, sunshine, and clever crop rotation — eventually becomes extremely fertile. One thing the polder soil grows particularly well is flowers.
And here at the Aalsmeer flower auction, it's clear: flowers are big business in Holland. Visitors are welcome in this, one of the world's largest commercial buildings.
They witness millions of dollars in the trafficking of flowers. In its auction halls, hundreds of wholesalers bid on trainloads of flowers as they roll by. To get the flowers out as fresh as possible, everything happens fast, including the bidding.
A "Dutch auction" is speedy because the prices go from high to low. Batches of flowers are sold to the first buyer to press the button. Buyers must be lightening quick — it's the only way to sell so many flowers in one morning.
Strolling the fragrant catwalk, it's fun to peer down on the action. They boast that fresh flowers go from cutting in the fields to flower shops anywhere in Europe within 24 hours. Workers scramble to get each buyer's purchase assembled on a train and shipped out. The Dutch are the world's leading flower exporters — 80 percent of these flowers are going abroad. Every day from this building, 20 million flowers are shipped, destined to make someone's day.
The industrious heritage of the Dutch people is evident in its many historic cities. Haarlem is a "Dutch masters" kind of town, with plenty of 17th-century architecture. The town gate, no longer needed as part of its fortification, welcomes all into a delightful Old Town. Haarlem's market square — traffic-free since the 1960s — has been the town's focal point for centuries.
The herring stand is a standard feature of small-town squares throughout Holland.
Herring vendor: Hi!
Rick: Is it herring time now? Are these fresh?
Herring vendor: That's fresh, it's now herring season.
Rick: In the summertime?
Herring vendor: Yeah, summertime.
Rick: So, what are my options?
Herring vendor: The options — outside of Amsterdam, they grab it from the tail and just slide it inside and they bite it.
Rick: And in Amsterdam?
Herring vendor: In Amsterdam we cut it in pieces.
Rick: Let's have it Amsterdam style, please.
Herring vendor: Yeah. Do you want onions and pickles with it?
Rick: What is the normal way?
Herring vendor: With everything.
Rick: I'll have everything. That's great.
Herring vendor: The whole package?
Rick: The whole package. Beautiful. And this is actually raw?
Herring vendor: This is raw, it's marinated with salt. And then we eat it with the Dutch flag.
Rick: So, this is a patriotic duty in the Netherlands. Is this — people say this is a healthy thing to eat.
Herring vendor: It is.
Rick: So, how do you say "delicious and healthy"?
Herring vendor: Lekker en gezond.
Rick: Lekker en gezond.
Herring vendor: Yeah.
Rick: Raw fish.
Herring vendor: Raw fish.
Rick: Mmm, why not. This will make me a good man?
Herring vendor: You already are, but now you're better.
Rick: Mmm ha ha! Lekker en gezond!
To uncover some of Haarlem's sites, dodge bikes down narrow characteristic lanes.
Just down the street, Haarlem's top museum features the work of its most famous son: the great portrait artist Frans Hals. Here, in a room full of his masterpieces, we get a good taste of Protestant Dutch art.
When the Dutch broke away from Spain and the Catholic Church in the 1600s, they established an independent Protestant republic. While this was great for freedom, it was a crisis for painters — no more wealthy bishops and art-loving kings to commission grand works of art. Dutch society was a merchant society, and now artists worked for a new kind of customer…
Merchants. These are ego-boosting portraits of city big shots. They epitomize the independent and upwardly mobile Dutch of the 17th century — the men who made the Golden Age golden.
These Dutchmen worked hard and were proud of it. Here, some business leaders close a deal. They enjoyed displaying the fruits of their labor, like this: an exquisitely detailed still life of good food. No preachy Madonnas or saints, but a canvas reminder that this household ate very well. And this family had some fine pewter ware. In this woman's portrait, her elegant dress and jewelry are painted with as much care as her face.
Painters showed city pride as well. A centerpiece of most Dutch cities is the church. You see it in three-century old paintings…
…and you see it today as you explore. Haarlem's Grote Kerk, or "great church," towers over the market square as if to bless all the business that takes place below.
Inside, you find a towering Gothic nave, which was whitewashed and purged of its Catholic ornamentation when the Reformation arrived in 1566. Small frescoed sections, revealed when the whitewash was cleaned off, show how the entire church was originally decorated.
And as was the case in many Protestant countries, rather than huge preachy works of visual art — like frescoes and statues, promoting the message of the Church — the artistic emphasis was put on music.
Protestant churches invested in mighty pipe organs. Haarlem's towering organ has been giving worship here an inspirational soundtrack since 1738.
And visitors enjoy free concerts weekly.
With Europe's densest population, the Netherlands has invested in an impressive public-transportation infrastructure. Buses and trains seem to go everywhere all the time. After leaving Haarlem, in a few minutes we're in Rotterdam, with its striking new train station.
Rotterdam has a gleaming skyline and Europe's largest port. It's a reminder of the Dutch knack for international trade. Locals say that while the money is spent in Amsterdam…it's made here in Rotterdam. They boast that shirts in Rotterdam are sold with the sleeves already rolled up.
A walk through this thriving pedestrian zone complements our quaint Old World sightseeing with a dose of today's reality.
Rotterdam's harbor is the third largest in the world. With a harbor tour, you can appreciate its immensity. The port handles 35,000 ocean-going vessels each year — that's almost a hundred ships a day. While most of these ships sail the open seas, this is where the Rhine River meets the ocean. And from here, river boats — filled with either tourists or cargo — can go all the way through Europe to the Black Sea.
Back in the 17th century the Dutch East India Company, which did business in ports around the world, was, in a way, the first great multi-national corporation. Today, the Dutch, with little in the way of natural resources, still make their serious money in trade. They remain among the world's great shippers.
After mighty Rotterdam, the tiny but historic port of Hoorn (a couple of hours to the north) seems quaint. But in its day, it was one of six trading cities that joined forces to create the Dutch East India Company. It evokes a rich history, from its once formidable harbor to its main square. Overlooking the square is the Westfries Museum — which takes you vividly back to Holland's Golden Age.
Stepping into the venerable building, which dates from the 1600s, the floor creaks. Its planks were salvaged from centuries-old trading ships, which likely sailed all the way to the Spice Islands on the far side of the world. Here, you feel the pride and the power of the Dutch — when they dominated world trade and brutally capitalized on their far-flung colonial empire. Pondering group portraits above the mantle, you can imagine the influence and the wealth of these tycoons. Here they're portrayed as if they control the globe. In a way they did…and much of that was because of the value of the spices they imported.
With the bland cuisine of Europe back then, you can imagine the demand for these new, exotic spices. You could spice up both your food and your life with peppercorns, cloves, and cinnamon. And nutmeg was so valuable it was said a bag of these could buy a house in 17th-century Holland.
Exploring Holland, we're struck by the big skies, fertile fields, and flat land.
The country is bounded by the North Sea. Where there are no natural dunes to keep the sea out, the Dutch have had to build mighty walls, or "dikes," to protect their farms and communities.
Roughly half the people and half the land here in the Netherlands are below sea level. And for 700 years, the Dutch have developed their expertise at keeping this country dry. It's a constant battle. And now with climate change and rising sea levels a reality, the work is that much harder and more expensive.
Even with impressive dikes already in place, the Dutch are moving mountains of sand and mud to fortify their dikes and protect their next generation. Famous for both their frugality and their foresight, the Dutch are investing billions of euros as climate change makes its costly impact felt on sea-level communities here and around the globe.
And flood protection requires more than massive dikes. Built where the big river meets the sea, the Maeslant Storm Surge Barrier is an amazing engineering project. When necessary, its two arms — each as long as the Eiffel Tower is high — are swung together to create a barrier. This stops a storm surge from flooding the Rotterdam delta, where a million people live. Low-lying American cities are importing Dutch expertise as they, too, face the reality of the future.
Along with their role as protectors of the Netherlands, some of the dikes and sand dunes that make the North Sea coast are playgrounds as well. And ever since the Industrial Age kicked into gear, local workers have come here for their R&R. At the sea-side resort of Scheveningen, that Dutch love of life is cranked way up. Rather than fight the sea, here people play in it. And for over a century, Dutch holiday-goers have enjoyed this promenade.
With the comfort of knowing Dutch engineers are keeping the sea at bay, my favorite days in Holland are spent below sea level, in its quaint and picturesque corners. Here you can experience the landscape of Holland as it was back in the 17th century. Exploring villages that seem to be built on both land and water, you get a sense for what life must have been like for the Dutch centuries ago.
In the town of Enkhuizen is the Zuiderzee Museum. While the modern world threatens traditional ways of Dutch life, this creative museum strives to keep them alive for future generations to appreciate. Its sprawling layout allows visitors to travel through both time and culture.
In one corner, people are living as if still in a remote fishing village back in 1905.
Exploring the park, you enjoy intimate slices of life from old Holland. The coopers artfully make their barrels watertight. The coal furnace is stoked to run the belt-driven Laundromat — sudsing, agitating, and wringing. The sail maker stitches a sail. The blacksmith pounds his iron…in his wooden clogs. Fishermen are smoking their eels, and visitors devour the entire experience.
And here in the Netherlands, if you know where to look, you can also enjoy traditional experiences outside the museums.
We're sailing to the fishing village of Marken in a traditional fishing boat. A few of these venerable boats survive. This one earns its keep by hiring out to visitors…and, in the case of this motley crew, putting them to work.
Crewman: How are we doing, Captain?
Captain: Almost! One more pull.
Captain: Ja. That's it.
Rick: How old is this boat?
Captain: It's from 1904, yeah, it's 110 years old, this boat.
Rick: What was the purpose? What was the work it did?
Captain: The purpose is a fishing boat, it's a working boat. They just did fishing with it, nothing else.
Rick: Now, back then, this was salt water, right?
Captain: It was salt water, because there was no dike in the north, so it was salt water. So, they fished on herring, anchovies…
Rick: How many people would work on the boat when it went out?
Captain: Well, they were with one skipper and one mate, so they actually did it with two people.
Rick: Just two? Only two?
Captain: They sailed and worked the ship, with, uh — even did fishing with it, with two people.
Rick: So, they would go fishing for how many days?
Captain: At Sunday they went to church, of course, and they started on Monday morning, and they came back at Friday evening.
Rick: Five days out, two men in this ship?
Captain: Yeah, they were — this was the time of wooden ships and iron men.
Rick: Wooden ships and iron men — ha ha! Those were the days!
Marken welcomes visitors with its charming harbor. It's a favorite with vacationing yachters who enjoy late sunsets with convivial happy hours. The oldest homes in the village were built on the highest ground. They huddle together, as if finding strength in numbers in the face of the next flood.
In the 19th century, this harbor was the thriving home to over a hundred fishing boats. But, along with fishing, devastating floods were a way of life here in Marken. When they walled off the sea with a massive dike 50 miles north of here, the salt water turned to fresh water, and the sea was controlled. It was tough on the fishing industry, but, overall, good for the people. No more floods.
While Marken remains both traditional and idyllic to this day, like much of the Netherlands, it's a place where the past and the present mingle comfortably.
The Netherlands offers travelers a rich variety of sights and experiences. And traveling here, sooner or later, you'll find yourself exclaiming, "everything's just so… Dutch!" I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Tot ziens.
The Netherlands is a lot like its people — warm, even-keeled, good on bikes.
Many windmills used their wind power to power — to turn an Archimedes' screw like this.
Sooner or later you find yourself excra — exclaiming, exclaiming, exclaiming!