When someone mentions Holland, what comes to mind? For many, this region of the Netherlands evokes a vision of stately windmills overlooking fields of tulips, blonde children playing in wooden shoes, and quaint pastoral settings. While some of those stereotypes may not be far off from historical truth, much of Holland today is more urban and contemporary than the images you’ll find on tourism brochures. One exception to that rule, however, is a place called Zaanse Schans.
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M and I went into our visit to Amsterdam fully intending to stay within the city limits and deeply experience everything the Dutch capital had to offer. There are certainly more than enough things to do in Amsterdam, and we easily could have spent that first day exploring the nooks and crannies of this beautiful city on our rented bikes. But, in true Gwen fashion, I learned about an area outside the city and started thinking that perhaps we should make an exception to check it out.
We had already ridden through the lovely Vondelpark, pausing for brunch at a yummy place called Dignita that helps provide career opportunities to victims of human trafficking. It was there, while discussing what to do with the rest of the day, that the idea of biking further afield was tossed into the ring. We started poking around the interwebs for bike routes outside of Amsterdam, and suddenly the name “Zaanse Schans” was everywhere.
Zaanse Schans (pronunciation here) is a neighborhood in the town of Zaandam. Located about twelve miles north of us along the River Zaan, Zaanse Schans is a major tourist destination thanks to its colorful windmills, historic buildings (many of which date to the 19th and early 20th century), and quaint shops and museums.
While we suspected it might be a little manufactured compared to the experiences we generally seek out, it also seemed like a worthy endpoint to a long bike ride that would help us see more of the Netherlands. It was a beautiful day that seemed perfect for hitting the road. Thus, we quickly agreed that venturing out to Zaanse Schans seemed like a great idea. Fueled by a delicious breakfast and filled with the confidence of people who have spent almost a full hour biking in a cycle-crazy city, we paid our tab and got on our way.
This is the point where I acknowledge that I have done relatively little biking in my life and foolishly thought that twelve miles by bike was “not that far.” I was also twenty weeks pregnant. In my case, therefore, it was far, especially since the round trip ended up being around twenty-five miles. One probably shouldn’t attempt this ride without at least a little bit of fortitude and cycling skill. That said, biking of some sort is a must-do in the Netherlands, and it’s definitely worthwhile to ride a little outside of Amsterdam so that you can experience a less touristed version of the country.
Aside from the burning in my quadriceps that started almost immediately and the panic of navigating busy Amsterdam as a complete cycling novice, the ride out to Zaanse Schans was quite enjoyable. The breeze on our faces was a welcome relief from the hot sun, the bike lanes were well-marked and mostly flat, and we loved the glimpses we got into the everyday lives of Netherlanders.
I also appreciated the physical activity after spending the previous three days eating my way through Paris.
Our route took us out of the city by way of the pleasant Westerpark and through neighborhoods little trafficked by foreigners. Eventually, we arrived at the Hempontplein ferry, which brought us across the river to the charming town of Zaandam.
In all, the ride took about an hour. Soon enough, we found ourselves crossing a bridge that spanned the Zaan, which was lined with colorful buildings and boats…
… and the Zaanse Schans windmills and little village came into view.
On the other side of the river, we turned into the little tourist complex, parked and locked our bikes, and started to explore. First on the list was a walk along the Zaan to check out the line of windmills. Bigger than I anticipated, they stood in their bold colors beside the water, their sails turning slowly in the light breeze.
Many of the windmills housed little museums or mills that you could visit for a small fee. Although M and I decided not to enter any, they would provide some great learning experiences for kids and adults alike.
Opposite the Zaanse Schans windmills was a large tract of open land, and it was nice to feel like we had left the hustle and bustle of the city behind. Cows lazed in the sun and the grass was green as far as the eye could see. We even spotted a man perched on a ladder fixing a shingled roof in wooden clogs.
At the end of the line of windmills, we turned back toward the entrance and the cluster of buildings that make up the majority of Zaanse Schans. There was a lot to see: little museums, handicrafts vendors, sweet shops, a barrel-maker, a pewter foundry, souvenir emporiums, and more! Visitors from all over the world milled about, enjoying the sunshine.
Make no mistake, Zaanse Schans is a manufactured experience. The windmills were moved there from other locations, the paths are lined with shops, and you’re more likely to hear English or Mandarin being spoken than Dutch. Cultural purists and the “I’m a traveler, not a tourist” type will eschew Zaanse Schans for its touristy feel, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a fun place to spend an afternoon, especially on a fine day. It’s an excellent destination for those looking to take a bike ride out of Amsterdam, and it’s also fantastic for families. Kids of all ages will enjoy exploring the windmills, petting the friendly farm animals, climbing into a pair of giant wooden shoes for a photo, and topping it all off with an ice cream cone or stroopwafel baked on the premises.
I’m a sucker for farmers’ markets and artisanal food stands, so stepping the shop at the Catharina Hoeve Cheese Farm was a moment of pure joy. The place is packed with all sorts of Dutch foodstuffs, many of which are set out for shoppers to sample. M practically had to drag me away from all of the little bites of cheese, stroopwafels, honey, and other goods that were set out around the store to tempt shoppers into taking the Dutch delights home with them. It was a pregnant woman’s dream come true.
Another interesting stop was the clog workshop, which included a small museum of wooden shoes from throughout Dutch history. From utilitarian farmer’s clogs to ornately decorated wedding shoes, the museum shared stories behind the wide variety of footwear on display. It’s hard for me to understand how such shoes could be comfortable and functional (are splinters not a thing in Holland?), but there was no denying the craftsmanship and unique history of the clogs.
Beyond the museum was the workshop itself, where you can watch the shoes being made, with the shoe-heavy gift shop right beside, of course. I refrained from purchasing a pair to test the splinter issue firsthand, but they were undeniably beautiful.
After a few more stops in the various gift shops around the complex, we decided that it was time to hop on our bikes and make our way back to Amsterdam. We took a different route on the return trip, sticking to the northern side of the river as opposed to the southern route we had taken to get to Zaanse Schans. It ended up being a little more pleasant, as we passed through quiet neighborhoods and along tree-lined bike paths.
It took about an hour to reach the Buiksloterweg ferry, which deposited us right at the Amsterdam Centraal train station. My legs were rubber by this point, and the long day of physical exertion in the hot summer sun had taken its toll. Nevertheless, I was really glad that we had made the effort to get out of Amsterdam and see a little more of the country, and it felt great to have done something good for our bodies in the process. (Ice cream and excessive amounts of cheese samples notwithstanding.) If you’re looking for a fun day trip from Amsterdam and an excuse for a nice bike ride, I encourage you to check out Zaanse Schans!
Bike Route to Zaanse Schans Windmills
Use this helpful map to find your way from Amsterdam Centraal train station to the tourist village of Zaanse Schans. Click on “More options” to open the map in a new tab, where you can see step-by-step directions. You can even send the directions to your phone for reference while biking.
Tips for Visiting Zaanse Schans
- There are other ways to get to Zaanse Schans from Amsterdam if biking isn’t your thing. The route can be driven in around twenty minutes, or you can take public transportation from the Centraal train station, which takes a little more than a half hour. You can also book a group tour in Amsterdam that may include other fun sights along the way.
- Try to visit Zaanse Schans on a weekday to avoid the weekend crowds. There’s a helpful calendar at the bottom of this website that can help predict how busy the area will be on any given date.
- The paths in the little village are mostly paved and even, but it would still be wise to wear comfortable footwear.
- Be prepared on a hot day, as many of the buildings are not air-conditioned.
- Don’t forget your camera!
Tips for Biking in the Netherlands
Bikes are ubiquitous in Amsterdam, and the Dutch cycle everywhere and for seemingly every occasion. (Take a look at the huge and jam-packed bicycle storage facility adjacent to the Centraal train station and you’ll get an idea of how important bikes are in the Netherlands.)
When visiting Amsterdam, it’s definitely part of the experience to rent a bike to see the sights, but it shouldn’t be done lightly. Here are some rules of the road and general tips that will help you have a great day on two wheels:
- Bikes, not cars or pedestrians, have the right of way. Ride carefully but confidently, use appropriate hand signals (usually just sticking out a hand to indicate you’re turning or changing direction) and always stay in the designated bike lanes.
- Rented bikes come with a bell on the handlebars. Use it to warn fellow cyclists of your approach and alert pedestrians to get out of your way. You’ll hear the merry dinging of bike bells throughout the city, so don’t be afraid to utilize yours for your own safety and that of others.
- Download a map of your route before you embark on any ride, especially if you don’t have cell service and will be cycling a route outside of the city.
- Bike rentals abound, so feel free to compare prices. Always check that your bike functions properly (brakes, bike lock, handlebars, bell, etc.) before riding off. Many hotels, like the Hotel Roemer where we stayed, offer bike rentals as well.
- You will be on the hook for a bike that gets stolen or damaged, so don’t forget to lock it up whenever you step away from it. Also, make sure to take note of where you’ve parked and which bike is yours, as many bicycles look the same or are rented from the same few companies.
- Consider taking a cycling tour of Amsterdam or the surrounding area! There are plenty of tours on offer and it’s a great way to see the city, learn more about Amsterdam, and bike in a controlled environment with an expert to lead the way. You might get to take some cycling routes you might not otherwise have found!
Have you taken any fun bike trips or tours?
What “touristy” destination did you really enjoy?
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This guide to biking from Amsterdam to the Zaanse Schans windmills was first published on May 7, 2019, and last updated on May 12, 2021.
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