In Search of Lost Windmills
You may or may not be disappointed to hear there are only a few windmills left in Amsterdam. If Brouwerij ‘t IJ doesn’t quite satisfy your appetite for that pinnacle of Dutchness, Zaanse Schans is the one for you.
The place itself is a bit of a tourist honeypot – kind of like a theme park without the rides. Nonetheless, it’s a stunning journey through the countryside. That’s why, of all places, it’s best to make the journey by your rental bike. It’s also one of the best places to scratch a little deeper into the history of the region, and understand more about the not-so-distant industrial past of North-Holland.
Average Trip Time:
Noorderpark & Cafe de Ceuvel
Admittedly, it’s less than a half hour’s cycle from our Amsterdam bike rental shop, but this is a special pitstop before you embark out of the city.
Right by Noorderpark, De Ceuvel sits beside a peaceful canal, tucked away from the noise of the city. From their home brewed beer to the offices and homes built out of houseboats, it was designed with a dedication to sustainability. The comfortable and quirky cafe is a great spot to enjoy a snack and a drink, and experience a prime example of thoughtful development in Amsterdam Noord.
When you’re able to peel yourself away, pass across Noorderpark, and wiggle you’re way round Buiksloot. After 5-10 minutes you’ll reach the Twiske canal. There’s a quiet cycle path following the canal all the way up to a couple of magnificent lakes on either side.
You notice as buildings and tarmac give way to fields, and pedestrians are replaced by fluffy brown cows. When you reach the dike over Zuidwestplas, you’ll catch sight of the first windmill on your trip. There’s a plenty of spots to stop and take pictures or unroll a picnic blanket.
The Twiske Windmill is still in use today. It serves both as the home of the miller and his wife, and pumps water from one side of the dike to the other. This maintains water levels in the Twiskepolder. Whilst an electric pump means the windmill is not strictly necessary, it is a much-loved landmark for the adventurous cyclist, and provides an insight into a fading way of life.
Paviljoen Twiske has a large terrace looking out over a beautiful lake. Sitting in the shade of the trees, you can enjoy a cold one while watching people sail on De Stooterplas.
They have a good selection of meals and typical Dutch snacks (although best to avoid the nachos). Their friendly staff used to helping out cyclists on their journey. There’s also a jetty to take envy-inspiring snaps for the romantics among you. That’s one of the reasons it’s so popular with weddings. It’s worth checking there isn’t one on – or packing your wedding crasher outfit – before you go.
The journey takes around 20 minutes from Paviljoen to Zaans – depending how much you’re weighed down by lunch. Most of it is on a quiet cycle path with meadows either side, following the railway. You’ll reach a main road about half way through, where you have to do a little zig-zag to pass underneath.
Pro tip: don’t take what we thought was the ‘short cut’ straight under the road bridge. You wade through sand and broken glass only to reach an (admittedly tranquil) dead-end. There’s also a steep track directly up the verge, but we found ourselves worryingly close to tumbling down.
Before you launch into Zaanse Schans, it’s well worth checking out the Zaans Museum. Understanding the significance of the place beyond it merely being a tourist attraction adds a great deal to your experience.
The collection evidences the impressive wealth of the region, stretching back as far as the seventeenth century. Much of this was built on the industrial prowess of The Zaan, one of the oldest industrial regions in Europe. It’s a wonderful take on the usual images that come to mind when we think of industry. There’s far less of the chimneys belching black smoke, and far more harnessing the clean power of water and wind. This resonates strongly today, in an age of sustainable development.
A wander through the museum gives you an insight into the manufacture of products, trade and commerce, and the clothing, culture, and way of life of Zaan’s inhabitants through the centuries. These engaging stories are told through a selection of original objects, reconstructions, and interactive media.
The museum is open 09:00-17:00, and tickets cost €12 for adults. It’s well worth paying an extra €3 for the Zaanse Schans card, which gives you free access to The Zaan Time Museum, Weaver’s House, Cooperage, Jisper House, as well as discounts on cruises and souvenirs.
Zaanse Schans is a strange place. Exploring a country, however, is a lot about about experiencing the new and the bizarre. It’s a bit of a hotspot for coach tours, so the best times to visit are early or late in the day – and well worth timing your trip so that the sun sets behind the silhouetted windmills.
Depending how long you want to stay and if you want to go inside any of the windmills, its worth locking up your rental bike by the museum. You wander between traditional Dutch wooden houses painted in bright green, over little bridges, and of course, past windmills. There are lots of windmills here. You may never want to see another windmill after you leave.
That said, you’ve come this far and it’s definitely worth having a look inside a couple. They make all things from paper to mustard. They are impeccably preserved, so other than the cameras, smartphones, and selfie-sticks it would be easy to believe you were back in eighteenth-century Holland.
To wander through Zaanse Schans itself is free of charge – kind of like an open air museum. But you need to pay (or use your Iamsterdam Card) to have a look inside the various workshops and functioning windmills. There’s a bakery museum, cheese farm, and clog factory, which have shops for buying souvenirs and produce.
Some of the best views are from the bridge just beyond the main site (the N515). From here, you can see windmills gently turning in the wind, dotted around the water stretching into the distance.
Okay, so this is cheating a little bit, but there is a rather quick and convenient way home. It’s called a train. They depart from Koog-Zaandijk, around 5 minutes cycle from Zaanse Schans, and get you to Centraal in 15 minutes. You can take your bike on the train too, for a supplement of €6.90. More information about bikes on trains can be found here.
If you’ve still got some juice in your legs, or fancy working off some calories from a visit to De Kraai Pancake house, it’s around an hour to cycle back to our bike rental shop. The route you took on the way up is the most pleasant, but it’s also nice to take a different way into the city via Zaandam and Westerpark.
If windmills, history, and the preserved past is your thing, Zaanse Schans is a must-see. If not, just remember – it’s about the journey not the destination.