You’ve probably seen pictures of Zaanse Schans and wondered where it was. It is located just north of Amsterdam, accessible by car, train, bike, etc. This preserved town is sort of like an open-air museum with traditional Dutch handicrafts. What you’ll notice first are the beautiful historic windmills, but there are also traditional houses (some still used as private residences) and workshops. If you want a glimpse into how Dutch people lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, this is the perfect place!
First off, getting to Zaanse Schans
Our plan was to rent bicycles in the center of Amsterdam and then cycle to Zaanse Schans. But what we did next was a terrible idea. As we were trying to keep our budget in a correct range, we rented cheap bikes that were super heavy and hard to ride. A trip that was supposed to take us two hours at a leisurely pace took us almost four hours!
We actually dreaded the ride back so much that we took the train back with our bikes to Amsterdam after our visit… The train station is called Zaandijk Zaanse Schans and the trip takes about 20min so it is definitely the quicker option for those on a time limit.
That being said, if you rent comfortable and fast bicycles, I think doing the trip by bike is so worth it. The Dutch have an incredible cycle road network, I have never seen anything quite like it. We got to see small villages and the countryside on the way which was great.
The world’s most original hotel
Before visiting Zaanse Schans, we stopped in Zaandam (the nearby city) to check out a very original building. I had seen a picture on the internet and just had to see it with my own two eyes. The building I am talking about is the Inntel Hotel Zaandam.
This hotel is made up of 70 traditional Dutch house facades, all piled up together and balancing on top of each other over twelve storeys. They are different shades of green and one of the houses is blue.
I thought it was a stupefying building, something straight out of a fairytale. I could seriously imagine it being the house of the mad hatter in Alice in Wonderland. It is a very fun building and makes me smile.
It is certainly one of the most unusual hotels I’ve seen in the world, and even though we didn’t stay there, I’m glad we took a small detour to see it! So thank you to the WAM architect firm for creating this wonderful piece of art.
A small anecdote about the only blue house in the structure. It has a name: Monet’s house. The famous painter took a trip to Zaandam one summer and painted several canvases, one of which is of a blue house. The house still exists on the banks of the river Zaan. The architects added the blue house as an homage to Monet.
Working windmills of Zaanse Schans
In its golden age, more than 600 windmills were constructed in the Zaan region and in Zaanse Schans, creating the first industrial zone. The windmills produced linseed oil, paint, snuff, mustard, paper and other products. Only a small number of these windmills still exist today and you can visit some of them.
We visited De Kat, which is said to be the only remaining working traditional windmill in the world to make paint. It was fascinating to see how this wind-powered machine works, from the inside and out. The mill grinds raw materials like chalk to make pigments for paint. It makes only high-quality paint that is used by several artists and museums around the world like the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam and the Vatican Museum in Rome.
In the mill we could see the huge grindstones crushing the chalk. The stones are powered by the wooden cogs, themselves powered by the sails of the windmill. The system creaks and shakes and you wonder how the whole thing is still working and even standing.
We went up a very steep flight of stairs to get to the platform around the mill. From there you can see the other mills, the countryside and the river. It is a beautiful view. But what’s even better is that you are so close to the sails of the mill. They turn quickly as the wind picks up. It is very impressive and not for the faint hearted.
Visit a clog workshop
Zaanse Schans is home to a wooden shoe workshop. Clogs are a big part of Dutch heritage. They are still worn today, mostly by farmers and workers. They are certified as safety shoes, so you won’t get hurt if any sharp or heavy objects fall on your feet.
Visiting the clog workshop was very interesting as we got to see a demonstration of how the shoes are made. Traditionally, the artisans made them all by hand and could only make a handful each day. Today, the shoes are made by machine and it only takes a few minutes to make a pair.
There is also a small museum where you can learn about the history of wooden shoes in the Netherlands. They have a lot of clogs on show, in all shapes and sizes : wedding clogs, roller clogs, spaceship clogs, stiletto clogs, you name it !
The gift shop is quite impressive as well, with a giant clog covered wall. I ended up buying a super cute pink clog keychain as a souvenir.
But my favorite part has to be the outside of the workshop. Clogs are arranged on a wall and there are two giant pairs of clogs. Obviously this is set up so tourists can take pictures, and I have to say it is nicely done. You can see on the picture how happy Lucas was to play the tourist with me (I’m being ironic of course, I had to force him to be on the picture).
Go sample some cheese
A visit to the Netherlands wouldn’t be complete without having tasted some Dutch cheese. We visited the Catharina Hoeve cheese farm, which was built in the 17th-century. This is one of the main attractions at Zaanse Schans. Like the clog workshop, you can attend a cheese making demonstration, which we didn’t have time for.
We visited the small museum which was not fascinating if I’m being honest. There was a poster that was quite funny though. The woman on it looked like she was either going to serve us a lovely cheese platter, or she was going to kill us savagely by stuffing us with the cheese.
The good part comes after the museum, when you enter a large room filled with cheese and you get to sample every single one of them ! We actually each bought a cheese to bring home as we don’t always like the same cheese. I went for a honey & thyme gouda (I really recommend this one), and Lucas chose an aged gouda.
I wish we had more time to visit the rest of this lovely village as there are tons more to do. You can visit the Zaans Museum to discover the daily life of the inhabitants over the years. You can check out Kuiperij which is a factory were barrels were made. You can go to the first grocery store in the Netherlands, Albert Heijn. Or opt for the Bakery Museum.
The whole village in itself is charming, so you should take the time to just walk around a bit. It is quite touristic though, so be aware that you won’t be the only ones there. We really enjoyed this daytrip and I think everyone visiting Amsterdam should keep one day to visit this place.