You’ll find no shortage of things to do in Amsterdam–a city filled to the gills with art, tasty food, canals, red light districts and more (and don’t get too carried away with the “and more” or you might find yourself in dire straits on your vacation). But as with all major cities, if you’ve got the time, venturing outside of the city will yield major rewards. Get a car and get out of Amsterdam (and only drive in the city if you’re off your rocker) and you’ll find fields of tulips, windmills and some of the most picturesque countryside on earth.
Haarlem is an adorable and historic city just under 15 miles from Amsterdam. Much like Amsterdam, much joy can be found simply wandering around and checking out the painting-worthy buildings, avenues and channels of water (Haarlem is on the Spaarne River). There are a few great museums, including the Frank Hals Museum if you enjoy Dutch art. Explore old churches or wander along the Spaarne to the Windmill de Adriaan–a restored, yet historic windmill. Haarlem is easy to get to from Amsterdam or Schiphol Airport either via public transportation or with a car. If you drive, be aware you’ll have to pay for parking most places in the city.
Edam is cute, cute and cute. It’s located in the wider municipality of Waterland, which is worth a day trip overall to explore its endlessly picturesque terrain. Farm houses, bridges over canals, pastures and cow fields and little villages dot the landscape. There may be no finer place to escape the hustle and bustle (and bikes!) of Amsterdam. But most importantly–Edam is one of the centers of Holland’s cheese production. Look for cheese shops and taste your way through town or, if you’re in town for the local market, stop by for samples. Where it might be intimidating to rent a bike in Amsterdam, renting one and exploring the Waterland countryside is just about right.
If you’re in Amsterdam, you can visit the touristy floating flower market, but if you have time to make it out to Keukenhof and it happens to be April or May, count yourself among the lucky few. Keukenhof is filled with gardens (including the Insect Garden, Romantic Garden and a quirky Outlet Garden), but most importantly it’s home to millions of tulips. In peak season, it’s so pretty you might think you’re in a dream.
In every touristy shop in Amsterdam, you’ll see Delft pottery (or cheaper approximations of it)–the distinct, white and blue pottery that’s become one of the Netherland’s most iconic souvenirs. About an hour from Amsterdam is Delft, the source of that famous pottery. While the town itself is worth some time, many come here to tour the Royal Delft, where you can get to know more about the pottery as well as purchase some to take home. Delft is also not far from The Hague, the seat of the Dutch Parliament, if you like a sprinkling of politics and palaces with your pottery.
Alkmaar is most famous for its cheese market, which takes place on Fridays in the spring and summer. While the market is now a reenactment of cheese mongers trading and selling their cheeses, it’s still a fun thing to watch and follow up with a cheese purchase at one of the nearby shops or a visit to the Dutch Cheese Museum. Once you’ve had enough Dutch cheese (if that ever happens), you can also explore the National Beer Museum or walk the canals (really, you’ll find no shortage of water in the Netherlands), or visit Grote Kerk–a medieval church with two grand organs instead of one…because sometimes one is just not enough. If you’re in town in the summer, ask about when organ concerts take place.
Just under a half hour from Amsterdam is Zaanse Schans–an outdoor museum filled with windmills, barns and other buildings relocated here to preserve them. Reenactors staff the village and showcase Dutch traditions like cheese making (are you picking up on the fact that the Dutch really love their cheese yet?) and clog making. Really, it’s the windmills that are a highlight here. Bring your camera and make sure you have plenty of space on your SD card.
The beauty of the relatively small size of the Netherlands is that you can reach such a wide variety of places for day trips. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can even get up early and make a day (or two or three day) trip to Antwerp, Ghent or Bruges in Belgium–all under three hours of driving away.
Haarlem: martin_vmorris via Flickr
Edam: Alkan Boudewijn de Beaumont Chaglar via Flickr
Keukenhof: Roel van Deursen via Flickr
Delft: Misty via Flickr
Alkmaar: Farah Tsai via Flickr
Zaanse Schans: Mario Sanchez Prada via Flickr
Driving in the Netherlands: Martijn van Exel via Flickr