Netherlands 22: Around Zaandam

On our Netherlands trips, we usually try to go somewhere new for a week, in addition to the week at Duinrell. For 2022, we found a lovely old Dutch house to stay at in Zaandam, in the Zaanstad region, near Amsterdam.

Now, we didn’t know much about Zaandam before our trip, we just happen to find an interesting place to stay on Airbnb, that was near to Amsterdam. We’d once passed through there on the train, on our way to Amsterdam, when we stayed at Bovenkarspel in 2018, and noticed the rather unique look to the Inverdan area, and the Inntel Hotel. But that was about all we knew of the area.

As I mentioned, Zaandam is very near to Amsterdam. It’s located to the north west of its more famous cousin, just across the IJ, and to the west of Amsterdam Noord. It’s probably best known for the historic Zaanse Schans neighborhood, with its impressive collection of old wooden buildings and windmills.

While it doesn’t have the all the attractions of Amsterdam, it turned out to be a really fantastic place to base our trip. It wasn’t too far to cycle south to Amsterdam, via a ferry across the IJ, plus it gave us access to lots of countryside and the waterways to the north.

Accommodation

We came across our holiday home while browsing Airbnb, looking for somewhere a little different to stay. This definitely met that criteria, with its traditional Zaanse style. From what we’ve been able to determine, the holiday home was built in the seventeenth century, along with a number of old barns on the same plot. We were surprised to see one of the barns was missing when we arrived, but the owner explained it had been taken down, after receiving permission to rebuilt it.

Our Airbnb holiday home
Our Airbnb holiday home

With its modest dimensions and wooden painted construction, it certainly looks the part. From the road side, it didn’t look all that, but from the garden setting, it was fantastic. This was helped by the lovely, well maintained garden, with its tree cover and access to the canal.

Very welcome tree cover in the garden
Very welcome tree cover in the garden

For the week in Zaandam, the temperature was well in the 30s, so having a fantastic outdoor space like this was really welcome, especially with the tree cover. There was a notable temperature difference between the front and back of the house, providing a great example of why we need to green up our cities and plant more trees, to cope with the temperature increases we’re seeing.

With the hot weather during the week, we spent much of our time out in the garden, including having most of our meals out there. This was helped by the inclusion of a very good barbecue, which we put to use a few times.

Dinner in the garden
Dinner in the garden

On the day we arrived, it turned out the Pride Canal Parade was on in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, we hadn’t realised and missed it. We only realised it was happening, when boats started passing our garden in the evening, on their way back. So we did get to see a little bit of the parade!

The interior didn’t disappoint either, with its traditional features and stylish additions. It’s fair to say, there were a few bits that were incomplete, as it was definitely work in progress, but these could be overlooked. It was fine for us, but wouldn’t be suitable for anyone with small children.

Inside our Airbnb holiday home
Inside our Airbnb holiday home

One thing that was a challenge was the incredibly steep staircase, with just the central post to hold on to. Now, we’ve had our fair share of steep Dutch staircases, but this one was definitely a bit tricky. With just a downstairs bathroom, this was fun to negotiate in the middle of the night, if you needed to go!

Typically challenging Dutch staircase
Typically challenging Dutch staircase

The small windows, which were still in need of repair, didn’t open very much. This made the bedrooms pretty damn hot to sleep in, with the scorching temperatures. Large fans were placed in the bedroom, which helped a little. But really, they’re just blowing hot air at you.

The holiday home came with access to two boats on the canal, which was a really nice touch, including one with a motor. I was shown how to use this by someone who was working for the owner, who took me out for a short ride. We’d end up taking the boat out a few times during our stay, so this turned out to be a great addition to our stay.

The person working for the owner would also show up every now and again, to do some maintenance and water the garden. With our English sensibilities, this was a little disconcerting at times, especially when we could hear him out watering the garden, approaching midnight as we were in bed!

Zaandam streets

The streets immediately around our holiday home were mostly quiet residential streets, with no cycling infrastructure to speak of. Though with low traffic speeds, due to traffic calming and low levels of traffic, thanks to filtering and one-way routes, meant that dedicated cycling infrastructure wasn’t really necessary.

Modal filter at the end of a woonerf (living street)
Modal filter at the end of a woonerf (living street)

There was also a few woonerven (living streets), both old and new. Woonerven, for those that aren’t aware, is a Dutch style of living street, originating back to the 1970s. The literal translation of woonerf is ‘living yard’.

The idea behind the woonerf is to create an area where walking, cycling, recreation and street play are prioritised over motor traffic. Woonerven don’t tend to allow through traffic and are designed to slow drivers down to a walking pace.

Woonerf (living street) Ganzenwerfstraat
Woonerf (living street) Ganzenwerfstraat

Further away from our holiday home, there were larger roads with protected cycle paths. There were older paved cycle paths and newer and smoother asphalt ones. All these were connected up, with plenty of safe junctions as you’d expect in The Netherlands, to form a pretty good network.

Cycle path and shops approaching Zaadam centre
Cycle path and shops approaching Zaadam centre

While there were lots of parked cars everywhere, we never saw that much traffic in the area during our stay. A sign that while the Dutch have high levels of car ownership, they use their cars a lot less for shorter journeys than we do in the UK.

Inverdan and Gedempte Gracht

As I mentioned, it was the buildings in the Inverdan area that were the first things we saw of Zaandam, back in 2018, as we passed through there on the train. Indeed, the very distinctive buildings in this area are very close to Zaandam train station.

As you may have guessed, the Inverdan area is a relatively recent development, with building starting there back in 2003. The purpose was to create a modern metropolitan area with a town hall, library, homes, hotels, shops and a public transport hub. All of this is built on top of existing roads and rail lines, which is quite impressive.

Rainbow crossing on Gedempte Gracht
Rainbow crossing on Gedempte Gracht

Starting at the rainbow crossing, the pedestrianised street Gedempte Gracht makes up most of the shopping district. This features a canal, which dates back to the original city moat that was previously filled in, but has been recently excavated, as part of the development.

Kids playing on the large stones on Gedempte Gracht
Kids playing on the large stones on Gedempte Gracht

While the shop buildings along Gedempte Gracht are all unique, the construction and style of the canal, bridges and paved area gives everything a certain homogeneous feel. It makes it all feel a bit fake if I’m honest, like being at a theme park. Nevertheless, the canal feature and lack of motor traffic do make it a pleasant place to spend time.

Canal and shops on Gedempte Gracht
Canal and shops on Gedempte Gracht

At the end of Gedempte Gracht, you pass over the road Rustenburg, before carrying on to either to the Hermitage shopping centre on the left or Ankersmidplein on the right. While Hermitage carries on at the same level, Ankersmidplein rises up to a higher level, linking it up with the rest of the area.

On Rustenburg there was an area of on-street cycle parking, which is clearly well used. We used this cycle parking a few times, usually when going to the supermarket, which was conveniently round the corner.

Cycle parking on Rustenburg
Cycle parking on Rustenburg

Now, it turned out there was some indoor cycle parking not far from here, Fietsenpakhuis on the parallel street Vinkenstraat. I hadn’t seen Bicycle Dutch’s cycle tour of Zaanstad, so we completely missed it. Well actually, I think we did pass it at some point, on our way to somewhere else, but didn’t stop or come back to look.

According to Bicycle Dutch, there was some controversy back in 2012 around cycle parking in Zaandam and no-parking areas in particular. I don’t know what the outcome of this was, but we didn’t see many stray bicycles parked, so maybe the ban is still in place.

As you continue further, the architecture changes from the low-rise modest buildings of Gedempte Gracht, to larger, bolder structures. The Hermitage centre is made up of a number of buildings, containing shops, a supermarket a cinema and residential properties, with car parking below. While the shopping level is quite ordinary, the large rust coloured upper levels, making up the cinema are quite distinctive as are the bright green houses.

Looking along Ankersmidplein
Taking photos at the top of Ankersmidplein

On the Ankersmidplein side, the shops continue with a hotel above. While this white building isn’t the most distinctive, the sculpted frontage does mean it isn’t completely bland. The level rises as you carry on along Ankersmidplein, until you reach the area in front of the rather distinctive Inntel Hotel, with a waterfall at the lower level. From here, you get a fantastic panorama of the whole Inverdan area, right down to Gedempte Gracht.

Inntel Hotels Amsterdam Zaandam
Inntel Hotels Amsterdam Zaandam

The Inntel Hotel really is a very unique and colourful building, and nothing like any other hotel I’ve ever seen. The concept as you can probably guess, is to resemble a series of stacked Zaanse style buildings, which has been done extremely well. It’s just a shame the interior while pleasant, doesn’t live up to the promise of the exterior.

Buildings approaching Zaandam station
Buildings approaching Zaandam station

Continuing on from the hotel towards Zaandam station, you arrive at the Stadhuis city hall. This continues the Zaanse style, but instead of multiple stacked building, it’s made up of a series of Zaanse style building enlarged to a giant scale.

Riding down from Zaandam station to the Inntel Hotel

From there, the path continues past the front of Zaandam station, where you can look down onto the tracks, before it heads out of the centre. This section must be pretty new, as it doesn’t exist on Google Maps currently. Actually, looking on Google Maps shows just how impressive the construction of Inverdan is, with it straddling a large road and railway.

De Dam

De Dam (The Dam) is a large square in the centre of Zaandam, named after the nearby dam on the the river Zaan. De Dam is an older and much more modest place, compared to the bold and colourful Inverdan area. The old buildings in the square are filled with bars and restaurants that spill out into the pedestrianised area, making it a really pleasant place to spend time.

Busy Dam Square
Busy Dam Square

We went to eat at De Dam a couple of times during our trip, to De Pizzabakkers on the Tuesday, after we returned from a trip to Amsterdam, then on Friday to Pancho’s Cantina, on our last night of the holiday. The Tuesday was pretty quiet down there, while Friday it was bustling and packed with people.

De Dam was just a short ride from our holiday home and a really pleasant place to spend time, so we really enjoyed going there on those hot summer evenings. It’s just a shame we didn’t get chance to go there more!

River Zaan, Voorzaan and Wilhelminasluis locks

As you’d probably expect from the name, the river Zaan dominates the city of Zaandam a fair bit. The Zaan is a relatively short river at 13.5 km and goes from the IJ in the south, through the Zaan district to Westknollendam in the north.

Looking out over Voorzaan from Wilhelminabrug
Looking out over Voorzaan from Wilhelminabrug

The Wilhelminasluis locks are located next to the dam that Zaandam takes its name, immediately to the south is The Voorzaan, where the river opens out around a small island, before it continues south to the IJ.

Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The area may be most famous for the picturesque landscapes Claude Monet painted here, back in 1871 when he visited Zaandam. Indeed, during his stay Monet wrote to his fellow painter Camille Pissarro “Zaandam is especially attractive, and there is enough here to paint for a lifetime. I think we will settle in very quickly. The Dutch appear to be a very gracious and hospitable people.”

While the area looks a little different to how it did in 1871, with modern industrialisation bringing significant changes, it’s still a very attractive place to be.

Wilhelminasluis locks
Wilhelminasluis locks

There’s two sets of locks at Wilhelminasluis, one for smaller boats that can pass through without lifting the bridges and one for larger boats. The locks are located between two lifting bridges, Beatrixbrug and Wilhelminabrug. Beatrixbrug was built in the 1950s and Wilhelminabrug in the 1970s, though both bridges recently been renovated, as you can see in the following timelapse video.

We’d pass over one of these bridges, on our way from our holiday home in the east, to the centre of Zaandam in the west. It was always pleasant to pause a moment and take in the view, which is impressive in both directions. Looking to the south is the wide expanse of the Voorzaan, while to the north, you see old and new buildings, with a mixture of industrial and residential.

We had the pleasure of seeing the bridge in action, as boats of significantly different sizes passed through the locks. As you may imagine, the family were probably a little less than thrilled, while I stopped to video them passing.

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