Amsterdam is a fantastic city with a lot on offer. When you have had enough of dodging tourists or navigating the city’s waterways, it also has the advantage of being pretty compact meaning you can escape into countryside within half an hour or so of cycling. On the final day of our recent weekend in Amsterdam, we did just that. Hiring bikes for a day we headed off to explore the idyllic rural and coastal landscapes of Holland’s Waterland region and were back in time to catch our evening flights.
Our day started at MacBike rental, who are literally right next door to the main railway station. If you’re touring the Waterlands then this is a handy place to pick up a bikes as the ferry to take you across the Buiten-IJ and the start of your onward cycle trip, leaves just behind the station. We hired two bikes with gears (you can hire cheaper ones with just a foot brake). My husband fancied a tandem but thought better of it at the last minute! I’m glad we didn’t go cheap – I used all three of my gears battling the wind on the return leg although perhaps if we’d got the tandem I could have just hitched a lift?!
According to their website, MacBike also hire out children’s bikes, child seats and child tandems from their Centraal Station store although they must have had them tucked out the way in another room when we were there as I didn’t see any. It’s probably worth using their online booking form if you want to be certain they will have a special type of bike available – you can find full details on their website.
Bikes in hand we hopped on and joined the throng of two-wheel traffic on the busy cycleways outside the station. There are plenty of rules to help you keep safe when cycling in The Netherlands but for a first timer it can be daunting and we saw one couple return their bikes within a few minutes of hiring them. Cycling in Amsterdam city is not, it appears, for everyone. Fortunately, after braving the trams and other tourists on bikes, it only took us a few minutes to get away from the main throng of bikes and to the ferry. After this, cycling was a really pleasant affair with fantastic cycle lanes and only a few other bikes.
We didn’t have long to wait for our crossing and the sight of so many bikes pouring off the front of the boat as its ramp came down was worth it alone. The ferry is free to use – worth a quick trip across and back for a different, watery perspective on Amsterdam even if you don’t have bikes.
Disembarking on the other side we were soon enjoying much quieter cycle paths. One last stop at a supermarket we passed for a cheaper breakfast than Amsterdam could offer and provisions for the day and we were off cycling again, heading for the countryside.
We skirted the Vliegenbos park and the dockland area then cross the Nieuwendammerdijk heading for the main street of pretty Nieuwendam. The streets were narrow backing onto lovely characterful houses with perfect lawns and boats nestling on the other side. It felt a wealthy spot.
Continuing east we finally broke away into the first true open space since leaving Amsterdam. Cycling east for the coast once more brought us soon to Durgerdam where we stopped at the marina for breakfast. It’s a really peaceful spot with the ties to its historic fishing industry still clearly remembered by the current residents, who appear to have an enduring love of the nautical if their boats are to go by.
Our journey then took us out over the UItdammerdijk , giving us our first up close experience of the Waterland’s historic sea defences. The sheer determination of people of centuries past in this area to persevere, reclaim and continually battle with Mother Nature for their existence is quite staggering. The views over the dike were great – a really exhilarating cycle. Eventually we dipped down into Uitdam itself – another lovely little village with a very tempting coffee and cake stop on the main street in what looked like someone’s beautifully kept front garden. With our own provisions on board, we resisted and pressed on toward Marken.
The cycle out over the long causeway that joins the island of Marken to the mainland is very exposed. We had a wonderful ride out to the island with fantastic views out across the water. As I flew along, queen of my 3 geared chariot, I did wonder why some of the cyclists coming in the opposite direction who looked decidedly fitter and bike ready than me seemed to be labouring quite so hard. I would find out later.
On Marken we followed the cycle path to the outskirts of the main village then cycled into the centre to explore. Sticking our heads in the quaint little Marker Musuem, we were greeted with a rapid torrent of dutch. Thankfully, after our spotting our blank faces our beaming host broke into English. Apparently, we look dutch as well as having what turns out is a fairly common Dutch and rare English family surname. Maybe we should do some more family history!
The Marker Musuem is housed in an old fishing family’s smoke house – so called not because of any association with curing meat or fish but in reference to the fireplace within it and the special roof openings designed to ventilate it. It’s only a tiny museum of a few rooms but the informative video in English, along with the displays, gives a good insight into the hardships put up with by the people of Marken over the year as well as opening your eyes to the architecture and customs of a place you might otherwise merely cycle right past. It also displays some of the beautiful handicrafts made locally. Most of all I was amazed by just how much clothing was required to fend off the elements, particularly for the tiny children. It must have taken hours to wrestle a toddler into those kinds of layers and high necklines every morning!
We stopped cycling for lunch at the cafe in the centre of Marken – a wonderful sun trap with a pretty garden and very good value food after the prices in Amsterdam. My husband tucked into some herring – it’s everywhere in the area with pop up stands selling it all over Amsterdam in the same way you’d expect to buy burgers or hot-dogs.
After lunch we continued cycling on to the lighthouse at the far end of Marken via the Oosterpad.We resisted the urge to wait for the ferry to Volendam and carry on cycling to Edam – there sadly wasn’t time to do that and get back to both return our bikes and get to the airport to make our evening flight on time. Instead we cycled back from the lighthouse towards the causeway along a very bumpy and narrow track along the edge of the water. It was pretty obvious from the surface why all the other bikes had gone back the other way as we bumped along on our heavy, unforgiving rental bikes. We did get some great views as a reward though as well as the chance to see the icebreakers on the waters’ edge that were installed to prevent the winter freeze moving and damaging the foundation of the local houses, many of which were originally built on stilts. When our bottoms could take the bumps no longer, we dipped down through some houses back to the center of Marken and rejoined the causeway the way we came in.
Back across the causeway the headwind was now against us. Weighed down by bikes, a very upright seat and our lunch made cycling hardwork and I quickly wished the bike had more than its 3 gears. Conditions didn’t improve much on the mainland either as we continued along the coastal road towards Monickendam. It felt like forever cycling the few km to the turn off towards Zuidewoude. Thankfully, as we came away from the waterside and dropped into the tranquil backwaters and canals of the lanes below, the wind eased. This was one of my favourite sections of the cycle so far – beautiful, rural views of some very dutch looking farmland surrounded us on a pretty much deserted country lane, interspersed with wetland alive with waterfowl. Occasionally little white wooden bridges over the water would head off enticingly towards another cycle path. If only we had time to follow them all.
From here on in we started to up the pace (with all three gears) and paid less attention to our surroundings. My phone battery had given up so we had no access to a GPS map or on exactly how fast we were progressing. Our route took us through Broek in Waterland. I had read about it being one of the prettiest villages in the area but in truth, whist it was undoubtedly scenic I found I preferred the other villages we had passed and was sorry we didn’t have time to go back via Holysloot on a route that looked quieter and more scenic than the one that had taken us to Broek in Waterland.
We took the cycle route back towards Zunderdorp over the Volgermeer – a vast wild and flat area with views of Amsterdam hoving towards you over the horizon. Again we were met with strong headwinds and the going was slow. Slower I’m sure due to us constantly checking our watches and pedaling just as fast as our quickly tiring legs would allow.
At Zunderdorp we followed the signs for central Amsterdam, following what we hoped was the most direct route back to the ferry. I was definitely flagging by this point but we made the boat with heaps of time to get back to the rental shop. The ferry was really busy for the return crossing though once again, there were barely any other obvious tourists amongst the passengers. At the rental shop the queue to pay (you settle up on your return) was quite long and slow – definitely leave plenty of time if you come in just before closing time. We handed back our faithful bikes for the day – both sorry to see them go but glad also to return to two feet. We had a brilliant day out exploring the Waterlands and one I would definitely recommend for a complete change of scene and pace from Amsterdam.
Whilst we didn’t have the girls with us on this trip, the cycle routes in the Waterlands are incredibly family friendly and I would have no hesitations in heading off on a similar trip if we came back with the children another time. Navigation is really easy – you can happily get lost only to pick up signs for another one of the main villages a short distance on and the maps they give you in the rental shop are sufficient to get you round. There are also a couple of good blogs with ideas – one recommended to me by a dutch friend that we used as a rough guide was this one from Richard Tulloch’s Life on the Road.
There are plenty of small cafes and tea houses enroute though if cycling with kids I would also make sure I had provisions packed as these stops are not always obvious. I would probably make the day quite a bit shorter (we cycled over 50km in total) with more frequent stops if we had kids with us but there is still plenty to see.
Definitely pack suncream and waterproof coats though and ideally close fitting ones – not so much for the rain but the relentless wind which can catch you off-guard and turn your clothes into sails and make you forget the heat of the sun! For the same reason, allow plenty of time to get back should a headwind pick up against you.