After you’ve explored Amsterdam’s historic canal ring, toured its world-renowned museums and absorbed its Old World charm, there’s much more to see beyond city borders. From iconic windmills to day-glow tulip fields and swans gliding on carefully constructed polders, a world far removed from the capital’s raw energy emerges in these great day trips, all within two hours of Amsterdam by bike or public transit:
1. The Bulb Fields: From mid-March–May, Holland’s Bollenstreek (Flower Strip) explodes in eye-popping ribbons of color. For a virtual view, check out Bollenstreekgid’s drone video. The star of the annual extravaganza is the tulip, a flower that spawned a billion-dollar industry that now encompasses auctions, foreign exports, domestic sales, public gardens and museums. All celebrate a horticultural tradition with roots stretching deeper than the 17th century, when a single tulip bulb could sell for more than its weight in gold.
Every spring, the Dutch love affair with tulips transforms lowland fields from Haarlem to Leiden into a neon-striped floral carpet. Some of the most colorful fields surround Lisse, a small town that boasts the showstopper of the Bollenstreek: Keukenhof. Self-described as the world’s most beautiful spring garden, this bulb growers’ showcase is laced with ponds, indoor pavilions, walking paths and seven million candy-color blooms. Even if you don’t pay to enter the park, you can stroll through fields ablaze with color on your own at no cost. Pick up a map at the tourist center in Lisse or download one here.
Insider Tip: Avoid visiting on weekends, when the fields are crammed with tour buses and organized groups, especially close to Keukenhof. Tour the fields on foot, following walking paths on the map available at the tourist office. Or rent a bike from Kees van Dam at Keukenhof’s entrance for about €10, including a cycle route.
Getting There: From Amsterdam Central, take the train to Schiphol Plaza. Alternatively, catch the Airport Express (Bus #197) from stops on Marnixstraat, Leidseplein and Museumplein and take it to Schiphol. From Platform B2 at the airport, take the Keukenhof Express (Bus #858) to Lisse.
2. Leiden: Another stop on the Bollenstreek, Leiden’s bucolic setting on the Old Rhine resembles a scene from a Vermeer painting. Home to Holland’s oldest university, founded in 1575 by Prince William of Orange, the town boasts a Botanic Garden with the world’s oldest academic observatory. Though minuscule compared to Keukenhof, its first director was botanist Carolus Clusius, known for cultivated a dizzying array of tulip species that fanned tulip mania.
Insider Tip: For panoramic views, climb to the top of the De Valk Windmill Museum. Inside, a working waterwheel and 1900s-style living spaces offer a peek into earlier lifestyles. An 18th-century windmill is the only one standing of the 19 that once stood on Leiden city walls.
Getting There: From Amsterdam Central take the Intercity train to Leiden Central. The journey takes less than 40 minutes.
3. Kinderdijk: “God made the world but the Dutch created the Netherlands,” goes an old saying. Proof is in this UNESCO World Heritage site where Holland’s largest collection of working windmills testifies to a 1,000-year battle against the encroaching sea. As a survival bonus, the windmills also act as an emergency backup system for flooding.
There’s no entrance fee to cross the 18th century footbridge leading into a primeval landscape dotted with grazing cows, flying birds, creeping weasels and crawling amphibians. The stunning setting is part traditional Dutch, part prehistoric—an intricate water management system that reveals Dutchies’ ongoing war against water.
Insider Tip: From April–October, free 30-minute boat rides offer views of the windmills. On Saturdays in July and August, most mills are typically spinning.
Getting There: From April–October, it’s fun to go by boat: from Amsterdam Central take the train to Rotterdam Central, then Tram 7 to Willemsplein. Exit at Willemskade and board Waterbus line 20. Transfer at Ridderkerk de Schans to the Driehoeksveer ferry. Prefer to stay landlocked? Take a train from Amsterdam Central to Rotterdam Central. In Rotterdam, take the metro to Rotterdam-Zuid, then catch Bus #154 to Kinderdijk.
4. Zaanse Schans: It’s filled with tourists in high season, but this replica of a Zaanse village is worth visiting just to see how wooden clogs, pewter jewelry, artisanal cheese and Dutch gin (jenever) were made in the 17th–18th centuries. The free outdoor museum was created by relocating houses, windmills, storehouses and barns to showcase traditional crafts and lifestyles of people who lived in Holland long before sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll entered the picture.
Insider Tip: From late March–September, boat tours offer views of ancient houses and windmills. Bikes can be rented at Zaanse Schans Bike Rent. A cycling path leads past merchants’ mansions in Zaandijk, the pretty village of Haaldersbroek and the new Zaandam city center.
Getting There: From Amsterdam Central take the Sprinter to Koog-Zaandijk, a 20-minute trip. After a 1.5km walk, you’ll arrive at Zaanse Schans.
5. The Hague: Amsterdammers will tell you, “Money is earned in Rotterdam, divided in Den Haag and spent in Amsterdam.” To see where financial division happens, head for Holland’s seat of government. The Netherlands’ third largest city after Amsterdam and Rotterdam is home to 150 international courts, foreign embassies and international organizations, including the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court. It’s among six major cities that hosts the United Nations, along with New York, Vienna, Geneva, Tokyo and Nairobi.
Insider Tip: Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring hangs in the Mauritshuis, one of Den Haag’s many museums. Also worth visiting is the Japanese Garden in Clingendael Park, open just eight weeks a year. In 2016, see it from April 30–June 12 and October 8–October 23.
Getting There: From Amsterdam Central take the Intercity train to Den Haag. The trip takes just under an hour.
6. Scheveningen: To escape Amsterdam’s bustle, hit this lively beach resort in Den Haag’s wealthy northern district. In addition to a sandy beach, colorful esplanade, activity-packed pier and the Scheveningen lighthouse, there’s a Sea Life aquarium, Pathé cinema, Steigenberger Kurhaus music theater, Scheveningen Museum and casino. Trendy clubs, restaurants, surf schools and other water sports options line the wide Noorderstrand promenade. Giant sculptures add a whimsical touch, while numerous bars and eating establishments provide spots to grab a drink or meal while watching the action in the harbor.
Getting There: From Amsterdam Central, take the Intercity train to Den Haag Central. Transfer to Bus #9 to Scheveningen Noorderstrand. The whole trip should take about 1½ hours.
7. Madurodam: Windmills turn, airplanes land, trains run and boats float in interactive exhibits that tell the story behind Dutchies’ battle against water at this mini-theme park in Den Haag that replicates historic Dutch towns, ports, canals, roads and monuments on a 1/25 scale. Like an outdoor history lesson, the miniature city re-creates details of Schiphol, Rotterdam Port, Dam Square and other landmarks of the Netherlands, including many historic venues that still exist today.
Insider Tip: Book online and save €2 on each ticket.
Getting There: From Amsterdam Central, take the Intercity train to Den Haag Central. Transfer to Bus #9 to Madurodam. The whole trip should take just over an hour.
8. Rotterdam: During WWII, Nazi bombs flattened Rotterdam. The modern city built on the ashes is now Europe’s busiest port, known for futuristic architecture and such inspired local initiatives as inner-city canal surfing. The swooping Erasmus Bridge, dubbed de Zwann (the swan), is a city icon, as is the new Markthal, an indoor market that made international headlines when it opened in 2014 for its striking inverted U-shape and a ceiling covered with what’s been called the “largest artwork in the world.” Built after the EU threatened to ban the outdoor sale of fresh produce, the 40m high interior is painted with fruits and vegetables on an epic scale, reflecting the tantalizing array of edibles available in the market.
You can relive a tale of ancient mariners and navigate Rotterdam’s glory days in the era of Dutch sea trade at the city’s Maritime Museum. Those lured to America by the promise of a better life may have worshipped at the Pilgrim Fathers Church before shipping off to unknown shores. For city views, whizz up to Euromast‘s observation deck in an elevator that makes the trip in 30 seconds. On a clear day, see all of Rotterdam spread out before you.
Insider Tip: Gain insight into the city’s architecture and visual art scene with UrbanGuides, a union between Rotterdam Archiguides and Rotterdam ByCycle. Walking and cycling tours cover the city’s development, culture and history.
Getting There: From Amsterdam Central take the Intercity train to Rotterdam Central, a 70-minute trip.
9. Delft: There’s more to this small town than blue and white pottery. With many of Amsterdam’s charms—cobblestone streets, pretty canals and historic buildings—but none its heady buzz, it’s a serene escape from urban bustle. Renowned painter Vermeer is buried in the Oude Kerk, while the Nieuwe Kerk flanks the Main Square. Even if you’re not into hand-painted ceramics, a stop at De Porceleyne Fles (Royal Delft), a 15-minute walk from town center, is worthwhile to see the intricate process involved in creating Delftware.
For more local history, visit Museum Het Prinsenhof, an urban palace that was once a 15th-century convent. Dig into 17th-century Delft at The Vermeer Center, focused on the life, work and city of native son Johannes Vermeer. View 36 paintings of the artist’s work and learn about his mastery of light, composition and color in this info center set in a rebuilt version of the old local Guild of Saint Luke.
Insider Tip: The Vermeer Combi Ticket offers access to the Vermeer Centrum Delft (including coffee and cake), Museum Het Prinsenhof, the New Church and Old Church. As an added bonus, you get the Vermeer Walk that leads past Vermeer sites in the city. At €21, it’s cheaper than single tickets.
Getting There: Trains leave about every half hour from Amsterdam Central and take an hour to reach Delft.