There’s not much that goes fast in Giethoorn, a mostly car-free village of just over 2,600 residents in Holland’s northeastern Overijssel province. Here, boats move along at a snail’s pace. Waterside dining is anything but rushed. Pedestrians amble along wooden footpaths, idly browsing in quaint shops that line the canals. Sure, an aggressive seagull might swoop down to grab a hot frite from an unsuspecting tourist. Or communal birdsong and the symphony of ducks quacking may disrupt the peace on a particularly noisy day. But overall, the pace is exceedingly chill in this idyllic fairyland less than two hours from Amsterdam by car but worlds away in spirit.
Ninety kilometers of waterways replace paved roads in Giethoorn. In this watery landscape, whisper boats glide noiselessly over a labyrinth of canals, through tall forests and under 180 wooden bridges that connect to well-manicured houses on islands formed of peat. Powered by electric motors that create none of the clamor of more conventional gas-powered outboard models, the silent craft function as cars do elsewhere, but without the noisy horns or road rage. As the most popular mode of transit in a village with no public trams or buses, they’re used for narrated boat tours around Giethoorn’s lakes and waterways, require no real technical skill to operate and can be rented at many local establishments.
Alas, copywriters with little imagination, unable to see past Giethoorn’s winding canals, have dubbed it the “Venice of the North.” Yet this serene town is nothing like its frenetic Italian cousin in the Adriatic Sea. Lacking Renaissance mansions and Gothic palaces, Giethoorn surprises with 18th century thatched farmhouses bordering Weerribben-Wieden National Park, plus a vast network of lakes and watery byways.
Rather than Byzantine mosaics and a towering bell tower, this small Dutch village boasts well-kept lawns bursting with pink hydrangeas, red roses and fruit trees dripping with apples and pears. In place of a pigeon-filled, tourist-clogged main square, Giethoorn offers a laid-back waterfront that provides respite from the buzz of the nearby capital and other more congested cities. Proud locals will add that it fended off competition from some 182 contenders across the world to win a place on the board of the international edition of Monopoly.
Established as a settlement of peat harvesters who created islands amidst the ponds and lakes, Giethoorn was named after hundreds of goat horns (gietehorens) were discovered in its marshlands—remnants of a 10th-century flood. While no animal horns litter the village today, little else has changed in a pastoral setting seemingly cut from a Grimm’s fairytale.
Were it not for 800,000 annual tourists (about 25% nature lovers from China), the landscape might seem primeval on foggy spring or fall days when mist hovers over the waterways and in winter when hardy souls yearn to skate on frozen canals—a dream that becomes reality only in the coldest years. No matter the season, even the village postman delivers mail via punt boat—a flat-bottomed, square-cut vessel powered with a long pole that facilitates navigation through the reeds.
Beyond the pleasures of walking, cycling, boating, angling and outdoor dining, Giethoorn’s attractions include Museumboerderij ‘t Olde Maat, a farm museum illustrating the region’s history. At the Schreur shipyard, you can see where classic Giethoorn punt boats are built and even purchase one if you’re so inclined.
Set midway between Amsterdam and Groningen, Giethoorn is easily accessible via car—which you’ll need to park outside the village when you arrive, in a lot with other cars and tour buses. For an easier, more social route, book a Giethoorn day trip with Cherry Travel & Tours, frequently offered April through October when the weather is most conducive to enjoying the natural beauty of the water-laced village.