Most people know Den Helder as “the town where you can catch the ferry to Texel” and as the main base of the Dutch Royal Navy. Most people pass it by without giving it a second look. So did I, until recently.
Things changed because I felt like spending a weekend at the seaside, and all places where I’d normally stay, such as Egmond, Bergen and Texel didn’t have availability. Or at least the affordable places didn’t. This is when I discovered on the map that there is a stretch of beach and dunes close to Den Helder too, and that this would offer me the opportunity to go on an off the beaten track adventure.
Den Helder is not a pretty town
I must warn you in advance that Den Helder is not a quaint Dutch town with a 17th century city center, canals and historic houses, warehouses and churches such as for example Alkmaar, Haarlem, Delft, Leiden or Amsterdam. But hey, you can see that type of town anywhere in the Netherlands! Den Helder is the place you visit when you are looking for something different.
A tiny tiny bit of history of Den Helder
It is not that Den Helder is completely new: people have lived in this area from the 9th century onward. They were pretty brave people, as they had to deal with the wild sea without too much protection. Storms sometimes claimed land and destroyed entire villages. For a while this area was even an island!
It was only in the late 18th century that a harbor was built in Den Helder. During the Napoleonic era (1795-1810) the French built fortifications around the harbor and the village of Den Helder, and installed the navy there. The French left, the navy didn’t and from 1850 onward Den Helder started to grow into the town that it is now.
5 reasons to visit Den Helder
So, if this town isn’t quaint, why should you visit anyway? I think there are some pretty good reasons to go, and I’ll describe 5 of them.
1. Off the beaten track beaches and dunes
Den Helder has one of the least touristic stretches of beach and dune that I have seen in the Netherlands. It’s not that there aren’t any tourists. There are, especially Germans. But as Den Helder is a bit further away from the big cities, most Dutch people won’t go there for a day trip. They will go to Scheveningen, Noordwijk or Zandvoort instead. Den Helder is not a big city, with about 55.000 inhabitants, so the couple of locals won’t fill that beach either. It is nice and quiet, and secretly: this is the beach with the most sunshine hours of the Netherlands!
You can go for a swim, hike or rent a bike and go exploring the dunescapes of Den Helder area. In the distance you’ll always see the long red shape of Lange Jaap, the lighthouse. After all these activities why not go for a drink and a simple meal in one of the beach restaurants (open in summer). Having said that, during my recent visit they closed very early due to “bad weather”, which was kind of weird, especially as it was a nice evening.
2. Military history & fortifications
The Dutch Royal Navy in Den Helder
If you are into military history and the navy you should definitely visit Den Helder. Usually there are some navy vessels in the harbor, but you can’t visit those, except for during the so called Marinedagen (Navy days), a biannual or triennial event. What you can do, however, is visit the Marinemuseum (Navy Museum). This museum is located at the former Royal Dockyard. In the past this was the place where they built and maintained navy ships. They also have a submarine that you can visit!
The former Royal Dockyard also houses bars, restaurants, the Den Helder tourist information, the National Lifeboat Museum, a cinema, small businesses and a harbor with historical vessels. It’s a nice place to spend some time and wander around.
Visit the fortifications of Den Helder
If you look at a map of Den Helder, you may notice a chain of fortifications around the city center. These fortifications were built by Napoleon. Well, not literally by him of course: he gave the orders. The fortifications protect the marine harbor from attacks. Nowadays, the navy only uses a couple of them and you can visit some others!
- Fort Kijkduin, houses an aquarium and a museum about the history of the fort. And you can spend the night in what used to be the house of the guard of the fort!
- Fort Erfprins (website only in Dutch) is still in use by the Navy. At specific dates you can visit during an excursion. Check the website.
- Beeldenfort (website only in Dutch), an art gallery.
- Fort Dirks Admiraal, at this moment not in use.
- Fort Westoever (website only in Dutch) houses a brewery and restaurant (see reason 4)
- Fort Oostoever, has a private owner, not open to visitors
3. Fresh air and plenty of hiking opportunities
If you like hiking, Den Helder is a nice destination. There is sea on 3 sides, and late 18th/early 19th century fortifications on the 4th side. This makes for some interesting hiking opportunities.
Some suggestions for hikes in and around Den Helder (GPS tracks available)
- Lopen langs linies, a 10 km hike along the fortifications of Den Helder and in the northern part of the dunes.
- Helderse duinen, a 15,5 km hike from railway station Den Helder Zuid to Den Helder central, passing through the dunes.
- Groene wissel Den Helder, a 10 km round trip starting and ending at the main railway station of Den Helder. It passes through town, along the marine/navy museum, along the dike, past forts and through parks.
4. Visit a brewery (or 2)
Helderse jongens brewery, Den Helder
Yes, beer aficionados, even in such a remote place as Den Helder you can visit a brewpub! The fun thing about brewery Helderse jongens is that it is located in a fort! How cool is that? It’s a pretty big place, both inside and out, as this is a brewery as well as a restaurant. The inside area is interesting because you can see the brewery to the left of the bar, and because you sit inside a real fort! But as we visited on a sunny day, we decided to sit outside, enjoying the view of the water, and the boats passing by.
This is a rather new brewery, yet they already have quite an impressive beer list. We tried some decent IPA’s, a blond beer made out of rainwater – they claim to have very clean rainwater here – and a stout that I enjoyed. I must say, that with all those breweries popping up everywhere, I have become a little skeptical about the quality of the beers (and I may be overly critical at times), but this was OK. I can recommend going there, even though the location is part of the reason of my recommendation. Lunch was good too!
Address: Westoever 1 (in Fort Westoever ), Den Helder
Website Helderse jongens brewery (in Dutch)
open Wednesdays-Sundays from 11.00 to 22.00
Lange Jaap is the name of the Den Helder lighthouse. So as a Den Helder brewer you want to name (one of) your beer(s) after this remarkable building. Helderse Jongens brewery named their raspberry red ale after the building, but they were not the first to brew a beer by that name.
At the North Sea coast you will find a small restaurant/bar on top of a dike called “Storm aan Zee” and if I am correct their owner started brewing his own beer called Lange Jaap beer. According to Untappd it’s a pilsner, but we thought it was more like an Irish red. Which would be appropriate, as the lighthouse is red too!
So should you travel all the way to Den Helder just for this beer? No, it’s not that good. But if you’re around, why not try one (or more), either at its home bar Storm aan Zee (where you can enjoy the pretty views of the North Sea, and the sunset) or elsewhere in Den Helder?
5. Be the first to discover the hidden gems of Den Helder
You can of course visit all the places in the famous Lonely Planet guide, and yes, they do say about Den Helder: “Den Helder, has a marine museum and a 19th-century fort with a military museum and an aquarium worth checking out before you hop on the ferry to Texel“. That’s it. Which is kind of cool, because no one will stay in Den Helder and you will!
Apart from the beach, the museums, the forts, the hikes and the breweries that I already described, why not go wandering and discover new stuff that you haven’t already see a million times on Instagram? Such as a real Hindu temple, nice restaurants, street art and….. please let me know what you discover!
How to get to Den Helder by public transport?
Den Helder is easy to reach from Amsterdam (direct trains) and Haarlem (change once in Alkmaar or Castricum). If you come from one of the northern provinces such as Friesland or Groningen the best connection is by bus.
Once you are in Den Helder it could be a good idea to rent a bike. This will make it easier to travel between the coast and the city, even though there are buses too.
What to do after your visit to Den Helder?
If you need more fresh air, you could move on towards Texel. You could also visit one of the more typical Dutch towns in Noord Holland province such as Hoorn, Alkmaar or Enkhuizen. Or cross the Afsluitdijk towards the provinces of Friesland and Groningen.