A visit to Zaanse Schans: how to make the most of it

You may ask yourself: “what happened to you, why are you writing about the number 1 tourist attraction of Holland? Weren’t you supposed to write about off the beaten track experiences!?” You are so very right, Zaanse Schans doesn’t need my promotion at all. However, I am writing about this place anyway because I challenged myself to find ways to visit Zaanse Schans while avoiding the tourist crowds. This is not easy! Hopefully my blog is helpful in case you are interested in seeing the windmills and wonder how to do it in an enjoyable way, or if you are looking for an alternative.

Travel advice during the COVID-19 or corona virus outbreak
At this moment the Netherlands is in an almost  complete lock down. Museums, restaurants, bars, everything is closed. Postpone your visit to a later date. I will keep you posted!

Zaanse Schans windmill

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What is Zaanse Schans?

Zaanse Schans windmill

Zaanse Schans is an open air museum. It is a collection of windmills and houses from Zaanstreek, the area surrounding the river Zaan north of Amsterdam. Windmills and houses that had to make way at other places were taken apart, and reconstructed at this location. Added to this are replica’s of windmills. Just be aware of the fact that what you see here is a collection of regional buildings brought together at this location. This is not an original town.

A tiny tiny bit of history of Zaanse Schans before you visit

In the 17th and 18th century Zaanstreek was an industrial area with 650(!) windmills that cut wood, pressed oil out of seeds and produced paper, paint, cocoa, tobacco and mustard. In those days this area already attracted tourists, but they didn’t come for the romantic pictures. No, they came here to admire such large scale industry! After the invention of the steam engine windmills gradually lost ground to modern industrial methods. If you want to learn more about this history visit the (slightly commercial) Zaans Museum that is right next to Zaanse Schans.

Is Zaanse Schans a tourist trap?

When analyzing the reviews on TripAdvisor I see conflicting opinions about the visit to Zaanse Schans. People who hate it say it is a tourist trap and busy “beyond the reasonable“. Others love it, but admit that it is very busy. So I think we can safely conclude that the place is very busy most of the time.

But does that automatically make it a tourist trap? I am in doubt. To be honest, I thought the windmills were very pretty, especially the wooden ones, and so is the way they are put together, along the river Zaan. I think the idea of preserving these mills that had to make way at their original locations is pretty cool, and that this area teaches us about Dutch industry in pre-industrial times. On the other hand, it does have elements of a tourist trap. For example, many people come here in a tour bus and are dumped in the commercial areas, where you can even find a diamond shop. Not very authentic….

What is the entrance fee to Zaanse Schans?

You can visit Zaanse Schans free of charge, so if you are only interested in taking pictures of the windmills, this may turn out to be a very cheap trip. You can enter one of the mills, the shops and the clog factory/museum for free too.

But if you want to visit all the mills, go on a boat trip and visit the Zaans museum your wallet may be empty very soon. The seven windmills that are open to visitors charge 5 euro each, the museum 12,50 and a boat trip is 7,50 to 9,50 euro depending on the company. These prices are per person.

Zaanse Schans autumn

How to avoid the tourist crowds in Zaanse Schans (as far as possible)

Have you decided to visit Zaanse Schans anyway, but would you like to avoid the crowds? Read my suggestions for your crowd avoiding plan. But be warned: avoiding the crowds completely is impossible.

1) Don’t book an organized tour, go by public transport

I advice against booking an organized tour, because of 3 reasons:

  1. The price: tour operators charge 35 to 40 euro for a trip. If you visit Zaanse Schans independently that will cost you between 6.60 and 10 euro for a return ticket. They make it sound like entrances to a mill, cheese shop and clog factory are included in the price. That is not a lie…., but those places are accessible free of charge anyway. So basically you end up paying 35 euro for a transfer.
  2. The time: you will have very limited time to actually see the mills. I’ve seen ads for tours that claim to be “half a day”, but actually last only 3 hours, including your time on the road. That leaves you 2 hours at Zaanse Schans. This may be enough if all you want to do is take some pictures. However, if you want to visit the mills, walk around, have lunch or visit the museum, it certainly isn’t.
  3. The sales: in reviews I’ve read complaints of tour customers who said that they were dumped in the commercial area of Zaanse Schans and that they had to spend way too much time there. I guess that sadly, some guides are more interested in their commissions than in explaining the history of this area. I am sure this doesn’t apply to all guides, but be aware of this nuisance.

How to get from Amsterdam to Zaanse schans by public transport?

There are 2 options to travel to Zaanse Schans independently:

  1. By train: catch a train from Amsterdam Central or Amsterdam Sloterdijk station to Uitgeest, and get off at station Zaandijk Zaanse Schans. This train runs 4 times an hour and the ride takes 18 minutes. Check your itinerary at the website of the Dutch Railways.
    Note that it is a 20 minute walk from Zaandijk Zaanse Schans station to Zaanse Schans. A return ticket by train costs 6,60 euro (+1 euro if you don’t have an OV-travelcard)
  2. By bus: during daytime there is a fast bus from Amsterdam Central bus station to Zaanse Schans. This is bus nr 891. This trip lasts 22 minutes and you can get off right in front of the entrance to Zaanse Schans. Check your itinerary at the public transport website 9292.nl/en. Use “Zaanse Schans bus stop” as your destination. This will cost you 8.76 euro if you have an OV-travelcard.

Check your schedule on the public transport website 9292.nl and read my tips about using public transport in Holland. Mind that there are extra rules for users of public transport during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example: you have to wear a face mask when using public transport.

A windmill in Zaanse Schans

2) Mind your timing

In the footer of the Zaanse Schans website you can find a “crowds calendar”. This will give you some idea of the amount of visitors they expect each day. Generally speaking low season (October to March) is better than summer and weekdays are better than weekends.

You might also consider going early, or quite late. If you want to visit the windmills, check their opening hours. Most open up between 9.30 and 10.00 and close between 17.00 and 18.00.

As a last option, if you are interested in this area, why not spend the night here? I have no specific hotel to recommend, but try to find something that suits your taste in the village of Koog aan de Zaan. This is situated at the opposite side of the river Zaan from Zaanse Schans. The mills and shops may be closed in the evenings and early mornings, but you can still go for a hike. Besides, the most beautiful pictures are taken early morning and evening… As an extra, you could go for some drinks at Brewery Hoop in Koog aan de Zaan. I have never been, but it looks cool on their website.

Zaanse Schans windmills

3) Go for a hike near Zaanse Schans

The landscape surrounding Zaanse Schans is actually quite pretty. So why don’t you go for a hike? You’ll pass by the tourist crowds, maybe visit some mills, but after that you’ll soon leave the crowds behind you. The awesome thing about polders is that they are flat and that you’ll have lovely views of the windmills of Zaanse Schans during most of your hike. And it will be so quiet!

Suggestions for hiking trails near Zaanse Schans

  • OV stapper Zaanse Schans: a lovely 13 km hike from railway station Zaandam Kogerveld to station Zaandijk Zaanse Schans (or vice versa). Passes by the village of Bartelsluis, a village with traditional green wooden houses and without tourists. GPS track is available via the link.
  • Molenroute: a shorter hike of about 8 km past Zaanse Schans and around the polder. This route overlaps with the previous one but is shorter. No GPS track available, but with the map it will be hard to get lost.
Zaanse Schans hiking

For more hiking trails in the Amsterdam area check my blog “10 hikes in and around Amsterdam

4) Cycle to Zaanse Schans from Amsterdam

Zaanse Schans is closer to Amsterdam than you may think. It is less than 20 km away, so you can easily cycle there in between 1 and 1,5 hours. If you are staying in Amsterdam, why not rent a bike and cycle to Zaanse Schans? There are several routes that you can take (or combine).

  • Cycle via Amsterdam West and Westpoort to the Amsterdam-Zaandam (free) ferry. Once across the river IJ cycle through the polders to Zaanse Schans. You can find a description of this very nice route on the Biking Amsterdam website.
  • Or cross river IJ directly behind Amsterdam Central Station (free ferry to Buiksloterweg) and cycle via Amsterdam Noord and nature park Twiske (with its own windmill!) to Zaanse Schans. Google maps will give you this route if you search for bike routes from Amsterdam to Zaanse Schans.

Another option is to rent a bike at Zaandijk Zaanse Schans railway station, and go for a cycling tour in the area. When cycling you’ll get to see more of the polders, pass through traditional villages (real ones, not museums!) and you will come across several windmills that are a lot less touristy than those in Zaanse Schans. You can find a suggestion for a bike tour in Zaanstreek at RouteYou.

Note that as of July 2019 you are not allowed to hold a mobile phone in your hand while cycling in Holland. You risk a fine if you do.

Around Zaanse Schans

Are there any alternatives to Zaanse Schans?

Visit other windmills

Guess what, there are still 1208 traditional windmills and watermills in The Netherlands! 1198 of those are NOT in Zaanse Schans. So if it is mills you are after, you have plenty of choice. An overview of all mills is available in the Dutch windmill and watermill database, with detailed information about each mill.

For example, visit Schiedam to see the highest windmills in Holland. Or head towards Bodegraven to see the windmills of Aarlanderveen that to this day keep the polder dry by pumping the surplus water from the polder into the river.

Tasting Dutch cheese

In the reviews of Zaanse Schans I read that many tourists loved the cheese shop. Good news: there are many cheese shops in The Netherlands! You don’t need to go to Zaanse Schans for that. Go to a local market for example. Every Dutch market has at least one cheese stand where you can buy different types of cheese for a reasonable price.

Visiting a polder

If you are interested in seeing polder landscapes, you have many opportunities to do so in the Netherlands. Even Schiphol Airport is located in a polder, but I guess that is not what you were looking for. To see landscapes similar to Zaanse Schans, go for example to Waterland (the area around the lovely village Broek in Waterland), the Beemsterpolder, or the Schermerpolder (that has a museum mill too).

Villages with traditional wooden houses

If it is green wooden houses that you are after, you will be happy to hear that there are still many of those in Zaanstreek. When visiting towns such as Zaandam, Koog aan de Zaan and Zaandijk, you will come across quite a few of those. An interesting fact is that nowadays there is a trend to build new houses with elements of the traditional architecture in this region too.

Open air museums

Alternatives for Zaanse Schans as an open air museum are the Zuiderzee museum in Enkhuizen and the Openluchtmuseum in Arnhem. Both own a collection of original historic Dutch buildings (mills among them). Both museums are popular, but not nearly as crowded as Zaanse Schans.

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