The name Alkmaar isn't a familiar one outside the Netherlands, but this modest city of less than 100,000 has plenty to entice the international tourist. Alkmaar is the Wisconson of the Netherlands: known for its cheese, inhabitants of Alkmaar -- just like Wisconsinites -- are also dubbed "cheeseheads" (kaaskoppen in Dutch). But Alkmaar has more to offer than just cheese: from its monumental Grote Kerk (Great Church) to the Netherlands' only Beatles museum, a day-trip to Alkmaar is more than worth your while when in North Holland.
From Amsterdam CS, a few trains per hour depart for Alkmaar; the journey takes approximately 40 minutes. For schedule and fare information, see the Netherlands Railways website. From the direction of Amsterdam, motorists can reach Alkmaar via the A9.
Alkmaar Cheese Market and Other Things to Do
One word: cheese. The Dutch -- and the world -- associate Alkmaar primarily with its centuries-old cheese market. Since at least 1593, uniformed "cheese bearers" have plied their trade on the market square; while Alkmaar's cheese market is now just a reenactment of the traditional process, nevertheless 100,000 visitors come each year to watch as the cheese wheels are shuffled to and fro on special stretchers. The cheese market is only reenacted on Fridays, 10 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. from April to September, but off-season tourists can still check out the Dutch Cheese Museum.
Beatles fans, rejoice: Alkmaar boasts one of the world's three Beatles museums (the other two are in Liverpool and in Halle, Germany).
Loaded with Fab Four paraphernalia -- from rare vinyl albums to oddities like The Beatles hair spray -- the museum is enthusiastically curated by an expert who's written nearly 40 books on the Beatles' career.
Aficionados of the art and craft of beer will appreciate the National Beer Museum, which explores the process of how malt, yeast, and hops combine into one of the Netherlands' most popular tipples.
Beer-related relics -- classic advertisements, antique bottles and more -- round out the collection, naturally located in a former brewery.
No trip to Alkmaar is complete without a visit to the Grote Kerk, a medieval church with not one, but two widely celebrated organs: the Van Covelens and the Hagerbeer-Schnitger organ, both of which visitors can hear in action in the Grote Kerk's summer concert series. See the Alkmaar Organ City website for concert information.
Coal stoves were once a fixture of life in Northern Europe, and their diversity -- from the fine porcelain tiles of palace stoves to the humble ones that still stand, mostly unused, in some Dutch abodes -- never ceases to interest me. So if you too have an idiosyncratic love of coal stoves, don't miss the Dutch Stove Museum.