While Amsterdam is certainly the most visited city in North Holland, it's not the only destination that deserves tourists' attention. The province of North Holland is full of history and culture, and even visitors who travel a short distance from Amsterdam Center will be amply rewarded with novel attractions that can't be found in the capital city - from the Dutch traditions encapsulated in Zaanse Schans, to the urbane, sophisticated streets of the provincial capital of Haarlem, to the distinctive, insular community of Marken.
Zaanse Schans, Oasis of Old Holland Tradition
Time-pressed tourists and others who want to squeeze the most Dutch culture into the littlest time shouldn't miss Zaanse Schans, in the city of Zaandam, north of Amsterdam. Traditional Dutch arts and crafts, seldom practiced in the urbanized western Netherlands (the so-called Randstad), come to life at Zaanse Schans: amid the traditional wooden architecture of the Zaanstreek, visitors can find a cheese farm with classic Dutch cheeses; a wooden shoe workshop that churns out the iconic footwear; a dozen windmills, from a sawmill to a mustard mill; a pewter smith, an antique dealer, a baker ... and the vacation home of Czar Peter the Great.
Haarlem, Capital of North Holland
At first blush, the provincial capital Haarlem is like a smaller-scale version of Amsterdam, but this North Holland city has a character and charm of its own. The market square, the Grote Markt (Great Square), is the undisputed heart of the city, crowned with the resplendent Grote Kerk (Great Church) and surrounded by streets full of independent (and not-so-independent) shops, superb restaurants and some of the finest museums in the country - such as the Frans Hals Museum, dedicated to the Haarlem-born Dutch Master, and the Teylers Museum, the oldest museum in the country. Spend a lazy Saturday afternoon on a stroll of its streets and hofjes (inner courts) with a cornet of the Haerlemsche Vlaamse's addictive, mayo-doused French fries in hand (Spekstraat 3).
Alkmaar, the 16th-Century Cheese Market and More
Alkmaar is to the Netherlands what Wisconsin is to the United States - the national cheese capital (a status it admittedly shares with Gouda, home of the namesake cheese). Tourists can scope out a reenactment of the traditional cheese market that's been around at least since the late 16th century, or duck into the Dutch Cheese Museum (Kaasmuseum, Waagplein 2). When the cheese has exhausted its appeal, visitors can check out the city's star architecture, such as its own Grote Kerk (Great Church, Koorstraat 2); the Boom National Beer Museum (Houttil 1); and one of the world's three Beatles museums, the Beatles Museum Alkmaar (Noorderkade 130).
Marken & Volendam: Insular Societies, Individual Cultures
The classic tourist destinations of Marken and Volendam have a twin claim to fame: for centuries, their cultures were unsullied by outside influences. Marken, once an island in the IJsselmeer, was isolated from the Netherlands until the 1950s, when closure of a dike united it with the rest of the country; Volendam, a town on the Zuiderzee, was only an "island" in a strictly cultural sense, with an insular folk tradition that evolved separately from the mainstream Netherlands. Both have been tourist draws for well over a century thanks to their distinctly different cultures - evident in their traditional dress and special dialects - and their romantic, small-town atmospheres.
Amstelveen - Arts & Culture Just a Bus Ride from the Capital
One of the closest day trips from Amsterdam is also one of the easiest to overlook: the veritable suburb of Amstelveen is only three-quarters of an hour from Amsterdam Center, but has an abundance of cultural and natural attractions that can't be found in the city itself. The Cobra Museum of Modern Art, dedicated to the short-lived but seminal Cobra art movement of the 1940s and '50s, is one of the most well-respected Dutch art museums, while a vibrant Japanese community ensures that visitors to Amstelveen are well-sated on classic dishes from this culinary powerhouse. Nature and animal enthusiasts will find much to love in Amstelveen's parks and publicly-accessible farms.
Connect the Points of the Defense Line of Amsterdam
Spread out over 443 ft. (135 km), at a 49 ft. (15 km) radius from the city, the Defense Line of Amsterdam comprises a tract of land that could be flooded to form a defensive moat around the capital. The 45 forts that once punctuated the defense line are now out of (military) service, but some of them - chiefly in the North Holland towns of Weesp and Muiden, as well as Pampus Island - are now much-frequented tourist attractions, perfect for day trips with the family or friendly history buffs.