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Alkmaar City Tour and Boat Ride

Alkmaar is most famous for the world’s biggest cheese market, and the town itself is also a beautiful place to visit, as explained in this section.

View video of city tour and canal boat ride:

We describe the cheese market in detail with our other webpage.

In addition to the cheese market, you will want to have a good look around Alkmaar, which is the country’s largest town north of Amsterdam and Haarlem, and is home to more than 530 national heritage sites. It looks like a little Amsterdam because there are a lot of canals, many bridges, nice houses, a few museums, but not so busy.

There is much more to see in town besides the cheese market, so by all means spend a few hours when you get to Alkmaar and walk around in the charming little pedestrian zone. Then take a boat ride through the scenic canals, passing a lot of very old brick bridges and buildings.

Even if there is no market happening, Alkmaar is still a lovely historic town to explore. Alkmaar is in the province of North Holland, about 10 kilometers from the coast and 40 kilometers northwest of Amsterdam. It’s an easy day trip from Amsterdam, just about 40 minutes away by train or guided tour on a bus. You might not spend the night here, but it makes a lovely day-trip destination because Alkmaar is much more than just cheese. The town itself has many attractions in typical Dutch style with charming canals running through the historic center’s pedestrian zone filled with shops, restaurants and cafés.

Alkmaar City Tour and Boat Ride

In addition to the cheese market, you will want to have a good look around Alkmaar, which is the country’s largest town north of Amsterdam and Haarlem, and is home to more than 530 national heritage sites. It looks like a little Amsterdam because there are a lot of canals, many bridges, nice houses, a few museums, but not so busy.

There is much more to see in town besides the cheese market, so by all means spend a few hours when you get to Alkmaar and walk around in the charming little pedestrian zone. Then take a boat ride through the scenic canals, passing a lot of very old brick bridges and buildings.

The historic center of the old city is relatively small, just about one kilometer across with several main shopping streets for pedestrians. You can easily walk around in a couple of hours and take time for a meal. You could spend at least half a day here, or maybe the full day with the cheese market, then shopping, eating, strolling, and just enjoying the pedestrian atmosphere of this historic old city.

It’s especially lively on cheese market day with lots of sidewalk stands set up selling crafts, foods, clothing, all kinds of souvenirs, some big wooden shoes, and of course, different types of locally produced cheeses. The sidewalk stands are carrying on a long historical tradition because up until the 19th century, most food and agricultural products were traded at street markets.

Most visitors to Alkmaar are staying in Amsterdam or Haarlem and coming up for a day-trip, which just takes about 35 to 40 minutes to get here. You’ll also find some bus tours available from Amsterdam that will provide a short walking tour and give you some free time at the cheese market. That would be a fun half-day tour.

But with the train, you have the option to arrive at Alkmaar a little earlier than with a bus tour, before the market opens, and stay later, which is how I suggest you do it. This way you can get a nice early start right after breakfast in your home-base city, Amsterdam or Haarlem, and catch an early train, which is rather empty at that hour because you’re going against the flow of rush-hour. Along the way, you’ll see the pasturelands called polders that were formerly below sea level but were pumped dry hundreds of years ago with the help of windmills to create pasture land for the cows, primarily to produce that lovely cheese.

And then you get to Alkmaar, arriving at the train station which dates originally from 1864—but there is very little left of that old architecture. Instead, it is efficient and functional, a surprisingly modern structure, typical of Netherlands rail stations. Tap your OV-chipkaart when you board and exit a train and you can refill this card at any station. The Dutch rail system is among the world’s best: clean, modern, efficient, distances are short, trains come frequently, and the prices are quite affordable.

From the train station it’s only about a 10-minute walk to get into the Old Town. You will soon arrive at the big canal that goes around the Old Town. Cross it on the Bergerbrug, the Bergen bridge where you’ll be in the old city already.

Arriving if you can about 8:30 in the morning, the city is fairly quiet, the shops are not yet open. You’ll probably see a little truck sweeping the streets already, one of many reasons why the Dutch cities are all so clean. The Dutch take such pride in their place there is hardly any graffiti outside of Amsterdam.

Various sidewalk vendors are just getting started for the day, some setting up displays selling bulbs of the tulips and other flowers, a very popular tourist item to purchase here. Sales are very slow early in the morning but get quite busy later with the visitors who flood into town for the cheese market.

The first little square you come to is Kerkplein, a small but important plaza in the city, right next to a large church, Sint Laurentiuskerk, also known as the Grote Kerk, Big Church. It was built between 1470 and 1520, dedicated to St. Lawrence, an early Christian martyr.

Cafés on the square are quiet at this early hour of the day, most not even open. But later on you’ll see they are bustling with a kind of mellow small-town atmosphere. This is a very popular part of the town, an ideal place to relax. By nine in the morning the town is coming to life, and then later you’ll see how busy it gets in the afternoon.

It is delightful to take a stroll through town quite early along the main street for a few blocks. A few cafés are beginning to open, showing some signs of life. Even if you had breakfast back at your hotel in Amsterdam, you might be getting a little hungry for some coffee and a snack about now, so sit down at one of the cafés for a delicious brunch.

You might see some workmen doing renovations on the old buildings, many of which are several hundred years old and survived because they have been well-maintained. Another benefit of arriving early is that you can take your time to relax and look around, observing the sites all around you.

As in most historic Dutch towns, the buildings are constructed of brick, many of them nearly four centuries old. Earlier, during the Middle Ages, most of these towns were made of wooden structures but rebuilt in brick after some major fires.

Then deviate over a couple of blocks and look at the beautiful canal that runs around the old city. There is a park along the shores of the canal, so typical of small Dutch cities. Enjoying the tranquil park and scenic canal is another advantage of getting to town early and having your own schedule that you can control by taking the train to get here. It is only a few blocks away from the main pedestrian street of town and takes about five minutes to walk over here, but so many visitors to the cheese market miss out on experiences like this little side trip.

For the intrepid traveler it’s always nice to get away from the tourist crowds for at least a little while, get a taste of that local lifestyle, the authentic experience of being in the place. You can see a lot more of the canals later in the visit if you take a boat ride.

Return from the canal to Koorstraat, another very popular pedestrian lane that many visitors miss because it’s just slightly off-center from the main street, yet makes a lovely neighborhood to enjoy. A busy street sign pointing to nearby attractions indicates there’s a lot more to see in the surrounding areas, perhaps by bicycle: Horn, Den Helder, Egmond, Heiloo, Akersloot, Purmerend and Harlem.

Walk back over to Langestraat, the main pedestrian street, which is still pretty quiet about 9:30 in the morning—just some delivery trucks and a few pedestrians out. The same shopping street later in the afternoon is a lot more lively yet still very pleasant. Alkmaar does not ever get crowded like Amsterdam. Friday is peak time because of the cheese market but the rest of the week it’s considerably quieter. It’s only about 500 meters distance from the great church over to the cheese market square but there is a lot here to keep you busy, such as some rich Dutch ice cream available from several shops along the way.

Halfway down the street is the City Hall of Alkmaar, built in the late Gothic style between 1509 and 1520 and then restored in the early 20th century. It’s the Stadthuis which still functions as a town hall but is primarily for wedding ceremonies nowadays. Two lions flanking the front door holding a shield with a castle represent the coat of arms of the city.

Continue a few blocks further along this very popular shopping street, the retail spine of the city. Here you’ll notice side streets as well that are fascinating for shopping and strolling along.

You have now reached the most beautiful part of Alkmaar, arriving at blocks in the city center near the cheese market that preserve a 17th-century pattern of canals and narrow streets with many historic buildings. Here all of the elements of a traditional Dutch city come together, what you would hope to find when you visit Holland—old brick buildings along the canal, a terrace restaurant with a view of the passing parade of people, with shops and benches and flowerpots in the street lamps.

Then you’ll arrive at that cultural focal point of the city, the Waagplein, the weighing house square. It’s the biggest outdoor plaza and always the center of attraction, especially on Friday mornings when the cheese market is held here. For the rest of the week it’s bustling with outdoor terrace restaurants, with the tower of the weighing house rising above it all, which was originally built as a chapel and then converted centuries ago into the main economic building of town, the place where the cheese was weighed.

For those who love to shop, the sidewalk stands will give you a lot to be happy about, such as that classic Dutch souvenir of the old wooden shoe, the klompen or clog, still occasionally worn by a few farmers in rural parts of Holland.

There is a nice variety of things for sale at the sidewalk kiosks—jewelry, fabrics and various kinds of homemade crafts. It’s nice to deal directly with the artisans who made the products. You can attempt to negotiate on price if you’re going to buy a lot, but otherwise just pay what they ask.

The fabrics and jewelry make excellent items to pack away in a suitcase for your return home, adding little weight or bulk to your baggage. There are some colorful folks walking around dressed in period costumes, in the service of the nearby tourist office.

The center of town has an impressive bridge (Bathbrug) in front of the weighing house, which leads across the canal to a lovely little shopping district with more pedestrian lanes hiding little boutiques tucked away. There is much to see in that neighborhood, which confirms that Alkmaar has more to offer than just the famous cheese market. If you would like to wander there for a few hours, don’t come on a bus tour, which does not provide enough time to explore.

On cheese market day there are some old-fashioned cheese boats showing how they used to bring the cheese to market. If you fancy a boat ride, the neighborhood in front of the Weigh House is action central for all the tour boats going through the town where you’ll find several different choices. Some of them are just casual friends getting together, others are organized by various companies in town.

Boat Ride

Perhaps you notice that tour boats here look quite a bit different than other tour boats you see in many cities of the Netherlands. What’s the difference? They do not have roofs. And why is that? Well, it’s because the bridges are very low, leaving no space for a roof. There is no room for people’s heads. You’ve got to duck under many of the 22 bridges on the route, which is why the seats are also low, down to water level. Despite that, the canal boat ride tour is a popular activity.

I went with a tour company that uses smaller boats, located just in front of the Waagplein. You pay onboard. Our skipper described the boat route through the canals. “We are from the De Kraak City Tour and we’re going to make a round-trip for the tourists to the old city center, going on some smaller canals, including a trip up the Oudegracht, which was the main functional canal in the city, and the big canal that goes all the way around the old town in a complete round trip. It just takes 45 minutes, coming back to where we started here at the Waagplein, passing by some of the kiosks that are set up for the cheese market and the Weighing House, the most beautiful and famous structure in town.”

Another of the main historic structures you’ll see from the boat is a tall square building, the Excise Tower (Accijnstoren), built in 1622, which was the most important building in town, where they collected taxes on all the goods that came into the city. Alkmaar had its own import duties or tariffs, that were very important to support the city.

A great thing about the boat ride is you can sit back and explore parts of the city that are more residential and remote that you probably would not get to if you were walking. Here it’s so easy, you just can watch the buildings glide by without moving a muscle, except when you have to duck underneath the bridge.

You’ll also see Sint Josephkerk from the boat, the little brother of Grote Kerk. Much of the route is along the Singel canal, the old border of Alkmaar. This moat around the old city was first dug in the 16th century for defense and had a wall along the shore, but nearly all of this defensive wall is long gone.

The old bastions and banks of the canal are planted with trees and lush grass. There is a footpath along the water’s edge with benches, making a beautiful park right in the heart of the Old City. On the north side it is the North Hollands canal, a busy shipping route, and the quayside is a major road.

Another fine site is the only windmill in the center, the Molen Van Piet, built in 1769 as a grain mill. In Alkmaar there were originally 10 windmills along the walls built high up on the rampart so they could catch more wind.

Towards the end of the cruise the boat passes a peninsula in the canal with the new city municipal offices and the Alkmaar police station and then just beyond, is a redevelopment on the northern bank with modern apartments and a shopping center in a former industrial area.

The boat schedule runs from April to October every day and they start about 11 a.m. and run every hour. You could also hire a canoe and paddle it yourself through the canals, no license necessary. Or if you have a small group you can charter one of these boats, and they can cater it for you providing coffee with cake, or lunch, high teas, tapas and even a barbecue.

One boat company also offers a one-way cruise from Alkmaar to Amsterdam. It takes about six hours, starting at noon and arriving in Amsterdam at about 6 p.m. That’s another enjoyable way to get back to the city if you’re spending the night in Amsterdam, meals available onboard that longer cruise.

When finished with the boat ride and cheese market you could enjoy a lovely peaceful afternoon strolling around the town. The pedestrian zone is not large but does have several pedestrian lanes. If you want to spend some more time in Alkmaar, you could walk or cycle to the surrounding countryside, and the beach.

While nearly all visitors to Alkmaar come as a day-trip you might consider spending the night, which becomes nice and quiet after all the day-trippers have departed. There are several hotels in the old city and you’ll find they are less expensive than similar hotels in Amsterdam. There is a larger range of accommodations on the coast in the seaside villages not far from Alkmaar.

You’ll find that Alkmaar is a quaint place with the character of a small town and some amenities of a city, offering shops, restaurants and historic old buildings to enjoy.

A brief historic footnote: The most important event in Alkmaar’s long history was the battle with Spain in 1573 when they were surrounded by 16,000 Spanish troops against 2,000 Dutch defenders. Despite those overwhelming odds, the people of Alkmaar defeated the Spanish in what is considered the first victory in the war against Spain, leading to the independence of Holland and birth of the nation. Some locals claim this is the only city that defeated an empire.

When finished with the Alkmaar day-trip, return to Haarlem (or Amsterdam) for the night. Next morning, our suggested itinerary takes a direct train to Leiden, just 22 minutes away.

Now visit the Alkmaar Cheese Market