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What to do in Zaanse Schans

Frequent travelers often express a certain disdain for places that are “touristy,” meaning crowded with tourists: San Marco’s square in Venice, for example, or the Tower of London, or the Forbidden City in Beijing. Many of us avoid such places, preferring the more off-the-beaten-track destinations.

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The row of houses sit right on the edge of the water: wooden houses, just 2-3 stories high, with peaked roofs.
houses across the river from Zaanse Schans

Tourist destinations, though, are popular for a reason. San Marco’s square is beautiful. The Tower of London and the Forbidden City reveal some fascinating history, and they’re beautiful as well.

Tourist destinations are popular for a reason. #tourism #travel Click To Tweet

I bring this up because I visited one of these very popular destinations last weekend: Zaanse Schans, north of Amsterdam.

Never heard of it? Well, you’ve probably seen pictures, since it’s home to a collection of historical windmills and is visited by bus-full’s of tourists from all over the world.

The windmill has an octagonal shape, wider at the bottom than the top. It is covered with thatch. On the back (from this view) are the four windvanes and their sails are unfurled on the windvanes. In front of it is a long low brown building with a low peaked red roof.
De Zoeker windmill as seen from Het Jonge Schaap windmill

My husband and I went on a Sunday, and not only were the tourist hordes there in full force, but a children’s book fair was also taking place, bringing in the locals and their over-excited children.

Nevertheless, I loved seeing the windmills. I’d been there before on much quieter days; during the week and off-season it’s much less crowded. The problem is that many of the windmills close during the week, so I never got to see the insides. On a summer Sunday, almost all of them were open and in operation too. The video below will give you a quick impression of how they looked in action:

Zaanse Schans impressions

History of Zaanse Schans

The area around Zaanse Schans, called the Zaanstreek, used to have 600 windmills powering its economic growth until the age of the steam engine. Built for industrial functions, they were used for grinding grain, cacao, spices or paint; sawing wood, or pressing oil.

Starting in the 1960’s, these historical mills and other threatened and antique buildings were moved to Zaanse Schans to create a collection and to preserve them.

The small house is covered in wood, painted green, but with white decorative trim around windows, doors and roofline and with little dark red shutters. The roof is terra cotta yellow tile. EAch of the two front doors has three ladder-like steps leading up to it.
a pretty wooden house at Zaanse Schans

What to do in Zaanse Schans

Today Zaanse Schans has six picturesque windmills arranged along the Zaan River. It’s also home to five small museums, most of them housed in centuries-old buildings brought here from nearby towns:

  • Bakkerijmuseum: This small bakery museum contains a collection of antique baking equipment, and sells old-fashioned Dutch baked goods.
  • Museumwinkel Albert Heijn: The supermarket chain Albert Heijn started as a small grocery. This small grocery shows how the original shop would have looked a hundred years ago.
  • Museum Zaanse tijd:  a clock and watch museum
  • Zaans Museum & Verkade Paviljoen: This museum houses a collection of tools and other materials from the early food industry. Verkade is a chocolate factory located nearby, and at the museum you can learn about early 20th century chocolate production.
  • Museum Honig Breethuis: This was originally the home of a local merchant and his family. Built in 1710, it is decorated to show how they would have lived in about 1830.

Several craftsmen display their work, including a distiller, a “cacaolab,” a candlemaker, a clog maker, a goldsmith and a tinsmith. And many of the houses in Zaanse Schans have, like the windmills, been brought here from elsewhere for their preservation.

In the square above the door as well as above and beside it are some lavish carvings: feathers, arrows, banners of all sorts, mostly in white or gold. Above the door frame it reads "'t Koopmanshuys d'Mol A1795."
detail of the doorway of one of the historic houses in Zaanse Schans

If you want to see windmills and aren’t sure where the best place to see them is, make sure to read my post Kinderdijk or Zaanse Schans?, to help you make the decision.

The Windmills of Zaanse Schans

  • De Huisman (1756) was a mustard mill and now makes other spices too.
  • De Gekroonde Poelenburg (1869) is a sawmill.
Two buildings: In the foreground a low building with a rounded facade that rises to a tall flat shape above the roofline, only one story tall, painted green on the front facade. Behind, the windmill is on stilts, four-sided, painted green, the walls slanted so it's bigger at the bottom than the top. The windvanes are on the other side from this view.
Poelenburg windmill: a sawmill at Zaanse Schans
  • De Kat (1664) is one of two mills (along with De Bonte Hen) that were originally built on this spot. This one is a paint mill, grinding wood and pigment and other ingredients for artists and restorers to this day.
  • De Zoeker (1672) is an oil mill producing peanut oil.
The woodwork is painted bright green, red, blue and white, with simple curles, like upside down waves, along the edge. The words "Anno 1672" are painted in white on a green background.
detail from the oilmill De Zoeker at Zaanse Schans
  • Het Jonge Schaap is a recent reconstruction of a much older sawmill. It was fascinating for me to watch how the mill powers the up and down of the saw blades at the same time as the very slow sideways movement to carry the wood past the saws.
  • De Bonte Hen (1693) is also an oil mill, making oil from flaxseed. The seeds are first crushed to remove the husks, then pressed. The windmill works to lift huge beams of wood which drop repeatedly to press the oil out of the seeds.

Each mill is individually operated, mostly by volunteers, and charges a small admission fee. You can also buy a Zaanse Schans card, which gives discounts for some museums and the windmills. It would be worth it if you’re there at a time when everything is open.

Despite the tourist crowds, you can see on the video above that Zaanse Schans is pleasant when the weather is good and the mills are working. When we got there, well past noon, we headed straight for the furthest mill, De Bonte Hen. That worked well because the tourists were mostly wrapping up their visit for the day, focusing on the gift shops near the entrance (cheese, mustard, chocolate, etc.). We had some of the mills more or less to ourselves, and were able to ask the millers questions.

We worked our way along the row of mills and were able to see them all, though that left no time to see any museums.

Visiting Zaanse Schans

If you go to Zaanse Schans, set aside a whole day to see it well. If you go on a weekday or off-season, don’t count on the windmills being open, but you can still stroll around and admire them from the outside. On the Zaanse Schans website, the opening times are all listed, and can differ from one day to the next.

Go ahead: be a tourist!

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Pinnable image: Text: Zaanse Schans Windmill collection near Amsterdam, (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo) Image: A windmill

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