We recently visited the Zaanse Schans and even though we had a fun morning out it reminded me that the real deal when it comes to open air museums is only about 45 minutes further North, at the Zuiderzeemuseum in Enkhuizen. And having not been for a number of years it was time to return.
So we did.
And it was utterly wonderful.
The Zuiderzeemuseum was established to preserve the cultural and maritime heritage of the Zuiderzee region, but unlike the eye-wateringly touristy enterprise that is the Zaanse Schans with its coachloads of tourists and shops selling plastic tulips and furry clogs, here it is presented in an utterly authentic and uncommercial way.
Almost all the buildings are original, indeed a film on display shows how one was even transported whole from Landsmeer on the back of a lorry, whilst those that are recreated are exact replicas of original buildings from areas such as Marken.
To get to the museum, visitors catch a boat from either the visitor centre (where the car park is based) or from the train station at Enkhuizen. It’s all part of the magic as you pull up at the outdoor museum and arrive in The Netherlands of the past.
Stepping off the boat, you’ll find a whole village – complete with canals, windmill, kilns, a steam laundry, a fish-smoking house, a pharmacy, butcher, bakery, blacksmith, cheese warehouse, school, hairdresser, coopery and of course a church. There are also an extraordinary variety of houses to enter, explore and discover along with staff dressed in original costume living the life their ancestors would have lived – washing, planting, weaving, fish-smoking, selling goods and interacting with visitors in a sweet and unselfconscious way which adds to the enchantment. Definitely no waxworks here! Also unlike many museums, there is only one small shop selling regular mementos. Every other vendor sells completely authentic handmade goods which are made by staff on site (and which you can see being made) – from baskets to brushes, wooden tops to ropes, baked almond tarts to freshly smoked fish.
It’s impossible to overstate how wonderful our recent visit was. We arrived at Easter when the museum had only just reopened for the season (which runs from early April to October) and our boys were the first to leap off the boat.
They were given activity sheets to complete, but unlike at most museums these required a high level of interactivity which left them absolutely spellbound. In order to earn a reward, they had to spring clean a house, take part in a treasure hunt in the toy shop, complete a lesson in calligraphy and play traditional games in the town square.
My boys (like most) can be restless, and they enjoy screen time as much as the next child but they couldn’t get enough of this wonderful experience with its gallons of fresh air, and they took charge – exploring, taking part and relishing the experience (and not just because there were hundreds of little foil-wrapped chocolate eggs dotted around for them to pocket!). Later in the year watch traditional varieties of fruit being harvested, try snacks and delicacies from the past and watch food being preserved.
In fact the only activity they didn’t want to try was dressing up in traditional children’s costumes. It sounds predictable and touristy (indeed it makes me cringe when you see the shops offering this in Volendam) and yet here, seeing kids run around in traditional clothing is entirely charming and I’m only sorry my two didn’t give me the photo op I would have loved to embarrass them with in future.
That said, it was almost impossible to tear them away from Zuiderzee. We took a ride on a barge, turned water wheels, painted clogs, posted cards at the post office, visited the sweet shop, tasted smoked sprats, chatted to the locals and investigated every nook and cranny until the sun disappeared and we insisted it really was time to catch the boat back to shore.
Our boys LOVED it. And we loved it even more. There is something so charming and authentic about the Zuiderzeemuseum it’s hard to describe. We hadn’t been for years, and never with the kids, but standing in the sunshine in this rural Dutch idyll we both said how utterly perfect it felt in every way and how we couldn’t believe it had taken us so long to return.
If you’re looking for a day out, head here. Museums don’t get better than this.