We recently spent a week in the Netherlands and had such an incredible time. I will be sharing our experiences in a series of posts along with recipes inspired by our travels. Today, I am featuring some of the areas on the outskirts or just outside of Amsterdam along with a recipe for Speculaas (Dutch Spiced Cookies).
Disclosure: I received a 72 hour I Amsterdam City Card in exchange for my honest review. It covers entry to many of Amsterdam’s top museums and attractions (plus a couple in nearby cities), a canal cruise, free use of the public GVB transportation in Amsterdam, a detailed city map, along with dozens of discounts to local restaurants and stores. I also received free admission for De Pannenkoekenboot in exchange for my honest review. All comments and opinions are my own.
Here are the previous posts from our trip:
- Bitterballen and Amsterdam: Vondelpark, The Heineken Experience, Albert Cuyp Markt, Foodhallen
- Beschuit (Dutch Rusk) and Amsterdam: Het Scheepvaartmuseum, NEMO Science Museum, Verzetsmuseum
- Patatje Oorlog (Dutch War Fries) and Rotterdam: Maritiem Museum, Markthal
- Hutspot met Gehaktballen (Dutch Mashed Potatoes and Carrots with Meatballs) and Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank Huis
When we first told Evan that we were going to the Netherlands and discussed all the activities available, he immediately asked to see the windmills. For those who don’t know, Evan has Autism and has been fascinated by fans and spinning objects since he was a baby.
Windmills in particular are a favorite for him and he was so excited at the idea of seeing them in person. There are a few areas throughout the Netherlands to see windmills, but one of the most popular near Amsterdam is Zaanse Schans.
Zaanse Schans is located about 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) north of Amsterdam in Zaandam. This region was once home to hundreds of windmills that processed everything from paints and oils to spices, paper, wood, and more.
From 1961 to 1974, historic windmills and houses were relocated to Zaanse Schans and opened to the public. The museum was built in 1994 and there are now only a few windmills left.
The outdoors area surrounding the buildings is free to explore. Admission and opening hours vary based on the specific building. We used the I Amsterdam City Card and it was accepted at all of the buildings we visited. You can also purchase the Zaanse Schans Card from the Visitors Center. A few of the buildings are closed during the week and off-season.
Before reaching the windmills, there are a variety of shops and museums. It was a bit congested earlier in the day so we walked to the windmills first (particularly since that was the area Evan was focused on) and came back to the shops later.
The Klompenmakerij is a Clog workshop. This workshop is open daily and admission is free. It holds one of the largest collection of clogs and there are often demonstrations. For those looking for clog souvenirs, there are plenty to choose from.
The Bakkerijmuseum In de Gecroonde Duivekater (Bakery Museum) shows off antique cookware and also sells baked goods (including Duivekater- Zaanse Sweet Bread) and cooking utensils. It was built in 1658 on Hazepad in Zaandijk and was donated to Zaanse Schans in 1970.
The CacaoLab Zaans Gedaan (CocoaLab) was a favorite of mine. There are regular demonstrations on how to make chocolate from cocoa beans along with hands-on workshops available by appointment. You can make your own hot chocolate (with add-ins such as caramel syrup) and purchase a variety of sweet treats or molds to make your own.
It was an overcast, windy day so the windmills were in full motion. The first one we explored was De Kat (photo above). It was built in 1664 and continues to produce paints and pigments of high quality today. Evan loved getting a close-up view of the gears and inner workings inside.
We were able to climb up to the top deck and get a close up view of the fans and the surrounding area. As with many of the staircases we came across during our travels, they can be quite steep and narrow. Evan was a bit nervous about climbing back down (and I was nervous about navigating them while holding Claire). De Kat also has a small gift shop with a variety of windmill toys, souvenirs, decorations, and hot chocolate.
Another windmill we visited was De Bonte Hen. It was built in 1693 and produces oil for painting (having miraculously survived multiple lighting strikes). The mill was restored from 1973 to 1978 and also features a gallery with beautiful windmill artwork.
We also visited De Huisman which focuses on spices. The inside of the building smells amazing and there are also quite a few souvenirs for sale, including spices and the speculaas molds I brought home.
Other windmills at Zaanse Schans include De Gekroonde Poelenburg (saw mill), De Zoeker (oil), Het Jonge Schaap (saw mill), De Os (oil), Het Klaverblad (hollow post mill), De Bleeke Dood (the oldest smock mill), De Ooievaar (oil), De Hadel (mini mill-pump water out a polder), and De Windhond (mini mill- crushed stone).
We tend to be slow with the kids and didn’t get to see everything in the three hours spent at Zaanse Schans. Other shops include the Albert Heijn Museum Shop, The Tinkoepel pewter foundry, The Weaver’s House, Tiemstra Coopery, The Zaanse Time Museum, Honig Breethuis, The Catharina Hoeve Cheese Farm, Liqueur distillery de Tweekoppige Phoenix, and the Windmill Museum.
We used the bus (391) from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station top level to travel to Zaanse Schans (40 minutes). The stop is right in front of the museum. You can also take a 15 minute train ride from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station to Koog-Zaandijk with a 10 minute walk to the museum or a 17 kilometer car ride.
Since we were there in the almost off-season, crowds weren’t too bad, but I can definitely see the area getting packed during the summer.
We were able to navigate the stroller outside, but parked it before going in each of the buildings due to the tight spaces.
While the train is a faster route to Zaanse Schans, we took the bus since the stop for De Pannenkoekenboot was along the route (Klaprozenweg) and we had reservations that afternoon at 4.
Another way to enjoy the sites of Amsterdam is from the water and the city has plenty of cruise options to choose from. While researching, I came across De Pannenkoekenboot and it seemed like the best fit for our family. It definitely didn’t disappoint and turned into one of the highlights of our trip.
De Pannenkoekenboot (Pancake Boat) is a cruise ship featuring all you can eat pancakes in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Nijmegen. We enjoyed the 75 minute cruise along the IJ (river just north of Centraal Station) in Amsterdam, but there are also longer 2 1/2 hour cruises, children’s parties, and specialty cruises (like the current Christmas one). For the 75 minute cruise, tickets are currently 18.50 euro for adults and 13.50 for children 3-12 years old.
The pancakes, which are nearly as thin as crepes, come in three flavors: bacon, apple, and plain. There are plenty of sweet and savory toppings to choose from- jams, boiled eggs, cured meats, cheese, cinnamon sugar, syrup, raisins, sprinkles, fruits, and more (they recommend a combination of apple pancake with cinnamon sugar and raisins). For those who are gluten free, gluten free pancakes can be made in a separate pan. Just note the allergy while making the reservation.
We aren’t quite artistically inclined, but this is a great opportunity for kids to get creative with their toppings or form their own masterpieces. Claire went for the bananas, raisins, and cheese while Evan wanted his completely covered in cheese. There are also drinks available for extra purchase.
You can’t beat the views while enjoying the pancakes. Evan and Claire both loved to watch the other ships going by. It was a chilly day during our cruise, but there is an open deck on the second floor. It was empty and the chairs were stacked, but I was still able to walk in and out to get some photos.
Once the kids are done eating, there are activities to keep them occupied including colored pencils and paper. Halfway into the cruise (to make sure the kids actually eat something first), the door is opened under the stairwell to reveal a huge ball pit (for children up to age 12). At this point, Evan immediately left us and didn’t come back until the end of the cruise (and even then it was against his will).
Claire visited the ball pit briefly, but she was a little too young to navigate and enjoy it without supervision. She had no problem hanging out with us at the table and eating, then coloring, and eating some more until she reached the point of almost food coma.
Overall this was such an incredible experience for the family. We reached the boat using bus 391 from Zaanse Schans, but there are also regular ferries from Centraal Station- to Veer NDSM Werf.
Another family-focused day trip near Amsterdam is Muiderslot. Muiderslot (Muiden Castle) is located east of Amsterdam in Muiden. Construction was commissioned in 1280 by Count Floris V. It was destroyed in 1300 and was rebuilt from 1370 to 1386. It is now a part of the UNESCO-listed Defence Line of Amsterdam and all of the rooms have been restored in the 17th century style.
We were able to enter for free with the I Amsterdam City Card. It is also free for children under 4 and those with the Museumkaart and Stadspas Amsterdam. They are closed during the week from November to March.
Getting there via public transportation was a bit more of a trek compared to Zaanse Schans, mostly due to wait times for the bus (tickets are available from the driver). With a car, it is 17.7 kilometers (11 miles) southeast of Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. Parking is not readily available.
We took the sprinter train from Centraal Station to Weesp, then bus 110 (had to wait a while) to Muiden and walk through the picturesque town 10 minutes to Muiderslot. It is a nice small town to explore. As a note, the sidewalks were a bit narrow in places for those using a stroller.
To be honest, I was a bit disappointed to find the scaffolding up on the front of the castle since this will probably be our only visit. They were renovating it from July to December 2016. It is still a beautiful area.
The castle is surrounded by a moat and has a drawbridge entrance. There is plenty of room outside for the kids to run and play to burn off some energy.
There is a large courtyard just inside the entrance with benches to rest and access to public bathrooms and also a cafe with indoor/outdoor seating for a bite to eat.
The rooms are geared towards children with games, treasure hunts, dress-ups, jousting, puzzles, building blocks, and more. It was definitely a fun area to explore.
Daily from April to October there is a falconer with a variety of birds in a tent to the left of the castle. There are demonstrations from May to September on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons when the weather cooperates.
Since it was the end of October, the garden was starting to wind down, but it was still a gorgeous area and the kids loved exploring. There is even a pencil-shaped tent in the back corner.
As a note: the inside of the castle is not accessible for wheelchairs, strollers, or those with reduced mobility. With the exception of guide dogs, animals are not allowed.
Speculaas (Dutch Spiced Cookies)
December 5th is the day before St. Nicholas Day in the Netherlands and known as Sinterklaasavond (Santa Claus Evening) or Pakjesavond (Present Evening). Many celebrations take place on this day and are often accompanied by sweet treats and baked goods.
I am sharing a recipe for Speculaas to make use of the Speculaasplank (Speculaas Mold) I found in Zaanse Schans. If you don’t have a mold available, you can simply roll out the dough and cut out your favorite shapes- if desired you can also decorate the tops of the Speculaas with sliced almonds.
Speculaas are Dutch Spiced Cookies and popular during Christmas time, particular on the eve of St. Nicholas Day. Their name comes from the word Speculum in reference to the mirror image created from the molds. Traditionally, a certain amount of prepared Speculaas spice is added to the dough mixture.
Instead of making a batch of the spice mix, I included the different ground spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, white pepper, ginger, cardamom, aniseed) directly into the dough. The specific quantities used vary based on region and taste. I also included aniseed. I am a fan of the flavor, but feel free to omit it if desired since its inclusion in the Speculaas varies. Coriander or allspice are sometimes added.
If the Speculaas dough is too crumbly after adding together all the ingredients, add a splash or two of milk to bring it together. Only do this if necessary. You don’t want the dough so wet that it sticks to the molds. If your mold is brand new like mine, first rub it thoroughly with a food-grade oil and allow to sit overnight. Dust well with flour (some use rice flour) before pressing in the dough. Make sure the nooks and crannies are covered.
To unmold, flip the mold over and tap on the counter. If it continues to stick, use an off set spatula or other blunt object to gently release it. Do not use a knife since this may damage the design. With use and age, the molds will become more seasoned and easier to use. Store covered to prevent dust from collecting in the grooves.
In the Netherlands, the molds come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Evan picked out windmills to make the Speculaas, but Sinterklaas, people, animals, and other designs are also popular.
Speculaas (Dutch Spiced Cookies) Recipe
Adapted from Curious Cuisiniere
Speculaas (Dutch Spiced Cookies)
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter softened
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed optional
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- In a large bowl, beat together the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg, then the vanilla extract.
- In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, aniseed, white pepper, cardamom, and ginger. Add to the butter mixture and combine to form a smooth dough.
- Form the dough into a disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for about an hour.
- Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Line two baking sheets with parchment or lightly grease. If using molds, dust them with flour. Break off a piece of dough and press into the mold. Use a sharp knife and in a single motion, scrape off the excess dough. Flip the mold over and tap it against the counter to remove the molded cookie. Transfer to a prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, dusting the molds between use and arranging the cookies 1-2 inches apart.
- Without a mold: on a floured surface, roll out the dough until it is 1/4 inch thick. Use cookie cutters to cut out desired shapes and transfer to prepared baking sheets.
- Place the baking sheets in the refrigerator and chill for 1 hour.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake the chilled cookies until puffed and golden on the bottom, 10-13 minutes. Allow to cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack.