Amsterdam is the brightest star in a galaxy of cities and towns that together form what the Dutch call the Randstad (Rim City), a budding megalopolis that stretches from Amsterdam to Rotterdam and contains two-thirds of the country's 16 million inhabitants.
Both Noord-Holland (North Holland) province, to which Amsterdam belongs, and neighboring Zuid-Holland (South Holland) province afford a variety of options for a day outside the city. It won't be a day in the outback, exactly, but you don't have to go far from Amsterdam to see the flat in the polder (the Dutch word for land reclaimed from water) landscape, with its tulips, windmills, rivers, and dikes, where Rembrandt strolled, sketchbook in hand. You can climb tall towers, visit cheese markets and multifarious museums, ride a steam train, tour the world's largest harbor, and see giant locks and tiny canals.
On your first day of touring, I suggest you travel from Amsterdam to Haarlem, and maybe squeeze into the same day a visit to the North Sea coast at nearby Zandvoort, which has a fine beach and a casino. On your second day of touring, head to Hoorn on the IJsselmeer. If you're driving, take in Volendam and Marken along the way. From Hoorn, continue along the lakeshore to Enkhuizen and the Afsluitdijk (Enclosing Dike).
With more time, you can alternate days spent in Amsterdam with visits to, for instance, the Bulb Fields and Keukenhof Gardens when it's tulip time; Zaanse Schans for its windmills; Leiden for the Pilgrim Fathers; Delft for Holland's historical royal city; The Hague for the government seat and home-base for the royal family; and Rotterdam for Europe's largest and the world's second-busiest port (after Shanghai).
Getting There -- Travel times from Amsterdam by public transportation to the places covered in this section are short. Rotterdam, the most distant destination, is just 40 minutes away by Fyra high-speed train. NS (Netherlands Railways) (tel. 0900/9292; www.ns.nl) trains run frequently throughout the day from Amsterdam Centraal Station and other stations around the city to many, but not all, destinations. A bus service, by Connexxion (tel. 0900/266-6399; www.connexxion.nl) and Arriva (tel. 0900/202-2022; www.arriva.nl), covers the places the rails don't reach. In addition, chapter and verse on getting around in the Netherlands is available from a single, all-knowing source: OV (tel. 0900/9292; www.9292ov.nl).
Hot Jets -- How about a jetfoil ride to the seacoast? Fast Flying Ferry (tel. 0900/266-6399; www.fff.nl) runs a scheduled service on the Noordzeekanaal between Amsterdam and Velsen-Zuid. At the nearby seaport of IJmuiden (connected with the Velsen-Zuid jetfoil dock by frequent bus service), you can view the three great locks of the North Sea Canal, and visit the fish auctions at Halkade 4, held Monday to Friday from 7 to 11am. Jetfoils depart from a dock behind Amsterdam Centraal Station, Monday to Friday every half-hour from 7am to 10pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 7am to 6:30pm; the ride takes 30 minutes. Round-trip tickets are 9.40€ at peak times and 8€ at off-peak times for adults, 6.20€ for seniors and children ages 4 to 11, and free for children 3 and under.
Some of Holland's most popular places -- Hoorn, Edam, and Marken among them -- lie along this great lake's western shore. Painterly light washes through clouds, and luminous mists seem to merge water and sky. Cyclists test both speed and endurance, zipping round the 400km (250-mile) circumference in bright Lycra blurs, or plodding along on the lonesome dike-top. The IJsselmeer (pronounced Eye-sselmeer) hosts fleets of traditional Dutch boter and skûtsje sailing ships, fishing smacks, modern sailboats, powerboats, and canoes. Its waters are an important feeding ground for migrating and resident birds.
By The Side Of The Zuiderzee -- Only in Holland could you say, "This used to be a sea." The IJsselmeer actually was once a sea, until the Dutch decided they didn't want it to be one anymore -- it was always threatening to flood Amsterdam and other towns and villages along its low-lying coastline.
For centuries, the Dutch have been protecting themselves from encroaching seas and snatching more land to accommodate their expanding population. One of their most formidable opponents was the Zuiderzee (Southern Sea), an incursion of the North Sea that washed over Frisian dunes to flood vast inland areas between A.D. 200 and 300. Over the centuries, the Zuiderzee continued to expand, and in the 1200s, a series of storms drove its waters far inland.
Despite the sea's reputation as a graveyard of ships, the sleepy, picturesque villages that today line the IJsselmeer's shores presented quite a different picture when their harbors were alive with great ships that sailed for the Dutch West and East India Companies. North Sea fishermen added to the maritime traffic as they returned to Zuiderzee home ports, and Amsterdam flourished as ships from around the world sailed to its front door.
Still, as early as the 1600s, there was talk of driving back the sea and reclaiming the land it covered. Parliament got around to authorizing the project in 1918, and in the 1920s, work was begun. In 1932, in an unparalleled engineering feat, the North Sea was sealed off, from Noord-Holland to Friesland, by the 30km (19-mile) Afsluitdijk (Enclosing Dike), and the saltwater Zuiderzee became, in time, the freshwater IJsselmeer lake.
By Bicycle To Hoorn -- For a great day trip from Amsterdam, go by bike along the IJsselmeer shore to Hoorn, and return by train (with your bike). (Do this on a halfway decent bike, not a decrepit old Amsterdam bike.) Riding along between the polders and the lake is a perfect Dutch experience -- but you need to be ready for some vigorous pedaling. You can't get lost if you stay on the road that runs along the IJsselmeer and keep the lake to your immediate right.
Board the IJ ferry at the pier behind Centraal Station and cross to Amsterdam North. Take Durgerdammerdijk, a road leading east alongside the IJsselmeer shore to Durgerdam, a lakeside village huddled below water level behind a protective dike, with its roofs sticking up over the top. Ride either next to the houses and the polders or up on the dike-top path, immersed in wind, rain, and shine -- and with fine lake views.
Beyond Uitdam, either go left on the lakeside road through Monnickendam to Volendam, or right on the causeway to Marken. The first option cuts overall distance because Marken is a dead end and you need to come back across the causeway again. But in summer, you can take the Marken Express passenger boat . One way or the other, you'll arrive in Volendam.
Go inland a short way along a canal that runs from the lakeside dike to Edam, famed for its cheese. Cross over the canal on the bridge at Damplein in Edam's center, and go back along the far bank to regain the IJsselmeer shore. Up ahead is a straight run north to Hoorn through the pastoral villages of Warder, Etersheim, Schardam, and Scharwoude.
After exploring Hoorn -- or flopping down exhausted in a cafe -- follow the green-painted signs pointing the way to the station for the train ride back to Amsterdam.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.