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Introducing Haarlem & North Holland

Wrapping around Amsterdam like a crown, Holland's north is thick with trad Dutch culture. West of the capital, elegant Haarlem is the region's crowning glory, a charming town of 17th-century grandeur. On its western outskirts are wide, sandy beaches.

Moving north, you'll be, yes, blown away by the iconic windmills at intriguing Zaanse Schans. Twee little Edam, Volendam and Marken hold a special place in Dutch culture for cheese, traditional customs, defiance of the sea, and tourism. The Golden Age ports of Hoorn and Enkhuizen have engaging old centres; the latter is also home to the Zuiderzeemuseum, a not-to-be-missed open-air extravaganza.

On the way to the Waddenzee island of Texel is Alkmaar, famous for its kitsch but oddly compelling traditional cheese auction. Texel itself is a gem, with long, fine beaches, busy little villages, sheep-swamped polders (strips of farmland separated by canals), and a forest or two.