On Friday mornings from April to early September, Alkmaar's canal-ringed centre fills with day trippers eager to catch a glimpse of the city's famous cheese market. It's a genuine spectacle but even if it's not on, the town is an engaging place to visit any time of year.

The city holds a special place in Dutch hearts as the first town, in 1573, to repel occupying Spanish troops; locals opened the locks and flooded the area with seawater, forcing the perplexed invaders to retreat. The victory won the town weighing rights, which laid the foundation for its cheese market.