These are three charming places not far from Amsterdam. I’ve done day trips to Alkmaar and Haarlem, and stayed at the magnificently quirky Inntel hotel in Zaandam several times.

Alkmaar

I visited Alkmaar for the afternoon in early September 2015.   It’s a city of around 100,000 people located North West of Amsterdam.  There’s a train from Amsterdam Centraal to Alkmaar every 15 minutes, and the journey time is around 45 minutes. The train also calls at Zaandam, where I was staying.

The city centre is a 15 minute walk from the main railway station, and I had a very pleasant afternoon wandering around the narrow streets, stopping off for a beer and enjoying some bitterballen sat outside a café. Bitterballen is a traditional Dutch meal of balls of hot meat coated in breadcrumbs – it’s very tasty but best not to enquire what the meat is, and be careful those hot balls don’t burn the roof of your mouth!

Haarlem

Haarlem is sometimes called Amsterdam’s little sister, but it has a look and feel all of it’s own and is worth a day trip from Amsterdam, even a holiday in its own right as there’s plenty to see and do. It’s also a viable alternative to staying in Amsterdam as the hotel costs are much lower and its only 20 minutes away by train.

I’ve visited twice now, once on my own in 2012 and a second time in September 2015 when I was shown around by a friendly local I’d met in Amsterdam the night before, having been to Alkmaar the previous afternoon.

Its a 15 minute walk from the railway station (a very pleasant old-fashioned place) to the city centre, along quiet streets and canals.  The centre itself is dominated by Saint Bavo Cathedral which overlooks the Grote Markt, a huge square surrounded by historic buildings, open air café’s, bars and restaurants.  Just off the square are narrow streets with quirky pubs and boutique shops that you can thoroughly enjoy getting lost in.

My new local friend showed me some of the best eating and drinking spots as we meandered around the city, before making our way to the Frans Hals museum. The museum houses paintings from famous Dutch artists from the 15th century onwards, especially Frans Hals who was a Haarlem resident.  After a lovely tapas meal and an entertaining evening at a local pub, it was time for the train back to ….

Zaandam

I first discovered this place while searching for hotels in Amsterdam and noticing an extraordinary looking building on the hotel comparison site.  The Inntel Hotel in Zaandam is a 4*hotel with a pool but the price was half that of a similar standard hotel in Amsterdam. I had a look at the map and saw it was only 10 minutes on the train from Amsterdam and booked it straight away.

The hotel is the first thing you notice as you exit Zaandam station – a huge green affair made up of small Dutch style houses piled on top of each other. Once you’ve got over that you notice what a pleasant town Zaandam is – it’s modern, but the hotel, cinema and shopping complex located just down from the station are beautifully designed around a canal and waterfalls – the outdoor terrace of the hotel bar overlooks these.

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Inntel Hotel Zaandam

If you keep following the canal past the shops on either side, you come to the drawbridge  over the river Zaan, which is raised to allow boats to pass while the traffic waits. Around the corner is the main square of the town, with plenty of places to eat and drink.

On my first stay here in 2012 I fancied a quiet evening on my last night, away from the noise of Amsterdam, so decided to wander into town.  I got chatting to some locals while watching football in one of the bars, and was promptly taken on a bar crawl and treated as a visiting celebrity – I don’t think many tourists visit Zaandam! Suffice to say my plans for a quiet evening went out the window and after staggering back to my big green hotel in the early hours, the journey back to England the next day was not particularly pleasant.

I’d definitely recommend Zaandam as a place to stay when visiting Amsterdam – the Inntel is lovely but there’s also budget hotels such as EasyHotel – and all 50% cheaper than the equivalent in Amsterdam. The train station is next to all the hotels, the trains run every few minutes until the early hours and a return ticket to Amsterdam costs around €5.

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