Waterland and Zaan Region
The Waterland and Zaan Region   is located in the province of North-Holland in the West of the Netherlands, just to the north of Amsterdam. It offers every stereotype one would expect from the country: flat pasture land with dikes, canals, windmills, green-painted houses, wooden shoes and cheese. Because of its proximity to Amsterdam, it is a popular destination for both Dutch and foreign tourists.
Towns and villages
Waterland, as the name suggests, has both lived of and struggled against the water for ages. Most of it is situated well under sea level and features an iconic Dutch landscape of extensive grassland divided by numerous canals, ditches and trenches. Evidence suggests that people were living here from the year 1000 onwards. Where we find the IJsselmeer lake today, a much smaller lake area then existed with an outlet to the North Sea. Extreme floods in the 12th and 13th century created the much larger Zuiderzee, which was in open connection to the North Sea, and allowed the towns and cities on the Zuiderzee (including Amsterdam) to flourish from the 16th century onwards. The regular floods however also had a devastating effect on the region and brought its people to build dikes and artificial dwelling hills in order to protect themselves from inundation. Most of the Waterland area remained a wetland over these centuries, making crop cultivation almost impossible, and leading to a rural economy based on cattle and dairy farming. After a last disastrous flood in 1916, it was decided to build a dike across the Zuiderzee to protect the area once and for all. The Afsluitdijk was finished in 1932 and the Zuiderzee transformed into a fresh-water lake known as IJsselmeer.
The Zaan Region (Zaanstreek) is historically a part of Waterland. It refers to the area on the banks of the river Zaan, which once was connected to the main waterway of Amsterdam, the IJ. The Zaan Region is a region of contrasts: modern and 19th century industrial buildings are mixed with old windmills and wooden houses, all to the backdrop of the quiet Zaan river and meadows.
The Zaan Region is probably the oldest surviving industrial area in the world. It flourished in the 17th century, when more than 1,000 windmills were built along the river Zaan to process grain, spices, wood, oil and paint. The development of industrial production at this scale before the invention of the steam engine made possible by technological improvements of the windmills (like the patenting of crankshaft applications in 1592), and the demand for the industrial products by Amsterdam, at the time the largest port of the world. The Zaan Region also had large shipyards, where wooden merchantmen were built for the rich merchants of Amsterdam. These ships were used to transport tropical products and spices but also slaves from the Dutch colonies in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, and to bring in goods from the Baltic and the Arctic, like whale oil. Many of the imported foods were processed with the windmills, and chocolate, bread, cooking rice, roasted coffee, vegetable oil, pastry, animal food, etc. were produced in large quantities, providing for much of the Dutch population. The paper industry flourished as well, and it is believed that the United States´ Declaration of Independence was written on paper from the Zaan Region.
Steam engines replaced the windmills in the 19th century. The shipbuilding and almost all of the wood industry (furniture, paper) disappeared, but the food processing industry stayed. Even today, the biggest Dutch companies in the food industry still have their base in the Zaan Region, like the country´s largest supermarket chain Albert Heijn. Flour for 90% of all bread in the Netherlands comes from one factory in the Zaan Region, Meneba. There are many cocoa factories, producing chocolate from cocoa coming from the biggest 'cocoa port in the world', Amsterdam.
Modern and old industrial heritage can be seen side by side in the Zaan Region. Along the river Zaan, you can still find dozens of original and fully operational windmills, mostly made entirely of wood, and some of them over 350 years old. Next to these there are many 19th-century brick factory buildings, nowadays derelict or converted into apartments, but still recognisable as industrial buildings. In some cases the oldest and more recent industry are intertwined, as is the case with the Duyvis factory, where the modern factory is actually built around a centuries´ old wooden windmill.
Especially in smaller villages, people still speak varieties of an old Hollandic dialect that is difficult to understand for Dutch natives. The dialect of the Zaan Region is called Zaans, and it is considered to be one of the oldest and few remaining original Hollandic dialects. The Waterlands dialects differ significantly from Zaans, but they have a similar origin and speakers of the two are generally able to understand eachother. In Volendam, which was somewhat isolated historically due to its Roman-Catholic religion and focus on the sea, it still is the language of every-day life, but in most other places dialect is losing ground, like almost everywhere else in the Netherlands.
By public transport
Train connections from Amsterdam to Alkmaar and from Schiphol Airport to Hoorn run through the Waterland and Zaan Region, with Intercity trains stopping at Zaandam and Sprinter trains at smaller stations. From there, regular bus services will bring you to smaller towns and villages. Alternatively, bus connections from Amsterdam serve Volendam, Edam, Monnickendam and Purmerend. See the websites of NS and 9292 for information on services, timetables and ticket purchase.
If you consider travelling in the Netherlands for a few days, it pays off to buy an anonymous OV chipkaart, a rechargeable card that will give you a considerable discount on all bus, tram and metro transport in the Netherlands (and a minor discount on train tickets).
The A7 and A8 motorways run through the Waterland and Zaan Region, branching off from the A10 (Amsterdam ring road) at junction Coenplein. The A8 leads to Zaanstad, the A7 eventually to Hoorn and further north to the province of Friesland. Both roads are major connections to and from Amsterdam and can therefore be very busy during rush hour.
By public transport
The Waterland and Zaan Region is easily explored by public transport, with regular train and bus connections to all major destinations (see above).
Make sure to avoid rush hour, all main roads can become one big traffic jam in the morning hours (7AM~9.30AM) and afternoon (~4PM-6.30PM). Minor roads tend to be narrow and are also used by cyclists and motorcyclists. Speed limits are enforced by police squads with mobile speed cameras.
The region is small enough to be explored by bike, and it is actually the favourite way to get around for most Dutch holiday-makers. It is even close enough to Amsterdam to be reached by bike from there. However, be aware that the Dutch weather is variable, and especially strong winds can make biking in the countryside a lot more unpleasant than in the city.
Bike rental shops can be found in all major tourist destinations. Unfortunately, renting a bike at train stations has become impossible for people who don't hold a Dutch bank account.
The network of Fietsknooppunten (biking nodes) will allow you to cycle through the whole country following well-signposted routes, usually through attractive countryside. At each node, you will find maps to guide you to your next destination, but you can also plan ahead on the website of Fietseropuit (Dutch only).
Two national long-distance trails (Lange Afstands Wandelpaden or LAWs) are crossing the Waterland and Zaan Region.
Given the presence of so many canals and lakes, it is not surprising that the water attracts lots of holiday-makers in Summer. The IJsselmeer is very popular with sailors, and offers splendid sailing opportunities on the wide lake. Marinas can be found in Durgerdam, Monnickendam, Marken and Volendam.
Renting a rowing boat or kayak is a popular pastime as well. Especially the area around Broek in Waterland is very well suited to explore at your leisure.
Boat trips can be booked in many places as well, for example to go up the Zaan River and admire the windmills from the water.
Swimming is possible in the IJsselmeer and smaller lakes in Summer. The water may look a bit murky in places, but is in fact very clean if you don't mind a little bit of mud around your toes. Water temperatures are also higher than at the seaside, where the North Sea can be very chilly even in August. Be aware however that in some places blue-green algae may poison the water in high summer - warning signs will be posted if this is the case.
Many locally produced foodstuffs can actually be found in any large supermarket in the Netherlands. The Zaan Region was once known as "the pantry of the Netherlands", and lots of well-known Dutch brands and products have their origin in this industrial area. Verkade, a major Dutch manufacturer of biscuits and chocolate, has its factories here. Albert Heijn, the largest supermarket chain in the country, was founded here as well.
There are no specific regional drinks. However, at Zaanse Schans you can visit a small distillery museum:
A microbrewery is found in Volendam.
There are no particular safety issues for this region. However, in popular tourist destinations such as Zaanse Schans make sure to watch your belongings, and don't take large amounts of cash with you. Tourists are known to have been tricked into having their belongings 'inspected' by fake plain-clothes policemen, losing lots of money in the process.