North-Holland is the northern half of the former County of Holland. It can be divided into 6 historic regions:
Everyone knows Amsterdam. Millions of foreign visitors come here each year to experience its reputation for tolerance. Of course the Red Light District and the consumption of cannabis are major attractions, but Amsterdam is also one of the most beautiful cities in the world, that was dubbed 'Venice of the North' for good reasons. It is also a very safe and relaxed city, which makes it a good family destination, and it has some world-famous museums like the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House. It is also the cultural hub of the Netherlands, so there is plenty of choice for going out as well.
North Holland however has much more to offer. The Waterland and Zaan Region just north of Amsterdam concentrates almost all Dutch stereotypes in a very small area, with its flat pasture land and many canals, windmills and traditional houses. Destinations like Zaanse Schans, Volendam, Marken and Edam make for popular day trips for foreign tourists to see wooden shoes, traditional costumes and windmills. The historic towns of Haarlem and Alkmaar are also popular for day-trips, the latter mainly because of its famous cheese market. The Kop van Noord-Holland is a distinctive area, part of which is known as West-Friesland. Here you can visit old merchant towns from the Dutch Golden Age, such as Enkhuizen, Hoorn and Medemblik.
In Summer, many Dutch and German tourists can be found near the sandy beaches of Kennemerland on the North Sea coast. The beaches are large and usually not very crowded, although the weather is not always very well suited for sunbathing even in Summer, and the sea water is usually a bit too chilly for comfortable swimming. The beach resort of Zandvoort attracts most visitors. Close to the beaches, the beautiful dune area is home to various natural parks, where you can walk and cycle at your leisure. Texel is the largest of the West Frisian Islands; it is a major and very attractive seaside destination. In Summer however it can be quite crowded with predominantly German tourists.
The Gooi and Vecht Region is an affluent area, featuring pleasant wood- and heathlands. This area is wonderful for cycling and walking, although you will hardly ever be alone there, since it is so close to Amsterdam and very popular for day trips with the locals. Hilversum is the central town of the region with some interesting modern architecture. Naarden is one of the best preserved fortified towns in the world, while Muiden boasts a large 13th-century castle.
Finally, the large dikes built in the IJsselmeer (Afsluitdijk and Markerwaarddijk) are interesting places to visit as well.
The county and provinces of Holland
The medieval County of Holland more or less covered the area of the current provinces of South and North Holland. Beginning as local feudal lords, the counts of Holland gradually increased their influence in the 12th and 13th century and Holland became the dominant region in the Dutch part of what was then the Holy Roman Empire. The counts of Holland held their court in The Hague. From the 14th century onwards, the counts of Holland were foreign rulers, trying to extend their influence over most of what is now the Netherlands and Belgium. The dukes of Burgundy centralized government in the 15th century, bringing an end to the independent position of the various counts, dukes and bishops under their rule. In the 16th century the Dutch provinces became part of the Spanish monarchy, at that time the European superpower. The Spanish oppression of Protestant belief however led to the Dutch Rebellion and the Eighty Years War, which resulted in the creation of the Netherlands as an independent state.
The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands was a confederation of provinces, of which Holland was the most important one. Amsterdam grew to be the most important city of Holland and the Netherlands in the 17th century, and developed into the largest port of the world. The government however stayed in The Hague, which is the reason why the Netherlands still have two capitals. In the 18th century, the position of the Netherlands weakened at the expense of other European powers, and the country was finally invaded by the French in 1795. After the French occupation, the Kingdom of the Netherlands was created in 1814, and in 1839 the province of Holland was split into two parts, South and North Holland.
The Golden Age
The heyday of Dutch power in the 17th century is also known as the Golden Age (Dutch: Gouden Eeuw). Much of the historic heritage, and even considerable portions of the present-day landscape of North Holland, still bear testimony to this period of unprecedented wealth. Holland became the main trade centre of Europe, shipping goods and people to and from the colonies and trade posts of the Old and New World. The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC) is often considered to have been the first modern multinational enterprise. Dutch merchants would buy stocks in the company, that then would build ships to send out to the Dutch colonies, of which modern-day Indonesia (Dutch East India) was the most important one. In this way, huge amounts of money were made, much of which was invested in the Netherlands. So, while most of the trade and wealth was concentrated in Amsterdam, smaller towns along the Zuiderzee (the current IJsselmeer) profited as well. The Dutch Golden Age also gave rise to large-scale industrialization in the Zaan Region, using the power of windmills, and to the draining of lakes to reclaim land for agricultural production, like in the case of the Beemster and Purmer polders.
North-Holland is basically a peninsula wedged between the North Sea and the IJsselmeer. Given its precarious position, the province has always been prone to flooding. On the seaside, the dunes protect most of North Holland against high water; however, to the north of Alkmaar a stretch of coast is only protected by a dike, the Hondsbossche Zeewering.
The current IJsselmeer was formerly known as Zuiderzee, and used to be in open connection with the Wadden Sea until 1932, when the Afsluitdijk was built between North Holland and Friesland to protect the area once and for good from inundation. Large parts of the former Zuiderzee were consequently drained and transformed into the polders that now constitute the province of Flevoland. The first IJsselmeer-polder however, the Wieringermeerpolder, was already drained in 1930 and is located in the Kop van Noord-Holland.
Most of the dune area is a protected nature conservation area, which also serves as the fresh-water reserve for Amsterdam and the rest of the province. The dunes to the west of Haarlem are even designated as the Zuid-Kennemerland National Park. As a consequence, this area is hardly urbanized and it is the perfect place to go cycling or walking. You can enjoy the typical dune vegetation of low shrub and forests in an area that is decidedly hilly to Dutch standards. The province of North Holland features the highest dune of the Netherlands near Schoorl, at a whopping 57 m above sea level. Wildlife in the dunes includes a large number of foxes, and in the area around Zandvoort deer are very common as well. These animals are quite tame, so you will have a good chance of spotting them. In some areas you will also find semi-wild horses and cattle that are employed as maintenance staff to keep the vegetation under control. In winter, many birds hibernate on the seaside as well.
East of the dunes, a narrow zone of sandy soils (Oude Duinen or Old Dunes) is found where much of the flower bulb cultivation is concentrated. While many tourists go to the Keukenhof in South-Holland to see them, in North Holland you can also enjoy the Spring flowering in many places - usually with less foreign visitors around.
The inland area of North Holland in many places offers an iconic Dutch landscape. It consists partly of a peatland area, and partly of land that was reclaimed by draining smaller and larger lakes, like the Beemster and Haarlemmermeer polders. The peatland areas are the most attractive to visit: they maintain their wetland character with wide expanses of pasture, myriads of canals, dikes and small lakes, to a backdrop of old farmhouses and windmills. Apart from that, these areas are also a paradise for birdwatchers. The polders are more interesting from a cultural-historical perspective.
The landscape of the Gooi and Vecht Region is more similar to the province of Utrecht, with peatlands and lakes along the river Vecht, and the low hills of Het Gooi around Hilversum (these are the remains of glacial moraines). Het Gooi is quite densely populated, but nevertheless features very attractive wood- and heathlands, with beautiful estates that in many case are open to visitors.
North Holland has a temperate maritime climate, like all of the Netherlands. Summer temperatures are typically pleasant, with day temperatures rarely exceeding 30° C. In Winter, frost and snow are quite common, but will usually not last for long. Gales can occur infrequently in Autumn and Winter. Most rain falls in Autumn, and Spring is usually driest with most sunshine.
Close to the sea, Spring and Summer are markedly cooler; this is however compensated by more sunshine and less rain. The further north you go, the windier it will become; Den Helder is the windiest town in the Netherlands.
Many visitors to North Holland (and the Netherlands) will arrive at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, the fifth busiest airport in Europe. Although it officially belongs to Amsterdam, it is actually located in the municipality of Haarlemmermeer, a few metres below sea level. More information about the airport can be found in the Amsterdam article.
Getting to Amsterdam or anywhere else in North Holland from the airport is extremely easy by train. Amsterdam Central Station is only a 20 minutes ride (one-way ticket €4.10 with OV chipkaart), and other towns in North Holland can be reached either using direct trains, or by changing trains in Amsterdam. Check the website of NS for details on services, timetables and purchasing tickets.
Schiphol airport is also very well connected to all major roads, the A4 motorway will take you directly to Amsterdam, from where other roads will bring you further into the province. Cars can be hired at the airport for reasonable prices if you book well in advance. Be aware that taking a taxi in the Netherlands is very expensive, and especially in Amsterdam there are illegal taxis that you should avoid. If possible, try to use public transport wherever you go.
Increasingly, travelers arrive at Eindhoven Airport with low-cost carriers. From there, you either take the shuttle bus to Eindhoven railway station to travel to Amsterdam (one-way ticket €21 with OV chipkaart, travel time approx. 1h45m), or take the AirExpressBus (one-way ticket €24, travel time approx. 1h30m).
Amsterdam (and Schiphol Airport) can be reached from Germany, France and Belgium using the NS HiSpeed international train services. Amsterdam has direct connections to Frankfurt in Germany that pass through Cologne, Düsseldorf and Duisburg (travel time 3h45m, tickets from €39) and to Berlin via Hannover (travel time 6h20m, tickets from €39).
From Belgium, there is a direct Intercity train from Brussels and Antwerp to Amsterdam (travel time 3h30m, prices for a one-way ticket from €42). The high-speed connection with Thalys from Paris via Brussels to Amsterdam is much quicker (1h50m from Brussels and 3h15m from Paris). Thalys prices are variable, and can range between €29 and €109 for a one-way ticket from Brussels, and from €35 to €129 for a one-way ticket from Paris. If you book more than 3 months in advance, you will get the cheapest rates.
Coming from other parts of the Netherlands, trains are the easiest way to travel. You can reach Amsterdam from all major cities in the Netherlands within 2h30m. A one-way ticket from Rotterdam via The Hague is €14,80 and takes about one hour (with the slightly more expensive Intercity Direct it is only 45 minutes).
North Holland is an important region and is easily reached from all surrounding provinces. In general, you can just follow the signs for Amsterdam and you'll find your way. The most commonly used routes are:
If you are in Flevoland and your destination is the Kop van Noord-Holland, then consider driving over the N302 provincial road, which leads from Lelystad to Enkhuizen. This is a quick route over the Markerwaarddijk straight through the IJsselmeer.
By public transport
The Netherlands boast an excellent public transport network, and particularly in the densely populated province of North-Holland it is easy to get around. Buses and railway lines criss-cross the region with services reaching all but the most remote villages. Amsterdam also has trams and light railways (metros) . Planning routes across the region (and throughout the country) is exceptionally easy because of the co-operation between the service providers. The 9292 website provides a comprehensive point-to-point public transport route planner covering all major transport types.
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 motorway system (A-roads) in the Netherlands is one of the densest on the planet. It is very well maintained and signposted, and provides easy access to all major cities in the province. Provincial roads (N-roads) connect smaller towns. Minor roads in rural areas tend to be narrow and are also used by cyclists. Speed limits are enforced by police squads with mobile speed cameras, and on the A-roads by fixed speed cameras.
Parking in cities is usually expensive. Especially Amsterdam has very high parking fees in the city center (€5 per hour), and therefore it is better to park your car close to a train station or bus stop and use public transport from there. On Sunday however, parking is free in most places - but not in the city center of Amsterdam. For more information on parking fees, see the website of Parking Europe or Parkeren in de Stad (in Dutch only). You may be charged for parking in many other places as well, such as beaches, museums, shopping malls and nature parks.
Because of its dense population, traffic jams are a common occurrence in the province, especially around Amsterdam. Real-time information on traffic density can be accessed via Routeradar (in Dutch only).
The Netherlands are eminently suited for biking, with separate bicycle lanes in many places, and no hills to climb. 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 (in Dutch only).
Since the Dutch love walking almost as much as they love cycling, every recreational area and nature park will have a few routes to choose from, from very easy to medium difficulty. For day trips, NS Wandelingen ('train station walks') are popular, they will take you from one railway station to another, allowing you to travel back by train to your point of departure.
The Netherlands also have a well-maintained system of long-distance walking trails (Lange Afstands Wandelpaden or LAWs and Streekpaden). Some of the LAWs are part of longer, international routes. The Wandelnet website gives a good overview of all options (in Dutch only).
Historic towns and buildings
North Holland has dozens of historic towns and villages that are worth visiting. Most of the historic buildings in these places date from the 17th and 18th century, and are built in typical Dutch style in brick, with gables and high windows. In the Waterland and Zaan Region, you can still see many traditional wooden houses, usually painted in green. Windmills are not very common in town centers, most of these are found in the countryside.
The historic center of Amsterdam is of course best known. It was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2010. Its characteristic architecture and lovely romantic canals (Dutch: grachten) present perfect photo opportunities. But you can find many more historic towns in the province, all with their own particular charms. Both Haarlem and Alkmaar are popular destinations for day trips. They still have a medieval street plan with a large town square, and Alkmaar of course features its famous cheese market. Hoorn and Enkhuizen are worth visiting as well: these are old ports on the former Zuiderzee.
Fortified towns are rare in the Netherlands, but in the Gooi and Vecht Region you can visit the town of Naarden which boasts an almost completely intact 17th century bastion, one of the best preserved in Europe.
North Holland only has one medieval castle, the 13th-century Muiderslot in Muiden - but it is a real gem with great historical significance, located on the borders of the IJsselmeer.
Stelling van Amsterdam
The Stelling van Amsterdam (Defence line of Amsterdam) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Landscape with what remains of the 135 km long ring of forts and inundation zones installed between 1880 and 1920 to protect Amsterdam from foreign invaders. The defence line was never used; by the time the Netherlands got invaded by the Germans in 1940, the military infrastructure proved to be useless against aircraft. Some of the forts can be visited and house small exhibitions or have even been transformed into restaurants. One of the more interesting forts is the island of Pampus in de IJmeer lake. But it is best to explore the defence line by bike, and see how it is integrated into the polder landscape.
Traditional Dutch villages
The Waterland and Zaan Region is home to traditional Dutch villages with polders, wooden shoes, windmills and traditional Dutch costumes. The most visited attraction in the area is the Zaanse Schans, an open air conservation area and museum on the bank of the river Zaan, some 20 km north of Amsterdam. It displays the traditional architecture of the area (green-painted wooden houses) and has several functioning windmills and craftmen's workplaces, which are open to visitors.
Volendam is also very popular, but literally swamped with visitors in Summer. It still is a traditional fishing village, but tourism is the main source of income these days. Its waterfront is very picturesque, as are the local fishermen and farmers in their traditional costumes - which they only wear for the tourists, of course.
Less touristy and somewhat more authentic Dutch villages surround Volendam. Edam, which is within walking distance of Volendam, is home to a cheese market. Marken, a former island in the IJsselmeer, is well known for its characteristic wooden houses.
If you are interested in Holland's typical polder landscape, the Beemster polder is worth a detour. It was drained in the 17th century to provide more agricultural land for Amsterdam, and was completely rationally designed. Its field pattern bears a resemblance to the street pattern in Manhattan, and it is suggested that the Beemster was the model for the New York street plan. In 1999 the Beemster polder was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
North Holland has been a center of history, art and crafts for ages, and many museums are dedicated to this cultural heritage. Amsterdam's 'Museum Quarter' is home to some of the world's most famous museums — the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum (modern art). Most tourists will also visit the Anne Frank House and the Rembrandt House - but there are enough museums in Amsterdam to keep you occupied for at least a week. The Eye Film Museum is highly recommended because of its stunning architecture and fine temporary exhibitions on all aspects of cinema. The Scheepvaartmuseum (Nautical Museum) is a good choice as well. It is housed in the old headquarters of the Dutch East India company VOC. It was recently renovated, and has very good exhibitions on the maritime history of the Netherlands - and you can visit a replica of a 17th century East-Indiaman.
Haarlem also has some good museums. Teylers Museum is the oldest in the Netherlands and features an eclectic collection of objects including fossils, minerals, scientific instruments, medals, coins and paintings (including several works by Michelangelo and Rembrandt). The Frans Hals Museum is home to more than a dozen paintings of the 17th century painter Frans Hals.
The Westfries Museum in Hoorn relates the history of the town, with an emphasis on the VOC. Much larger is the open air Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen. Many buildings from the 19th and early 20th century were moved here to preserve them for future generations. In Summer, old crafts are shown by museum employees.
A museum that may not be too obvious for non-Dutch citizens is Beeld en Geluid (Image and Sound) in Hilversum, located in a wonderful modern building. It houses the archives of Dutch television, and offers a highly entertaining permanent exhibition of almost everything that was ever shown on Dutch television - although it helps if you know the language, of course.
Cycling is for many Dutch people their primary mode of transport - but they like to cycle in their free time as well! Many visitors rent a bicycle and cycle their way through the center of Amsterdam - sometimes to the annoyance of the locals, who just want to go from A to B as quickly as possible. Even when it is a great way to see the city, make sure that you follow the traffic rules and take care to lock it properly. Bicycle theft (with more than 1 million cases a year just in Amsterdam) is almost a national sport.
Many Dutch people like to spend their weekends cycling in the countryside. If you want to see the typical Dutch polder landscape and picturesque villages, consider a cycling route through Waterland. Hilversum is a good starting point for cycling through the affluent villages, woods and heathlands of the Gooi and Vecht Region. Or you can take your bike into the dunes of Kennemerland.
In the colder months, most people prefer to walk instead of cycle for recreation. The province of North-Holland has plenty of natural parks with well-maintained and signposted walking trails. The most popular areas are again the woods and heathlands of the Gooi and Vecht Region and the dunes of Kennemerland. See the articles about these regions for more information.
The Kennemerland beaches are very popular on hot Summer days, but make sure to leave early in order to be ahead of the bustle. While the beaches are large and family-friendly, parking spaces are limited and there are few access roads, so traffic jams are very common on warm days. Zandvoort has the busiest beach, and the only one you can reach by train. Bloemendaal, Bergen and Egmond are less crowded. Or you can go to Texel for a few days to breeze out on its windy beaches.
Access to all beaches is free, but if you want to sit on a beach chair, prices are steep (about €10). Parking can be expensive as well. Most beaches have a wide range of beach pavilions, where you can sit down for a drink or a bite and enjoy the scene. In Summer, many of them transform into a beach club after sunset, where you can dance until late.
Swimming in the North Sea is usually a bit too chilly to be comfortable (sea water temperatures in August are on average 18° C), but on very hot days many people will take to the water to cool down. The water is perfectly clean, but not very clear because of all the sediment coming from the mouths of the Rhine and Meuse river. The Dutch North Sea has dangerous off-shore currents, so depending on the weather, swimming may not always be safe. Warning flags will be put up when this is the case, but every year lifeguards have to pick up hundreds of people who have strayed too far into the sea.
Kennemerland has a few nudist beaches, at some distance of the beach resorts. These are indicated by special signs.
Out of season, the beaches are popular for walking; on sunny Winter days many people will take their family and dogs for a walk, and finish the day with a hot chocolate or a bowl of pea soup. Of course, other activities can be done on the beach as well, like kite-surfing, beach volleyball, wind-surfing, kiting or horse-riding.
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. Other popular lakes for both sailing and motor vessels are the Westeinderplassen near Aalsmeer, and the Loosdrechtse Plassen in the municipality of Wijdemeren. These lakes are calm and shallow, and there are plenty of sailing boats for hire. However, even in Summer the weather can change very quickly, so don't go sailing if you don't know how to operate a sailing boat!
Renting a motor vessel (Dutch: sloep) is very popular with the locals in Amsterdam. Prices can be quite steep, but it is great fun to explore the canals by boat, having your own food and drink on board, and waving to the people in the street. At Koningsdag (27 April) and during the Canal Pride (first Sunday of August) the canals are packed with all kinds of motor vessels filled with revelers.
Renting a rowing boat or kayak is a popular pastime as well, and can be done in many places for a modest fee. 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. 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.
You need cold winters in order to skate on the Dutch lakes and canals - and when they freeze over, it's usually just for a few days. But once this happens, the Dutch will dig up their skates and go skating in huge numbers. Skating clubs will signpost safe routes through the wetlands and on the lakes, and thousands of skaters will follow these over distances of 10 to even 60 kms. Strategically placed refreshment posts will provide the cold and hungry skaters with hot chocolate and pea soup, and the general atmosphere is very convivial. And if you pay the registration fee (usually in the order of €5-7) you will even got your own skating medal!
So if you know how to skate, and you are lucky enough to experience a cold spell, don't hesitate and try it! All information on skating tours can be found here (in Dutch only).
Music and theatre
Amsterdam is the cultural hub of the Netherlands and offers many options for lovers of the performing arts, ranging from the famous 'temple of pop' Paradiso to the even more famous Concertgebouw with its top-ranking orchestra, and the Muziektheater where you can enjoy opera performances. Apart from that, there are numerous other places where you can go for live performances. Other towns cannot really compete with that, although most will have their own theatre where you can see all kinds of performances from plays to musicals to stand-up comedy.
A popular event to visit in Summer is the Bostheater in the Amsterdamse Bos, where an open air play is staged (in Dutch) in a very convivial atmosphere, and where you can bring your own food and drinks. The Prinsengrachtconcert is very popular as well: classical music performed in the last week of August on a platform in the Prinsengracht canal.
The town of Naarden is home to a fine tradition of staging J.S. Bach's Matthäus Passion on Good Friday in its Great Church. Tickets for this event are very difficult to get - places are distributed by the drawing of lots.
The cultural agenda of Amsterdam is easily accessed on the website of I amsterdam.
Amsterdam has a large number of festivals. Among the most popular ones are Koningsdag (27 April, the national holiday celebrating the King's birthday), the Canal Pride (a watery version of the Gay Pride, first Sunday of August), the Amsterdam Dance Event (a huge clubbing event, third week of October) and the Amsterdam Light Festival (festive illuminations in the Christmas period).
The Netherlands being at the forefront of dance music, the number of dance festivals to choose from in Summer is considerable. One of the most popular is Dance Valley, held in the Spaarnwoude recreational area (close to Haarlem) in August.
Holland is known for its cheese and North Holland is no exception. Edam cheese and Beemster cheese are the most widely known local brands of cheese. Especially Edam is sold all over the world. North Holland Cheese is a regional cheese with a Protected Designation of Origin from the European Union. Cheese can only bear this label if it is produced in North Holland with traditional methods and ingredients from the region. You can buy it in any supermarket in the region.
Alkmaar and Edam are world famous for their traditional cheese markets, which also provide an excellent opportunity to sample some Dutch cheese. These markets are folkloristic re-enactments of the traditional cheese markets that were held in the region up to the early 20th century, and are only held in the Summer months. Hoorn recently reintroduced its historic cheese market as well.
Amsterdam is the city with the largest number of nationalities in the world, so you can find cuisine from all over the world there, and some of it is very good. As in all touristic places however, there are also many mediocre restaurants. Most popular are Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Italian, Surinamese, Mexican and Argentinian restaurants. Dutch restaurants are surprisingly rare - a 'normal' Dutch restaurant will serve you French-style food with perhaps some local adaptations. However, recently some restaurants in Amsterdam are trying to fill the niche.
Outside Amsterdam, the larger towns all have a good choice of places to go for dinner. Large numbers of restaurants are also found in the beach resorts. These are usually not the best places for fine dining, but of course the setting is very rewarding. The most refined restaurants are found in the more affluent areas, particularly around Hilversum and Haarlem.
A popular way of spending the evening in town is to have drinks and dinner in an eetcafé, where the (usually quite basic) plates will be served at the table where you have your drinks - and afterwards you can continue with your beers. A typical Dutch type of restaurant is the pannenkoekenhuis (pancake house), that is mainly found in the countryside. These are very popular with families, they open up and close early, and will serve a huge array of pancakes. It is not the most refined food, but if you want to taste a bit of everyday Dutch food culture, you should go to one.
If you want to find a good place within your budget, the guide maintained by Iens is a good starting point, with lots of reviews (in Dutch only).
If you're wondering what to drink: North Holland is beer country. Heineken is now one of the largest beer corporations in the world, but its first brewery was based in Amsterdam for a very long time. You can visit the Heineken Experience in their former brewery to learn more about beer and the history of the company.
Microbreweries have become more and more popular in the Netherlands over the last decades, and some have become very successful, like the Amsterdam brewery 't IJ. It is housed in a windmill where you can sample their beers, and it is a very popular spot, especially on Sunday afternoons. The Haarlem-based Jopen brewery even surpasses this setting: its brewery is in a former church, with a wonderful bar and restaurant.
Amsterdam also has a long tradition of distilling spirits. The Dutch national tipple used to be jenever, but it has seriously declined in popularity. Some distilleries, like Bols, have survived and produce a wide range of liquors. While the House of Bols is probably a bit too touristy (and frankly not serving the best stuff), Proeflokaal Wijnand Fockinck in Amsterdam is a cool place to sample some of the local, home-made spirits, not just jenevers but also all kinds of liqueurs with interesting ingredients.
Jenever is served in small glasses that are filled to the brim. For your first sip, you are not supposed to lift it, but instead bend over to the glass. A typical way to drink jenever is to have it with a glass of beer, this is known as a kopstoot (headbutt). If you drop the glass with jenever in the beer glass, this is known as a duikboot (submarine).
A herbal spirit that has its origins in Amsterdam is Beerenburg, although it is usually associated with the province of Friesland.
If you want to dance and party all night long, look no further than Amsterdam. Its rough image is partly justified as there are plenty of bars and clubs, hundreds of so-called coffeeshops (for smoking cannabis) and it is home to the (in)famous Red Light District. Its nightlife pretty much serves as a hub for the whole province. The nightlife in surrounding regions is less engaging, but generally the largest towns of these regions have some clubs available. Haarlem is the party hub for Kennemerland, Alkmaar for the north and Hilversum for the Gooi and Vecht Region. Because of the presence of television studios and celebrities living in the area, it has a few posh bars and clubs that might be worth visiting.
The beaches have become increasingly popular for going out over the last ten years. Many beach pavilions are doubling as clubs in the Summer season; especially the beach of Bloemendaal has become well-known for this.