If you’re looking for a trip back in time, Enkhuizen is the best place in Holland to experience life in bygone days.
The star attraction is the exceptional Zuiderzee Museum which recreates life in the region before the Afsluitdijk Dam was built in 1932.
The museum revives the stories of people who once lived on the shores of the Zuiderzee with an impressive collection of authentic buildings from the local area.
There’s a church, windmill, fish-curing shed, boatyard, shops and traditional houses from the area’s old fishing villages.
It’s a brilliant place to stroll back in time along the town canal and harbour, soaking up 200 years of history and culture.
Watch Tammy’s video tour of the Zuiderzee open air museum in Enkhuizen.
Walking back in time
The story of Zuiderzee is the story of a community trying to preserve its history and culture for future generations.
But this is no museum preserved in cotton wool – it is a living, breathing place with plenty of activities going on and lots of opportunities for visitors to interact with the exhibits.
For centuries the Zuiderzee people fought to hold back the water for centuries. They lived on the edge of a perilous watery landscape in northern Holland.
The area had a long history of floods and destruction but damaging storms and floods in 1916 were the final straw. Dozens of dykes burst, 16 people were killed and the damage across the region was huge.
There was no other choice but to close off the Zuiderzee for once and for all to protect against future flooding.
The IJsselmeer Barrier Dam was built in 1932. This effectively cut off the area from the North Sea and transformed its landscape. It became an inland sea – and the salt water of the harbour became freshwater.
Local people were concerned that the culture of the former Zuiderzee region would also be swept away. So the brilliant idea of an outdoor museum to recreate the culture of the Zuiderzee took shape.
The museum village was built in the IJsselmeer, on the outside of the seawall separating Enkhuizen from the water on its east side. A peninsula was created by spraying up sand from the seabed.
Over time 130 buildings being moved to the Zuiderzee Museum site between 1969-1983. The early buildings were torn down at their original locations and reassembled brick by brick.
But this was so time-consuming that the museum’s carpenters came up with a better system which involved bringing complete sections of buildings to the site in wooden and steel crates.
Some buildings, like the cheese warehouse, were even transported in their complete form.
Today you can see dozens of these heritage buildings reassembled in the form of a small town, fishing village, harbour and polder.
Meet the ancestors
A trip to Zuiderzee is definitely a case of ‘meet the ancestors’. The ghosts of the past have been reawakened but given a modern twist with the help of modern costumed characters.
The whole experience benefits from brilliant storytelling and fun activities strung across the expansive site.
I loved watching the costumed craftspeople in the harbour mending nets, producing rope, preparing fish from their catch or working in the herring smokehouse.
I could have watched them for hours.
Nearby, the basket makers were weaving and plying their trade. I never thought I’d say this but basket making is fascinating.
The intricate craft skills have been lost in some many areas of life today. Watching these experts making beautiful baskets made me yearn for a time when people learned skills and crafts.
There’s a whole range of traditional crafts from blacksmiths to sail makers and cobblers. Pick your trade!
Sometimes open air museums with costumed staff can feel like they’re trying too hard with ‘actors’ dressing up simply for effect.
But here at Zuiderzee, there’s a real sense of time and place. It’s like stepping back into a community before the dam was built. You feel a real sense of engagement with what’s going on. I also loved the fact that not everybody was dressed up.
At one point I watched for half an hour as simple folk were hanging out washing and going about their daily chores wearing traditional clogs.
Scent of Times
Not only can you walk back in time along Zuiderzee’s streets of reconstructed houses, shops and community buildings, you can follow your nose back to the 19th Century – literally.
The Scent of the Times trail is designed to evoke memories of bygone days. You can take in smells of the past at 20 different locations, from a burning paraffin stove to the pungent aroma of smoked fish hanging to dry.
There’s even a Scent Station where your nose can be aroused by olfactory stimuli from the past and present.
This modern installation offers something different for each generation to sniff, a bit like a giant ‘scratch ‘n sniff’ card.
It’s a clever and fun idea even if the smell of the fish was overpowering. But the whiff of beeswax and expensive perfume restored my sense of well-being after the fishy odours!
Shopping in bygone times
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Zuiderzee Museum is being able to walk inside the old buildings and shops.
Pop inside the chemists and you’ll see a perfectly re-imagined pharmacy counter with its multi-coloured pills and potions.
At the back of the shop you’ll be surprised by a collection of historic heads which were once used as signs outside chemist shops in northern Holland.
These weird heads are reminiscent of ship’s figureheads or grotesque gargoyles. Perhaps they were designed to ward off evil spirits and laugh in the face of ailments and ill-health?
This fascination with heads continues over at the old toy shop with its fine collection of pre-computer generation toys.
Another large head, this time with a top hat, is prominent on the glass display cabinet at the front of the shop.
Behind it, a series of hand-made toys, funny hats and animal heads complete the surreal display. It’s a far cry from today’s computer games for children.
Stories from Zuiderzee’s shores
The Zuiderzee Museum is fascinating and it’s easy to lose yourself for several hours. I lost track of the time so badly that I realised that I had only 20 minutes to run around the indoor museum.
Inside the museum there are fascinating displays of everyday objects from the Zuiderzee. The Netherlands in Seven Floods – The Zuiderzee enables visitors to relive the great storm of 1916 which had such a major impact on the region.
The museum’s highlight is undoubtedly the collection of wooden ships, the largest in the Netherlands.
There are interesting heritage collections including these intriguing Dutch caps, reminiscent of the costumes worn in paintings by so many Old Masters.
Don’t miss the Journey around the Zuiderzee displays which present stories of life in villages around the former Zuiderzee.
At the end of the trip I felt a real sense of Zuiderzee’s history. Bringing history alive to a modern audience is a tricky balancing act.
But Zuiderzee succeeds in being fun as well as historically interesting. It’s all down to some great storytelling which took me on a journey through time.
This is one journey you shouldn’t miss.
Tammy’s top travel tips – Enkhuizen
Allow yourself the best part of a day for a visit to the outdoor and indoor museum. Leave enough time because there’s a lot of ground to cover. Watch Tammy’s video of the museum trip.
If driving, park up in the station car park in the town centre and head to the ferry pier. The museum ferry will take you across the IJsselmeer to the Outdoor Museum in a short but interesting ride.
There is very limited car parking close to the museum site. We parked our camper van in the marina car park (parking tickets can be bought in the sailing shop).
Grab a map of the museum site at the entrance so you can plan your visit effectively. Look out for kids’ activities if you’re taking the family.
Enkhuisen is a pleasant town so leave enough time to explore its centre and perhaps stay overnight.
If you’re in a motorhome or camper van, there’s a parking area overlooking the town’s main harbour where you can stay overnight for a few Euros.
Wake up to interesting views over the harbour front and dream about having your own boat!