Holland’s Working Windmills

The windmill is, without a doubt, the iconic symbol of The Netherlands, so it’s somewhat surprising that travelers taking a trip to Amsterdam or The Hague could quite easily enjoy a two-week vacation without seeing a single mill – or, at least, not a working one. Although Holland relied upon windmills to power the Dutch economy from as early as the seventeenth century and had an estimated 10,000 windmills in the 1850s, the Industrial Revolution caused a decline in wind-powered machinery. Today only around 1,000 windmills remain throughout The Netherlands. An even smaller number continue to perform the job they were designed for and are now primarily preserved for tourism purposes.

This makes the chance to see a traditional mill at work an exciting opportunity, and those heading just a short distance away from the capital city of Amsterdam will find plenty of options for day trips. First is the small town of Zaanse Schans, which attracts around 900,000 visitors each year because of its historic environment. Located just 12 miles north of Amsterdam, it’s a top choice for those with limited time in the area, especially those visiting as part of a European cruise. Zaanse Schans is, in a way, the Disneyland of Holland: it’s a town built to resemble something rather magical, and currently has many restoration projects underway.

Zaanse Schans is home to eight windmills dating as far back as the 1600s, yet not all of them originate from the town. In an attempt to preserve these historic and cultural windmills, many have been either relocated to this museum, such as De Zoeker, an oil mill which was operational in nearby Zaandijk and moved to Zaanse Schans in 1968, and Het Jonge Schaap, a sawmill which is a replica of a mill demolished in 1942. Many of the mills are functional and open to the public, and the town offers a unique opportunity to see the world’s only remaining operational paint mill, De Kat.

To get away from the Disney-esque feel and see windmills in their true environment, a trip to Rotterdam is recommended. Rotterdam, usually thought of as a modern city with a vibrant nightlife and contemporary architecture, may not seem like the most obvious choice for seeing working windmills, but it really is. De Ster is one of Rotterdam’s most famous mills, along with neighboring De Lelie. De Ster is a snuff and spice mill, and while it’s a little younger than those in Zaanse Schans, it’s remarkable that the structure is still standing, never mind functional, given the two fires that have devastated the mill during its lifetime.

No tourist intent on seeing the real Holland can visit the country without checking out at least one windmill, preferably a working one. It’s also a great opportunity to pick up some gifts and souvenirs at the mills themselves or at nearby gift shops – and visitors can even purchase products made at the mills! Now that’s something you can’t pick up at the duty-free store in the airport!