As iconically Dutch as tulips and clogs, windmills are an important part of the landscape and history of the Netherlands. In fact, the Dutch ability to harness the power of the wind shaped the country both physically and economically over the course of several centuries.
The idea of a windmill is fairly simple: large sails turn in the wind, moving gears and other mechanisms to harness the power of the wind. The earliest mills were used for grinding grain into flour. With time, the Dutch developed ways to use wind power to move water. The so-called polder mills turned large waterwheels which would move water from low lying areas to higher channels, where it could be diverted out to sea. These polder mills helped reclaim swamps and other lands below sea level, providing important farmland as well as living space for a growing Dutch population. In the 17th century, further development allowed wind power to be used for industrial purposes. Large, wind-powered sawmills made the processing of wood cheaper and easier than ever before. This allowed the Dutch to build boats efficiently, an advantage that contributed to their dominance of trade at sea, leading to the prosperity of the Dutch Golden Age. In addition to sawing wood, other industrial uses of windmills included grinding peanut butter and vegetable oils, and well as crushing pigments to make paint.
While the industrial revolution brought steam, diesel, and eventually electric power that made the windmills outdated, historic preservation efforts mean that over 1,000 historic windmills still stand throughout the Netherlands, many of which still operate today.
The windmills are a beautiful addition to the landscape, but the chance to go inside to see the gears in action is an unforgettable experience. The small city of Leiden, just half an hour south of Amsterdam by train, is home to nine operating windmills and is a great place to visit a few windmills and learn how they work. Three of Leiden’s mills are open to visitors on a regular basis, while others are only open for special events during the year.
Leiden’s Three Major Mills
Molen De Valk (“The Falcon”) is perhaps the easiest and best place to start exploring Leiden’s windmill heritage. An easy five minute walk from Leiden Centraal station, Molen De Valk is a full museum that offers visitors a great overview of its own history as well as the function of windmills throughout the country. A flour mill constructed in 1743, it is built of stone and replaced an earlier wooden mill on the same spot. It is one of the tallest windmills in the Netherlands and once housed two families who were responsible for its operation. The museum includes a visit to the family quarters with period furnishings, an introductory video on how windmills work, general displays on the history and function of windmills, as well as a close-up look at the inner workings of the windmill. The sails turn whenever wind permits, and grain is sometimes still ground into flour. The museum is open six days a week (closed Sunday mornings and Mondays). There is an admission charge and you can easily spend at least an hour here.
Right near Leiden’s historic city center, Molen De Put is believed to have once been operated by the father of Rembrandt van Rijn, the famous painter who was born just across the small drawbridge from the windmill. The original flour mill from 1619 was lost long ago, but when its foundations were discovered following the closure of barracks in the 1980s, the city decided to rebuild the mill. The historic replica reopened in 1987 and is maintained and operated by a group of enthusiastic volunteers who are on site when the windmill is operating to show visitors around and answer questions. This windmill is much smaller and of a very different construction than Molen De Valk, making it a worthwhile visit. Molen De Put is typically open the first three Saturdays of every month, but their website offers a complete schedule. Volunteers still grind grain into different types of flour, which are sold along with souvenirs whenever the windmill is open. Admission is free and a visit generally takes less than half an hour.
Perhaps our favorite of Leiden’s major windmills, De Heesterboom (“The Shrubtree”) is a working wind-powered sawmill. Visiting De Heesterboom on a windy day is an impressive sight, with a multitude of saws, winches, and gears whirring away in perfect harmony. Originally built in 1804, the sawmill was restored in the 1960s and continues to operate with volunteer millers most Sundays throughout the year. You can climb to the upper levels to see more of the mill’s moving parts and enjoy a view over the river from the balcony that encircles the mill. The volunteers here are usually focused on watching the moving parts and getting big tree trunks lined up for cutting, but they are still happy to answer any questions. Admission is free and the windmill is located just west of the city center, easily reachable by bike, city bus, or on foot.
National Open Mill Days
Every year, the second weekend of May is National Open Mill Days, when about 950 windmills and watermills throughout the Netherlands open their doors to visitors. This is a great opportunity to visit windmills, which will be grinding grain, sawing wood, or pumping water, wind permitting. It’s a particularly good chance to visit some smaller windmills that aren’t normally open to the public. Some windmills will have other events going on, like food or crafts for sale, or free coloring books for kids. Just look for a blue pennant hanging outside and you’ll know you’re welcome as a visitor. There’s also a helpful online database of Dutch mills that indicates which are open that weekend.
There are also local and regional Open Windmill Days throughout the year. In odd-numbered years, the third Sunday in September is Leiden Mill Day, when each of the nine windmills within Leiden’s city limits is open to visitors. The Molens in Leiden website has more information.
A Windmill Tour by Bike to Leiderdorp and Hoogmade
Open Mill Days provides a great opportunity to tour a number of windmills, and doing it by bike makes is even more fun. One of our favorite bike trips from Leiden heads southeast from the city to the towns of Leiderdorp and Hoogmade. We start off near Leiden Lammenschans train station at the small Rodenburger windmill, now a private residence and not open for visits, cross over the Rijn-Schiekanaal to the Nieuwe Rijn (New Rhine), pass through the heart of old Leiderdorp village on a brick road, and finally head out into the scenic polder surrounded by grazing sheep and cows. The total round-trip is about 10 miles (16 km) long.
Options for a general overview of the route:
- Google Maps biking directions from “Rodenburger” to “Doeshofmolen”
- Falk bike map #14 (Zuid-Holland-Nord), link the following bike junctions: 70-69-71-41 (or map the route online here)
Once out in the polder west of Hoogmade, a wide bike path provides views of six different windmills, all of which are open to visitors during Open Mill Days. These mills were all build to drain water out of the polder, creating fertile farmland which is still in use today. Modern electric pumps provide the primary horsepower to keep the area dry, but each of the mills is still operational today.
First on the bike path is the Achthovense Molen. Set right next to a private home, and the space inside the windmill is used as an extra living room of sorts. During our last Open Mill Day visit, the friendly miller showed us how everything worked, including the waterwheel outside that can move water up from the polder. He explained that, since World War II, the government ensures that the historic windmills are kept operational to serve as backup when the more modern electric pumps are either out of service or need additional capacity. The miller proudly explained that his old-fashioned windmill could still move a greater volume of water each hour than its modern replacement. Just on the other side of the bike path, the Doeshofmolen is in a particularly pretty spot, surrounded by boat-lined canals and cows. There’s no residence here, so the volunteer miller comes out here on the weekend to open up the windmill and let it spin when the wind permits. He was equally enthusiastic to talk about his hobby, the art and skill of operating a windmill.
A bit further ahead, the twin Kalkmolen and Doesmolen are a particularly pretty pair. Doubling back towards the A4, then crossing the Does Canal, you’ll see a road leading towards the neighboring Meerburgermolen and Munnikkenmolen, both of which are not generally open to the public. The former, built in 1684, is one of the oldest windmills in the area, but it was relocated here several years ago when its original location became too overdeveloped. The latter is also relocated, but from just a few hundred meters away, while the rest of the mills in this area stand in their original locations. The field around the Meerburgermolen and Munnikkenmolen typically hosts a small fair with craft vendors on Open Mill Days.
Other Famous Dutch Windmill Destinations
Outside of Leiden, there are plenty of other areas to visit windmills throughout the country. UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kinderdijk is a popular tourist destination and well worth a visit. Here, a series of 19 polder mills face each other across a canal in a beautiful setting. Today it is one of the most photographed locations in the Netherlands and makes for a nice day trip. The visitor center provides a good overview of the history and function of Dutch water management, and other displays explain how the windmills work. You can rent bikes to explore the grounds or take a boat through the area. It’s a good idea to reserve tickets in advance as entry may be limited on busy days. There’s a water bus direct to Kinderdijk from Rotterdam or Dordrecht, as well as bus service from Utrecht and other surrounding towns.
Northwest of Amsterdam, Zaanse Schans is a full-fledged historic village, much like the American Old Sturbridge Village. Near the historic industrial city of Zaandijk, Zaanse Schans celebrates Dutch history and culture. There are demonstrations on how wooden clogs and Dutch Gouda cheese are made, plus a number of other small museums, shops, and a pancake restaurant. One of the main attractions here is a collection of ten windmills along the Zaan river. While some are in their original location, others were moved here to be preserved and add to the richness of the collection. There are mills for grinding paint pigments, extracting seed oils, sawing wood, and even crushing spices. Entry to the grounds of Zaanse Schans is free, but individual windmills have their own admission fee. Zaanse Schans is about 40 minutes from Amsterdam by bus, or you can take a train to Zaandijk (17 minutes from Amsterdam Centraal) and walk about 15 minutes to reach Zaanse Schans. The Zaandijk station is right next to a cocoa factory, so don’t be surprised if the town smells like brownies!
For the location of some of our favorite local windmills, see this map. The windmills marked in red are open for visitors on a regular basis, and the others may be open during Open Mill Days: