An arty and well-to-do coastal village minutes from Alkmaar, Bergen aan Zee is in the sandy folds of the North Holland dunes.
From as early as the 1600s the dunes, sky and sea were a source of inspiration to artists.
But it was the Expressionists and Cubists of the early 20th century who made their mark, and became known as the Bergen School.
You can get acquainted with the work of artists like Charley Toorop and John Rädecker at Museum Kranenburgh in the inland town of Bergen, a couple of kilometres away.
On a sunny summer’s day the Blue Flag beach is a slice of heaven, while the protected dunescape promises adventure and surprisingly diverse nature served by a network of maintained walking and cycling trails.
1. Bergen aan Zee Beach
Running north and south for as far as the eye can see, the beach at Bergen aan Zee comes close to many people’s idea of perfection.
First off, it’s never less than 100 metres wide, so if you value a bit of privacy you need only walk along up or down for a minute or two.
The water quality is exceptional, and Bergen aan Zee is practically guaranteed a Blue Flag each year.
The beach shelves very gradually, so bathing is generally safe for children.
And despite the sense of remoteness there are good facilities in summer, like lifeguards, beach huts, a surf school/watersports centre (more later) and lots of places to eat and drink.
The North and South Pavilions have sheltered terraces to protect you from the beach’s only possible drawback, its occasional raking wind.
2. Nordholländisches Dünenreservat
Bergen aan Zee is in the north of one of the Netherlands’ largest nature reserves, encompassing 20 kilometres of dunes and the highly varied ecosystems they support.
The pristine Sahara-like dunes can be most dramatic, but the reserve isn’t all sand, as there’s also oak and pine forest and grassland.
Herds of furry highland cattle help prevent the encroachment of the woodland on the dunes, and you should get to see wild horses from a distance.
After paying for a “Duincard” to enter the reserve, bike and walking trails convey you through some astonishing scenery, and you’ll understand just why the artist of the Bergen School were drawn to the area’s light.
One surprise lurking among the pines is a dune-side ski resort, Il Primo, offering winter sport eight months a year.
3. Buitencentrum Schoorlse Duinen
Making your way through North Holland’s dunes you may be wondering how this environment originated, how it’s maintained and what kind of wildlife lives here.
Those questions can be answered at this visitor centre to the north of Bergen in the Schoorlse Duinen.
The centre lies in the shadow of the tallest sand dune in the Netherlands and has exhibitions about the dunes, their human history and their finely balanced ecosystems.
One factoid: More than 800 mushroom species have been counted in the Schoorlse Duinen in autumn.
The centre is at the nexus point for a tangle of walking trails and bike paths taking you though woods where beautiful pine orchids flower in July, and out into grassland where highland cattle chew the cud.
4. Museum Kranenburgh
A Neoclassical villa with a modern extension, Kranenburgh was founded as an art museum in 1993. The building dates back to 1882, and from 1968 to 1992 had been home to the artist and writer Ans Wortel.
The museum was opened by KunstenaarsCentrumBergen, an association of artists established in 1947 and which has counted luminaries like Charley Toorop, Constant Nieuwenhuijs and Adriaan Roland Holst among its members.
This is just the place to immerse yourself in the art of the Bergen School and its contemporaries like Else Berg, Gerrit van Blaaderen, Henri Le Fauconnier and Leo Gestel.
The revolutionary COBRA artist and poet Lucebert is represented in both the graphic collection and the sculpture garden, which also features pieces by Jan Willem Rädecker and Jan Toorop.
One of many things to love about the Noordhollands Duinreservaat is that there’s a paved trail snaking through this otherworldly environment.
Naturally you’ll see more of the dunes on a bike, and can use the trails to get to far flung stretches of beach.
Cyclists are well catered for too, with bike parking centres and places where you can hire a bike or get it serviced if you already have one.
The local Foets E-bike rental service will even deliver an E-bike to your door and take it back when you’re finished with it.
For more conventional bikes you’ll find a big rental centre BikeMike down the coast in Egmond aan Zee.
If you’re in the area in springtime there are bulb fields on the edge of the dunes, which burst into flower at this time of year.
6. Ruïnekerk (Bergen)
This church in the heart of the inland Bergen is a beauty.
Known now as the Ruïnekerk (Ruined Church), it grew from a chapel in the 15th century to become one of the largest churches in Holland.
But in 1574, during the Eighty Years’ War, the building was looted and burnt down.
Eventually the choir was restored, but the nave and tower were left to decay, and the hollow bays are a faint hint of what came before.
The church was caught up in more violence in the Battle of Bergen in 1799, and the outer walls are still scarred with bullet holes.
In the lantern on the roof there’s a carillon of 27 bells installed in 1970. Pop in to see the organ designed by Johan Frederik Kruse in 1886 and moved here in 1913.
7. J.C.J. van Speijk Lighthouse
On raised ground at Egmond aan Zee, this lighthouse has an intriguing back-story.
It was built in the early 1830s and funded by an auction that sold off relics relating to Jan van Speyk (1802-1831). He was a naval lieutenant who became a national hero when he detonated his gunboat rather than surrender after a gale had blown it into port at Antwerp during the Belgian War of Independence.
As well as killing lots of Belgians this act of defiance also took out some 25 of his own crew members aboard his boat.
The base of the lighthouse is shaped like a tomb in Van Speyk’s memory.
In the summer you can go inside between 11:00 and 13:00 where you can see a small display about the building’s history and go up to marvel at the North Holland coastline.
8. Zee Aquarium
A rainy day activity to keep in mind, this aquarium behind the beach has more than 300 fish species, as well as a variety of other aquatic creatures like seahorses and seals.
There are over 40 habitats in total, including an Amazon tank where you can see piranhas circling, as well as tanks for the Mediterranean, North Sea, Atlantic Ocean and Tropics.
Children can find out what rays feel like at the Roggenrief tank, and get within inches of venomous lionfish, sharks, moray eels and much more.
The aquarium also has a collection of shells gathered from all over the world, while suspended from the ceiling is an authentic skeleton of an adult sperm whale.
9. Outdoor Activities Watersports
The beach has a modest but consistent break, so if you’re a kid or a novice this is a great place to take your first lessons.
Bergen aan Zee Surf School has energetic qualified instructors, and also offers equipment rental/tuition for kite-surfing, stand-up paddleboarding and bodyboarding.
You can show up at short notice for a one-on-one lesson, while week-long surf caps are offered for kids in summer.
You’ll find the school at the De Jongens pavilion on the beach.
To slow things down, the Sluispolder Golf Club is in the water-rich countryside between Bergen and Alkmaar.
The 18-hole main course here has nine holes in a low polder landscape with lots of tricky water hazards (holes 10-18), while the newer front nine is on hillier terrain with more sand traps to look out for.
The club also has a nine-hole par-3, a putting green and driving range, all just ten minutes from Bergen aan Zee.
10. De Kunst10daagse
Bergen remains a hotbed for creativity as you’ll discover at this ten-day festival coinciding with the autumn holiday in late-October.
Some 260 artists display their work at 160 locations around Bergen and Bergen aan Zee.
Naturally Kranenburgh and Bergen’s cluster of galleries open up, but there are more unusual and intimate exhibition spaces like shop windows, snug little gardens and the artists’ own studios.
There are exhibitions in painting, photography, sculpture, ceramics, graphic art and installation art.
De Kunst10daagse festival has been going since 1993, and attracts 40,000 people to the area each year.
There’s an art auction on the last Sunday of the event, as well as film screenings at Bergen’s Filmtheater CineBergen and outdoor concerts at the atmospheric Ruïnekerk.