In the space of a century a lot of things have changed for Marken.
What used to be an island is now a peninsula, joined to North Holland by a dike in 1957. Before that, the surrounding Zuiderzee became a freshwater lake when the Afsluitdijk dam was completed in 1932, ending Marken’s fishing trade.
This was a mixed blessing, as up to that time flooding was a constant danger here.
None of this makes Marken any less lovable.
Through all this transformation, Marken has held onto its traditions and its adorable wooden houses on stilts, once inhabited by fishermen and used for old-time trades like smoking eels.
And if you want a local perspective, you can take a guided tour led by guides in Marken’s brightly-embroidered traditional costume.
1. Walking Tour
As soon as you arrive in Marken you’ll be ready to see as much as possible on foot, from the rustic harbour to the lush interior, streaked with waterways.
If you want to take in the entire coast, you can do a complete nine-kilometre hike along the dike.
The company Rondmarken provides hour-long tours for groups of up to 25. And to make them extra special, these are given by guides wearing the typical local dress of an embroidered breastcloth (kraplap), striped sleeves and lace bonnet.
You’ll discover lots of details you wouldn’t otherwise have heard, and can make the whole experience even more authentic by combining it with a koffietafel (coffee with sweet and savoury delicacies), or classic Dutch fisherman’s fare, soused herring with a hit of korenwijn (grain wine).
2. Marker Museum
In the picturesque Kerkbuurt, the island’s museum is housed in a row of six old weatherboard smokehouses.
Until the Zuiderzee was dammed in the 1930s, these were used to smoke eel, which was a big part of Marken’s economy.
Within you can pore over traditional interiors, decorated with authentic furniture and implements.
There’s a display of regional art, while revolving exhibitions lift the lid on different facets of Marken’s history.
What has long captivated visitors to the island is its striking traditional costume, carefully presented in glass cases.
For men, clothing was relatively simple and practical for a life on the sea, while women sported colourful embroidery and wore different clothing to signify mourning (light or heavy!) and pregnancy.
3. Wooden Shoe Factory
A firm favourite in Marken is an authentic clog-making workshop and souvenir store.
You can go in for the “Clog Experience”, to find out how a simple lump of poplar wood is turned into a comfortable clog in a matter of minutes.
The clog-making machines are still powered by a steam engine dating to 1913, which all adds to the old-time experience.
The multilingual guides here have a good sense of humour, talking you through every step, from hollowing to sanding and painting.
In Marken the traditional clog is painted brown, with pink or red roses and large dark green leaves.
The wearer’s name would also be painted on.
You can try on a pair to find out your size – and see how you have to curl your toes to keep them on.
4. Paard van Marken
A sight to savour on Marken is this lighthouse off the east coast and dating back to 1839. At the end of a small grassy causeway, the Paard van Marken (Marken Horse) is still used as a signal, and has had a fog horn since 1919. It isn’t the first lighthouse to be sited here, and followed an earlier construction from 1700, built as a network of lights to mark the route from the Wadden Sea to Amsterdam.
The lighthouse itself is closed off, but there are benches where you can soak up the view of the Markermeer.
A trip to the Paard van Marken is not to be missed during a cold snap in winter when the lighthouse sits isolated among the drift ice.
5. Flood Memorial
It’s hard to picture today, but before the Afsluitdijk dam was built in the early 1930s, Marken was at the mercy of the North Sea, which wrought constant havoc.
The last major disaster to hit the island was a flood caused by a storm coinciding with high tide in 1916. Sixteen islanders were killed, and many people were made homeless.
The flood accelerated plans to build the Afsluitdijk, which made Marken safe, but naturally also ended the local fishing industry overnight.
At the entrance to the harbour there’s a memorial to the flood, unveiled in 1916 to mark the centenary and known as “The Wave”. It was designed with a bench so you can scan what used to be the open North Sea and is now a calm freshwater lake (Gouwzee).
6. Flood Walk (Watersnood Wandeling Marken 1916)
Starting and finishing at the Marken Museum there’s a walking path around Marken recalling the devastation of the flood on the night between 13 and 14 January 1916. The walk leads you to some very photogenic parts of the former island, which also happened to be the worst affected in the flood.
There are new information plaques giving accounts of the destruction, but you can also pick up a leaflet or download a PDF with all the information you need.
One of the most remarkable sights is the row of icebreakers off Rozewerf on the island’s south coast.
7. Kijkhuisje Sijtje Boes
One of the joys of quaint destinations like Marken are mini-attractions like this, as well as the stories attached to them.
In a sweet weatherboard house on the harbour, Kijkhuisje Sijtje Boes is a little museum named for its founder, Sijtje Boes (1895-1983). She recognised Marken’s potential as a destination and had to fight quite hard to set up a souvenir shop in the early 1920s.
In doing so she helped put Marken on the tourist map.
Two doors down is her Kijkhuisje, the tiny dwelling she shared with her fisherman husband, decorated in a traditional yellow and blue colour scheme and full of cute trinkets.
8. Grote Kerk
The island’s neo-Renaissance church is well-formed but not particularly old, dating from the start of the 20th century.
But it’s what’s inside that makes a visit so compelling.
Many of the fixtures predate the current church by several centuries and are listed monuments in their own right.
Take the six-sided pulpit, the lectern and the church’s chandeliers, which were all crafted in the 1600s.
The copper baptismal font is 18th century, while hanging from the ceiling are several models of traditional ships.
There’s a punt from 1959, a botter (sail barge) from 1957, a steam lugger from the Second World War, and, most interesting of all, two herring busses, from 1600 and 1890.
9. Werf Trail
Marken is joined to the North Holland Hiking Network, a system of trails with interconnecting junctions or nodes.
With a bit of planning you can use these nodes to make a bespoke hike, or follow suggestions by other walkers or tourist organisations.
One is the Werf trail, a seven-kilometre circular route which begins at node nine and takes in 35, 36, 34, 33 and 37. The reason to take this walk in particular is to learn about a specific aspect of Marken’s landscape.
Due to the constant risk of flooding posed by the Zuiderzee, people built their individual hamlets on mounds known as werfs, built using manure, turf or even compressed household waste.
These mounds are still intact, and you’ll get a good perspective of the Moeniswerf, Rozenwerf, Grote werf and Witte werf on this trail.
10. Volendam Marken Express
Marken is joined to the mainland by a dike (opened in 1957), carrying the N18 over the Markermeer for a couple of kilometres from near Monnickendam.
But the most romantic way is to call into the harbour by ferry from Volendam, which has a year round service (30 mins). In peak season, between March and November, there are departures every 30-45 minutes, from 09:00 to 19:00. The only exception is if there’s significant ice on the Markermeer, as last happened in March 2018. All of the Volendam Marken Express ferries have a bar for drinks and snacks, and the open top deck is bliss on a warm summer’s day.