The small but photogenic town of Monnickendam was a big-hitter at the turn of the 17th century, pulling in trade from across the Baltic Sea.
A cosy old tangle of streets survives from that time, on the harbour are smokehouses and shipyards, two of Monnickendam’s signature industries.
Since the Zuiderzee was dammed, becoming a set of freshwater lakes in the 1930s, Monnickendam’s seafaring days are consigned to the past, but are remembered during the Monnickendammer Visdagen in summer.
On these special days there’s a restaging of an old-time fish auction, old livelihoods are re-enacted on the harbour and the scent of smoked fish fills the air.
1. Walking Tour of the Town
As soon as you get to Monnickendam’s old centre you’ll be charmed by the snug cityscape of historic merchant’s homes and warehouses, as well as fine old monuments like the Grote Kerk, Waag (weigh house) and former town hall.
You’ll find the city easy to navigate, as Monnickendam’s 70-odd Dutch heritage sites are mostly clustered on Kerkstraat, Nordeinde and Zuidende, three streets that converge at the foot of the Speeltoren bell tower.
Afterwards make your way east to the harbour, which is lined with more than 30 old smokehouses, as well as shipyards that have stood the test of time.
2. The Belltower
The bell tower for Monnickendam’s now demolished former town hall was erected between the 14th and 16th centuries and contains the oldest playable carillon in the Netherlands.
It is thought that the lower sections of the tower belonged to a lost Medieval parish church.
The chime is made up of 15 bells cast mostly in the 1590s.
A melody plays on the stroke of the quarter-hour, while mechanical horsemen appear on the hour and a pheme blows out the time (number of hours) on a trumpet.
3. Waterlandsmuseum de Speeltoren
Inside the Speeltoren is a museum exploring the history and culture of Waterland, shedding light on topics like cheese-making, peat-cutting, pottery, bell casting, the arrival of a light railway line in the late-19th century and the smokehouse industry in coastal towns like Monnickendam and Marken.
Special attention is paid to Waterland’s relationship to the sea, in trades like fishing and shipbuilding, as well as the construction of the Waterlandse Zeedijk seawall in the Middle Ages.
The chime is also central to the museum’s exhibition, and you can learn all about the complex clock mechanism and exactly how the carillon was made.
4. Grote Kerk
Put up in the 15th century Monnickendam’s principal church is on De Zarken, on the western edge of the town.
Work was done in phases, and the choir was completed in 1450, while the tower would take another 100 years to be completed.
In the steeple is a bell cast in 1641. People with an eye for historical church fittings will find lots to admire.
The baptismal font, rendered from a block of Bentheim sandstone is Gothic and may even predate the church.
By the baptismal font are fine 17th-century wooden pews, intended for important figures like the mayor (this pew has a canopy). The pulpit was carved around 1695, while the rood screen separating the choir from the nave originated in the 15th century and features panels and tracery from the mid-16th century.
5. Monnickendammer Visdagen
Something to mark in the diary is Monnickendammer Visdagen, several dates in July and August when the town’s old fishing industry is revived.
On these days guides offer tours around more than 30 old smokehouses in the town, and a boat from Volendam moors at the harbour, laden with herring, mackerel and smelt, ready to be auctioned off the old-fashioned way.
You can also watch fish being smoked, both in the historic houses and out on the street in portable smoke tanks, and try a piece of course.
Other old trades are brought back to life on the Visdagen, like clog-making and basket and net-weaving.
There are fun activities for younger members of the clan and a market selling products from around Waterland.
6. VVV Informatiepunt Monnickendam
In a cosy old town like Monnickendam, there’s nothing like a bit of local insight.
The tourist information office is in an adorable gabled house across the Damsluis lock from Monnickendam’s old weigh house, now a brasserie.
The centre is open year round, all week except Sunday, with reduced hours in the off season from October to March.
If you need a map for hiking, cycling and even sailing, this is the place to come, while the friendly shopkeepers will inform you about the sights in Monnickendam and the wider Waterland area.
Children who complete the self-guided trail around the town will be given special medals by the tourist office to signify that they’re “honorary residents”.
7. Bierderij Waterland
In summer 2018 a craft brewery opened in a large hut by one of the marinas on Galgeriet.
Bierderij Waterland has quickly become a go-to for Monnickendam locals and the visitors who flocked to the town during the sweltering summer in 2018. Seven organic beers are brewed throughout the year at Biederij Waterland, among them a Belgian-style tripel, a wheat ale, an amber ale, two pale ales, a bock and a white beer.
The slickly designed tap room is open all week and serves hunger-stomping food like pizzas and flatbreads, made with local ingredients where possible.
8. Boat Trips
One of Monnickendam’s biggest draws lies in the range of maritime activities available from the harbour.
Sailing is the main activity here, whether you hire your own boat, let someone else take the wheel or visit for some training.
In summer the operator Zuiderzee will whisk you out onto the Markermer and IJsselmeer for an eight-hour botter (sail-barge) trip, with lunch on the water (depending on conditions), and the option to call in at picturesque former Zuiderzee harbour towns like Edam, Marken or Volendam.
For experienced sailors who want a bit more independence Waterland is a charter company with yachts from six to 13 metres, all equipped with the latest navigation and kitchen equipment.
You can also book lessons at Waterland, whether you’re making your first voyage or working towards Dutch CWO certification.
9. Oude Raadhuis
Monnickendam’s Rococo former town hall is on Noordeinde 5 and was most likely built in the middle of the 18th century.
This property was town hall from 1814 and will catch your attention for the highly theatrical frieze with acanthus leaves, flower and other plant motifs.
This is beneath a carving of a monk, as appears on Monnickendam’s coat of arms.
After being sold off in the 1990s the Oude Raadhuis is now kept as a museum.
Check the Museumhuizen website as opening times are limited.
But if you do get the chance, go in for the decorative stuccowork, the Rococo gilded woodcarving, the grand fireplaces and the splendid staircase.
The great hall is especially opulent, with stunning leather wall hangings, with gold floral patterns.
Monnickenam’s historic weigh house is a few doors down from the Speeltoren, in front of the Damsluis lock.
The town has had a weigh house since 1382, though the current building was raised in 1668 following a fire two years earlier, and using material from its predecessor.
In those times this building was the city’s economic heart, where cheese, butter and grains were weighed, but also where goods were traded under the porch, which is supported by Doric columns.
The Waag now houses a brasserie, with a terrace under the porch, and if you go inside you’ll see Monnickendam’s original scales.
One of many neat things about Monnickendam and its environs is that the distances between towns is manageable by bike.
There’s a system of traffic-free cycle lanes that allows you to ride to the places like the former island of Marken, loved for its weatherboard houses on stilts and colourful style of traditional dress, or the quaint fishing town of Volendam.
Edam, known the world over for its eponymous mild cheese, is only a 20-minute ride away, and has a picture perfect old quays and wooden bascule bridges.
You can rent your own set of wheels from Ber Koning, right on Nordeinde in Monnickendam, for as little as €55 a week.
From there one of the prettiest patches of the Netherlands will be your oyster, and you can use “nodes” (knooppunten), junctions in long-distance cycle routes to plan your trip through Waterland.