Couched in the sprawling wetlands of the Weerribben-Wieden National Park, Giethoorn is a village of thatched farmhouses, wooden footbridges and gardens overflowing with flowers, all threaded with canals.
Cars aren’t much use in Giethoorn, and the “street” signs are on the canals instead.
As with the surrounding region, that latticework of waterways is the product of hundreds of years of peat extraction.
Giethoorn is often called “Venice of the North”, but the title doesn’t really do justice to the village’s ample greenery and sense of peace.
To fully appreciate Giethoorn, you have to take a boat trip, either with a tour or on a self-navigated motorboat.
1. Canal Cruise
The first thing to work out in Giethoorn is whether you want to skipper your own boat or relax and let someone else take the wheel.
The company Smit Giethoorn rents out a variety of boats, but also offers popular guided tours of the canals and out to the Bovenwijde lake to the southeast.
In covered vessels, these last about an hour and they’re a good way to unwind and admire the village idyll, canal-side gardens and sweet wooden footbridges.
On the journey you’ll hear titbits about some of the landmarks in the village and learn how these canals were excavated.
2. Boat Hire
For a self-navigated trip you can pick from at least ten different boat hire companies, all based in the village.
But even with such a wide choice Giethoorn does get busy in mid-summer so you’ll need to book your boat early to avoid disappointment.
Bootverhuur Giethoorn is in the centre of Giethoorn on the Dorpsgracht canal and has boats for all needs.
For a bit of exercise you could hire a punt, which is the traditional way to navigate this pastoral scenery, but there are also kayaks and canoes.
Easily the most popular option is the fluisterboot (electric motorboat), and this company alone has a fleet of 40 to rent out.
Other hire companies in Giethoorn include Broer Botenverhuur, Koppers Giethoorn, Botenverhuur Brunink and Smit Giethoorn and Frank Raggers.
At first glance Giethoorn doesn’t seem like a cycling destination because of the absence of tarmac roads.
But a bike will grant you a lot more freedom than a car.
There are cycling routes around the village, which then intersect with a network across the national park.
If you want to make a day of it, the 41.5-kilometre Giethoorn de Wieden fietsroute shows you the best of Giethoorn and its thatched farmhouses and bridges before heading out into that unspoiled wetland environment via the Beulakerwijde and Belterwijde lakes.
The trail is marked with green and white signs, and there are “Knooppunten”, (trail nodes) as you go so you can branch off onto other routes.
Along the Dorpgracht is the Binnenpad, which runs north to south and leads you into the parts of the village that cars can’t reach.
The scenery is picture perfect, with historic thatched farmhouses, florid gardens, an old Mennonite church and lots of little wooden bridges over the water.
The canal is lined with mature trees and you’ll never be far from the next cafe or restaurant.
Every few steps there’s a bench where you can stop to feed the ducks and watch Giethoorn’s flotilla of motorboats, punts, kayaks and barges drifting past.
5. Museum Giethoorn ‘t Olde Maat Uus
This newly renovated museum on an old farm opens a window on different aspects of Giethoorn’s past, like fishing, agriculture and peat-cutting.
You can see the interior of a typical farmhouse, fisherman’s house and boathouse to get a feel for local domestic and working life in times past.
There are personal accounts, displays of antique tools, costumes, furniture, clogs, home utensils, as well as a movie for a little more detail.
You can take a free guided tour with one of the museum’s volunteers, or a multilingual audio tour, leaving no stone unturned.
6. De Oude Aarde
In Giethoorn you can peruse one of the Netherlands’ finest collections of minerals and fossils.
Many of these were collected by the museum founder René Boissevain, a modern day explorer whose travels have taken him to all ends of the earth.
You’ll come across an amethyst geode from Brazil, Australian agates and a petrified tree trunk from North America – it’s amazing to think that some of the more delicate specimens made it to Giethoorn by boat.
The exhibits are presented under spotlights in a dimly to emphasise their phenomenal colours and textures.
The minerals are almost all presented in their natural, unprocessed form.
For a small fee, children can crack open their own geode.
The museum is joined to a shop selling precious stones and crystals.
7. Weerribben-Wieden National Park
Giethoorn is of course in a prime position if you want to see more of the national park.
This spreads over more than 100 square kilometres and is made up of two distinct areas: Weerribben in the north and Wieden in the south, both of which owe their appearance to hundreds of years of peat-cutting.
In these unpopulated areas there’s a real diversity of ecosystems, like meadows, floating mosses, marsh, reedbeds and lakes.
The visitor centre for De Wieden, in Sint Jansklooster, is effortlessly close to Giethoorn and has an exhibition about the plants and animals that inhabit the park, using footage and photography, as well as information about walking and cycling trails.
The Buitencentrum Weerribben is a bit further away to the northwest, but is another embarkation point for canoe or motorboat trips through swampy woodland and wetlands teeming with birdlife.
8. Canal-side Restaurants
There’s a lot to be said about the simple joy of dining on the canals in Giethoorn.
You may want to pack a picnic for your trip, but there are plenty of places where you can just moor up and sit down to a meal by the water.
Now, some of these establishments are posher than others – if you want to push the boat out at the two Michelin-starred De Lindenhof (Beulakerweg 77) you’ll need to plan well in advance.
But there are tons of other options, be it hearty Dutch cuisine (Geythorn, De Sloothaak, De Landije, Witte Hoeve), seafood (Vishandel Gerrits & De Boer) or Italian (La Piccola Venezia, Ristorante Fratelli). The Grand Café Fanfare does contemporary international cuisine and is a tribute to Fanfare, Oscar-winning director Bert Haanstra’s debut movie, shot in Giethoorn in 1958.
9. Gloria Maris Schelpengalerie
One of the joys of visiting snug old villages like Githoorn is browsing eccentric shops and attractions, and this museum/jewellery store is in that category.
Inside you’ll be greeted by all manner of shells, and jewellery made with coral, pearls, mother-of-pearl, nautilus and cameo.
Some of the pieces aren’t for sale, like an extremely rare pair of Conus gloriamaris sea snail shells, measuring up to 12 centimetres and discovered in Indonesia and the Philippines.
These are a kind of holy grail for shell collectors, so it’s a wonder that the museum has not one example but two.
10. Doopsgezinde Kerk Giethoorn
It is thought that Giethoorn was founded by 14th-century flagellants escaping the Black Death, and this sort of religious fervour has persisted.
A Mennonite congregation was founded here in the 1551 and is one of the oldest in the Netherlands.
The current Mennonite church dates to 1871 and lies in the shadow of a giant beech tree next to the Dorpsgracht.
The architecture is in the pared-down waterstaatsstijl, a style peculiar to Dutch 19th-century churches that were built with help from the national government and had to be approved by the Ministry of Public Works.
The pews, organ case and oak pulpit are all worth looking out for inside, while above the door is an inscription from Matthew 23:8, “Een is u meester, namelijk Christus en gij zijt allen broeders” (One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren).
Now you’ve seen a peat-cutting village and the landscape that it left behind, you owe it to yourself to visit one of the towns that grew wealthy trading this material.
Blokzijl is barely 15 minutes to the west and has an impossibly picturesque harbour, trimmed by 16th and 17th-century gabled merchants’ houses.
You can investigate the little knot of streets, like the winding Kerkstraat, home to the Museum Het Gildenhuys (Guildhall Museum), which recounts Blokzijl’s peat and lucrative timber trades.
Take a coffee next to the traditional Dutch botters (sail barges) in the harbour and get a photo of the old warning cannon on the quay.
A few kilometres south of Blokzijl is Vollenhove, which also prospered in the 17th century, shipping peat to Holland.
A large portion of Vollenhove is a Dutch protected cityscape and there’s a host of historic buildings, among them two historic late-Gothic churches, the Grote of Sint Niklaaskerk, and the Kleine of Lieve Vrouwekerk, which stands out for its tower crowned with a lantern.
Many of Vollenhove’s 50 or so national monuments sit on Bisschopstraat, Kerkstraat and the sociable Kerkplein.
From a cafe table on this square you can feast your eyes on the Grote Kerk, as well as the17th-century former town hall (now a restaurant) and the Latin school (now an antiques shop), both with very decorative facades and stepped gables.
Just out of town are the spectral ruins of Castle Toutenburg, a 16th-century palace that had already fallen into disrepair by the 1700s.