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The Windmills of Kinderdijk in the Netherlands

The Windmills of Kinderdijk in the Netherlands

I love a good open-air museum, and the windmills of Kinderdijk, just south of Rotterdam, did not disappoint. Being able to climb up inside one of the windmills, all the way to the top, was incredible. So should you make time to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site? Definitely.

Museum windmill Blokweer
Museum windmill Blokweer

What is Kinderdijk?

This area of South Holland is a microcosm of the Dutch struggle to keep their fertile farmland from flooding. Nearly 17% of the Netherlands is land reclaimed from the sea, through their ingenious dyke and windmill systems. The Kinderdijk (literally translating as ‘Children’s Dyke’) is one such area of farmland where 19 of the 20 historic windmills have been maintained and preserved. These windmills are still doing the job they were built to do, and must be kept in working condition in case the diesel-powered pumping stations lose power for any reason. So while this is an open-air museum, these incredible wooden machines are still an important part of keeping this area dry.

Wooden clogs outside Museum Windmill Blokweer
Wooden clogs outside Museum Windmill Blokweer

What are the windmills at Kinderdijk for?

When the Dutch people built the dykes this enclosed land for farming, but it was still flooded with water. The windmills (molen, in Dutch) power large Archimedes screws that pull water out of the farmland, and drain it into canals. Rain and natural groundwater seepage keeps threatening to drown the fields, or polder, requiring the windmills to keep the balance. In the event of a drought, the windmills can provide water from the canals as well. 

For those of us not used to living near these magnificent buildings, we might be tempted to think of them as cute and small. Up close, they are huge, powerful, and very dangerous. A common hazard of living and working near the windmills was getting hit by one of the sails. I stood mesmerized by the whoomp-whoomp-whoomp of the passing sails, and shuddered at the thought. The power they can generate is tremendous. 

A view down the Kinderdijk
A view down the Kinderdijk

What is there to do at Kinderdijk? Is it for kids?

The name ‘Kinderdijk’ is the name of the area itself, and it definitely is not just for children. The story goes after a terrible flood in 1421 that killed thousands of residents, a baby’s cradle was spotted floating on the flood waters, with the baby crying inside. The child was saved, and the area renamed the Children’s Dyke. 

The museum is definitely family friendly, but on our visit we saw mostly adults visiting the area, so don’t be turned off if you’re not traveling with children. 

There are 19 windmills on site, but you can only go inside two of them. There are two boat tours along the canal: one will take you on a full circuit, and one is a hop-on, hop-off affair. You can definitely walk all over, but the boat makes it quicker. Unsurprisingly for a place with 19 windmills, it is very, er, windy, so you might want a break from walking along the dykes. 

Inside the Museum Windmill Nederwaard
Inside the Museum Windmill Nederwaard

Museum Windmill Nederwaard

This windmill was built in 1738, and one family lived and worked in it for many generations. At one point 13 children lived here! Inside, you can see how the living areas were set up, and climb the very steep staircases. You can climb into one of the beds built into the wall, and imagine if you could sleep with the sails spinning outside. It sounds like you’re on a ship, the way the creaking and groaning of the wooden gears and ropes carry on. And carry on constantly – all through the night and day. I can imagine you’d get quite used to it, even find it soothing. 

The bed built into the wall in the Museum Windmill Nederwaard
The bed built into the wall in the Museum Windmill Nederwaard

All around there are photos of the Hoek family who lived in this windmill, along with clothing, dishes, and stories. It was impossible not to get a sense of the lively group of people who spent their lives here over hundreds of years. Sadly, one of the Hoek mothers died after getting hit by the windmill’s sails while chasing after one of her children. In one of the photos, all the children had shaved heads, which I can imagine was to combat lice… I don’t know how they managed to keep that under control in such a tiny and crowded living space. 

I particularly loved this museum windmill, and how much the photos made me think of the people who lived there in their groaning and creaking home. My son loved getting into the bed, and poking his head up through the top floor to see the workings of wooden gears in the attic of the windmill.

Woolen underthings and clogs in front of the little stove in the Museum Windmill Blokweer
Wool underthings and clogs in front of the little stove in the Museum Windmill Blokweer

Museum windmill Blokweer

This smaller windmill looks quite different than the other Kinderdijk windmills, because it was built in 1631, and has a movable top that can turn to face the wind. Outside, there is a chicken coop, vegetable garden, and a goat pen. Millers still needed to feed their families of course. There’s also an outdoor kitchen, where someone in costume was preparing food. There’s also a small gift shop and cafe next to Blokweer. Inside the mill, the kitchen is beautifully preserved and set up as though the owner has just stepped out. In the shed just adjoining the door, you can see a selection of wooden clogs hung up on rails. What is it about shoes that conjures up an image of their owners so immediately? 

Embroidery hanging in one of the windmills. Rough translation: 'The wind that blows, the mill that turns, the blessing of the Lord that makes the small increase.'
Embroidery hanging in one of the windmills. Rough translation: ‘The wind that blows, the mill that turns, the blessing of the Lord that makes the small increase.’
Clog shelving in the Museum Windmills at Kinderdijk
Clog shelving in the Museum Windmills at Kinderdijk

The other windmills

They may not be museum windmills, but you will notice by the windowboxes and curtains that people do still live in them! That’s why you’re not allowed to walk up to all of the mills on site. 

Kinderdijk opening hours, ticket prices and how to get there

The Kinderdijk is open all year except December 25th. 

January & February, 10am – 4pm

March – October, 9am – 5:30pm

November & December, 10am – 4pm

Ticket prices

Adults €7

Kids (4-12 years old) €4.50

Kids under 3 are free

Boat tours are €5.50 for adults, and €3 for kids, again under 3 are free. 

Maps cost €1.

You can order all of these tickets ahead on their website, but you do have to choose which day you will be visiting. You save €1 per adult by booking online, so it’s definitely worth it, even if you just do it that morning. 

Getting to Kinderdijk

Kinderdijk is a very easy day tip from Rotterdam.

You can drive to the Kinderdijk, as we did, but be warned that you will have to take a very short car ferry. It was a bit of a surprise to us, we came over the hill and there was the boat! It didn’t show up as such in the satnav. 

From Rotterdam, it is a 30-minute journey on the WaterBus, and you can buy a combination ticket online here, which gives you a discount on entrance to Kinderdijk as well, though you will still need to buy a boat tour ticket when you arrive if you’d like to do that as well. The return ticket, is €11.70 for adults, and €8.55 for kids – this doesn’t include the entry fee, but upon showing your ticket you will get 20% off. 

PS – We stayed in a castle in the Netherlands too, it was amazing! And if you’re going to Amsterdam, here’s our one-day guide.

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Schloss Mespelbrunn

Schloss Mespelbrunn

The small but perfectly formed Schloss Mespelbrunn in western Bavaria has survived for hundreds of years unscathed, mainly due to its location, nestled in the Spessart forest. This is a famous German forest, with its fairy stories and myths immortalized by the Brothers Grimm. The Castle Mespelbrunn is one of those that takes your breath away as you come around the neatly clipped box hedges. I don’t think I will ever tire of that moment when a castle reveals itself. Sometimes referred to as a ‘wasserschloss’ (water castle), Mespelbrunn sits serenely in its own little lake, complete with resident swans. 

This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on one, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

History

In 1412, the Archbishop of Mainz gifted some land next to a pond in the Spessart to a knight named Echter, for his part in defeating the Czechs. At this point, the Spessart was literally thick with thieves and bandits, which inspired the second generation of Echters to build fortifications around the stately home. From this period, only the round tower remains, with the rest of the castle being rebuilt in the Renaissance style from 1551-1569. The most famous resident of the castle was Julius Echter, Prince-Bishop of Würzburg (1545-1617), who founded a hospital and re-founded the University of Würzburg in 1583. 

Schloss Mespelbrunn was never in a high traffic location, and this saved it during the Thirty Years War when armies of all sides were rampaging through the area. 

The lake runs on all sides of the Castle Mespelbrunn, like a very large moat.
The lake runs on all sides of the Castle Mespelbrunn, like a very large moat.
The doors to the Castle Mespelbrunn. You can see the little crate that holds the fish food on the lefthand side there.
The doors to the Castle Mespelbrunn. You can see the little crate that holds the fish food on the lefthand side there.

By 1665, the last male Echter died without leaving a male heir. However, Maria Ottilia, Echterin of Mespelbrunn, married into the Ingelheim family which were later elevated to Counts. The current Count Ingelheim lives in the castle with his family today. 

Still from the title sequence of Das Wirtshaus im Spessart, shot at the castle in 1958.
Still from the title sequence of Das Wirtshaus im Spessart, shot at the castle in 1958.

Completely unrelated to the actual history of the castle, a famous German musical called Das Wirsthaus im Spessart was filmed in the castle and a nearby town in 1958, which seems to inspire many coach tours.  

Inner courtyard at Castle Mespelbrunn
Inner courtyard at Castle Mespelbrunn
Door to upper levels of the castle, dated 1569.
Door to upper levels of the castle, dated 1569.

Schloss Mespelbrunn entrance fees and opening hours

To do anything other than lean over the gate and take photos, you need to pay an entrance fee. 

Adults 5€

Children/students 2.50€

The castle is open from March to November 9am-5pm daily, but check their site for exact opening and closing dates as they change each year. 

It’s worth noting that it’s difficult to get to this castle other than driving. The parking lot is a short (level!) walk from the castle on a smooth gravel and then paved path. Unusually for a castle, this one is quite easy to access with a buggy or if you’re travelling with folks using mobility aids. However, there are stairs on the tour and you won’t be able to bring your buggy with you.

Your first view of Schloss Mespelbrunn from the gates.
Your first view of Schloss Mespelbrunn from the gates.

Is it worth doing the tour at Schloss Mespelbrunn?

Yes definitely. Like most German castles, you cannot see the inside except on a guided tour. All tours are in German, so you will need to ask the ticket seller at the gate to give you an English pamphlet, which provides the text of the tour in English. Often the guides can answer any questions you have in English, or someone on the tour can translate. On the tour, you will see the Knight’s Hall on the ground floor, with suits of armour and heraldic symbols in stained glass. Moving upstairs, you get to see the dining hall, which I found the most impressive. It’s a bit of a hunting lodge theme, with wild boars’ heads and antlers mounted all over the place, as well as an impressive table setting. The current Count of Ingelheim and his family have special dinners here, even now. There’s also a small but interesting display of weapons, including some wicked-looking early crossbows. 

View from the castle entrance across the small topiary garden.
View from the castle entrance across the small topiary garden.
Shady benches outside the Knight's Hall at Schloss Mespelbrunn
Shady benches outside the Knight’s Hall at Schloss Mespelbrunn

There’s a tower room dedicated to honouring Julius Echter, Prince-Bishop of Würzburg and all his works. The main interest here was the shrunken head he was gifted by someone who had visited Africa. Moving through to a bedroom, it’s hard not to imagine sleeping here with the window open to the breeze, listening to bandits call to each other in the woods. No doubt no one would have kept their windows open for fear of dying of unseen miasma, but that’s just my romantic fantasy. 

The tour lasts about 40 minutes, and moves along fairly quickly. 

Regal swan glides across the lake at Schloss Mespelbrunn
Regal swan glides across the lake at Schloss Mespelbrunn

What else is there to do at the castle?

The small lake is also home to schools of fat and happy looking fish, which you can feed with little packets of proper fish food for 0.50€, that are sitting on a stand just outside the main castle doors. The fish get gratifyingly excited to be fed, and the water is quite clear, so this can take up a good half hour if you’re travelling with kids. There are a few resident swans floating around looking regal as well. There’s a small cafe in the old stable building, across from the castle. We stopped and had an excellent Apfelstrudel, and Eiskaffee, in their little garden. An Eiskaffee, if you’re not familiar, is a gloriously cold concoction of vanilla ice cream scoops in a large glass, with coffee poured over it, with unseemly amounts of whipped cream and maybe even chocolate sauce dribbled over that. Like an obscene version of an affogato. But delicious. 

Getting to Schloss Mespelbrunn

Despite being only an hour from Frankfurt, this castle is still quite hard to get to without a car. There is a parking lot very close, and it costs 2€ per vehicle. 

If you’d like to get there by public transport, your best bet would be to take a train to the Aschaffenburg station and then a taxi to the castle, which would be a half hour journey. Do check the sections above for opening hours, as many reviews I’ve read online seem to involve people trying to visit in winter and disappointed the castle is closed. 

You should leave two hours for your visit, but know this small castle won’t take an entire day to explore. It’s a beautiful spot that isn’t overrun with visitors, so enjoy yourself and take your time. 

Quick bonus! If you’re looking to stay in the area, the beautiful Schlosshotel Mespelbrunn is short walk from the castle and is all kinds of beautiful.

Beautiful Schlosshotel Mespelbrunn
Beautiful Schlosshotel Mespelbrunn

PS – Looking for some day trips from Frankfurt? Or maybe another incredible castle to visit?

PPS – Need help with packing for Germany? I’ve got you covered for packing for your Germany trip in spring or summer.

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Schloss Schwetzingen

Schloss Schwetzingen

The summer palace of the Prince Elector Palatinate in Schwetzingen is beautiful, standing at the end of a tree-lined avenue in the small town of the same name. The buildings are only a gateway, though, to the truly magical gardens that lie beyond the gates. Impressively, the palace has retained its extensive gardens, lawns, and various outbuildings including a mosque. 

Water features at Schlossgarten Schwetzingen

History

The Prince Electors in Germany were powerful men who, as a group, chose the Holy Roman Emperor, and ruled over parts of the Empire themselves. When the Prince Elector Charles III Philip moved the court from Heidelberg to Mannheim around 1700, he started building work on a summer residence in Schwetzingen, as well as the main palace in Mannheim. He was particularly fond of music, and assembled an unusually large and skilled court orchestra. Mozart visited several times to perform at the summer palace, and definitely walked in the gardens.

The gardens are particularly interesting as they span two distinct styles prevalent in the 18th century. The highly structured and manicured French style dominates the initial views from the palace, but as you move further away from the central allé, you are presented with winding paths, woods, and streams. The gentler, more natural English style was taking over around the middle of the century, but instead of making over the entire garden, the court architect Nicolas de Pigage just combined the two. 

Beautiful tree tunnel in Schlossgarten Schwetzingen
Beautiful tree tunnel in Schlossgarten Schwetzingen

When to visit Schloss Schwetzingen

The summer is obviously a beautiful time to stroll in the gardens – everything is in bloom, and on a Saturday you will see many brides and wedding parties of all types having their photos taken. On hot days, escape the central area into the trees and many curling paths. There are endless pieces of statuary among the hedges and fountains. However, there are a few other times of year that are worth a visit as well. 

In the autumn, the changing leaves are spectacular all over the garden, but particularly beyond the Turkish garden, where the paths and a little river curls around a large garden folly that resembles a very small castle ruin. 

In the winter, after a snow fall, the gardens turn into Narnia. Many of the larger plants are tied up artfully with burlap and after a dusting of snow everything is transformed into some kind of sculptural snow topiary. 

Pink cherry blossoms at Schlossgarten Schwetzingen
Pink cherry blossoms at Schlossgarten Schwetzingen

Finally, possibly my favourite time to visit is in spring when the cherry blossoms come out. Just before you reach the Turkish garden is a large walled garden filled with cherry trees, and planted with bulbs. In spring the watery sunlight is trapped in this space, and it’s almost like a taste of summer. The cherry blossoms are a joy to witness, and we try to bring a picnic to enjoy on the grass. You can check their website for details on the progress of the cherry blossoms, they usually have a Blossom Barometer! The last half of March or early April is a good bet, however. 

Can you imagine trimming these hedges?

What to do at Schloss Schwetzingen

It is possible to see a few of the rooms inside the palace building, however like most German castles, you can only visit with a guided tour. English tours happen at the weekends at 2:15pm, though you can join the German tours that happen most days and read from a translated sheet. The tour lasts about an hour, and it’s interesting, but I would say you could skip it without missing too much. The real draw of this site is the gardens. I have yet to do a garden tour, but they do offer them once a week, in German. 

Tour options at a glance:

English tour of the palace rooms (1 hour): Saturday and Sundays at 2:15pm

German tour of the palace rooms (1 hour): Spring (March 25th – May 2nd) Monday – Friday, hourly from 11am – 4pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays, hourly from 10:30am – 5pm

Summer (May 3rd – September 27th) Monday – Friday, hourly from 11am – 4pm, except Thursdays when tours run hourly until 7pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays, hourly from 10:30am – 5pm

Autumn (September 28th – October 27th) Monday – Friday, hourly from 11am – 4pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays, hourly from 10:30am – 5pm

Winter (October 28th – March 23rd) Fridays at 2pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays 11am, 1:30pm & 3pm

German tour of the palace and garden: Spring, Summer & Autumn, Monday – Friday, 2pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays, 12 noon, 2pm & 4pm

German tour of the garden: Spring, Summer & Autumn, Saturday, 3pm

The entrance price varies accordingly to which tour you’d like to take. I know, it gets a bit confusing. Just entrance to the garden, with no tour, is 6€ for adults and 3€ for children, with a family price of 15€ (applies to two related adults and children). The standard English tour included with your entry price will make it 10€ for adults and 5€ for children, with a family price of 25€. If you are planning to visit Heidelberg as well, do think about getting the Baden-Württemberg Schlosscard, as you will save if you visit more than one site. 

It’s worth noting that if you have a particularly wiggly child, the tour might be a challenge. I saw plenty of children on the tours however, so they are not discouraged by any means. As usual, you know your child best. However, there really isn’t much in the way of interesting things – no armour or weapons, no clothing displays or toys. 

Of course, if you are a larger group, you can arrange a tour yourself, in whichever language you prefer. I have arranged one before, and the staff are very helpful and quick to respond. 

The best approach is to wander where your heart takes you really. The gardens are designed to give you the sense they go on forever, and I love just wandering and taking in all the little scenes as they appear. It is endlessly beautiful to photograph in any season, so make sure all your batteries are charged. Wear comfortable shoes, because you will be walking and walking. My favourite places are the main allé and the Turkish garden, but ask me after my next visit and I will have changed my mind!

Garden restaurant at Schloss Schwetzingen

Where to eat near Schloss Schwetzingen

The gardens have a small restaurant at the end of the wind to your right as you enter the gardens, but I have never visited. The tables outside look lovely, but I always seem to come upon it as I am leaving. There is also a very small cafe directly across from the ticket office before you enter the gardens properly. However, for a better deal, you will want to eat before you enter. All along the avenue approaching the palace are restaurants that put out their tables, there is always room and it’s a beautiful spot to sit. On a warm summer’s day, visitors often remark that it feels more like Italy than Germany. If you’re looking for a sweet treat and a coffee, try Bäckerei Utz just past the bank on Carl-Theodor-Straße (that main road running up to the palace). If you’re lucky, you can buy some chocolate shaped like asparagus. 

Schwetzingen is the centre of Spargel (white asparagus) growing in this region, and you’ll see many references to it around the town. If you happen to visit in late spring or early summer, you will see Spargel on every menu, or even catch the Spargelfest. We witnessed the historic annual foot race involving wheelbarrows, aprons, gloves, hay bales, and shots of Schnapps. 

Endless beautiful views, really.

How to get to Schloss Schwetzingen

It’s very easy to reach Schwetzingen from Frankfurt, it’s one train to Mannheim and then a half hour bus to Schwetzingen that drops you straight in front of the palace. You can book your ticket right here, in English. 




If you’re travelling within Baden-Württemberg, like from Heidelberg, or going on to Stuttgart, you can buy a Baden-Württemberg ticket at the train station that will also get you a 10% discount on your entrance ticket to the Schloss Schwetzingen. If you’re travelling in a group, these tickets are often much cheaper. You can buy one right here: 




PS – Need help with packing for Germany? I’ve got you covered for packing for your Germany trip in spring or summer.

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Getting from Frankfurt to Heidelberg

Getting from Frankfurt to Heidelberg

Heidelberg is a lovely day trip from Frankfurt. In one day you can easily visit the castle, have a leisurely lunch on the pedestrianized main street, visit the excellent museum, and maybe even have a quick trip on the river Neckar before heading back to Frankfurt. I’m biased because I live here, but I would definitely suggest staying over for the night and exploring our little city a bit more – but it’s definitely possible to do Heidelberg in a day trip from Frankfurt. 

You have four options:

Tours from Frankfurt to Heidelberg

If you’d rather not plan all the nitty gritty yourself, there are several options for coach tours leaving from Frankfurt (check availbility here). The benefits of taking one of these:

  • Air-conditioned coach (this is important in the summer when the temperatures here hit a humid 30º+ (86ºF)
  • Tours will take you straight up to the castle
  • Guided walk through the Heidelberg Old Town
  • You don’t have to research or plan
  • It’s an easy way to slot in a trip to Heidelberg on your holiday

The downsides are they can be more expensive than doing a trip yourself, and if you want to see something else, you’re stuck with your group. However, I completely understand getting a bit overwhelmed with vacation planning details! These tours are generally adult-orientated, but older kids should be fine. If you’re travelling with younger school-age kids or toddlers, it’s best to stick to train or car travel.

Candy stalls are a regular feature at German Christmas Markets
Visiting the Heidelberg Christmas Market

Train from Frankfurt to Heidelberg

This trip is very easy, as there’s a direct train that runs from the main train station in Frankfurt to the main station in Heidelberg. It takes just under an hour, and the trains are pleasant and clean. It’s about 80€ return for two adults and two children for this trip. You can book it right here in English:



A cheaper way to book this trip is to buy a Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket, this is a special saver price for regional trains only (IC and ICE trains are not included) – for two adults it is 52€, with all children travelling for free. However, this route will take an extra half an hour, and you will have to change trains midway. I suggest buying this ticket online, and then confirming your route with the information desk at the Frankfurt main station. 

Upon arriving in Heidelberg, don’t panic! The main Heidelberg train station is a bit grim, as are the surrounding streets. Head out of the station with the herd of people from your train to the tram and bus stops. There you will need to buy another ticket for local Heidelberg travel from a machine at the stop, or you can buy a ticket from the bus driver. You are going to take a number 32 bus to Universitätplatz. On this journey, the bus pulls into a big plaza called Bismarckplatz in front of the Galeria Kaufhof department store, where lots of people get off and on, but you will be staying on. The bus then drives along the river Neckar for awhile, and then turns into some very narrow streets. The buildings start getting older and then you get off at the last stop, Universitätplatz. You are now in Heidelberg’s Old Town! When facing the river, you want to walk left to reach the main Marktplatz and the castle.

Tip: my GPS-enabled audio tour begins at the Marktplatz. 

Take a side trip to see the Schwetzingen Palace gardens

Taking an airport shuttle from Frankfurt Airport (FRA) to Heidelberg

From Frankfurt Airport you can catch an airport shuttle straight to central Heidelberg, complete with car seats should you need it. It’s a large minibus with posh leather seats, seat belts, and air conditioning. You can book your Frankfurt to Heidelberg airport shuttle online here. The plus side of this service is there is no transferring (the train route requires a change at Mannheim), and if you’re traveling with kids, this is a bit easier. If you book it last minute it’s about the same price as the train, and if you book it 4-6 weeks in advance it’s much cheaper – starting from 12€ one way.

Renting a car and driving from Frankfurt to Heidelberg

This is an easy, if not terribly scenic, drive. I’d suggest going with Hertz to rent your car, if for no other reason than there are several places in both Frankfurt proper and the airport to return your car. 

I suggest you set your GPS for Sofienstraße 7, 69115 Heidelberg. This will bring you into the city, and you will see an entrance to the Darmstädter Hof Parkhaus on your left (an underground parking garage). The rates are fairly reasonable, and while there are parking options closer into the Old Town, the driving gets more intense as you navigate very narrow, aggressively cobbled streets. If you’re comfortable with this, feel free to follow the posted signs for the parking in the Altstadt. When you come out of the Darmstädter Hof parking, you will be at the beginning of the Hauptstraße, or main street, which is pedestrianized all the way up to the square below the castle. It’s a nice walk, with cafes and restaurants all the way along. The plus side of having a car, as it will allow you to take a detour to nearby towns like Schwetzingen to see the summer palace and gardens, or Speyer to see the cathedral that is the burial place of so many Holy Roman Emperors. 

Enjoy your trip to Heidelberg!

PS – Need help with packing for Germany? I’ve got you covered for packing for your Germany trip in spring or summer.

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Stay in a castle in the Netherlands? Yes please!

Stay in a castle in the Netherlands? Yes please!

There is something incredible about driving up to a castle, and knowing you will be staying there that night. For someone as castle-obsessed as I am, it gives me goosebumps. What if I told you that I found a castle you can stay in for 130€ a night for a family of four. Breakfast included. That’s the total, not per person. And it’s a 40-minute train journey from Amsterdam.

I know. I know!

You can get a good sense of the castle and grounds from this drone video my husband shot while we were there.

On our last visit to the Netherlands, we bounced around a lot, staying in a few hotels, and a couple nights in the StayOkay Heemskerk hostel – which is in the Assumburg Castle. There are pros and cons to staying in a hostel, and I’ll go through those too.

This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on one, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

The impressive Assumburg Castle and moat in Heemskerk, the Netherlands.
The impressive Assumburg Castle and moat in Heemskerk, the Netherlands.

A bit of history

The Assumburg Castle was built in the 15th century as a showpiece for the van Velsen family. At this point, castles were not necessary for defensive purposes, so this one is more on the fanciful fairy tale end of the castle spectrum, compared to the squat protection-from-cannons kind of buildings. Like most castles, it has been through several families and, consequently, several rounds of renovations. 

One of the great things about its current function as a hostel, is none of the furnishings or decorations are too fragile. The tables in the pub and restaurant rooms are big functional wood ones, and there’s just enough suits of armour and decorative swords around to make you feel like you’re in a castle. Which you are, for real. 

The gorgeous interiors of the Heemskerk hostel in the Netherlands.
The gorgeous interiors of the Heemskerk hostel in the Netherlands.

What you should expect staying in a hostel

Now, a hostel is not a hotel, and there are important differences. The rooms are barebones, in a sleepaway camp for kids type of barebones. The beds are all single indestructible bunkbeds, and the bathroom is very no-nonsense. There are cubbyholes for your belongings. You pick up your sheets and towels from a giant wooden wardrobe when you check in, and dump them in a giant wooden chest when checking out. No one cleans your room when you’re out. To a certain extent, I don’t mind this for a short stay because while it’s not cushy, there is literally nothing for rambunctious children to break. All the corners have been rounded off already. 

Was it noisy?

Well… I will be totally honest with you here and say yes. But not with partying 22-year-olds getting drunk. We had the misfortune of staying in the room below two different groups of traveling schoolchildren, so we had rooms full of 12-year-old boys above us. Was it loud? Oh yes. It ended around midnight though, and because I’m also a parent of an eight year old it didn’t really wind me up all that much. I was prepared for noise. If you have very small children, or a baby, this may not be the place for you. School-aged children and older will be fine, and having the run of a castle at night makes up for a lot. 

We hung out here with our wine (and Fanta) by ourselves for an hour or so one evening. How cool is that?
We hung out here with our wine (and Fanta) by ourselves for an hour or so one evening. How cool is that?

Dungeon, winding staircases, and moats

With all that said, it was pretty incredible to wander around the castle. The breakfast room has windows that look out across the moat to the formal gardens. So many of the rooms are open to hang out in on the ground floor, it makes it easy to have a bit of an adventure on a rainy morning too. There’s a tiny winding stone staircase in the corner of the bar that is terrifying, but quite fun to explore. As we were standing outside filming the drone footage for this post, a man came over for a chat, and he told us to ask the staff about the dungeon! When we did, they laughed and said to check out the fourth floor above our room. After dinner we climbed the stone staircase and on the fourth floor, there it was… a room under the eaves with a peephole in the heavy wooden door. There was a skeleton chained up in there! Hilariously no one had mentioned this beforehand. 

The prison door!
The prison door!
View from the breakfast room at Heemskerk StayOkay
View from the breakfast room at Heemskerk StayOkay

Eating at the castle

Breakfast featured the usual European spread of several kinds of bread, buns, butter and jam, boiled eggs, sliced cured meats, fruit, muesli, and yoghurt. There were welcome Dutch additions of excellent chocolate sprinkles and the squigy Suikerbrood (sugar bread), which my son was thoroughly in love with (of course). Everything, including the coffee machine, was serve yourself, and you were expected to scrape your plates at the end and stack them in the trays in the kitchen hatch. We chose to eat dinner at the hostel one night for 20€ for the grown-ups and half that for our son, and it was fine–an Italian buffet including two kinds of pasta and two kinds of sauce, meatballs, several salads, bread, soup, and tiramisu for dessert. We ordered wine from the bar in the next room, and brought it in to have with our dinner. After dinner, we spent the evening giggling and exploring the castle after dark. There are vending machines on the main floor if you’re desperate for a late-night snack.

StayOkay Heemskerk in the early spring
StayOkay Heemskerk in the early spring

Heemskerk

The hostel is located in the small town of Heemskerk, which is nice enough but not particularly interesting itself. There are a few restaurants and some shops for stocking up on snacks. It’s worth noting you’re not supposed to keep food in your room in the hostel. The castle itself is surrounded by formal gardens, which are managed separately from the hostel, so if you want to explore them, keep in mind they are open from 10am to 6pm, and in the summer until 9pm on Fridays. 

My son looking out to sea at National Park Zuid-Kennemerland
My son looking out to sea at National Park Zuid-Kennemerland

The dunes and beaches

Heemskerk is not far from the Nordhollands Duinreservaat (North Holland Dune Reserve). It’s one of the largest nature reserves in the Netherlands, and besides protecting many different plant and animal species, it’s also where drinking water for many of the surrounding regions comes from. To access the area, you need to purchase a ‘Dune Card’ which helps to fund the non-profit that takes care of this natural resource. It only costs 1.50€ for the day, or 5.50€ for a week. You can buy it online here ahead of time, or from the green vending machines in the park. To get to the beach in the reserve, you can take a train to Castricum, and then a bus straight down to Castricum aan Zee, which is next to the beach, about 35 minutes one way. 

We were heading south after leaving Heemskerk, so we visited the National Park Zuid-Kennemerland. We had lunch at Parnassia aan Zee, though the kitchen seemed a bit overwhelmed by the sudden influx of people the sunny day brought in, and we had to wait awhile for our food. It’s nicer than your average beachside concession though, this is a proper restaurant with soups, salads, burgers, cake, and coffee. There’s a lovely Greek-inspired terrace, though most of us who tried it first came in after the wind picked up. Judging by the parking and road infrastructure into this area of the park, it looks like it gets very very busy in the summer months, so if you’re here during high season be prepared. To get to this park from Heemskerk, you take a train to Haarlem and then a bus, followed by a 25-minute walk. It’s probably best to approach it by car if possible. 

Front door of StayOkay Heemskerk. Don't you want to be staying here?!
Front door of StayOkay Heemskerk. Don’t you want to be staying here?!

Getting to the castle hostel in Heemskerk

The hostel is a 25-minute walk from the main train station, which I’m sure you’d rather not do with luggage. Unfortunately the local bus doesn’t come very close to the castle, so you’re best bet would be to take a taxi once you arrive in Heemskerk station. If you’re driving, the parking lot is a bit of a walk from the castle, as it is surrounded by public gardens –– you won’t be able to drive up to the front door, even to unload. 

Getting to Amsterdam from Heemskerk

After the 25-minute walk to the train station in Heemskerk, there is a direct train to Amsterdam Centraal that takes about 35 minutes. There’s no need to book these kinds of regional trains in advance, the machines at the stations can be switched to English easily.  

Final thoughts

The StayOkay Heemskerk is an incredible deal for the price, but there are reasons why it is this cheap. We agreed after leaving that it was worth staying there, but one night is probably enough. Make the most of your time there and stay in for dinner so you can explore the gardens in the afternoon and the castle itself in the evening. It was fun to stay in a castle and not feel like we had to be careful of everything, or keep the noise down. If you’re traveling with a large group, this could be a great way to have a night in a real castle without breaking your budget entirely. 

Tell me what your favourite castle hotels are! You know I’ll add it to my spreadsheet…!

StayOkay Heemskerk hostel
Tolweg 9, 1967 NG Heemskerk, Netherlands +31 251 232 288

Rates range from 130€ – 150€ a night for a private room that sleeps 4, breakfast included, during high season. Triple rooms are 110€-127€. The private rooms book up fast, so book as early as possible.

 

PS – We had a great day in Amsterdam, but there were a couple of things we could have skipped

Fifi and Hop
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