Little Venice Of The North – Giethoorn, Netherlands
“Little Venice of the North? yeah, let’s go there!”
We had decided to take a more northerly route back to SW France, rather than the diagonal one we took coming up and that meant driving through the Netherlands. It’s a country I’ve visited several times before, albeit many moons ago. My memories of that time revolve mostly around Amsterdam and a certain green plant. Fun times in a stunningly beautiful city, but a bit of a haze and not exactly reflective of the Netherlands as a whole.
I was curious to see more and especially to explore Dutch Canal culture, something as entwined with life in the Netherlands as the land mass itself. So when I read about Giethoorn, it seemed like the perfect fit.
A car-free city adorned with thatched houses, described as idyllic, known for its waterways and bridges, fondly called the “Little Venice of the North”. It was almost exactly on our route, and boasted several Motorhome Aires walking distance to the old part of town. Plus we had two days of decent weather in front of us and time to spare.
This would be our adult re-introduction to the Netherlands, and our first trip down a canal, doggie and all. It would also turn out to be a good visit, but perhaps not exactly the one we imagined.
Land Of Sea Barriers & Canals
The Netherlands is a fascinating country in many ways.
It’s a small place (almost exactly the same size as Denmark, actually) but with the amazing caveat that almost a third of the country lies below sea level (the the highest point, Mount Vaalserberg is a mere 322.4m, or 1,057ft above it). This unique geographical challenge has pushed the Dutch to became masters of sea barriers and dams, creating some of the most advanced flood control in the world. In the past some of these were defensive, allowing parts of the country to be strategically flooded in case of invasion and war (!). Nowadays they’re protective, and help preserve precious landmass as well as over 4,400 Km of navigable waterways that run through the country.
In the Netherlands it’s not unusual to drive along the freeway and see boats passing in the sea/canal above you, a mind-boggling but absolutely real phenomenon.
The canals have since become an intrinsic part of Dutch life and many cities were built around them. The Amsterdam Canal District is so unique parts of it are a UNESCO Heritage site, and Dutch narrowboats & barges are some of the best-known and well-built canal vessels in the world.
All that to say that if you come here, you simply have to take a trip on the water!
Staying In Giethoorn (With A Motorhome)
Our drive from our last stop in Germany to Giethoorn was short and easy.
There were zero border controls, and the only change we really noticed were masks (Germany still has a general mask mandate while the Netherlands, apart from public transport, does not). That, and of course the language which neither of us can remotely understand. Thankfully for us, most Dutch speak perfect English.
Around Giethoorn itself there are three Motorhome Aires, all of which are quite nice but not all of which are equally well-located.
The key secret to know here is that the city center which is marked on Google Maps (and Park4Night and literally everywhere else) is not where you go to sightsee. The canals of “old town” are actually further south which makes it very confusing for first-time visitors trying to decide where to stay.
As we discovered, the 2nd Aire (located right HERE) is actually the closest to the “good stuff”, and where I suggest you try first. The 1st and 3rd Aires aren’t far, but require you to walk or bike an extra 15-20 mins down one side of the canal to cross the bridge to “old town”. Not a big deal for many, but important if you’ve got an older dog like ours and need to minimize distance walked.
We got SUPER lucky and managed to snag a waterfront site in Aire #2 from a motorhome that pulled out the very minute we arrived. A spacious green site at the marina with impeccably clean restrooms, walking distance to old town. As soon as we set-up we paid for our spot at the automated booth in the main office, and bought a card (topped-up w/ cash) for electricity & access to the showers. Easy and effective.
Visiting & Sightseeing In Giethoorn
I’ll say this for Giethoorn. It’s definitely worth a visit (and I’ve got some very specific tips for you), but we probably won’t come back. And mostly that has to do with the crowds.
The afternoon we arrived I walked into town to check things out, and it…was…a…zoo.
The canals were certainly pretty and the old thatched houses as beautiful as I expected, but the rest of it was frankly too much. The walkways were narrow and literally teeming with tourists. People everywhere with barely any space to pass. There was crazy traffic on the canals too. Motorboats were lined up in queues, banging up against each other. And the poor souls who’d chosen to paddleboard or punt the canal were being squashed and yelled at to get out of the way. Mayhem.
I squeezed my way out of there a fast as I could and decided to re-plan our visit. Clearly, afternoons were to be avoided at all costs.
The next morning we went in early, hedging our bets on the Universal Fact that All Tourists Are Late Risers. We also decided to skip the walkways and go directly for the water. So we rented the first boat of the morning at 10AM, choosing a smaller family-run place (Botenverhuur Brunink) with spacious & comfy purple boats. A super stable “sloep-style” boat (good for me, as I get sea-sick at the drop of a hat), lots of cushions (key for doggie) and whisper-quiet motors (key for enjoyment), all for only EUR 30/hr. I highly recommend them!
Our 2-hour cruise was absolute bliss.
There was almost no-one around so we glided through the old house district in peace, enjoyed total solitude exploring the waterways of next-door Weerribben-Wieden Natural Park and returned through “downtown” just as it started heating up with crowds. Polly loved the cruise so much she fell asleep half way through, and best of all we didn’t feel like we were fighting crowds the whole way. Definitely the right call.
We Decide To Move On
I made one last trip into Giehoorn that evening, to take a few shots with my “big camera”.
It was late enough that the boat rentals and most of the shops/museums were closed for the day, so the town was refreshingly quiet with only a few restaurants filled with life. Walking down the canal in the cool evening I was able to appreciate some of its beauty in a way I hadn’t before. Like many popular tourist spots, its clear why people come here, but also like many popular spots it’s sometimes hard to see past the crowds.
That night Paul and I decided we’d enjoyed the visit, but that it was time to move on. France was in our sights now and in particular there was one city that we’ve both yearned to see for a long, long time. A place of history, and dramatic beauty and a spot where I manage to take the most stunning photo of our entire trip. But that story is for next week….
This was a good stop and now we get down to our last few. See you there, my friends.
My Top 7 Tips For Seeing Giethoorn
1/ Rent A Boat (early AM or late PM): Giethoorn really must be seen from the water. The best way is to rent a boat and IMO the absolute best times are the first and last boat rentals of the day (= less crowds). Most rentals are dog-friendly (just ask to be sure) and don’t require any boating experience (they go nice and slow). DO book ahead however, especially if you come here in summer.
2/ Skip The Kayaks, Punters & Paddleboards: Avoid non-motor vessels. It may seem like a quaint idea to punt the canal, but you’ll be overwhelmed by motor boats wanting to push you out of the way. Everyone I saw doing this was pretty miserable.
3/ Go For the “Whisper Boats”: These are powered by a silent electric motor, which is really, really nice (none of the stench or noise of a petrol engine). Well worth it.
4/ Consider Booking A “Sloep” & Go Up A Size: If you want maximum comfort & stability consider booking an 8-person “sloep-style” boat instead of one of the smaller/narrower boats. You’ll get a smoother ride & way more space to hang out, especially if you’re bringing your paws along. Also double-check that cushions are included (many rentals don’t include them!).
5/ A 2-Hour Rental Is Fine: You can do 2-hour, 4-hour and day rentals. All the canals are one-way, so you do a circle no matter which rental you take (it’s just the size of the circle that changes). IMO the 2-hour rental is perfect and will take you on a pleasant tour through old town as well as part of next-door Weerribben-Wieden Natural Park.
6/ There Are Also Guided Tours: If you don’t feel like motoring yourself, there are several inexpensive guided tours on bigger, covered boats (e.g. Smit Giethoorn, & Botenverhuur Koppers). No dogs allowed on these, but you do get a lot more history/info thanks to the guides. Also private tours can be booked too.
7/ Shop Around: Boat rental quality & prices vary a lot (anywhere from EUR 20-100 per hour), and there are tons of options & sizes. There are “broker-style” websites that combine several companies (e.g. Giethoornbootjehuren) and individual family-run places with their own websites (e.g. like the place we booked, Botenverhuur Brunink). Before you book, make sure you know what kind of boat you will be getting (e.g. size, motor type, with or without cushions etc.) and also where you will need to pick it up (some companies are well outside the central area).SPONSORED LINK:
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