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Discover Noord-Holland: a Visit to Den Helder

Posted on Jan 20, 2022 by

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Dutch Provinces: Noord-Holland

”Discover the Netherlands, Province by Province” project – each month of 2022 is dedicated to one Dutch province.

Home to the country’s main naval base, Den Helder is the northernmost point of the North Holland peninsula (not of the province, because there’s still the Texel Island, even further north). It’s one of the cities in the Kop van Holland region (Head of Holland, the region roughly comprised between Medemblik, Schagen, Petten and up to Texel). Den Helder is not a typical, pretty Dutch city, with old architecture and narrow streets; instead, it’s all about navy and boats and sailing. It is a nice place to live and work, with access to beaches and other beautiful nature areas, like the Donkere Duinen (Dark Dunes) just south of the city.

Den Helder is known as the place where you take the ferry to Texel, just a place to pass through on your way to the island. I had glimpsed Den Helder a couple of times on my way to Texel, never having the time to stop and visit, and every time talking to my friend that we have to come back, at least for the Maritime Museum (which, unfortunately, is closed at the moment, so it will have to wait, still, for another time). Home to the country’s main naval base, Den Helder’s history is closely tied to the sea. Because of its strategic position, the city developed from a small fishing village into what it is today. Over the years, it played an important role in shipping and it was the place where Dutch people would build their boats which would sail the world from here. It was also the place where battles would be fought, with invaders from the sea, so people built a few forts around the area; nowadays, these forts can be visited and are an interesting tourist destination.

Den Helder Old Port

When I visited Den Helder, the weather forecast announced a sunny day, but it was wrong. It was a beautiful foggy morning, with the sun peeking through the mist from time to time, and I was very excited about it. But it lasted about an hour, after which a freezing air came from the sea, with a bit of rain, and it drove me away. I had just enough time to wander around my favourite area in Den Helder, the Willemsoord port area (the old naval dockyard). I admired the boats, old and new, in the misty light of the morning, then I went to the promenade (Zeepromenade) to look at the water and the ferry from Texel doing its daily trips. You can even see Texel from there. On a sunny day, this promenade is great for walking or biking along the water; it brings you all the way to Huisduinen village and to the Donkere Duinen (I have to do this one day!). The port area is peppered with restaurants, and on a warm day it’s a cheerful place, full of people sitting outdoors and having fun among the boats. I know that because I’ve seen it on my way to Texel and I remember how I wished I had the time to stay there for a few hours.

I spent little time in the city itself. Winter days are not the best to discover places, and the cold wind is definitely not my friend. I’ve only seen parts of the city centre, with the few shops that were open and the marine-themed statues and drawings all over the place. I was so frozen that I didn’t feel like seeing anything else, so I just bought a delicious cinnamon bread from Dunselman Bakery before I left, to eat at home with warm soy milk.

So, what is there to see and do in Den Helder?

  • The Navy Museum. A cool museum to learn a bit of Dutch naval history and, most importantly, visit some ships. Here you have the opportunity to see a submarine on the inside (and it looks amazing from the outside as well!). The Tonijn (Tuna) submarine was preserved in its original state and it will answer your questions about life on one of these sea giants. The museum has other boats you can visit as well, like the ram ship Schorpioen, commissioned in 1868, minesweeper Abraham Crijnssen and more.
Den Helder Navy Museum
  • National Lifeboat Museum Dorus Rijkers. Here you can learn about the history of the Dutch lifeboats and the men who manned them. It’s located in the old engine shop of the historic naval Dockyard Willemsoord and much of the old engine workshop is visible throughout the museum.
  • Fort Kijkduin. This is a fort built around 1813, at the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte, who visited the area and wanted to transform Den Helder into an important port, because of its strategic location. Here you will find a museum where you can learn the history of the fort, and also a North Sea museum. Fort Kijkduin is not in Den Helder, but in the close by village of Huisduinen.
  • Fort Erfprins. Built in 1811, this is the largest fortress in the Netherlands, covering an area of 49 hectares. It’s still being used today as a training center for Royal Netherlands Navy and can be visited only on appointment.
  • Bike on the sea promenade. Hop on a bike and go all the way to Huisduinen and the Donkere Duinen.
  • Go to the beach. There’s a nice stretch of sand from Huisduinen to Julianadorp, and it’s less crowded than other beaches in the Netherlands.

Den Helder has a good vibe and I’m sure I’ll go back to tick off my list the Marine Museum and biking on the promenade, as well as sitting on a terrace with a drink in hand, while watching the old boats. If you love boats and the sea, this city should definitely be on your list.

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