If you're looking for a great day trip from Amsterdam, you'll be surprised how many things to do in Zwolle you'll find--and how much great shopping you'll find in this medieval Dutch city, including a beautiful bookstore. Keep reading for things to do in Zwolle, the Netherlands and how to get to Giethoorn from Amsterdam (via Zwolle).
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Things to do in Zwolle covered in this guide to Zwolle
At the end, you'll find a map of things do in Zwolle that you can download offline!
A brief history of Zwolle
Zwolle is the capital of Overijssel, one of the provinces in the Netherlands. This historic Dutch city has seen inhabited for thousands of years and the city dates back to the 1200s. It's also a fortified city, which stems from the fact that Zwolle was one of the wealthiest Dutch cities due to its proximity to one of the mightiest rivers and its membership in the Hanseatic League. The Hanseatic League was an organization formed by various cities in this part of the Netherlands to band together to protect their trade interests, including Kampen and Deventer. They're all lovely historic cities although the river that made many of them powerful is now dammed up. However, the fortifications around these cities still make it clear that you're entering a truly historic place, far older than the country of my birth. ;)
A must-see in Zwolle: Waanders in de Broeren bookstore in a former cathedral
I'm an unabashed literature geek and after seeing the Selexyz bookstore in Maastricht, I figured that I'd seen enough beautiful bookstores in my lifetime--and there wasn't another cathedral bookstore in the Netherlands. However, a former colleague of my husband's who is born and raised in Zwolle heard me raving about the Selexyz bookstore and casually asked if I had been to Waanders in de Broeren in Zwolle. What a surprise I had in store.
The church that Waanders in de Broen was built in dates back to the dominicanen brothers who founded the church in 1465 as part of a cloister. In the 1600s, the church closed and it became a protestant church like many churches at the time. In 1983, the church closed and this historic church was restored in the '80s into a historic exposition space. However, in 2004, a local bookseller (Boekhandel Waanders) bought this historic church and turned it into a beautiful bookstore in a church with the assistance of Bureau BK.
The Broerenkerk is three stories high and full of fantastic Dutch literature. Compared to the Selexyz cathedral in Maastricht, Waanders in de Broen has done a fantastic job of integrating the existing structure in a modern way while showing off the beauty of the church. One of my favorite features of Waanders in de Broen is the stunning organ that has been left intact (and still is played on occasion). The book selection in English isn't fantastic, but this beautiful bookstore church is very good for Dutch literature and for gifts.
Waanders in de Broen also has a lovely cafe that hosts an affordable yet delicious lunch with a twist. Either way, it's a great place to sit to enjoy the beauty of the church with a cup of coffee in hand. Their menu looks like a newspaper and it's in Dutch although the staff can help translate. I throughly enjoyed my sandwich at the cafe.
You can visit Waanders in de Broen on weekdays and Saturdays typically in the afternoon with a late night on Thursdays. Check their hours ahead as they're closed on Sundays.
It's hard to miss the historical medieval gates of Zwolle. The Sassenpoort gate was built in the 1400s shortly after Zwolle's admission to the Hanseatic league to both defend the city and show off its wealth. This rijksmonument building was outfitted in the 1800s with the "cool feature" of being able to throw down boiling oil on enemies entering through the gate. It's easy to imagine yourself going back in time when you step through the Sassenpoort gate and I really think it's one of the most beautiful city gates in the Netherlands.
Eat at the best restaurant in the Netherlands: De Librije
De Librije has been named one of the best restaurants in the Netherlands and it currently holds three Michelin stars. De Librije focuses on locally sourced ingredients used in an innovative way where you get to choose what suits you best in a multi-course meal with an ever-changing menu. It's possible to get a reservation on most weeknights with some planning (weekends are difficult), so if you're looking for a foodie experience at a Michelin starred restaurant in the Netherlands, consider heading to De Librije for lunch or dinner. If you plan poorly, consider visiting their gourmet shop for some goodies! De Librije also a luxury hotel for those who want the complete experience of being pampered in this former prison hotel... and you get breakfast in the morning.
Shopping in Zwolle
Most of the reason that Dutchies come to Zwolle is to shop as the historic centre of Zwolle is full of popular Dutch shops that you'll mostly find close to Diezerstraat. Lovers of cute boutique shops that carry independent Dutch brands will love Luttekestraat, Sassenstraat, and Melkmarkt, which is home to a number of concept stores. Be warned that many are not open on Sundays and close on the earlier side. (Click for more info aboutindependent shopping in Zwolle.) For touristy stuff, you can pick up things at Waanders in de Broen or the Melkmarkt.
Stadswandeling in Zwolle
Getting lost in a medieval city like Zwolle is one of the BEST parts about visiting the historic Dutch cities like Zwolle. The bit close to Waanders is quite pretty although history lovers will want to seek out the picturesque streets of Zwolle. Click for a stadswandeling guide to Zwolle that is well done.
The bulk of the Rijksmonument buildings in Zwolle are clustered in the streets in between Sassenstraat, Grote Kerkplein, Praubstraat, and Luttekestraat (starred on the Zwolle map, so don't worry if you're wondering where these streets are!). I also loved the area close to Pelserbrugje.
Similarly, don't miss the medieval tower Wijndragerstoren. You'll also have a picturesque view from across the canal close to Waanders in de broen. Hofje lovers may want to visit the historic Vrouwenhuis museum for one of the last original hofjes in Zwolle to be owned by the original family.
Visit Museum De Fundatie
Museum De Fundatie has a diverse collection of art from all different ages and even has work from Van Gogh and Mondriaan. Their exhibits change every three months, so check their website for the latest exhibits. At minimum, admire the crazy egg on top. ;)
Admire or climb de Peperbus (Onze Lieve Vrouwe Basiliek en Onze Lieve)
The Peperbus is an iconic church in Zwolle named for its shape. You can climb to the top for great views of the city although the streets around it make it easy to admire it from below. The name is the inspiration for a spicy cheese produced in Zwolle (peperbuskaas).
Try Zwolse Balletjes
Zwolse Balletjes are a candy from Zwolle made with cane sugar originally. They come in all kinds of different and delicious flavors now, including mocha and vanilla. The recipe is the same as the original, so you'll need to try this unique Dutch candy at the Zwolse Balletjeshuis. Even if you just love candy, it's a great excuse to buy some Dutch candies as a souvenir.
St Michael’s Church
This massive church in Zwolle dates back to the 1400s although earlier forms of the church have existed in the same place since the 700s. Lovers of medieval churches will enjoy the rich interior details as well as the elaborate organ within this Dutch church. Unfortunately the tower collapsed, however Saint Michael's is considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in the Netherland. It's free to visit although it's not always open to the public on days besides Sundays.
If you're curious to see another church in Zwolle that has been since converted, consider visiting Blue Sakura for a sushi buffet in a former church. Who says that eating sushi can't be a religious moment? ;)
How to get to Zwolle by train
There's a direct train from Amsterdam to Zwolle that takes one hour and a half per way. The train costs 18.30 euros per way. Part of the reason I encourage you to stay over in Zwolle is that there's a bus connection to Giethoorn from Zwolle and it's a bit much to go from Amsterdam to Giethoorn (2.5 hours per way) by public transit as the connection isn't great. I think doing one day in Zwolle and one day in Giethoorn would be perfect.
The reason that many people come to Zwolle: you must transfer through Zwolle to get to Giethoorn, which makes it the perfect place to stay if you want to take a day trip from Giethoorn.
Giethoorn is accessible by bus from Zwolle via the 70 bus towards Steenwijk. The journey from Zwolle to Giethoorn takes about one hour and the bus stop for Giethoorn is Blauwe Hand. Giethoorn is widely considered to be one of the cutest towns in the Netherlands. (Who can resist this?)
Downloadable Map of things to do in Zwolle
Have you heard of Zwolle? Any tips that you'd recommend for first time visitors?
Karen & Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Then, Paris. (Confusing, we know!) Now, we're living in The Hague, the Netherlands.
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