When Amsterdam and Rotterdam were just small villages, the Hanseatic League was already a medieval trading network around the Baltic and North Seas. Kampen, a small town in Overijssel, was one of these ‘Hanzesteden’ which blossomed between the 12th and 16th centuries.
At its height, 208 cities were members of the Hanseatic League, bring tremendous prosperty to the nine members in the east of the Netherlands. These roots can be found throughout the old town of Kampen – there are over 500 listed buildings – including three former gates in the city wall, one of which is sometimes open to visitors.
Kampen is still a thriving commercial centre, with lots of shops for those who like winkelen, and markets on a Saturday and Monday morning. It was once home to two theological universities, the last of which is closing up this year. That also helps explain the large number of churches – none of which were open to the public when we were there.
Five things to do
Walk around the old city
Drop in at the local tourist office (and most hotels and touristy places) and pick up a four kilometre walk around Kampen, taking in all of the sites, including the river bank, the former gates in the city wall and several churches. Kampen is an easy city to find your way around in, so it is also a great place just to wander off and get lost.
Visit the town’s museums
Kampen’s Stedelijk Museum is located in the former town hall, a typically splendid building in the heart of the old centre. The museum has a permanent exhibition about Kampen’s growth from the 12th century onwards, and a second one about the role of religion in the town. There is plenty of hands-on stuff to keep the children entertained as well. Perhaps the most impressive part is the wood-lined Schepenzaal, which dates from 1545 and is where court verdicts were handed down. The museum is also home to several of Hendrick Avercamp’s famous winter skating scenes.
The Icon Museum has a unique location in a former convent which says it has the biggest collection of icons in Western Europe.
Mess about with boats
The waterfront at Kampen is still bustling with boats, and several offer tours along the river and further afield. If you have children in tow, drop off at the Kamper Cog wharf, where you can visit a replica of a 14th century merchant ship of the type – and take a trip along the river at weekends.
Cycle to Zwolle
This part of Overijssel is bustling with Hanseatic League towns and if you are a cyclist, the 40 kilometre round trip to nearby Zwolle and back is a great way to enjoy the river and the countryside. The area is also a popular nesting spot for storks. You can pick essential ingredients for a picnic at organic sheep farm De Vreugdehoeve.
Go wild in the country
The village of Zalk, some 15 minutes away by car, is the perfect example of a living Dutch farming community, with a friendly café called De Oase (a family portion of fries costs €9), and a ‘wellyboot walk’ of 4.5 to five kilometres. If the route is likely to be muddy, you can even borrow boots to put on. The Valk windmill is open for visitors most Saturdays.
Where to eat
Kampen has plenty of bright cafes serving burgers, ribs and French fries – many of which are clustered around the Nieuwe Markt, where they pick up plenty of summer sunshine.
If you are looking for something more sophisticated – and therefore expensive – the Bottermarck is a friendly restaurant with starched white table cloths and an menu based on seasonal products with plenty of vegetables.
Ji’s Kitchen (Oudestraat 246) is a new Chinese takeaway which has ditched the red pluche and dragons in favour of yellow walls and fresh flowers. We did not eat there, but the lady from the cake room opposite rushed outside to tell us it was delicious.
If you are a beer fan, De Stomme van Campen claims to have over 200 beers on offer, including 18 on draft and a comprehensive menu if you get hungry.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Stadsboerderij, a very central B&B with comfy rooms and a good breakfast – including freshly squeezed orange juice, rather than out of a packet. If you are not in the mood to talk to others, it is a little difficult to avoid interacting with your fellow guests in the breakfast room.
Boetiek Hotel Kampen has 11 rooms and a splendid location on the river front. A double room costs from €120 a night, and there is also a family room which sleeps four.
How to get there
Kampen has a train station and there are regular connections to Zwolle, but it is not the easiest place to get to by public transport. Once you are in town, however, everything is within walking distance.
Kampen is some 70 kilometres away from Amsterdam and in good driving conditions, it takes 1.5 hours. You will need to park outside the city centre in one of three big car parks and walk the few hundred metres into town.
Kampen is still a pretty religious place and it is much quieter on Sunday, particularly outside the tourist season. In 2023, the nine Hanseatic cities of the region are celebrating 800 years since the league was founded with a packed programme of events.
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