The Dutch Coast

The Dutch coast is dominated by broad sandy beaches and extensive dune ridges. The Wadden region - with its dune islands and the abundance of birds and seals - belongs to the most important nature areas in Europe. The mainland coast (provinces Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland) contains the most important sea resorts of the country, and they are surrounded by impressive dune areas. These dunes protect the low coastal plain - with its polders and peat meadows - against the sea, since 25% of the Netherlands lies below sea level; without dikes, two-thirds of the Netherlands would be periodically flooded. The southwestern part of the country (the "Delta") has developed as complex estuary of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt, with a wide variety of salt and brackish ecosystems. The new dikes of the Delta Plan protect the islands against the sea. Coastline length: 523 km, of which 353 km North Sea coast (incl. 254 km with dunes); the rest concerns the coast of the Wadden Sea and the Westerschelde estuary (towards Antwerp).

Nature & Landscapes

The sea is the largest nature area of the Netherlands, with many kinds of fish, shellfish, crabs, shrimp, worms, etc. The coastal waters are important nurseries for the whole North Sea and have the most abundant animal life. The marine ecosystems are under severe fishing pressure; the seafloor is constantly being ploughed and various fish species are being threatened by extinction.
North Sea: natural habitat of about 200 fish species, including Smelt, Haddock, Plaice, Sole, Sprat, Pollack, Herring, Mackerel, Cod and Whiting; in the open sea Harbour Porpoise, a mammal belonging to the Dolphin family, is present. Sometimes in autumn, Sperm Whales come from the north and get lost in the North Sea; when they get into shallow areas they have difficulty getting back and sadly get stranded.
Wadden Sea: part of an international tidal area, an outstanding nursery for the North Sea. This area hosts Harbour Seals (more than 1000), Grey Seals and numerous coastal birds, fish and shellfish.
Voordelta: in the shallow sea in the south-west, a tidal area with sandbanks and channels has developed in front of the sea dikes. This Voordelta is important as a marine nursery, as well as for seals and coastal and sea birds.
Remnants of the former Zuyder Zee after the creation of dams and polders are:
IJssel lake: shallow, fresh inland lake of great importance for water birds and for water management.
Marker lake: shallow, fresh water lake, important for water birds e.g. diving ducks and swans. The dike Enhuizen-Lelystad was the start of a land reclamation project; due to the importance of the area for water birds and especially the Smew, the reclamation has not been realised.

In the southwestern part of the country most estuaries have been turned into coastal lakes by the Delta dams; the largest lakes are:
Haringvliet: now a large fresh water lake; on the island, Tiengemeten a nature restoration project has started in the 1990-ies;
Grevelingen: now a salt water lake with some sandy islands
The following areas deserve special attention:
Biesbosch: a former freshwater tidal area, now almost without tides due to the Delta dams.
Oosterschelde: this estuary has partly kept its tidal character after the creation of the famous storm surge barrier, but the natural values have decreased considerably. National Park (in formation).
Westerschelde: the last natural estuary, a funnel-shaped tidal outlet, of which the inland part gradually changes into the river mouth of the Scheldt.

Salt marshes and mud flats
Along the edges of the Wadden Sea and the estuaries mud and sand flats occur; the higher ones (only flooded at very high tides) are covered with halophytic vegetation; daily high tide does however fill the channels, which keep shifting their position.

Dune landscape
Younger Dunes occur along almost the whole North Sea coastline, with total surface area of 40 000 hectares. Some examples:
Schiermonnikoog: National Park (in formation)
Dunes of Ameland
Dunes of Terschelling
Dunes of Vlieland
Dunes of Texel: National Park (in formation)
North Holland Dune Reserve
Zuid-Kennemerland: National Park
Amsterdamse Waterleidingduinen

Older dune forests
Only the forests in the sand barrier region between Haarlem and The Hague resemble the once forested sand barriers and Older Dunes.

Cultural landscapes
Behind the dunes is a varied collection of cultural landscapes: peat meadows, polders and reclaimed marshlands with many ditches and traditional windmills; The Bulb district between Haarlem and Leiden; the greenhouse area of the Westland (south to Den Haag). The Delta area offers some spectacular achievements of civil engineering: the harbour of Rotterdam (the largest in the world) and the Delta Plan with its dams and bridges which connect islands and at the same time have to guarantee the safety of those islands.

Nature management
Despite the high population density, the Dutch coastal zone still has a lot to offer in terms of nature and nature oriented recreation. For a major part this is due to continuous efforts of non-governmental organisations, some of which are collaborating under the name "Kust en Zee", at the initiative of EUCC - The Coastal Union; since 1977 Stichting Duinbehoud has played a pioneer role for dune conservation. Fortunately, the conservation of the coastal landscape now has a high priority in the Dutch government's nature policy. Natural values now play an important role in the overall policy for the coastal zone, e.g. concerning coastal defence.

Visitor centres
The most important centre for the Wadden and the North Sea is:
EcoMare: visitor centre with a seal sanctuary; member of "Kust & Zee". Internet:
In the dune area there is a considerable number of visitor centres; see also the various regional pages.


Origin. Hundreds of millions of years ago, the country was part of a shallow coastal sea. During the various Ice Ages, the southern North Sea area dried up. At the end of the Riss Glacial (200-125 000 years ago), the glaciers deposited lateral moraines: the Veluwe, Utrechtse Heuvelrug, Urk, Friesian cliff coast, Wieringen and Texel. After a period of flooding, the southern North Sea area dried up again during the next and last Ice Age (Würm Glacial, 70-10 000 years ago) and was completely covered by wind-borne sand deposits. Under the influence of the rising sea level, these sand deposits formed salt marshes and sand barriers about 10 km west of the current coastline. In those days, most of the country was a huge Wadden area. After a period of further sea level rise, the sand barriers moved towards the continent until they arrived more or less at their current position, ca. 5000 years ago. Low dunes developed on these sand barriers, the so-called Older Dunes; this process lasted to about the Roman era. Large peat moors developed in the Wadden landscape behind the sand barriers. These peat moors were often flooded and covered by sea clay. Due to differences in the supply of sand, the size of the sand barriers and the location of the large rivers, three completely different types of coast have formed between 3000 and 1000 years ago: the Wadden coast, the closed dune coast (coast of Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland) and the estuarine coast (the Delta).
Wadden coast. The relatively low sand barriers in the Wadden area were interrupted by large tidal inlets, namely Zijpe (at first near Bergen, later more north above Camperduin), Vlie (between Vlieland and Terschelling) and the Eems estuary. Because these tidal inlets caused a continuous inflow of salt water in the northern area, this remained a wadden area, a shallow basin with tidal areas, sand banks, salt marshes and channels and a relatively small tidal difference (2-3 m). It was a relatively calm environment in which tiny particles, consisting of young sea clay from the southern North Sea, were deposited. The Wadden area included Lauwerszee (between Groningen and Friesland), Middelzee (right through current Friesland) and Vlie. In the 11th century, the Vlie expanded at the expense of Almere, a number of large peat swamps southeast of Enkhuizen: this is where the Zuyder Zee came into being, which would then become a lot larger, partially due to a large number of storms in the 13th century, which also caused the Dollard to come into existence. The sand barriers were swallowed by the sea and provided sand for a series of young Wadden isles. Due to the storm tide on All Saints' Day in 1570, the island Texel was permanently divided from Huisduinen (Den Helder) by the Marsdiep channel.
Coast of Holland. Between the Wadden coast and the estuary of the Meuse, the relatively broad belt of sand barriers was only interrupted by the old Rhine estuary near Leiden. Behind the beach barrier an enormous lagoon developed with fresh water. In this area new peat developed on top of the sea clay: the Holland peat. Small rivers and brooks crossed this vast area. The western parts of the sand barriers were washed away in the 11th and 12th century, a part was covered by Younger Dunes (1000-1600), and the rest of the area was cultivated: the "geestgronden" (sandy soils between the dunes and the polders, now the bulb fields).
Delta area. In the south west, the sand barriers have always been interrupted by a series of estuaries: tidal outlets connected with the deep, funnel-shaped river mouths of the lower Rhine (Lek and Waal), the Meuse and the Scheldt. The relatively large tidal differences (3-6 m) have profoundly influenced this area, with channels up to 40 m deep. This caused a group of islands to form, with dunes on the most western tips. High tides and storms resulted in sea clay depositions, partially on the old sea clay (salt marshes and mud flats) and partially on the remnants of the peat area.
Occupation and reclamation. After the last Ice Age, 4500 years ago (Stone Age), inhabitants appeared in the coastal zone again, and after that many cultures left their traces: the Vlaardingen culture, Celts, Friesians and other German tribes and - after ca. 50 B.C. - the Romans. After the collapse of the Roman Empire (shortly after 400 AD) the whole coastal region was conquered by the Friesians; a population increase led to the cultivation of the sand barriers.
In the 6th, 7th and 8th century the climate was calm, so peat growth was fast and the ground level rose. Inhabitants of the peat and clay area built terps. Canals were dug to remove water from the peat areas and the beach plains located between sand barriers. In the dry period around 900 AD, large peat areas were reclaimed. However, Vikings raided the coastal area and the locals built strongholds to protect themselves against these plunderers. These strongholds can still be recognised by the name "burg", like Den Burg (Texel) and Middelburg (Zeeland).
The climate in the 10th and 11th century was more stormy and the sand barriers often broke, which caused peat areas and islands to be partially swallowed by the sea. It became necessary to build dikes around the land; which was done on a much larger scale since the 11th century. Monastic communities took the lead. With these dikes (made of a combination of clay, turf, seaweed and wood) the first polders came into being, which were drained by sluices, which were opened at low tide. At first the building of dikes had a defensive nature, but in the 12th century it was more often aimed at land reclamation.
A gradually increasing activity in the peat areas, inside and outside the dikes, was selling peat soil and cutting turf. Peat was collected at all possible places. After peat was being collected beneath the water table, large lakes developed in the peatlands by storms.
Political development. Proceeding from the Frankish kingdom after 800 AD, a number of relatively independent countries developed: counties, dukedoms and the diocese of Utrecht. After the splitting up of the Frankish kingdom, the current Dutch provinces belonged to the German Empire, while the current Belgian provinces were lieges to the French king. During the 15th century various counties became united again under the dukes of Burgundy, who convened all the states in 1463: the first "States General". The name "the Netherlands" dates from this time because they were near ("neder") the administrative centre Brussels. Partially inspired by the Reformation, Prince William of Orange started an independence war in 1568 against the kings, which had moved to Spain: the "Eighty Years' War". Around 1600 this led to the separation of the Northern Netherlands and the establishment of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces. During the 17th century ("The Golden Age") the Republic became an economic super power thanks to international trade and shipping and due to large-scale collection of turf in the peat areas. After the French occupation and the defeat of Napoleon near Waterloo (1815), the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg became united under King William I, until Belgium separated itself in 1830.
Large scale developments. The prosperity and the associated need for space gave strong impulses for the battle against the ever-growing lakes in the peat areas; the peat washed away up to the old sea clay layer and during storms farmlands and even cities became threatened. Some disastrous storms (e.g. the storm tide on All Saints' Day in 1570), the rising sea level and the collapse of many peat areas made the government decide to reclaim many lakes and small inland seas in the 17th and 18th century, with the help of numerous windmills, starting in Noord-Holland. One of the last is the series was the huge Haarlemmermeer (18 000 ha) between Haarlem and Leiden, in 1852. In the 19th century followed large scale building projects to level the Older as well as some of the Younger Dunes between Den Haag and Haarlem; these flat sandy soils ("geestgronden") became to be used for the cultivation of flower bulbs.
The shipping, which was so prosperous during the 17th century, did not survive the protectionist policies of England (Cromwell) and France and the resulting military conflicts in the 18th century. Not until the second half of the 19th century did the Rotterdam harbour get an unprecedented economical upsurge that made it Holland's first harbour and a little later the largest harbour in the world.
Plans to tame the Zuyder Zee were realised by building the IJsselmeer Dam (Afsluitdijk) in 1932. This dike caused large changes in the Wadden Sea and also caused erosion in the northern part of the dune coast of North Holland. Gradually the IJsselmeer changed from saltwater into freshwater and was made smaller by the creation of a series of polders.
The storm tide in 1953 resulted in the realization of the so-called Delta Plan, which provided the building of a series of connecting dams between the islands in the Delta Area.

Cultural Heritage

Historic towns Many cities and towns still show a rich history due to their connection to the sea, such as:

Dokkum Haarlem
Harlingen Noordwijk
Bolsward Katwijk
Kampen Leiden
Zwolle Den Haag
Urk Delft
Harderwijk Maassluis
Naarden Vlaardingen en Schiedam
Amsterdam Dordrecht
Edam-Volendam-Marken-Monnickendam Zierikzee
Hoorn Veere
Enkhuizen Middelburg
Alkmaar Bergen op Zoom

There are also harbour cities that lost a large part of their cultural heritage due to their strategic location, (sometimes caused by acts of war) e.g.:

Stavoren Rotterdam
Den Helder Vlissingen

Coastal Forts
Remarkable strongholds along the coast include:
Naarden Vesting / Muiderslot
Pampus: fortress island in the IJ, east of Amsterdam
Fort Kijkduin: Museum Fort Kijkduin, Admiraal Verhuellplein 1, Den Helder. Tel. 0223 612366,
Fort island IJmuiden: in the outer harbour
Fort Hoek van Holland / Nederlands Kustverdedigingsmuseum: more than 100 years old fortification with numerous passageways and rooms. Stationsweg 82, Hoek van Holland. Tel. 0174 382898.

Drowned Roman locations
Brittenburg: this Roman coastal fortress was located at the mouth of the old Rhine, a little north of Katwijk.
Nehalennia sanctuary: 2000 years ago the goddess of the "sea lands" and patron saint of the sailors to England; during the past century dozens of Nehalennia altars have been fished out of the sea.

Coastal and Marine museums
Reddingsmuseum Abraham Fock: survey of 160 years of rescue operations on the island of Ameland. Oranjeweg 18, Hollum, Ameland. Tel. 0519 554243.
Maritiem en Juttersmuseum: surprising finds from the beach and attention for shipping in previous centuries. Barentszstraat 21, Oudeschild, Texel. Tel. 0222 314956.
Batavia-werf: shipyard according to traditional methods and rebuilt 17th century ocean vessels. Oostvaardersdijk 01-09, Lelystad. Tel. 0320 261409,
Nederlands Scheepvaartmuseum Amsterdam: located in the national maritime warehouse (1655), presents a survey of Dutch maritime history; at the landing place is a replica of the 17th century ocean vessel "Amsterdam". Kattenburgerplein 1, Amsterdam. Tel. 020 5232222,
Open Haven Museum: photographs, documents and objects clarify the history of the harbour and the KNSM. KNSM-laan 311, Amsterdam. Tel. 020 4185522.
Zuiderzeemuseum: exhibitions on the VOC (United East Indies Company), maritime shipping and the battle against the water (indoor museum, open year round) and a large outdoor museum (opened spring until autumn) with 130 homes, shops and workplaces which were originally found around the Zuyder Zee. Wierdijk 12-22, Enkhuizen. Tel. 0228 351111 / 318260.
Marine Museum: the history of the Dutch navy since 1815. Next to the museum are a submarine, minesweeper and ramming vessel. Hoofdgracht 3, Den Helder. Tel. 0223 657534,
Nationaal Reddingmuseum Dorus Rijkers: original lifeboats, models, paintings, films etc., showing the story of shipping disasters and lifesavers. Bernhardplein 10, Den Helder. Tel. 0223 618320,
Zee- en Havenmuseum De Visserijschool: an impression of historic and modern maritime activities in the IJmond area. Havenkade 55, IJmuiden. Tel. 0255 538007,
Museum Cruquius: steam-driven pumping station from 1849; the history of building dikes and land reclamation in the Netherlands. Cruquiusdijk 27, Cruquius. Tel. 023 5285704,
Museumschip Mercuur: only preserved Marshall Plan minesweeper of the US Navy in the Netherlands. Tweede Binnenhaven, Dr. Lelykade, Scheveningen. Tel. 070 3540315.
Nationaal Sleepvaart Museum: models and photographs of tugboats and salvage vessels. Hoogstraat 1-3, Maassluis. Tel. 010 5912474.
Maritiem Museum Rotterdam: indoor and outdoor expositions, including the 19th century ramming tower verssel "Buffel". Leuvehaven 1, Rotterdam. Tel. 010 4132680,
Maritiem Buitenmuseum Leuvehaven: the history of the Rotterdam harbour, with cranes, ships and old machines. Leuvehaven 50-72, Rotterdam. Tel. 010 4048072,
Visserijmuseum Vlaardingen: sea aquariums, ship models, fishing techniques, navigation and a ship's bridge. Westhavenkade 53-54, Vlaardingen. Tel. 010 4348722.
Mariniersmuseum der Koninklijke Marine: the history of the Royal Marines since their establishment in 1665; interactive indoor presentations, a mine sweeper and a landing craft show the visitor how it feels to be a marine. Wijnhaven 13, Rotterdam. Tel. 010 4129600.

Leisure & Visitor info

Sea and beach
For information see the pages Noordwijk beach, Katwijk beach, Wassenaar beach and Scheveningen beach

Yearly events include:

April Bulb Area flower parade, Noordwijk-Haarlem
May Week of the Sea
June Oerol Festival (, Terschelling
Aug Rijnsburg flower parade, Rijnsburg, Katwijk, Noordwijk
For more information see the pages of the various regions and towns.

Information on trains:
Information on public transportation: 0900 9292,