Forty minutes north from Amsterdam by train, the amenable little town of ALKMAAR has preserved much of its medieval street plan, its compact centre surrounded by what was once the town moat and laced with spindly canals. The town is also dotted with fine old buildings, but is best known for its much-touted cheese market, an ancient affair that these days ranks as one of the most extravagant tourist spectacles in Noord Holland.
Cheese has been sold on Alkmaar's main square since the 1300s, and although it's no longer a serious commercial concern, the kaasmarkt (cheese market; Fri 10am–12.30pm, from the first Friday in April to the first Friday in Sept) continues to pull the crowds – so get there early if you want a good view. The ceremony starts with the buyers sniffing, crumbling, and finally tasting each cheese, followed by intensive bartering. Once a deal has been concluded, the cheeses – golden discs of Gouda mainly, laid out in rows and piles on the square – are borne away on ornamental carriers by groups of four porters (kaasdragers) for weighing.
Even if you've only come for the cheese market, it's well worth seeing something of the rest of the town before you leave. On the main square, the Waag (Weighing House) was originally a chapel dedicated to the Holy Ghost – hence the imposing tower – but was converted and given its delightful east gable shortly after the town's famous victory against the Spanish. The gable is an ostentatious Dutch Renaissance affair bedecked with allegorical figures and decorated with the town's militant coat of arms. The Waag holds the HollandsKaasmuseum (Cheese Museum; April– Oct Mon– Thurs & Sat 10am–4pm, Fri 9am–4pm; 2.50), with predictable displays on the history of cheese, cheese-making equipment and such like.
Heading south from the Waag along Mient, it's a few metres to the jetty from where canal trips leave for a quick zip round the town's central canals – an enjoyable way to spend 40 minutes (April– Oct daily, hourly 11am–5pm; 4.70); tickets are on sale at the VVV. At the south end of Mient is the open-air Vismarkt (Fish Market), which marks the start of the Verdronkenoord canal.