Regrets? I have a few. In one of the smallest countries on earth, with an excellent public transport system and endless cycle paths, I failed to reach the islands of the Wadden Sea, or venture very far into Friesland, an area of the Netherlands with its own distinct language. The northern city of Groningen remains unexplored, as do the rolling hills on the border with Germany around Maastricht. There are other places I’ve missed also, but I have made it to almost every other part of the country – by train, tram, metro, car, boat, foot … and by bicycle.
In the process I’ve written blogs about sixty-three different places, something that is a surprise even to me. It makes the task of recommending my top tips from four and a half years of living here all the more difficult. For what it’s worth, these are the things I’d definitely not want to miss if I was visiting the Netherlands for the first time.
Start with the obvious? Why not? Amsterdam is a city like no other, and it takes little effort to leave the tourists (and the cliche) behind while exploring some of its fantastic neighbourhoods. This is where the Dutch Golden Age is fully expressed, both in the wealth of 16th and 17th century buildings, and the incredible collections of the city’s museums. It’s so much more than a living museum though – as anyone who has had the misfortune of witnessing an out of control hen night can tell you – this is an unmissable artistic and cultural powerhouse.
Dutch cheese, wax coated and often round, is one of the iconic symbols of the country. The most famous cheeses originate in the most picturesque towns: Edam, Gouda and Alkmaar. All have their share of tourism, although the kitsch cheese market in Alkmaar is the cheesiest of all. A visit to the Netherlands would be incomplete if it didn’t include a cheese-related town. What’s more, some cheese comes with a history. In beautiful Edam, I learned that 16th century Dutch ships used the town’s cheese as cannonballs when they ran out of the real thing.
A Dickensian Christmas
The beautiful Hanseatic town of Deventer is one of the oldest in the Netherlands, and is worth a visit solely on the grounds of its history and wealth of historic buildings. Visit in December though, and you may be lucky enough to participate in one of the finest Christmas Fairs in the country. The whole of Deventer’s historic centre is transformed into the 19th century London of Charles Dickens. Residents dress for the occasion and many perform as Dickens’ fictional characters. It’s brilliant.
Touring the tulip fields near Leiden
When the tulips are in bloom, the vast fields of brilliant colour really have to be seen to be believed. From Leiden, you can cycle in countryside that has become a patchwork of vibrant blocks of colour. It’s mesmerising. It can seem like this is all for the benefit of tourists, but the tulip bulb business is at the heart of a multi-billion euro horticultural industry. Thankfully, there seems little chance of a repeat of the economic disaster that was Tulip Mania.
Cycling the Waterland
In a land of water, the area north of Amsterdam provides a dramatic example of how the Dutch have lived alongside natures most elemental force for centuries. Hire a bike and spend a day lazily cycling the lanes and dikes, and marvel as you cycle atop a dike with the IJsselmeer on one side and people’s houses five or ten metres beneath you on the other. Historic towns and the once isolated fishing community of Marken make this an area for repeated exploration.
Middelburg and the glories of Zeeland
I spent a couple of days in Middelburg and cycling the beautiful coastal landscapes of the southerly region of Zeeland. I promised myself I’d go back and explore more, but now that will now have to wait for a return trip. Middelburg is a spectacular town with a long history, something that becomes immediately apparent when you stand in front of its magnificent Stadhuis. This is another town that grew wealthy during the Dutch Golden Age, and it shows.
Reliving Dutch history in Enkhuizen
Enkhuizen is a historic and picturesque town. Like many others, its wealth was built on the trade in herring and then as part of the Dutch East India trading company, the VOC. The fishing fleet may be no more thanks to the damming of the Zuiderzee, but leisure boats now ply these water instead. The Zuidermuseum, a recreation of a former fishing village using original buildings from around the region, tells the history of these fishing communities. It’s one of the best ‘living’ museums I’ve ever visited.
Hoge Veluwe National Park and the Kröller-Müller Museum
One of the last great areas of natural landscape in the Netherlands, the Hoge Veluwe is criss-crossed with numerous walking and cycling routes as well as being home to wild boar, red deer, foxes, roe deer and pine martens. You can spend most of a day cycling through this beautiful area, but a visit is best combined with a trip to the extraordinary sculpture garden and museum of the Kröller-Müller Museum. Walking the sculpture park is an epic adventure and one of the most unique Dutch museum experiences.
Cycling the North Sea Coast
I couldn’t believe how beautiful the route along the Dutch coast is, especially the area between The Hague and IJmuiden. Quiet, traffic free cycle routes take you through rolling sand dunes and protected landscapes that are free of development. If you bring a picnic you can find isolated stretches of sand with sea views to relax on, or stop in one of the small (and touristy) seaside towns. Try to make sure you cycle with the wind at your back.
In a country filled with beautiful towns complete with well preserved medieval centres, Haarlem really stands out. It also comes with some excellent museums and a very good selection of restaurants. There’s a lively market on Saturday in the Grote Markt, but just wandering the streets and unearthing some of the city’s historic gems makes for a fascinating day. More than simply “Amsterdam without the tourists”, don’t miss the Frans Hals or the Teylers museums.
Canal towns that aren’t Amsterdam
It wouldn’t be fair to miss out vibrant Utrecht, beautiful Delft or glorious Amersfoort. The Dutch have a surfeit of canal towns that come with fascinating histories and a lot of character. It is very easy to escape the tourist hordes (literal hordes) in Amsterdam and find a canal town all of your own to explore. Delft and Utrecht are well known and growing in popularity, but towns like Amersfoort still seem a million miles from the tourist trail.
A far cry from the quaint cobbles (and tourist nightmare) of Amsterdam, after being destroyed during the Second World War the city of Rotterdam has reinvented itself as a creative centre. The city chose to innovate rather than recreate the past, an attitude writ large in the city’s architecture, which begins when you arrive at the dramatic main railway station. No visit would be complete without a trip to the new Markthal and an exploration of the Cube Houses near the old harbour.
…and finally, The Hague
Home for four and a half years, and one of the most underrated of all Dutch cities, The Hague has a lot to recommend it. Weirdly, it remains off the tourist trail, at least for now. The Dutch often think of The Hague as a dull city in comparison to Amsterdam or Rotterdam, but here you can find history, culture, good food and a decent nightlife – at least for someone my age. That’s not to mention the fact that it is just a short bike ride to access hundreds of kilometres of pristine beaches … and dozens of great beach bars.
So, farewell Netherlands, you’ll be missed.