The Netherlands – a Whistle-stop Tour!
The Netherlands may be a very small country in terms of geographical size, yet it is still packed with visitor attractions to satisfy even the most demanding of tourists. And its compact nature is a distinct advantage when it comes to exploring the country, as holidaymakers are able to cram all the more sightseeing activities into one trip!
Many tourists arrive in the Netherlands at the busy international airport hub of Schipol and start their holiday with a visit to the bustling capital city of Amsterdam.
There is far more to see in Amsterdam than just its brash red light district and well-worn tourist hotspots such as Dam square, which is home to both the ‘Paleis op de Dam’ (Palace on the Dam) and other visitor attractions including Madame Tussauds. Amsterdam is rightly considered one of Europe’s most beautiful cities and if you take a stroll around the lovely ‘grachtengordel’ (Canal District), you’ll quickly discover why! The Canal District of Amsterdam which is over 400 years old and takes in the cities prettiest canals including the Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht, has recently been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This cosy area of cobbled streets, captivating canals, and quirky bridges also includes the ‘Negen Straatjes’ or ‘Nine Little Streets’ which are simply brimming with designer boutique shops, cosy Dutch cafes and stylish restaurants.
Amsterdam also offers a fine collection of museums and a morning exploring the grachtengordel can be nicely rounded off with a visit to one or more of them. The Anne Frank Museum, located on the Prinsengracht and just a short walk from the graceful Westerkerk, is a particularly moving experience. Visitors are given an intimate and educational tour of the cramped annex where this young teenager hid from Nazi persecution and wrote her much loved diary. The Anne Frank Huis is extremely popular though, so be prepared for exceptionally long queues!
If you are interested in Dutch art and culture then take a leisurely walk or jump on a tram if you are feeling less energetic, to the ‘Museumplein’ (Museum Square) where you can visit both the world-famous Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Here you can while away a pleasant afternoon appreciating the intricate works of the esteemed Dutch masters and relax in the lively square afterward. Hermitage is another increasingly fashionable art exhibition centre located in the delightful Amstelhof on the river Amstel and one of the best ways to go there is by boat. In addition to the numerous canal tours available in Amsterdam, you can also take the highly convenient ‘hop on, hop off’ boat taxis that visit most of the major tourist attractions. Alternatively, you can rent a bike and explore this vibrant city on two wheels, just like the locals! Don’t forget to visit the busy Albert Cuyp Markt, a famous market in the De Pijp area of Amsterdam where you can stock up on Dutch souvenirs and try tasty Dutch snacks such as ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’ (raw herring).
Zaanse Schans, Volendam, Marken, Alkmaar
Just outside Zaandam and only a short train or car journey from Amsterdam, is the popular tourist attraction known as the ‘Zaansche Schans’. Visitors to this area in Noord-Holland can view stunning examples of Dutch windmills and conventional Dutch houses and tour the fascinating Zaans Museum.
The charming fishing village called Volendam, where residents still go about their daily lives dressed in traditional Dutch costume is also easily accessible from Amsterdam and can be combined with a ferry trip to Marken, another quintessential Dutch village full of old-fashioned, wooden houses set on the picturesque Ijselmeer.
The medieval town of Alkmaar is another great day trip from Amsterdam. Alkmaar is best known for its cheese market which is held every Friday morning between April and September, where you can buy delicious local Dutch cheeses.
The Netherlands is well known for its striking Dutch tulip flowers that are exported in vast quantities all over the world, but there is simply nowhere better to appreciate them, than at the world famous Keukenhof. Located near Lisse, just southwest of Amsterdam, this vast flower garden of 32 sprawling acres, is planted with a staggering 7,000,000 tulip bulbs each year. These are best enjoyed during mid-April when they are in full bloom. The surrounding countryside, known as the ‘Duin en Bollenstreek’, literally, the Dune and Bulb area is also awash with spring colour, making the trip there especially memorable.
Den Haag (The Hague) and Scheveningen
The Hague is the administrative capital of the Netherlands and home to the Dutch government, parliament, its foreign embassies and the International Court of Justice. It is a quieter city than Amsterdam, nevertheless, there is an abundance of tourist attractions and quality museums in the splendid city centre. Probably the most famous of these is the ‘Binnenhof’ (Inner Court), a collection of historical buildings, many dating back to the 13th century, that adjoins the houses of parliament. Then there is the impressive ‘Paleis Noordeinde’ (Noordeinde Palace) which is still an official residence of Queen Beatrix today and, although entrance to tourists is not allowed, you can enjoy a pleasant walk around the palace gardens and still get a great view of her home.
Amongst the museums in Den Haag, the Mauritshuis with its grand collection of masterpieces from the Dutch Golden Age and the Gemeentemuseum with its extensive show of modern art, are the most recommended.
If you are visiting the Hague, then do set aside some time in your busy itinerary to visit the beach resort of Scheveningen. Notoriously difficult for foreigners to pronounce, it is much more easy to appreciate its wide sweeping beaches and pier, particularly on a sunny afternoon! This busy resort is popular with both tourists and Dutch natives who are attracted to the many exciting water sports on offers, such as windsurfing and sailing. There are also some interesting Dutch festivals held in Scheveningen including the ‘Nieuwejaarsduik’ (New Years Dive) when the Dutch brave freezing waters for an invigorating New Years Day dip and ‘Vlaggetjesdag’ (Little Flags Day), a colourful maritime celebration to mark the start of the Herring season.
Delft and Gouda Both the Dutch cities of Delft and Gouda deserve a place on the tourist’s schedule. Delft has a charming and typically Dutch town centre simply overflowing with historical buildings, including the Oude Kerk, the Nieuwe Kerk and the Prinsenhof and is crisscrossed by pretty canals. It is also well known for its Delft Blue pottery and is the birth and burial place of the esteemed Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer. Gouda, meanwhile is famous for its cheese of the same name, which you can still buy at the Gouda cheese market held every Thursday and for its production of the delicious ‘stroopwafels’ (Dutch syrup waffles).
The Delta Works Project Large parts of the province of Zeeland lie below sea level, hence its name and why it was so greatly affected by the notorious 1953 Flood Disaster. The Delta Works is a vast series of dams, sluices and storm surge barriers that were built to protect the area from future flooding and has been designated one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Modern World’ by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The scale of this fascinating feat of modern engineering will take your breath away and is well worth a visit!
Maastricht and Valkenburg
The Netherlands is known for its typical landscape of flat meadows, windmills, and dikes, so tourists to the southern province of Limburg are often surprised by the rolling hills surrounding picturesque medieval towns, such as Valkenburg aan de Geul. This quaint town, complete with a dramatic, ruined castle is a perfect base for exploring the surrounding countryside by foot or by bike. Amongst its many museums and other attractions, Valkenburg also boasts the oldest railway station in the Netherlands.
Maastricht is a delightful city, famous for its rich culture, romantic cobbled streets and bustling squares, such as the Vrijthof, Markt and Onze Lieve Vrouweplein. Although it is bursting with historical buildings, Maastricht is also an excellent destination for those seeking extreme retail therapy, as it offers an extravagant selection of shops. A particular highlight is the inner harbour area, known as the Bassin where you can relax in a traditional Dutch café and watch the world go by. Don’t miss the hill of St Pietersberg either, with its curiously hidden, man-made stone tunnels.
Utrecht This ancient city is the capital of the province of Utrecht and located right in the heart of the Netherlands. It is famous for its 112 meter high Dom tower from which you can enjoy superb views of the town below. Utrecht is also known for its old medieval centre that includes the charming ‘Oudegracht’, a curved canal that follows a branch of the Rhine and an old moat that encircles the town. Just outside this vibrant city is the ‘Utrechtste Heuvelrug’ another Dutch national park which incorporates a stunning ridge of sand hills spread over an area of 6,000 hectares.
National Park De Hoge Veluwe For a lovely day out enjoying one of the Netherlands most breathtaking landscapes, visit the Hoge Veluwe National Park in Gelderland. It is the largest nature reserve in the country and contains over 5,400 hectares of woodland, heathland, peat bogs and drift sand. In addition to its visitor centre and museums, you can take a complimentary bike and go thoroughly explore the park, perhaps catching a glimpse of the timid Red Deer, a Moor Frog or even a Grass Snake!
To the North of Holland in Drenthe, there is another break from the archetypal flat Dutch scenery. At the pre-historic site of Hunebedden you can wander among mystical megalithic monuments which are over 5500 years old and serve as giant tombs.
And if you are interested in contemporary history, then this area hides another gem – the Westerbork Concentration Camp Museum. This fascinating museum has been carefully preserved so that visitors can visualise how life was for the thousands of Dutch Jews temporarily housed there. This huge transit camp was the departure point for the terrifying journey to the east and the Nazi death camps of Germany and Poland.
City of Groningen Although the northern city of Groningen has more than its fair share of museums, it is worth visiting for the fantastic Groninger Museum alone. It enjoys a deserved reputation for being the most progressive and modern museum in the country. If you are in Groningen, you will also want to visit the tilting ‘Martinitoren’ (Martini Tower) which is part of the ‘Martinikerk’ (Martini Church) and boasts an impressive 62 bells. From the top of this Dutch version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you can take in a sweeping view of the city spread out beneath you!
Friesland No holiday to the Netherlands could be considered complete without a visit to the ancient region of Friesland where you can enjoy the pretty scenery of lakes and forests, visit romantic Frisian castles or explore desolate islands. This area is also famous for its ‘Elfstedentocht’ (the Eleven Cities Tour), a grueling 230 km ice skating race held on natural ice. Although, only if you happen to visit during a particularly long and severe winter when the stringent ice conditions are met, will you be lucky enough to witness this legendary race for yourself.
The Afsluitdijk Connecting Friesland with Noord-Holland is another fine feat of Dutch engineering, the Afsluitdijk. This massive dam is over 32 kilometers in length, 90 meters wide and has a height of 7.25 meters above sea level. It effectively closes the Zuiderzee from the North Sea, resulting in the freshwater lake called the Ijsselmeer. If you are heading back to Amsterdam from Friesland by car, then make sure you cross via the Aflsuitdijk to take in this iconic landmark en route.