26 Dec Amsterdam is big, busy and crowded. Visit these lesser known gems in the Netherlands instead!
Get out of Amsterdam!
Amsterdam is the bad boy of the Netherlands. Flashy, fun, flirty, keeping you up until wee hours of the night. But after a few days, it can be exhausting, and frankly, annoying. This is when you need the nice guys. The quaint, charming, reliable and easy to manage towns of Netherlands. So when you have had enough of the bad boy, get out of town and go see these other lesser treaded towns. I guarantee that you will be pleasantly surprised and will fall in love with the Netherlands even more madly, deeply.
I have been to many towns in the Netherlands, including the ones listed below. Here, I present 12 Dutch cities, in no particular order, that are my personal favourites and that you should visit if you want to see the country at its most authentic and charming.
The oldest city in the Netherlands, founded by Roman soldiers over 2000 years ago, is one of the country’s finest places to visit.
There is so much history here. In the 4th Century, as Roman power in Northern Europe waned, the city became part of the Frankish Kingdom. By the time of the Dutch Revolt in the late 1500s (when the Dutch Protestants revolted against Spanish rule), Nijmegen became part of the Republic of United Provinces. You can find archeological sites left behind by the Romans all over Nijmegen.
In 1940 Nijmegen was the first Dutch city captured by the Germans. Almost all the Jews of Nijmegen were murdered by the Nazis between autumn of 1942 and April 1943. Also, as a result of miscommunications and chaotic airspace, American bombers bombed the city, mistakenly believing that they were bombing the German city of Kleve. Over 750 people died.
Even Karl Marx (father of Marxism) and Phillips (the multinational company), have connections to Nijmegen. At house number 33 on Grotestraat, you will find the former home of Isaac Presburg, cantor at Nijmegen synagogue and patriarch related to 2 famous men: Karl Marx (a communist) and Fredrick Philips (a capitalist who co-founded the Philips company).
What makes the historical city especially appealing is that the history of the city is not relegated to a museum. Artifacts and historical buildings and sites all form part of the city! They are laid out in different parts of the city, creating an open-air museum for everyone to enjoy for free! The best way to see them is by taking a self-guided tour. You can walk or bicycle around town and see all the main sights in a day.
Because of how few tourists make the effort to get here, Nijmegen is truly a lesser travelled gem of the Netherlands.
Part of Frisian Islands, in the North Sea, Texel is a fantastic getaway for a day trip from Amsterdam. The Frisian Islands are a chain of islands that stretches from the Netherlands to Denmark. Texel is the largest island and has four types of landscape: dunes and beaches in the West, Dutch flatland East, hilly in the center of the island which are remnants of the ice age and wetlands with beautiful walking trails in the central west coast of the island.
You can visit Texel in a day or spend a couple of days exploring the different topographies of the island. You can get there from Amsterdam by taking the train and then a boat. Once you get off the boat, you can rent a bicycle at the pier, which is the best way to see the island. It is the perfect anti-tode when you have had enough of the hustle and chaos of Amsterdam.
What makes Zwolle, 1 hour east of Amsterdam, unique is its Hanseatic heritage. The Hanseatic League was an alliance of merchant cities, each operating independently but collectively, they dominated commercial activity in northern Europe for 400 years from the 13th to the 15th century. The Hanseatic cities now can be found in 7 different European countries.
Many of the buildings in Zwolle were built in medieval times, during the glory days of the Hanseatic League, and they still remain. In addition to medieval architecture, Zwolle is also home to De Librije, constantly rated as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. I had lunch at De Librije, and while pricey, it was glorious!
Zwolle has an extremely easy charm and after a while, when Amsterdam ingratiates, head to Zwolle for its picture postcard scenery and Hanseatic allure.
4. The Hague
The Hague or Den Haag is near to my heart. I lived here for 5 years and know the biggest little city in the Netherlands quite well. The political capital of Netherlands, The Hague is an hour south of Amsterdam and well worth a couple of days’ visit.
There is much to do here: Peace Palace, International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice, all of which can be visited for free and I highly recommend that you do. Plus there are museums galore. You especially don’t want to miss the Escher Museum, Maurithuis (where you will find Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and paintings by many other Dutch masters).
Plus, there is Netherlands’ best beach, Scheveningen. A beautiful promenade lines the Scheveningen and you can spend an afternoon eating great fish and chips this side of England and strolling about. I strongly recommend however that you go here when it is not raining.
5. Hoge Veluwe National Park
Hoge Veluwe National Park is one of largest national parks in the Netherlands. It is the country’s best-preserved park, and in my opinion, the most interesting park in the Netherlands. What makes this national park unique, which is privately owned, is its dramatic landscapes and abundance of wildlife. The landscape is a mix of thick forest, heath, sand dunes and sandy soil formed during the Middle Ages. You will also find deer, wild boar, and mouflon a wide variety of birds. The park is mostly flat and the best way to see it is on one of the free bicycles that you can pick up at the entrance of the park.
In addition to the park itself, do not miss the Kröller-Müller Museum and Sculpture Garden. The Museum collection includes 4,000 drawings, 275 sculptures, and several hundred paintings, including Monet, Cézanne, Renoir; and Picasso and Fernand Léger and a large collection (280 paintings and drawings) of Van Gogh. The Sculpture Garden is simply astounding! There are about 160 modern sculptures in over 25 hectares, making it one of the largest sculpture gardens in the world.
Gouda, where the name for the cheese comes from, is yet another quaint, pedestrian-friendly town that is an ideal antidote to Amsterdam.
Only 1 hour south of Amsterdam, Gouda gets particularly busy in the spring and summer when tourists descend on the town on Thursdays to watch the Cheese Market that evokes the olden times when cheese was traded publicly by farmers and merchants.
Aside from the Cheese Market, there are lots more to do here such as the City Hall, the Market Square which is the perfect place to sit in the sun, grab a beer and people watch. My personal favourite, however, is the Sint Janskerk. the longest church in Holland and world-famous for its Gouda stained glass windows. There are about 72 such stained glass windows, dating to 16th century, and they are astoundingly gorgeous. In my opinion, a trip to Gouda is worth is just for these stained glass windows.
Utrecht is a mere 30 minutes by train from Amsterdam but feels like whole another world when you get there. The recorded history of Utrecht goes back to 47 AD when the Roman emperor Claudius ordered his army to build a bridge along the Rhine river in what is now Utrecht. Today, Utrecht is a university town that is famous for Dom church (a gothic church built between 1284 and 1520), Domtoren (highest church tower in the Netherlands), Utrecht Post Office (an outstanding example of Dutch Art Deco architecture), and Rietveld Schröder House, built in 1924 by Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld and one of the best examples of De Stijl, a major art movement of the 20th century. Also, don’t forget to check out the Miffy Museum, the character which Hello Kitty is ripped off from.
Ah, Maastricht…my personal favourite!
Maastricht, in the province of Limburg, is all the way in the south of the country and has a very distinct feel. Think Spain meets France meets the Netherlands. People here are more laid back, the food scene outstanding and the being the second oldest city in the Netherlands, Maastricht is packed with history. In fact, Limburg is so fantastic, you can easily spend a few days here. Limburg is also famous for festivals. Don’t forget to try vlaai a pie with a fruit filling. The province is also famous for its many brands of beer, such as Brand, Alfa and Gulpener. While it has the usual charming market square, churches, fantastic shopping, there are 2 unique things that you should NOT miss.
First is the guided tours of the Hidden Caves of St. Peter. Situated underneath one of the highest points in the Netherlands, miners have been excavating the cave corridors for over 1,000 years and which now over 80 km long. During the World Wars, the cave became an underground city, where refugees lived. Another thing not to miss (if you happen to be in Maastricht in the spring) is TEFAF, the world’s pre-eminent and one of the largest art fairs. Everything from the great masters to modern to postmodern art and designs can be found here.
Leiden is known for having the oldest university in the Netherlands, the birthplace of Rembrandt, picturesque old town centre and the Fort of Leiden.
The best way to see the main sites, which are all compact and easily navigable by foot, is by doing the Leiden Loop. The Leiden Loop consists of around 24 historic sights in the city centre of Leiden. Signboards show you the route which you can do as a self-guided tour.
Similar in sensibility to Leiden is the 750-year-old city of Delft. Famous for being home to the white and blue Delft pottery, the Churches (Old Church and the New Church), charming old town square and rows and rows of narrow, cobblestoned streets perfect for getting lost in.
Pretty much all of Delft is a beautiful, unspoiled town with traditional architecture and canals. It is an ideal alternative to the craziness of Amsterdam.
Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands, is hardly small. In fact, it has a big city feel similar to what you’d experience in Amsterdam. But if you have already stayed in Amsterdam before or simply want to avoid it because of its reputation, then why not base yourself in Rotterdam and visit the rest of the country as day trips from here?
When the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940 they were met with fierce resistance, which they responded by heavily bombing Rotterdam. Almost all of the city was destroyed, 800 people were killed, and another 80,000 became homeless. As a result, Rotterdam consists of a mish-mash of architecture, built in spurts since World War II and reflecting the designs in vogue at the time of the built.
Eindhoven, 1.5 hours south of Amsterdam is the fifth largest city in the Netherlands. Nothing in Eindhoven is as it appears at a first glance. At first, it looks like a drab, post World War II industrial city.
It doesn’t have the look you typically associate with a quaint Dutch town but don’t let its industrial exterior turn you off. In fact, it is the industrial look of Eindhoven that makes it unique and adds, rather than detracts from its charm. Eindhoven is famous for its post-industrial reinvention, being home to the electronics giant Phillips, 1960s space-agey architecture, and Van Abbe Museum which houses an impressive collection of contemporary art.
In fact, surprisingly, art is everywhere in Eindhoven. In my opinion, it is the most artistic city in the Netherlands! The best time to visit Eindhoven is during Dutch Design Week, where you will find art and industrial design from over 2500 designers. This is when I visited Eindhoven and was extremely impressed by the quality of design and the job the city did to organize the festival.