A lot of time, saying “I’m going to the Netherlands” is automatically interpreted as “I’m going to Amsterdam”. Before I flew to Holland for a long weekend, I got the same reaction from pretty much everyone I told: “Oh, I love Amsterdam! Going to smoke lots of weed, haha?”
As a matter of fact, I wasn’t. Instead, I was visiting some Dutch friends of mine who live in – shock horror! – other cities.
Yes, the Netherlands is a small place, but it’s still got a lot of offer outside of the capital. Its compact size means that there’s no excuse not to hop on a train and explore cities that are not Amsterdam. Here are just five of your options:
1. The Hague
The seat of the Dutch Government and the King, the Hague is the third largest city in the Netherlands, and in a lot of ways is like Amsterdam’s more conservative older sibling. The architecture is an interesting mix of medieval and modern and there are plenty of green spaces. Notable sights include the Mauritshuis Museum, one of the best art houses in the country housed in a 17th Century palace, and the Madurodam, a miniature city showcasing the country’s highlights on a 1:25 scale. Once you’re done exploring the centre, cycle down to the Scheveningen, a seaside resort by the North Sea. The Pier is the largest in the Netherlands, and has a casino, bungee jumping and 200 ft lookout tower on offer.
Just 13 miles west of Amsterdam, Haarlem is a great base for exploring Amsterdam and further afield: cheaper, less touristy and worth a visit in its own right. The capital of North Holland, Haarlem has a rich artistic heritage thanks to the migration of numerous artists and craftsmen in pre-medieval times following the fall of Antwerp. There are museums a-plenty, including the Frans Hals Museum and the Corrie ten Boom Museum, which is similar to Anne Frank’s house, except still furnished and complete with hiding place and ‘all clear’ sign. Additionally, in Haarlem there are tulip fields as far as the eye can see – so try to time your visit with spring.
Fourth largest is size and second only to Amsterdam in culture, the city of Utrecht is a history-buff’s paradise: it was founded by the Romans 2,000 years ago, and has been the country’s religious centre since the 18th Century. Explore the historic traffic-free streets and wander along the Rhine River before visiting the Gothic Dom church and climbing the Domtoren – which, at 112m tall, is the highest church tower in the country. The city is also home to the University of Utrecht, which is the largest university in the Netherlands, giving it a vibrant student feel.
This is probably one of the Netherlands’ most modern-feeling cities, due to the extent it had to be rebuilt following German bombing in WW2 (although the historical Delfshaven – where the Dutch pilgrims set sail from in 1620 – remains intact). This modernity is manifest in such attractions as the Kijk-Kubis (Museum House), a collection of cube-shaped homes, and the avant-garde architecture of the Kunsthal Rotterdam museum. A short boat ride east will take you direct to the UNESCO-listed windmills of Kinderdijk, and a visit in the second week of July will see you arrive in time for the annual North Sea Jazz Festival, which attracts almost 25,000 visitors daily. Going then is pretty much the only way you’ll be able to walk around without having this song stuck in your head on loop.
Jammed in between Belgium and Germany, this university city has not one, but two beautiful town squares, a biweekly market that’s great for a rummage, and is home to the Casemates, a network of underground tunnels that were used to store cannons and weaponry in days of old. The 20,000 passageways of the Caves of St Pieter are also well worth exploring – on an organised tour, of course! If that’s not enough to sway you, it’s also home to Selexyz Dominicanen, a bookstore housed in a 13th Century Gothic cathedral. Need we say more?
Of course, this is just the beginning of what the Netherlands has to offer. If you feel we’ve left somewhere worthwhile off this list, please do share your tips below.