One of the most common mistakes that people who visit the Netherlands make is to spend all of their days in Amsterdam. A common misconception is that the rest of the Netherlands looks exactly like Amsterdam and wouldn’t be worth visiting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, the capital city is worth visiting, and for many people around the world, Amsterdam is the trip of a lifetime. However, the Netherlands is a wonderfully diverse country with so much to offer so Amsterdam may not be the best city in the Netherlands for you. As you travel throughout the country, you will notice changes in spoken dialects, gastronomic cuisine, and local customs. It’s a beautiful country that we hope you will take the time to discover on your next vacation.
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In this local’s guide, we will walk you through the must-see Dutch cities, from the ones closest to Amsterdam to the ones a little further. Whether you are looking to explore a quaint Dutch village or an ultra-modern city, the Netherlands has it all. The good news is that the Dutch are known for their good command of the English language, so wherever you will find yourself, people will be happy to communicate with you in English and help you in case you get lost.
Getting Around the Netherlands
The Netherlands is a relatively small country, about the size of Massachusetts, and has one of the most well-functioning train networks in Europe. This means that many of the most beautiful cities in the Netherlands are just a quick day trip from Amsterdam. If you stay near the Amsterdam Central Station, then you can easily catch a train in the morning, explore the city of your choice, and return in the early evening. The most famous attractions even provide special offers to combine entrance tickets with train tickets so you save on your vacation.
This tiny, postcard-like city is mostly known for its renowned university, which has approximately 30,000 students, more than half of whom are international students. Thanks to the great number of students, Leiden is full of events all year long. If you are looking for the classic Dutch experience with picturesque windmills, quaint canals, and narrow cobbled streets, then Leiden is your city. It’s the birthplace of Rembrandt, one of the pioneering and iconic painters of the Dutch Golden Age. You can visit Rembrandt’s studio, where he first developed his painting skills and learn about his life and the influences that inspired his work throughout the years. Seize the opportunity to experience an augmented reality presentation of Rembrant’s everyday life in the streets of Leiden by an expert guide.
Leiden is also home to a variety of museums. Visit the National Museum of Antiquities or the National Museum of Ethnology to dive into not only the 800-year history of Leiden but also the history of many ancient civilizations across the world. The Naturalis Biodiversity Center is a fun, interactive museum for children interested in animals and dinosaurs. Right across the Leiden Central Station is the Hortus Botanicus, the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands, founded in 1590. If you are a fan of beautiful, exotic, and rare plants, then put this on your to-do list.
Tip: If you are visiting the country from late March till May, head 20km north of Leiden to one of the largest gardens in the world – the Keukenhof. Over 7 million bulbs are planted every year and tulips are the star of the show. Go for a boat ride or stroll through these colorful tulip fields surrounding the Keukenhof. Although the adult ticket (22USD/19EUR) is a little pricey, visitors’ reviews will convince you to spend them.
Utrecht is a 25-minute train ride from Amsterdam. It is another student city as it is home to a prestigious university as well. Utrecht is the only city in the Netherlands that has restaurant terraces literally sitting on the canals. Its historic city center is very charming, attracting not only foreign visitors but also visitors from all over the country. The historic city center sprawls around the Dom Tower, whose construction finished in 1382. It counts 465 steps and 14 bells that weigh over 30,000 kilos, and are still rung manually. Next to the Dom, the old cloister’s indoor gardens are a serene escape.
However, if you also admire the modern architecture, you will absolutely adore the Rietveld Schröder House, listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Interestingly, the house was built in 1924, but its exterior, as well as its interior, still looks quite futuristic. Certainly, a city surrounded by water is best explored by boat. Take a guided canal boat cruise or paddle boarding tour through the medieval city of Utrecht. The weather conditions won’t ruin your canal excursion as the boats are canopied.
Just a few kilometers outside of Utrecht sits the stunning Castle De Haar, the largest and most impressive castle in the Netherlands.
The Hague is skipped by tourists when it should be one of the top cities to visit in the Netherlands. The Hague gracefully marries the past with the present while looking forward to the future. It is the peace and justice city as it is home to the UN’s International Court of Justice. The city is also important for Dutch society because this is where the Royal Palace, Parliament, and the Supreme Court are located.
If you are looking for culture, history, and leisure on your vacation, The Hague should be at the top of your list. The Mauritshuis, with more than 800 works of art from the 17th and 18th centuries, will be a highlight of your visit. It’s home to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, and Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. The museum is situated in the city center right across the prime minister’s office, which is housed in a small tower by the Hofvijver lake.
Perhaps, the most photographed spot in The Hague is the Binnenhof, a complex of buildings which belongs to the parliament. It is one of the oldest parliamentary buildings in the world that are still in use. If you are looking for a more intense experience that will intrigue your senses, go to the Prison Gate Museum. Learn about how politics was conducted in the 14th-18th century and the heinous tortures used against people who resisted the status quo.
This coastal city has the longest sand beach in the Netherlands. The Scheveningen beach is approximately 3 miles (4.5km) long, and it’s the place to be during the summer. The seaside esplanade is home to numerous beach bars, restaurants, and watersports. Adding to that, you can’t miss the Scheveningen Pier, which offers stunning sky views. Traditionally, in New Year’s Eve, ‘Hagennaars’, the demonym for the city’s residents, light up a huge bonfire (from 27 – 31 December) and take a swim in the cold North Sea.
Tip: The city is called ‘Den Haag’ or ‘sGravenhage’ in Dutch, so don’t get confused if you hear locals referring to the city using both names.
Rotterdam lacks the typical Dutch element due to the ferocious destruction that the city suffered during World War II. Nowadays, Rotterdam is famous for its groundbreaking technological and architectural development. Rotterdam has the biggest port in Europe with thriving economic and logistical activity. The city has attracted many people in and outside of the Netherlands looking for better job opportunities. Fan or not of modern architecture, you will absolutely be stunned by the urban mosaic of Rotterdam.
A characteristic example is the Cube Houses, in the Oude Haven area of the center. They were constructed to resemble a forest where the triangular roofs are the treetops. The Cube Houses are inhabited by locals, but visitors have the chance to visit them from the inside and see what it feels like to live in these bizarre structures.
Next to the Cube Houses, the Markthal doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s a huge shopping and dining area with a terrific mix of local and high-end options.
Going to Rotterdam means walking along the Erasmus Bridge and the Euromast tower. The Erasmus Bridge, extending over the Nieuwe Maas, joins the northern and the southern parts of the city. Cross the bridge, but be aware of the strong winds, to reach the Euromast tower. From 600 feet (186 meters), you can observe the state-of-the-art Rotterdam from above. The tower includes a restaurant, a conference venue, and a hotel.
The last stop, this time away from the industrialized urban center, would be the Rotterdam Zoo (Diergaarde Blijdorp) that is home to more than 5,000 animals. Apart from several activities and guided tours, it also offers an indoor biotope playground for kids.
Tip: Just about 9 miles (15km) east of Rotterdam, the Kinderdijk village is a must-see. Enjoy a beautiful walk or bike ride through the quaint Dutch countryside and see the historic 18th-century Dutch windmills still in use today. The Kinderdijk is one of the most popular Dutch tourist sites and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the southeast tip of the country, Maastricht brings together the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium. Maastricht is said to be the oldest city in the Netherlands, even though there is a rivalry on the issue between Maastricht and Nijmegen. In Europe, the city is famous for the Maastricht Treaty. In 1992 the European Countries signed the Treaty, and the euro became the official currency of the European Union.
The city is a popular weekend destination for people of the neighboring countries. Every week crowds from Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France flood in the city center’s shops, restaurants, and cafes. Unlike most Dutch cities, Maastricht doesn’t have canals, but it is surrounded by the river Meuse (in Dutch Maas), which gave its name to the city. Maastricht has five bridges that connect the two parts of the city. The oldest and most photographed one is the stone bridge of Sint Servaas. It was built in the 13th century, and it is one of the city’s famous landmarks.
The best way to explore the city is by walking or cycling. Pass by the city’s walls and the famous Vrijthof square, where during summer André Rieu, the famous Maastricht-born violinist and conductor along with his carefully selected orchestra, gives the most spectacular performances. In Vrijthof square, the Basilica of Saint Servatius and the adjacent Saint Jan’s church with the characteristic red-hue clock tower monopolize visitor’s interest.
Visit the Dominicanen bookstore, a bookstore, and cafe situated in a beautiful 12th-century cathedral. It is consistently ranked among the world’s 10 best bookshops.
Maastricht is the top choice if you are a nature lover as the city is a 10-minute walk from the leafy hills and the rural landscape. We recommend visiting Maastricht in spring or summer when nature wears its most vivid colors. Go uphill to the Sint Pieter Fort and enjoy panoramic views of the city. Behind the fort, a different natural world unveils. Join a guided tour of the 200-mile network of underground caves and see where Nazi’s cached stolen paintings, like Rembrandt’s Night Watch.
Tip: Maastricht is the capital of Carnival, which takes place in late February – beginning of March. The joyous Carnival celebrations, marking the beginning of Lent, are of huge importance to the people of the city. Similar to the celebrations in Brazil, it’s a time of indulging in drinking, eating, and revelry.
Getting to Amsterdam
Tip: Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, the biggest in the country, serves many millions of people per year, of whom thousands come from the United States. There are many direct flights from the US to Schiphol Airport. In case you are planning a long trip to the Netherlands or Europe, in general, it will be very convenient to park your car in a safe area close to the airport. For instance, if you are departing from Los Angeles, you can find cheap and convenient parking near lax. Be sure to book at least one month in advance to find the best deals.