Netherlands (Holland) Travel Guide, Europe

Haarlem

Haarlem’s Elephant Bridge. Photo by Mycomzx.

Visiting the Netherlands

This little kingdom deserves a lot more attention than just for its tulips, windmills and Amsterdam (the capital) hedonism.
Dutch cities are brimming with grand architecture – ancient and modern, along with top class museums, galleries, a buzzing nightlife and other attractions that make up a great urban culture trip.
Then there are pleasant canal cruises, interesting city walks and ultra-relaxation in the famous ‘coffeeshops‘, i. e. cannabis cafés.
The countryside is flat and natural with extensive flower fields (in season) framed by windmills and grassy dykes – perfect for comfortable cycling and walks.
Dutch people are relaxed, liberal and open-minded who generally speak excellent English; internet and telecommunications services are advanced.
The country is compact and easy to get around, with a smooth and efficient transport network, both domestic and international.
And by the way, what’s the country really called? Netherlands or Holland?

Holland lies so low they’re only saved by being dammed
T. Hood

Downsides

• The weather can be unpredictable and miserable.
• Street/place names are long and not easy to read or say.
• Netherlands is not a budget option, especially accommodation.

Weather

Best: May-Sept. Holland doesn’t experience extremes of heat or cold, though the weather is notoriously erratic and spring/autumn are often wet.
Worst: Nov-March. Short daylight hours, cold and grey, but Christmas markets in December are light and lively.

Length of stay:
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights: 2 days. Amsterdam or other cities for a wild/arts weekend.
Recommended: 10 days to get a fair look at this tiny Dutch country.

Delft town centre canal, Netherlands

Delft town centre. Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen.

Main Attractions

***Amsterdam is a lively, interesting and cosmopolitan capital, with terrific architecture and endless canal views, world-class museums and no shortage of or action. See Amsterdam pictures

**The Randstad (rim towns) – a group of easy-access towns near Amsterdam, this is a highly developed region containing two-thirds of the entire Dutch population; places can be visited on day trips from the ‘Dam but some places are worth a more thorough look:

**Rotterdam – young and dynamic, this metropolis is the world’s 2nd biggest port (after Shanghai) and buzzes with energy and wacky architecture.

***Haarlem – a typical Dutch town, Haarlem is gateway to the flower fields 20 km west of Amsterdam, so it’s best in spring time. It has well-preserved medieval town centre including a 14th century city hall and a main square which hosts a lively market.

***Leiden. This charming, vibrant university town is Rembrandt’s birthplace; particularly pleasant is the old and watery quarter of Rapenburg.

**The Keukenhof Gardens and the bulb fields nearby. This 80-acre park is the world’s largest garden with about six million flowers at its peak time from late March till the end of May.

***Gouda. Visit the St Janskerk church to see the amazing stained glass windows then buy a wheel of real, vintage, taste-explosion Dutch cheese in this pleasant town.

Den Haag

Den Haag’s Parliament buildings, Binnenhof. Photo by Josef F. Stuefer.

**The Hague (Den Haag), an elegant political centre and the Dutch Royal residence, The Hague has its own classy ambience which is quite unique from other cities of the Netherlands.
Binnenhof – a 13th century castle morphed into the Dutch Parliament – is one of the finer building clusters while notable arts can be seen at the Mauritshuis. Den Haag has an excellent culture scene, fantastic dining options and a popular sandy beach just 4km away at the resort of Scheveningen.

***Delft – is another delightful little medieval town with canal-lined streets, known for its ‘Delftware’ blue and white ceramics; best strolled on foot, the Historic Walk around the old town is a winner. Summer crowds can be a nightmare but otherwise Delft is an immaculately relaxing little burg.

**Utrecht offers the 14thC Dom Tower, several interesting museums and lively canalside eating and drinking.

***Maastricht, an old Roman town sandwiched between Germany and Belgium, this is is one of Holland’s delights with a charming old quarter and lively cosmopolitan feel.

**Dordrecht is a small and little-touristed but well preserved medieval town with a great museum (van Gijn) and oodles of charm.

**Groningen, a very lively, cultured small town up north invigorated by university students.

Keukenhof Gardens in springtime, near Amsterdam, Holland

Keukenhof Gardens in springtime, near Amsterdam.

**Hoge Veluwe National Park, a nature reserve of forests, marshlands and sand dunes is good for walks or free-to-use white bicycles but also well worth a visit for the terrific Kroller-Muller Museum which hosts a remarkable collection of 278 paintings by Van Gogh and Europe’s largest sculpture garden.

**Frisian Islands, this group of bleakly attractive holiday islands just off the north-west coast (access is possible on foot if mud is not a problem a la wadlopen) is enjoyed by hardy walkers or bikers; Texel is the most popular.

Intercity Transport

Train and bus services are efficient and good value. Main cities from Amsterdam by train: Schiphol Airport 20 mins; Haarlem 15 mins; The Hague 50 mins; Leiden 45 mins; Rotterdam 1 hour; Hoge Veluwe National Park 70 mins; Maastricht 2. 5 hours.

Local Transport

Urban buses and trams are easy and efficient with one type of ticketing ‘strippenkaart’ throughout the country. The train network is excellent with reasonable fares and efficient services; various passes are available. there’s also a good taxi system – ‘traintaxi’ – with a fixed price for one ride anywhere to a certain limit from a rail station is available in all cities and towns except Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the Hague.
Long-distance buses connect from Amsterdam to most European cities, as do the trains.

Activities

Hiking: Excellent for both long and short walks as the 300 km-long coast offers several reasonably scenic trails (known as LAWs) through sand dunes and nature reserves.
You can even walking across the mud flats at low tide in the Wadden Sea – between north coast and the Wadden islands. ‘Wadlopen’ (mud walking) is very popular and Dutch take this dirty business seriously.
Alternatively try following the tulip trail between Haarlem and Sassenheim or a windmill trail along Kinderdijk, or the Zaanse Schans area.
Dutch cities are compact and usually have suggested walking routes so the best way to explore is on foot. Get information and maps from the VVV (Tourist Office).

Canal cruises: There are loads of pretty canals and rivers in most urban centres so it’s easy to find cruises and boat hire.

Canoeing: is fantastic way to get close to Netherlands nature, for instance marshlands of the Hollandse Biesbosch National Park, south of Rotterdam. Guided tours are available as well as just canoe rentals.

The Netherlands most popular beach at Scheveningen, Holland

The Netherlands most popular beach at Scheveningen. Photo by Random.

Cycling

Holland is one of the most cycle friendly countries on the planet as the land is almost flat, about 85 % of Dutch people get around regularly by bike and most of the time cycles have priority over other vehicles.

There are said to be more bikes than inhabitants (16 million) in the Netherlands. It has about 17, 000 km (including 20 long distance routes totalling 6, 000km) of well-marked cycling paths/lanes and every local VVV will provide appropriate information.

Commercial cycling packages/tours are frequently on offer, too. Detailed cycle maps are available at book stores. Netherlands Railways are cycle friendly as bikes can be carried on trains or rented/ parked/ repaired or even bought at more than 100 stations throughout the country. Check out bike-rental vouchers at the station.

Try the windmill trail, the flower bulb trail (see hiking section), North Sea and Wadden Sea, 2 long coastal routes or riding white bikes for free in Hoge Veluwe National Park.

Do not forget to lock up your bike, these are the most stolen items in the country!
p. s. It is an offence to be drunk and in charge of a bicycle; this is taken seriously by the police.

Skating: Cycle paths are also good for inline skating or join Amsterdam’s skating evening touring the city on Fridays; meet at the Vondelpark.

Watersports/Beaches: the province of Zeeland in the south has 175 miles of mostly sandy beaches and is popular holiday destination. Good surf can be found easily, too.

Coffeeshops: weed, ready-rolled spliffs, space cake and so on as well as coffee are available from many ‘coffee shops‘ around Holland, not just Amsterdam, though new regulations sadly mean they may be obliged to shut down access to foreigners.
Some coffeeshops are cute, some are quaint, some are weird and some are just sad and squalid.
It’s legal to buy and use small quantities of wacky baccy or its resin derivative. But for how long?

Main Festivals

late Feb: Holland Flowers Festival, a must-see garden show that takes place at the Greenery complex, covering 4, 500 sq. m in Wervershoof; this event is known for its creative landscape designs on display.

March: TEFAF Maastricht, the European Fine Art Fair, one of the world’s leading art and antiques fairs that attracts dealers and collectors globally.

April 30: Queen’s Day (Koninginnedag), a national celebration with massive, mad street party in Amsterdam. It is also known as Orange day and many people wander about dressed in orange, the royal colour representing the House of Orange.

late May/June: Holland Festival, Netherlands’ largest performing arts festival held mainly in Amsterdam and The Hague since 1947.

The 2nd weekend of July: North Sea Jazz Festival, one of the best and arguably the biggest jazz event in the world, with world-class artists and 23, 000 visitors a day. Previously held in the Hague, it has been held in Rotterdam since 2006. 3 days.

The first weekend of August: Amsterdam Pride is one of Europe’s largest gay/lesbian festivals. The world famous Canal Parade, with a hundred decorated boats and music, is a must-see.

For some precise dates, more suggestions and information see European Festivals or Arts Festivals

Rotterdam

Rotterdam’s cube housing. Photo by Hanselpedia.

Visas

Only a valid passport is required to enter the country and stay up to 3 months for citizens of Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, USA, and most of Europe.
EU citizens can enter Holland with only a national ID card.

Safety

The Netherlands is generally safe, but their extremely liberal attitude has attracted some undesirables so stay away from dodgy non-tourist areas in cities such as Amsterdam and take the usual precautions.
Bag snatching (probably by east Europeans) on trains, especially those from Amsterdam to/from Schipol Airport, is quite common.
Do not hesitate to seek help if you are in trouble as Dutch people and police are very helpful.

Food

Although the Dutch offer some of Europe’s best food products such as dairy – particularly cheese – and fish – especially herring (best May-June), local dishes are rather bland and limited. However interesting, high-quality international food is no trouble to find in Netherlands, especially Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the Hague.
Indonesian influenced dishes are the best in Europe. If you are unfamiliar with it, try ‘Rijsttafel’ (literally ‘rice table’), an assorted platter which has become the nation’s favourite.

Accommodation

Hotels tend to be expensive and consequently the better value places such as guest houses abd cheap hotels get booked up in advance, especially in Amsterdam and Haarlem, so reserve your room ahead during busy times, e. g. the summer and other holiday periods.

Language:
Dutch and Frisian (spoken in a northern province) but most locals speak fair English.

Electricity:
Electric sockets are 230v and take 2 round pin plugs.