As DIY expats shopping for a new country, we considered the Netherlands at least in part because we used to enjoy trips from our home in Germany to Amsterdam. The museums! The restaurants! The people! The antique stores!
We loved it all.
BUT, we always visited in the winter when Amsterdam was empty. Only when we were making a recon trip to Eindhoven in summer 2015 including a detour to Amsterdam to meet my cousin Sophia, did we realize that the discount tours take over the city.
In the two years since we started Dispatches Europe, we’ve written extensively about alternatives to Amsterdam, because during the tourist season – which is now the bulk of the year – Amsterdam officials recommend (read “beg”) tourists to go love some other Dutch cities to death.
So, now when we head out, we go with a mission – to find the authentic Dutch experiences in towns the package tours never visit.
Fellow expats – it’s an amazingly easy thing to do because the Netherlands has more surprises and delights per square kilometer than any other country in Europe.
Here are the places (so far) we love the most, with Delft and the Frisian Islands to visit later this year and next:
There are two reasons to visit Roermond. First is shopping: Designer Outlet Roermond, the largest fashion outlet center in the Netherlands. This center has lots of upscale brands including Armani and Zegna, affordable brands such as Ralph Lauren and Victorinox and low-end fast fashion including Desigual And everything in between.
Second, it’s on the Maasplaasen Recreational Area, the largest inland water sport area in the Netherlands.
Wait … there’s three. It’s near Maastricht, another fave! (See below.)
The town of Roermond is almost an afterthought, but it has several cafés on the water. In fact, this is such a nice location developers are adding lots of new housing. A happenin’ little town.
• Go during the week. Weekends are crazy busy (see photo above), especially as you get closer to Christmas.
• Shop at the center, but head to the cafés in town for a broodje, cocktail or beer by the water.
Okay, this is Belgium. But it’s the most Dutch city that’s not actually in the Netherlands. And it’s only a couple of hours south of Amsterdam.
Like Rotterdam, this is a large port city. Unlike Rotterdam, Antwerp has retained so much of its Belle Époque charm. Antwerp is also very multicultural. You hear Dutch, obviously, and French. But you hear lots of Asian languages as well as Yiddish because of Antwerp’s huge Satmar community of Orthodox Jews in the legendary diamond district.
This is just a super city, with a world-class zoo, a must-see train station (seriously) and a great Chinatown.
PLUS, Antwerp is in the middle of a major facelift including new roads and a new high-rise luxury apartment tower in the Opera District. Put this on your list for 2019.
Where we ate: We ate amid the 19th-century splendor of Le Royal Café restaurant (right) in the train station. We were headed for Chinatown but were thwarted by a rainstorm. Next time.
An expat tip: Our daughter Lale and her friends picked Antwerp for their grad trip and spent a lot of time at the board game cafe in the train station when they weren’t at the zoo.
Lale says Antwerp has lots of hidden things including quiet courtyards. “It’s just a cool city … nice to wander and find new things.”
Unlike most of the destinations on this list, we’ve only been to Haarlem once. But it was a memorable day. We would have remembered more had we not gone from cafe to cafe taste-testing wines and local beers. (It was a looong train ride back to Eindhoven.) But we came away impressed by Haarlem’s inviting ambiance and unique architecture.
This isn’t just a great place to visit. It’s also a good option for expats working in Amsterdam, but who prefer to live somewhere sans tourists.
Where we ate: Where didn’t we eat? But our favorite was Grand Café Bistro Vivante. Great wine and food in such an inviting space. (See the video above)
De Overkant Restaurant is also swell; lots of locals and that whole gezellig thing going on for which the Dutch are so famous.
Utrecht is yet another major Dutch city that most tourists have never heard of and will never visit. What a shame.
This college town is funky and laid-back, sort of the San Francisco of the Netherland because it’s also a huge business center due to its proximity to Amsterdam.
We called it “the authentically cool city Amsterdam wishes it could be” in an early post. It has lots of businesses geared toward kids including vintage shops, custom bicycle shops, boutiques, salons and record and comic book shops.
Another place that gets our highest expat praise – we could live here.
After many, many visits, we’ll stick with that.
Where we eat: Anywhere in the Zoutmarkt, the restaurant district will be fun, filling and inexpensive.
6) Den Haag
So many tourists think of Amsterdam and its Red Light District and “Coffee” Shops as defining the Netherlands. If life were fair – and it’s not – tourists would picture the Binnenhof on the Hofvijver Lake (above) in Den Haag, both the capital and the location of the Mauritshuis, one of the world’s great museums. (Think Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” and several important Rembrandts.)
For us, sophisticated Den Haag defines the Netherlands politically and aesthetically.
As we’ve noted before, Den Haag doesn’t have the same scale as Amsterdam … miles of canals and multiple historic districts. But it also doesn’t have the seedy Red Light district, tourist hordes and pot dens. Like Amsterdam, Den Haag offers a world-class range of experiences including Scheveningen, the most popular beach in the Netherlands.
An incredibly underated city forever in Amsterdam’s shadow.
Where to stay:
B-Aparthotel in the diplomatic quarter in Den Haag. We chose it because it’s on Embassy Row, close to both the center city and to the beach. It turned out to be a surprisingly luxurious hotel nearing the top of our list for groove factor.
Where to eat:
De Luca cafe in the historic Passage, where you can sit and sip your cappuccino either inside the covered area, or outside on the parallel walking street. The essential European experience.
Rotterdam blows us away every time we visit, whether for fun or business.
It’s just so new and vital from the cutting-edge architecture along the Maas River in the center of the city to the frenetic activity of the port. That’s why it stars in so many TV ads such as the Maserati vid above.
While Rotterdam doesn’t have the Rijksmuseum or Dam Square, it has almost as many fascinating experiences including the Markthal and tours of the port. There’s no other city like it in Europe.
On any given day, it could be our No. 1 pick for adventure or living there. It’s a city where you’ll never be bored.
Where we ate: This is going to strike you as weird, but my favorite spot in Amsterdam is RDM Kantina on the port. We ate here during PortXL and it was great. Just ordinary Dutch food, but a great setting dockside inside an old restaurant where dock workers used to eat their lunches. Now, it’s mostly businessmen and techies from the nearby startup accelerator.
You also can’t go wrong at any of the restaurants and food stalls inside the Markthal, which has to be seen to be believed. There’s the tiny Korean street food restaurant next to the Asian market as well as a middle eastern restaurant with stools. Whatever the mood, you can find it at Markthal.
You’ve never heard of it. We’d never heard of ‘s-Hertogenbosch until we moved to Eindhoven, 18 minutes away by train. But what a town.
Den Bosch, as locals call it, has it all … a fabulous museum, the best shopping in the Brabant province and even a huge open green space at the edge of the town.
We’ve been more times than we can count, and each time we find something new.
Den Bosch is a commercial center, but it’s also a party town. We’ve never visited when there weren’t people standing in the streets of the bar district along Korenbrugstraat laughing, drinking beer and, well, partying.
Unlike Amsterdam, s’-Hertogenbosch is an authentic Dutch city, with people living their rather upscale lives, not trying to deal with the tourist hordes.
Where we eat: This is easy. Café de Boulevard, the first place in Den Bosch I ever ate .. and where young Mark, the manager, fixed me up with a cheesy flammkuchen and a glass of house wine. (Total price 9.50 euros!) This is mainly a hangout with great beer (try the Beerze from Eindhoven) and bar food.
But Den Bosch has entire streets such as Short Putstraat chockablock with cozy restaurants where you can find affordable fare, then enjoy it alfresco.
Where to grab a coffee: Robbie’s is one of the best cafés in the Netherlands, and you can shop! (And try the cheesecake.)
3) Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, north of Arnhem
You think you want to go to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, but you really don’t.
First, it’s in the middle of Amsterdam’s museum district and always, always crowded. Second, it mostly has early works that are, ahhh, middlin’ when you look at the entire Van Gogh oeuvre. Unless you’re just nuts about peasants eating potatoes by the light of a smoky lamp.
If you want to see the good stuff, we recommend you visit the Kröller-Müller Museum, which has the second-largest Van Gogh collection in the world. Imagine yourself inches away from several of his most celebrated pieces from his time in France including “Café Terrace at Night” and our personal favorite, “Country Road in Provence by Night.”
The museum itself is in Otterlo, north of Arnhem, and its eclectic collection is a must-experience. The ultra-modern building has lots of stone and glass looking out on lawns filled with modern sculptures.
But here’s the best part – Kröller Müller is surrounded by De Hoge Veluwe National Park, which has thousands of acres of open land including dunes. We even saw wild boars. Definitely will be going back.
Where we ate: At the museum café, which has tasty and affordable food.
Where we parked: Plenty of free parking. BUT, you must pay at the entry of the park. You can either park at the entrance to the park and bike the 10 km to the museum, or you can drive through the park to the museum. We’ll bike next time.
We’ve been going to Maastricht for at least 16 years and we’re still finding little corners of the city we’ve never seen before.
We’re partial because Lale goes to university here. But this is one of the best destinations in Europe any way you care to rank your cities – by architecture, activities, food and culture.
Like all river cities (the Maas cuts it in half) Maastricht has distinctly different personalities. On the east side of the river across the main pedestrian bridge is Wyck, the more bohemian area with lots of boutiques and art galleries. That is, until you get down to the train station and there are upscale shops including Hermès along an under-construction French-style boulevard along Stationstraat.
On the east side of the river, it’s all upscale stores. Then, you get into the heart of the old city, which includes huge squares, parks, old city walls, Vrijthof Square where the Christmas Market is held and Maastricht University.
Maastricht is unique in that you hear more French spoken here than Dutch because it’s on the Belgian border. It also has a very French flavor, with small bistros and cafés in hidden leafy courtyards. A cosmopolitan island in the Netherlands’ most conservative province, Limburg. Go figure.
The population is only about 125,000 people, but it feels like a much larger city.
Where we eat: We love, love, love ‘t Wycker Cabinet Bistro on Wyckerbrugstraat between the river and the train station. This place has it all … outdoor seating, a glorious interior, affordable upscale food and lots of choices for beer, wine and cocktails. A very polished, yet informal, place to land … if you can find a spot.
If you’re in a hurry and low on cash, Bomb Ass Burritos just a couple of blocks down from ‘t Wycker Cabinet toward the train station is awesome, with burritos for about 8 euros.
Where we park: The train station has a garage that always has spaces. BUT, you use your chip card to get in and out. There is no ticket. We tried to help a frustrated Belgian fellow who somehow drove in, but couldn’t escape. We tried everything, but as far as we know, he’s still there. Don’t let this happen to you.
Going to Amsterdam? Dordrecht is way wealthier, yet more welcoming. The city is just drop-dead gorgeous, with ornate 15th, 16th and 17th-century buildings lining every street.
We literally stumbled into the island city of Dordrecht (just south of Rotterdam), looking for a late lunch after visiting Nationaal Park de Biesbosch nature preserve nearby. The nature preserve is fine … lots of bike roads and hiking. But Dordrecht blew us away.
If you’re looking for a city with all the things Amsterdam has – canals, charm and character – and more, this is the place.
Dordrecht is about 10 kilometers up the Maas river network from Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port. You can tell Dordrecht is an island because everywhere you wander there are marinas. Marinas full of gigantic yachts, especially Nieuwe Haven, Dordrecht’s largest harbor.
You expats who’ve lived in the Netherlands forever … we know you know all about this town, which is famous for being the oldest city in the Netherlands and for its architecture. But give us a break – we’re relative newbies.
We arrived on a late-summer weekend in the middle of a party. (What! In the Netherlands?!) Well, several parties all over the place including an event where Dutch people far tougher than we are were diving into the frigid harbor to raise money to fight cancer. Now, we’re making plans to return for a two-fer weekend – Rotterdam and Dordrecht.
Where we ate:
• Centre Ville is on a canal right in the middle of the busiest part of the commercial district. Pretty good food and a nice selection of beer. But there are a million restaurants. Had we known we were coming, we would have researched.
• In the APCOA Vistraat parking garage in the center of the commercial district, a great location. But be forewarned – this tiny garage sells out fast and we had to sit in line until a car cleared out.
Rotterdam is only 6 minutes away by train. Make it a weekend and visit both.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.