Lifestyle & Culture

Den Haag: A Dutch travel masterpiece without the tourist crowds (updated)

(Editor’s note: This post on Den Haag was updated with additional information on 17 January 2024.)

The problem with cranking out travel posts when you’re an expat is that you’re too busy actually going to the places you love to write about them.

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All photos by Terry Boyd for Dispatches

So I have books of notes and hundreds of images I keep meaning to file.

Which is the case with Den Haag – The Hague, as we call it in English – and Utrecht.

For all of you expats in Europe making summer travel plans, both of these cities are alternative destinations to Amsterdam for savvy travelers because they’re incredibly inviting, have comparable attractions and are far less crowded.

(We were in Amsterdam just before Christmas, 2023, and it was already a madhouse, the streets choked with visitors)

I flipped a coin, and went with Den Haag first.

Den Haag is one of the many multi-experiential cities in the Netherlands. By that, I mean you can choose between the definitive urban experience of museums, dining and shopping, or go to the seaside and chill. Unlike stuffier European capital cities such as Brussels and Paris, Den Haag is regal, yet recreational.

Oh, and in Den Haag, you get a Chicago-esque business district, replete with skyscrapers, thrown in for free.

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. Den Haag’s Center City charms are impressive but concentrated in a very walkable area.

Because Dispatches is based 100 miles away in Eindhoven, we’re in and out of Den Haag several times each year, mostly because much of the Netherlands’ federal government is there. But after years of visits, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface as we learned recently.

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THE PLEIN SQUARE WITH ITS SKYLINE AND STATUE OF WILLIAM OF ORANGE (aka KING WILLIAM III)

Let’s start with the Old City

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The contrast between the 12th Century Den Haag and 21st century Den Haag is jarring. As you enter the Plein (above) square near the Mauritshuis Museum from the west, you see 18th-and-19th-century buildings neatly juxtaposed against the modern skyline.

This is a terrific area to spend a day, with the Mauritshuis for culture and the Passage complex for a little glamorous shopping therapy a few steps away.

The Passage is a vestige of the days when shopping really was glamorous … a covered shopping district that’s an UNESCO protected site and the oldest “mall” in the Netherlands. But there’s nothing at all mall-like about the Passage. Like its cousins in Amsterdam, Paris and New York, the Passage was created as a place to linger, and there is a terrific De Luca cafe where you can sit and sip your cappuccino either inside the covered area, or outside on the parallel walking street. The essential European experience.

Or … you can go to the Apple store a few steps away and be back in the 21st century. Lots of quirky shops and boutiques, and two hotels – a Novotel and a Novotel Suites. So you never have to leave. All around the Passage are shopping streets, squares, and the best in urban hubbub.

And for you Germany or Luxembourg-based expats, where everything shuts down at 4 p.m. on Saturday, everything in Den Haag is open 7 days per week.

Hofkwartier

On a recent trip in early 2024 to visit Dutch friends in Den Haag, they took us to a very cool neighborhood we’d somehow missed on a dozen visits, the Hofkwartier (Royal Quarter). The Hofkwartier is just west of the Bennenhof royal complex and The Passage. That said, Den Haag is a confounding warren of streets just like every other Dutch city, so just ask a local. As our friends pointed out, all residents know about this bohemian quarter with lots of indy shops and restaurants along with super high-end global retailers.

The main shopping streets are Molenstraat and Prinsestraat, but pick a street at random and you’ll find something interesting.

Don’t miss Coast Fish at  Prinsestraat 62. This tiny restaurant/fishmonger is a one-man operation, so be patient. You’ll be rewarded with the best and freshest kibbeling and fish and chips you’ve ever had at ridiculously low prices. And you can get fresh fish to go.

Cheryl’s huge piece of hake fish, salad and fries were 10 euros, and I had a generous portion of kibbeling for 5.50 euros! With a couple of Hertog Jan beers, the  total was 23 euros. Nuts!

The regal capital of the Netherlands

Today, Den Haag is a  business center that’s also the political capital of the Netherlands, though Amsterdam is the de juris capital. One of the most amazing complexes in the Netherlands is the Binnenhof on the Hofvijver Lake. It also has to be one of the most photographic spots in this oh-so photogenic country.

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THE MAURITSHUIS ON THE LEFT, THE BINNENHOF ON THE RIGHT, AND THE HOFVIJVER POND IN THE FOREGROUND.

The Binnenhof supposedly started as a small 12th-century lake house, but someone got seriously carried away because there are now no fewer than 15 distinct architectural styles represented in the buildings. That includes the 12th century gothic Ridderzhaal, which looks like a cathedral but was a book market, and the Hofkapl.

Today, the Binnenhof houses the Dutch parliament as well as the offices of the prime minister. Also, the current king arrives at the Ridderzhaal in a golden carriage to give speeches on his throne. The mental image of which blows my American mind. (Though you have to wonder if this is where Trump is headed.)

So this is literally the center of power in the Netherlands. And yeah, status and wealth are flaunted a little more here than in the rest of the Netherlands.

The whole area is chock-a-block with fabulous buildings and museums including the Northernmost Palace. (That’s literally what it’s called by the Dutch – Paleis Noordeinde – who are nothing if not literal.)

If you’ve seen photos in Dutch newspapers of the royal family or major politicians, this is mainly where they were taken.

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Mauritshuis

IMG_1583Okay, we’re a museum family who also likes free-form wandering around. In Den Haag, you can have both. But you simply cannot not go to the Mauritshuis Museum.

This is the anti-Louvre … a manageable collection of the finest Dutch masterpieces in the world, all in an intimate, elegant 17th-century mansion with its small rooms and alcoves still in place alongside large galleries.

It’s worth the 17.50 euro entry fee just to see the collection of Rembrandts and ponder his ever-evolving style, from the gauzy self-portraits to the razor-sharp photo-realism of “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp.”

The tourists come to see Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” And it is amazing to stand six inches away and be struck by how completely modern she is. All the more bizarre because she’s a tronie … a conceptual image of a stock character, not a portrait of an actual person.

Clearly, idealized beauty has not changed radically since the 17th century.

Mauritshaus also has ever-changing special events, so every trip, there’s  something new.

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The Beach

Okay, you’ve spent enough time with Jan Steen, Vermeer and Rembrandt.

Den Haag also includes two distinct beach experiences. Just north of the Old Town is Scheveningen, a collection of hotels, boardwalks, Caribbean-themed beach restaurants and casinos that stretches for miles. It might be the most commercial stretch of sand in Europe outside of La Grande-Mott on the edge of Montpellier, France.

But just north and south of the commercial beach are less developed spans of unspoiled dunes including the Oostduinpark

Eleven million people visit Scheveningen each year … a number that will rise to new heights in the years to come. Den Haag city leaders spent 25 million euros to improve the boardwalk and the access to the beach.

Is it our cup of tea? Ah, no. But you’ll never get bored. And Scheveningen is a great place to let your kids roam and burn off all that energy.

Where to stay

unnamedYou’ll want to spend at least a long weekend in Den Haag to take in the museums, the sea and the cool residential neighborhoods along the edges of the city. So you’re going to stay at a place convenient to everything.

In a life lived on the road, there is nothing I love more than a hotel suite. Space. Privacy.

I always admired Nicholas Berggruen, the billionaire who –  until he bought a house in Silicon Valley – lived in hotels.

B-Aparthotel Kennedy

So, we booked a long-term stay suite (cheap on the weekends when business travelers leave) at the B-Aparthotel Kennedy in the diplomatic quarter in Den Haag. We chose it because it’s close to both the center city and to the beach.

But you never know what you’re going to get. Let’s just cut to the chase: We opened the door to paradise.

The suite had a separate kitchen and dining area complete with kitchen and refrigerator.

A huge main living room/bedroom.

A second bedroom.

USB ports at the bed. Clever …

All the soaps and shampoos are from Rituals, a European chain of upscale cosmetics founded by Dutch entrepreneur Raymond Cloosterman.

It was the attention to detail that just overwhelmed us.

Not crappy hotel chairs. Barcelona chairs.

Art work. Elaborate shades on the windows.

The rooms had a dark grey tranquil paint palette and wall coverings. A mural in the bedroom. Slate in the bathroom. A shower and a tub.

A light bar behind the bed. Everywhere else, there is recessed lighting and the highest quality fixtures. Great towels. The only disappointment? No Frette sheets or towels.

But it was the highest-quality suite we’ve ever enjoyed, and we’ve stayed in some fabulous hotels in Stockholm, Washington DC, Chicago, Paris and Bodrum.

The good news is, you can’t wait to get back after a day out. The bad news is, you never want to go home.

The Moxy

We do a lot of overnights, and the Moxy is not only affordable (97 euros in mid-January 2024, no breakfast) but perfectly positioned for quick trips near Den Haag Centraal train station and right on the city’s Kalvermarkt shopping district.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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