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.
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.
(I’m writing this in Amsterdam, and yeah, it’s already a madhouse, the streets choked with selfie-stick wielding mass tours.)
I flipped a coin, and I’m going 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 month, mostly because much of the Netherlands’ federal government is there. But in all those visits, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface.
Let’s start with the Old City
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.
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.
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.
Okay, 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.
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 plan to spend 25 million euros to improve the boardwalk and the access to the beach over the next three years.
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
You’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.
So, we booked a long-term stay suite (cheap on the weekends when business travelers leave) at the B-Aparthotel 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.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.