By WILLEKE van DOORN
(Editor’s note: Even Amsterdam’s mayor, Eberhard van de Laan, complains his Dutch city is overwhelmed by tourists. Earlier this year, van de Laan asked fellow mayors to show tourists the Netherlands’s other alluring cities.)
Stroll along the canals in Haarlem, a miniature version of Amsterdam, grab a bite to eat in Rotterdam’s Markthal or climb all the way to the top of Utrecht’s Domtoren for spectacular views over the city. The Netherlands is more than just Amsterdam.
With its canals, countless bridges, cute little streets, charming old houses, great museums and exciting nightlife, Amsterdam is a wonderful city. I could give you a hundred reasons why you should visit Amsterdam, which you probably already know is the No. 1 tourist destination in our little country. Yet, the Netherlands has so much more to offer. I already shared my favorite Dutch beaches with you. Now it is time to highlight my 10 favorite cities that are all great alternatives if you want to escape Amsterdam’s touristy scene and see a more authentic side of our beautiful country.
Think of all the things you love about Amsterdam: the canals running through the city, the bridges covered with bikes, the cute little cafés in hidden alleyways. Then imagine them without all the tourists fighting for that one spot on the bridge that offers the perfect photo opportunity.
That pretty much sums up Haarlem.
This city, not too far from Amsterdam, looks like a picture-perfect miniature version of our capital. Locals love to spend their free time shopping in the many one-of-a-kind stores and boutiques, or sipping a coffee and catching up with friends. If you loved Amsterdam, but are looking for a less touristy experience, Haarlem is the place to be.
Utrecht is one of the oldest cities in the country. The medieval city centre is a perfect example of the city’s old roots. Have a drink or grab lunch at one of the former castles turned into restaurants, stroll across the canals and climb all the way to the top of the Domtoren, Utrecht’s main highlight and number one attraction.
No matter where you are in Utrecht, you can always see the Domtoren, which hits its highest point at 112 meters, towering over the city. The tower was built in 1382 and has been a city icon ever since. Take a tour in and around the building and climb the 465 steps to the top where a panoramic view of the city awaits.
Rotterdam is the only city in the Netherlands with a real skyline, highlighted by the Erasmusbrug (Erasmus bridge). The city was bombed in the Second World War and had to be completely rebuild. One of Rotterdam’s newest hotspots is the Markthal: an indoor market which opened just a few years ago.
The Markthal is conveniently located next to Blaak train station and is a must-see when you are visiting Rotterdam. The unique architecture, colorful art and the smell of good food when you enter make for a great street food experience. After grabbing a bite to eat in the Markthal, head over to the Witte de Withstraat for a drink at Café de Witte Aap, named the world’s best bar by Lonely Planet in 2009.
Let me start with this: Tilburg is far from the prettiest city in the Netherlands. I have lived here for four years now and it is not a place that looks good in photos. But it is a city where you can have a really good time.
Tilburg is a relatively small city in the south of the Netherlands that is mostly known because of its bustling student community thanks to the three universities that have campuses across town. It is also just a 15-minute drive away from the Netherlands’ biggest theme park, the Efteling. To cater to the students’ needs and taste, there are many bars and cheap but good restaurants in the city.
Make sure to visit the Piushaven in summer for drinks next to the canal. And don’t forget to try The Talk’s cheesecake. As every local here will tell you, it is the best cheesecake you will ever have. Promise!
Just like Tilburg, Leiden has a large university community with tons of students both from the Netherlands and abroad. But Leiden is more than just a fun college town. With its canals, bridges, old churches and windmills, the city centre has that nostalgic feel that will make you fall in love with the Netherlands. Right after Amsterdam, Leiden is the Dutch city with the second most water flowing through it.
Together, Leiden’s canals stretch out over a distance of 28 kilometers. There are 88 bridges covering the canals. Get on a boat and discover all the city has to offer with a boat tour through the city that will take you to historical monuments, museums and small bars and restaurants along the canals.
A couple of weeks before the holidays an ice skating rink, a giant Christmas tree, many Christmas stalls and a big Ferris wheel turn the city centre of Maastricht into a winter wonderland. It is the most magical time of year to visit this city in the most southern point of the Netherlands.
Close to Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, Maastricht enjoys a perfect location within Europe. Grab a hot chocolate or Gluhwein at the Christmas market, test your ice skating skills on the ring or enjoy the great shopping the city has to offer.
The Wyck neighborhood is a great place for shopaholics. Make sure to take a break from shopping for a cup of coffee and a slice of Limburgse vlaai. This is a cake that the province of Limburg, of which Maastricht is the capital, is known for around the country. It is available in all kinds of fruity and sweet flavors and absolutely delicious!
• DEN HAAG
While Amsterdam is our nation’s capital, Den Haag is the political capital of the country. Check out the Binnenhof, the main stage of Dutch politics, where you can get a tour around the grounds and have a look inside the Tweede Kamer, the Dutch House of Representatives.
You might even spot our prime minister cycling on his way to his office! Next on your sightseeing tour through Den Haag is the Vredespaleis, which houses the UN’s International Court of Justice. All the historical highlights make Den Haag a must-visit when you are in the Netherlands. And to make the city even more appealing, it is just a short drive from Den Haag to the popular beach of Scheveningen!
Head down to the south of the Netherlands to ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a day filled with great shopping, delicious food and interesting museums in a chilled-out city where the locals are much more relaxed and friendly than in Holland’s big cities. ‘s-Hertogenbosch is filled with restaurants, bars and cafes where you can mingle with the locals and try some of the city’s signature dishes.
A must-try is de Bossche Bol: a puff pastry filled with a rich cream and covered in dark chocolate. Bakery Jan de Groot, just a short walk from the central train station, is said to have the best ones in town. Another cool food-related spot to check out in ‘s-Hertogenbosch is de Verkadefabriek. It’s former cookie-factory now turned into a theatre and cinema.
Remember the beautiful blue and white pottery you have seen at so many tourist stores in Amsterdam? Delfts Blauw, as it is named, originated in the city of Delft in the 17th century. To this day you are still reminded of the Delft’s pottery legacy all around the city.
From street lights and benches to mosaics, you will see the blue-white design everywhere. There is still one factory and a couple of galleries which you can visit to see how the unique blue-white pottery designs are made.
Delft is also the city of famous Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, who was born in the city in 1632. Learn more about his life and work at the Vermeer Centre in Delft.
When you think of the Netherlands, one of the things that comes to mind is cheese. Gouda is the place to be for all cheese-lovers. Every Thursday morning in spring and summer, the city centre hosts a big cheese market where vendors bring out all their best cheeses. It is an old tradition that dates back many centuries in the city’s history. After visiting the market, have a look at Gouda’s cheese museum where you will see how Gouda’s famous cheese is made. Of course you will have the opportunity to try out some cheeses as well as buy some nice souvenirs from your visit to the ‘cheese city’.