(Editor’s note: Lale Boyd also contributed to this post.)
The 2019 summer tourist assault began with the Easter holidays when tens of thousands of tourists descended on Amsterdam. Our daughter Lale who goes to uni in Maastricht, just got back from a day trip to Amsterdam with her boyfriend Leon and reported she’s never seen it more crowded.
With that thousand-yard stare of a soldier who’s seen too much madness, she just kept repeating over and over again, “It was insane.” The area outside Amsterdam Centraal was so crowded that she and Leon literally couldn’t move down the streets: “We stood in line for everything.”
That used to not happen until summer. Now, the tourist hordes arrive in April. It’s gotten so bad that this year, the Dutch Tourism Board has gone from promoting tourism to asking people not to come because Amsterdam and other destinations such as the Keukenhof tulip gardens and the Kinderdijk windmills have turned into the Dutch Venices, with so many visitors no one can move.
In Amsterdam, the tourist count has exceeded 20 million per year, up from 11 million in 2005.
In the three years since we started Dispatches Europe, we’ve suggested alternatives to Amsterdam, because during the tourist season – which is now the bulk of the year – Amsterdam officials beg tourists to go love other Dutch cities to death.
As we’ve said before, it’s amazingly easy to do because the Netherlands has more surprises and delights per square kilometer than any other country in Europe.
For the 2019 list, we’ve omitted Antwerp, the most inviting Dutch city not actually in the Netherlands, replacing it with some of the cities we’ve visited in the past few months. And several cities rose or fell on the list including Dordrecht, Rotterdam and ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
No. 10 Roermond
There are two reasons to visit Roermond. First is shopping: Designer Outlet Roermond, the largest fashion outlet center nothern Europe, is ranked the No. 2 fashion outlet city behind Outletcity Metzingen in Germany. Roermond is even bigger now, with a major expansion complete including a new NA-KD store from Sweden.
Roermond 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.
The second reason to visit is because 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 on the water.
No. 9 Haarlem
Unlike most of the destinations on this list, we’ve only been to Haarlem once. It was a memorable day. And as we wrote in a travel post, we would have remembered a lot more had we not gone from cafe to cabaret taste-testing wines and local beers. (It was a looong train ride back to our headquarters in Eindhoven.) But we came away impressed by Haarlem’s 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.
• De Overkant Restaurant is also swell: lots of locals and that whole gezellig thing going on for which the Dutch are so famous.
No. 8 Utrecht
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 Netherlands 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.
No. 7 Delft
Really cute, really small and really old, Delft is worth the trip just because it’s super close to both Den Haag and Rotterdam.
This is a university town, with thousands of international students at Technical University of Delft, one of the best engineering schools in the world.
This is also the home of Vermeer, yet another reason to visit, though none of his paintings are here. (“Girl with the Pearl Earring” is just a few minutes away by train at the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, which is on this list.)
Delft has a great centrum and lot of canals, but few tourists. So it still offers the authentic Dutch experience.
There’s a mall shopping street and market. Lots of cute cafes and Delft is also a great place to Christmas shop, with boutiques and affordable retail.
Where to eat:
• Butcher Leo van Vleit sells great sandwiches.
• We highly recommend Brasserie Oranje Boven right on the main market square in front of the Maria van Jesse Kerk. Best kibbeling in the Netherlands. But it’s a one-man operation, so be patient.
• For an afternoon caffeine infusion and snack, try the very elegant Bij Best at Vrouwjuttenland 22
No. 6 Dordrecht
You expats who’ve lived in the Netherlands forever … we know you know all about this unique island town next door to Rotterdam.
If you’re a newbie traveler looking for a city with all the things Amsterdam has – canals, charm and character – and more, this is the place. Dordrecht is the oldest city in the province of South Holland and we’ve never seen another Dutch city with a comparable concentration of preserved 15th, 16th and 17th-century buildings.
Dordrecht is about 10 kilometers up the Maas river network from Rotterdam. 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.
We wandered in after visiting a nearby nature preserve 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 this summer for a “twofer” 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.
Rotterdam is only 6 minutes away by train. Make it a weekend and visit both.
No. 5 ‘s-Hertogenbosch
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, lots and lots of great restaurants 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, then stop and say to ourselves, “I love this town.”
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.
There are also so many restaurants and cafés around the St. John Cathedral at Kerkstraat and Parade, so just pick one.
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 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 summer or winter (there are heat lamps and cozy blankets).
Where to grab a coffee: We always took visitors to Robbies, one of the best cafés in the Netherlands, which also had a boutique-y shop with apparel and home furnishings. But the young owner just closed it.
That means we’ll have to try the brasserie at Hotel Central on our next trip.
No. 4 Den Haag
If life were fair – and it’s not – tourists would picture the Binnenhof on the Hofvijver Lake (above) in Den Haag when they think of the Netherlands, not Amsterdam.
Den Haag (or The Hague, if you prefer) is 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. In fact, there’s a room full of Rembrandt’s works, including the famous “The Anatomy Lesson.”)
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 (and over-developed) beach in the Netherlands.
An incredibly under-rated city forever in Amsterdam’s shadow and another place we could live, if only we had the do-re-me.
What to read:
• Before you go, read “Girl with the Pearl Earring” author Tracy Chevalier’s recent post on the Guardian website about her quest to see all of Vermeer’s paintings.
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.
No. 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.
No. 2 Maastricht
Maastricht is really two small towns – Wyck and Vrijthof/Centrum – separated by the Maas River.
We were tempted to make this No. 1 because this is one of the most beautiful cities in the Netherlands with so many green spaces, cafés hidden in winding lanes and alleys, fabulous shopping streets, parks and squares, not to mention its ancient city walls. And it’s all on one of Europe’s great rivers.
It’s absolutely one of the most quaint, Parisian-like cities in Europe, and there always seem to be Porsches and Lamborghinis parked on the streets of Wyck. BUT, it’s increasingly popular and crowded with tourists from Belgium, France and Germany.
There are no canals, but the Maas River is both a great place to find a riverside cafe and a great place to recreate including boat trips. Don’t forget the great Christmas market.
In short, Maastricht is pretty damn near perfect.
We could write a post about all the must-see destinations including:
• The Bonnefantenmusem, designed by Aldo Rossi, is just south of the main business district. But you can’t miss it because of the distinctive tower that houses a restaurant and exhibition hall.
• Il Bacaro – One of the most authentic watering holes in a city full of glossy café and bistros, Il Bacaro sits right on the edge of the square where the Christmas Market is held each year, and where Andre Rieu has his annual July concerts.
• Coffeelovers in the Dominicanenkerk – This is the coolest coffee bar in the coolest bookstore in Europe. Okay, maybe the second-coolest bookstore behind Mayersche Buchhandlung in Aachen.
• With Love Burritos is the student favorite.
• ‘t Wycker Cabinet Bistro – A very polished, yet informal, place to land … if you can find a spot.
No. 1 Rotterdam
The more we visit Rotterdam, the more enamored and dazzled we are.
We were there this spring for the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament, with more time than in the past to just wander. Which took us into the Cool District and down to the Maas and the port itself.
We stood on the Erasmusbrug and took in the sweep and scale of the place: the gleaming buildings and the frenetic port, and we came back and made it No. 1 on our list of the best cities for expats lists.
Well, not just because of that visit. This is a boom town, with tech and every flavor of business and advanced manufacturing.
Rotterdam is 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.
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.
Where to eat:
• If you’re feeling flush, there are at least eight Michelin-starred restaurants.
• Takumi Düsseldorf Netherlands is Rotterdam’s top noodle restaurant. (Why it’s called Takumi Düsseldorf is a long and kind of confusing story, but you can read about it literally on the wall of the restaurant. It’s on West-Kruiskade, which is sort of Rotterdam’s China Town, though nothing like Antwerp’s. Affordable and cool. And crowded.)
• Anywhere in the Markthal.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.