(Editor’s note: This post on Maastricht is the fourth in a series of quick-trips we believe better reflect the expat lifestyle in Europe. You can see links to more Quick Trips at the bottom of the page.)
One of the best parts of our expat lifestyle is instant access to Europe’s wondrous cities. Unfortunately, we tend to zip in and out on business, or over a weekend.
There are cities that must be explored (Paris, Berlin and Rome). But there are also destinations where you can have a terrific adventure in a few hours …. the second-tier cities only expats really get to know.
That would be Maastricht.
The package tours stop in Amsterdam. A flag-following tour group or two might get lost and end up in Utrecht or Den Haag. Maybe even ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
But no one knows about Maastricht except the Belgians and Germans who live across the border and come to town to shop and dine.
German and Belgian influences give Maastricht a more cosmopolitan feel than other small cities in the south of the Netherlands. Maastricht is unique in that you hear almost as much French spoken here as Dutch. 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. And a lot of that cosmopolitan vibe comes from the fact that Maastricht is a university city, drawing young people from all over the world.
As I’ve noted in earlier posts, 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. Only recently have we made it into neighborhoods such as Céramique and Heugemerveld. Just a 10-minute walk from the centrum, they’re small cities unto themselves with museums, sleek residential developments and ultra-modern office complexes.
We visit a lot because our daughter Lale goes to university here. But this is one of the best destinations in Europe any way you care to rank your cities – by vibe, architecture, activities, food and culture.
Like all river cities (the Maas River cuts it in half) Maastricht has two 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 on Stationstraat.
On the east side of the river, it’s all upscale stores in Jekerkwartier. 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.
The population is only about 125,000 people, but Maastricht feels like a much larger city.
We go to cities for five experiences:
1 – General hanging out
2 – Shopping
3 – Dining and drinking
4 – Ambiance/architecture
5 – Museums and culture
So how does Maastricht rate?
Museums and culture: 8 out of 10
Maastricht suffers a bit from the fact it’s in the Netherlands and up against Amsterdam and Den Haag. However, Maastricht does have the Bonnefantenmuseum. The Bonnefantenmusem, designed by Aldo Rossi, is just south of the main business district. You can’t miss it because of the distinctive tower that houses a restaurant and exhibition hall. Like many, many museums in the Netherlands and Belgium, it has Old Masters including Bruegel, Reubens and Germany’s rare Old Master (along with Dürer), Lucas Cranach. But the most interesting works are in the collection of paintings, installations and other works from regional artists.
We just took in Mark Manders’ show. Manders is one of the Netherlands’ best-known contemporary artists and one of the most challenging. You have to see the exhibition for yourself because while you’ll “get” it, the narrative of his sculpture – accessible in terms of craftsmanship and execution – is mysterious and subdued.
If you’re an art geek, you will want to see Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s “The Census at Bethlehem,” one of the world’s most famous paintings. Except what your’e seeing is one of perhaps dozens of knockoff done by the son of the old man’s original work. The art world, right?
For such a small city, Maastricht has an amazing number of museums including a natural history museum an architecture and urbanism museum and several others.
Dining and Drinking: 9 out of 10
We love, love, love ‘t Wycker Cabinet Bistro (above) 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. The kids who work here are all super-friendly and prices are mid-range, with the average dinner about 30 euros.
The best student hangout in this college town is With Love Burritos , a tiny restaurant right on the Market Square. In a country that isn’t big on spicy, these guys bring the heat with a crazy offering of habaneros and hot sauces. The best tacos in the Netherlands by a mile at maybe 10 euros for three and the kids who work here are a hoot! Don’t miss it!!!
We finally made to Brasserie FLO, the Maastricht location of the Paris-based FLO chain of authentic brasseries and restaurants just a few steps from the train station. Three words: A-Maz-Ing.
We chose from the 3-course menu, and every plate was fantastic including the cod and the beef bourguignon. The deserts including the crazy take on cheesecake were sublime and we had waaaay too many glasses of chardonnay as well as of a sparking wine our waiter Modesta brought us as an anniversary treat. The bill came to about 100 euros for three people, which is a terrific deal considering the quality of the food and the sophistication of the restaurant and the staff. We highly recommend Brasserie FLO. And make a note – this is such a festive, friendly atmosphere that it’s typically full of happy diners on weekends. Book ahead.
We can’t afford them, but Maastricht has at least two Michelin-starred restaurants including Beluga. Novo is another upscale restaurant that gets great reviews.
Ambiance and architecture: 9 out of 10.
When it gets down to it, European cities that didn’t get bombed in World War II are all kind of the same. Cathedrals, picturesque quarters with blocks of beautiful and ancient buildings and squares full of people sipping wine, drinking beer and living life.
Which is true for Maastricht. What makes Maastricht special – and the perfect quick trip – is that it’s a small city that’s hugely cosmopolitan, multicultural and manageable. You can get off at the train station, walk a few blocks and be window shopping the boutiques of the Bohemian section, then cross the Maas and explore the alleyways of the Jekerkwartier shopping district.
For the history buffs, Maastricht dates back to the 11th century. The ancient city walls dating back to the 1300s are still there including the famous Helpoort gate and walls that were part of the city fortifications. Around the walls and gates are a whole network of parks.
Shopping – 7 out of 10
Maastricht has so many shopping streets and a little sumptin’ sumptin’ for every budget. But the knock on most Dutch cities is that they all kind of have the same stores, most of which are locations of Dutch, Danish and Swedish apparel chains. Chasin’, Jack & Jones, Scotch & Soda and whatever. Then there are the High Street stores including H&M, Primark and whatever. Maastricht at least has some boutiques and cooler chains. But no one will ever confuse Maastricht for, say, Düsseldorf.
General hanging out – 9 out of 10
Since 2002, we’ve done a lot of general hanging out in Maastricht and we rate it one of our favorite cities. It’s one of the cities where we’ve never had a bad time, and we feel like there’s so much more to discover.
What really makes this city interesting is that it has a very young vibe due to Maastricht University as the defining institution. This city is always really crowded, fun and vibrant. And you never know what to expect next from the fabulously talented quarter of students playing Brahms in front of de Bijenkorf to the Scottish band in full kilts and regalia marching down a side street, followed by a bunch of aristocratic types in haute couture.
You experience it all in Maastricht.
More Quick Trips:
Quick Trips: Düsseldorf has it all, from fashion-forward Königsallee to supercars
Quick Trips: Antwerp is a must-visit destination … but just not right now
Quick Trips: Charlie de Wilde is your expat guide to the insider’s Prague
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.