At the five year mark, we’re going to confess something … my co-CEO and wife Cheryl and I sold our U.S. media company, then founded Dispatches, our expat communications company, partly to indulge our European travel addiction. No, seriously. Ironically, as Dispatches took off, we got to travel less and less. Our only multi-day trips since 2015 were to Vienna, Stockholm, Paris and Strasbourg and the Alsatian Wine Road. Which is why we developed the Quick Trip series.
Our expat lives are probably not so different from yours … we’re all trying to work in weekend trips after hours, or sightseeing on business trips.
Everyone knows Amsterdam and there’s a lot to do there. But there’s too much cheesy tourist experience and not enough authentic European ambiance. Paris is fabulous, but it’s expensive and exhausting to go more than once per year. We found pretty quickly there are second-tier cities that don’t require the same investment of time, cash and energy as Paris, Berlin and Istanbul.
Looking back, it’s difficult to choose our favorite destination, though there are places we returned to time and again.
We go to cities for five experiences in no particular order:
• relaxing and general hanging out
• dining and drinking
Instead of saving up time and cash for two or three long trips, we prefer to visit multiple cities multiple times. These are the destinations an easy drive or train ride from our headquarters town in Eindhoven, including Amsterdam, Brussels, Den Haag (The Hague), Utrecht, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Hasselt, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Aachen.
No. 5 Brussels
Years ago when we lived in Germany, Brussels was the closest big city, so we know it well. We’ve been in every palace and museum, but we never get bored with Belgium’s ornate capital. It also has one of Europe’s stellar Christmas Markets, so we go a couple of times every year, at least.
Weirdly, we haven’t gotten around to do a Quick Trip post … 2021 will be the year.
Standout reason to go: Plaisirs d’Hiver, one of the best Christmas markets in Europe.
One more excuse: From 23 July to 25 August, you can visit the Royal Palace of Brussels, the center of royal life in Belgium. It’s just as grand, as elegant and as completely out of scale as you’d expect the residence of a king to be. Unless you’re hanging out with Charles and Camilla, this is the rare times we peasants get to mill around a palace.
No. 4 Rotterdam
This could easily be No. 1. There is no other city in Europe, much less the Netherlands, that has Rotterdam’s cool factor. The architecture alone is worth the trip. The port is huge and fascinating. The shopping streets are exciting and there are parks, cafés and great restaurants in which to chill.
Sandout reason to go: The the stark, yet dramatic, architecture is the reason they shoot so many exotic car vids here. Just a weekend trip to check out the port (biggest in Europe) and the Markthal should be on your to-do list for 2021 as we start traveling again.
Rotterdam is always on our annual list of best cities for expats. Though I like it a lot more than Cheryl does.
– Terry Boyd
No. 3 Maastricht
Maastricht also could easily be No. 1 on this list. Maastricht probably has the most sophisticated café scene of any small city in Europe. It’s that great. The architecture is not uniquely Dutch and so many areas have a Paris-neighborhood feel. Then there are streets that are more evocative of Flemish cities such as Bruges and Ghent.
The architecture and ambiance are so gezellig and human in scale. Quirky back alleys are lined with a range of styles from classical medieval Dutch to Empire leftovers from Napoleon.
Because this is a university town, the arts get a real boost. Bonnefanten Museum has both avant-garde modern art and serious Dutch masters. There’s the whole André Rieu summer concert series at the Vrijthof Square. (This sits at the top of Cheryl’s bucket list.)
Maastricht also has fabulous parks with water features and sections of the ancient city wall and fortifications. But more than anything, Maastricht is cosmopolitan in a part of the Netherlands that can be kind of parochial. So cosomopolitan and English is really the first language.
We also ranked Maastricht at the top when it comes to specialty shopping, with offerings ranging from boutiques on the east (Wyck) side of the Maas River to the High Street stores, exclusive department stores and artisan shops on the west side. Though, as we’ve said before, it’ll never be mistaken for Düsseldorf.
Many of the University of Maastricht faculties are in ancient buildings, so it’s not a campus. It’s integrated into centuries-old buildings that have been completely reimagined
Here are our favorite places:
• Bookstore Dominicanen is a huge bookstore in a 700-year-old Dominican church, and the coffee shop is fab.
• With Love Burritos always has a line out the door, but the best burritos and tacos we’ve had in the Netherlands. Hoooooooot!
• If you want to see how authentic Maastrichians hang out, head to ‘t Wycker Cabinet Bistro. Great food and cocktails, reasonable prices and unbeatable ambiance.
No. 2 Antwerp
On our first quick trip to Antwerp, it was mostly under construction and we didn’t even make it to the most fun parts of the city. And still we thought it was awesome. Our follow-up trips for the Christmas markets were super. But where Antwerp really shines is its restaurant scene, easily the best in our region, so we ranked it 9 out of 10.
The Chinatown on Van Wesenbekestraat near the zoo and central train station is the most authentic we’ve visited. The special-events dinner we had at Huis de Colvenier at Sint-Antoniusstraat 8 (on a side street only a couple of blocks from the Hilton) ranks among our most memorable nights in Europe.
Antwerp is a little like the dance of the seven veils – you see something new and enticing every visit. And we haven’t even scratched the surface.
No. 1 Düsseldorf
We’ve been to Düsseldorf a lot, even taking a trip last fall in the middle of the pandemic to check out the China Town. I – more than Cheryl – tend to go to the same places over and over because I know I’m not going to be disappointed and waste precious down time. And let’s face it, the more times you go, the better you get to know a city and the more fun it is to take friends and visitors.
Anyway, Düsseldorf never disappoints. It has the Beverly Hills of Europe in Königsallee. It has all the restaurants along the river that are perfect for hanging out on summer Saturday nights. It has a righteous collection of modern architecture in MeidenHafen, and the Gehry buildings in the Der Neue Zollhof. Fast cars. It’s fun just to go and pretend to be as wealthy as the Dusseldorfers.
Read our full Quick Trip post here, which has been updated several times because we just can’t stay away. Which is okay, because Düsseldorf is close to so many expat centers in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg.
– TERRY BOYD
Aachen – a tiny town with one of our fave Christmas markets and a long street of Asian restaurants
Cologne – We don’t feel like we’ve gotten to know Cologne well enough to rate it … but we will. We love the cafes near the river. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the flocks of green parrots that reside there.