(Editor’s note: The original version of this post had incorrect information about the Hieronymous Bosch exhibit. That information has been corrected.)
Earlier this year, Amsterdam’s mayor started begging other big Dutch cities to keep their tourists so visitors would spread out across the Netherlands.
Amsterdam is bursting at the seams, he said, and there’s lots to see in other towns. You know what? He’s absolutely right. And this is something expats learn over time whether you’re talking about Amsterdam, Rome, Paris or London: Some cities in the provinces offer a far more satisfying, authentic experience simply because they aren’t as overwhelmed by tourists and the accompanying fast-food joints and souvenir shops.
Last week, I followed the mayor’s advice and went to s’Hertogenbosch to see native son Hieronymous Bosch’s exhibit marking the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. I got there late, and the nice lady at the ticket counter said, “Oh, the show is sold out most days.” Which turned out to be a good thing. (See the accompanying post for more about the Bosch show at the Noordbrabants Museum.)
It gave me more time to hang out with locals. And let me tell you, there’s something in the water in Den Bosch, the name for s’Hertogenbosch in colloquial Dutch, because it’s a seriously sybaritic town.
If you’re a long-time expat, you’ve been to the Netherlands and you know the Dutch can be a bit, well, reserved. We used to live in Turkey, and I’d like to have a nickel for every time Turks opened their hearts and homes to us. The Netherlands ain’t like that. The Dutch are very polite and welcoming, but as a Southerner, I knew pretty quickly there’s always going to be an emotional distance no matter how long you live here. So I went with modest expectations.
Surprise! The only place in Holland I’ve felt something like the Gemütlichkeit of Bavaria is s’Hertogenbosch. The weather was great, the town is charming and the atmosphere was flat out festive.
Everyone – and I mean everyone – from 8 to 80 was chillin’ at the cafes. And there are sooo many to choose from. Likewise for restaurants, upscale boutiques, jewelry stores and art galleries.
I arrived by train from Eindhoven, making my way through the only station in the Netherlands not under construction. And it’s an exceptionally nice train station, too, with the a reconstructed 19th Century section (the original was bombed in World War II) next to a new steel-and-glass addition. A good omen for the rest of the trip.
I’m not sure what I expected in s’Hertogenbosch, but what I found is part living museum, part wealthy working city that is first and foremost about the good things in life in this order … fun, food, art and luxury goods. Though maybe I should put food first, because s’Hertogenbosch is known for a street of great restaurants called Short Putstraat, which is relatively close to the Noordbrabants Museum and the Bosch exhibit.
At this point, Dispatches is a 90-day-old startup, and I can’t really afford Putstraat. But by luck – and powers of observation – I found just what I was looking for at Pensmarkt 5, not too far away. I was walking along, taking photos when I spotted a woman eating what looked like a small pizza, heaped with veggies and sausage. To her surprise, I sidled up to her and said, “So what is that?” “This? This is flammkuchen.” I could hear she wanted to add, “you moron.” But she was too polite.
So I walked into Café de Boulevard, and young Mark, the manager, fixed me up with my own flammkuchen and a glass of house wine. (Total price 9.50€!) Flammkuchen is the Dutch version of tarte flambée, the Alasacienne pizza. I have to say, the Dutch version is superior; a crispy thin crust with lots of cheese, piled high with fresh vegetables, and hot out of the oven.
While I ate, Mark gave me the skinny on s’Hertogenbosch, which is pronounced, “Sur-TOgen-bosch.” “We get tourists from everywhere but the States,” he said. “But we’re so close to Belgium, people from Brussels are our number-one group.” During my stay, I heard lots of German, French and British English, but no Americans.
Mark didn’t disagree with me when I pointed out all the people I was seeing seemed a lot more well-heeled than the rift-raft who cram into the Dam in Amsterdam. He countered that right now, the crowds are here to see the Bosch exhibit, which runs through May 8, and that’s an upscale crowd. He also told me that among the Dutch and people from surrounding countries, s’Hertogenbosch is considered a sure-thing road trip, winning the “most welcoming city in Holland” award four times in the past five years.
If they had a “best selection of upscale retail” award, it would take that, as well.
Up and down Verwersstraat around the Noordbrabants Museum are so many groovy shops. My favorite was Robbies, which has something for everyone. Robbies’ logo features the words, “coffee, fashion, lifestyle, food.” And it’s all there in a former bank building on Verwersstraat. Apparel for the horsey set, lots of silk flowers and a large comfortable coffee shop. All in one. (Though the chi-chi interior makes you wonder if you can afford the place, the prices were about the same as everywhere else – coffee for 2.30 euros, and sandwiches starting at 7.50 euros.)
I didn’t get to meet the owner, 33-year-old Nikki Wolfs, but I would like to.”Robbies” is an acronym drawn from (the Dutch words, I’m assuming) “rebels, entrepreneurship, lovable, ESP, inspirational, energetic and bold,” according to the shop website. Needless to say, it has a great vibe.
As I rambled through the labyrinth of ancient alleys in the Old Town, I couldn’t help but notice the affluence. I went expecting a village and instead saw shops with 1,000 euro bespoke shoes, art galleries and the biggest Hugo Boss store I’d ever seen in my life.
It’s such a posh place, full of well-dressed people. But the cool thing is, you can walk to the edge of s’Hertogenbosch – a block from the Noordbrabants Museum – and leave the crowds behind. There are hundreds of acres of walking paths through fields bordering the Maximakanal, just outside the ruins of the city’s 800-year-old fortress walls.
There are canal boat tours, which squeeze through some narrow gaps between buildings … not unlike Brugge in Belgium. Then the boats head out to open water on the Maximakanal for a different experience.
Will s’Hertogenbosch ever supplant Amsterdam in the hearts of global tourists? Let’s hope not. Again, I can’t stress enough that this is an authentic Dutch city, with people living their lives, not trying to deal with the tourist hordes. Living their lives includes more hilarity than other places I’ve been in the Netherlands including a groom and his groomsmen taking over City Hall steps where they chanted, sang, laughed and behaved in a most unDutch-like manner.
The locals leave a lasting impression … so themselves, so unaffected as they sipped their wine and beer and just hung out en masse – all generations together – something you rarely see in the United States. S’Hertogenbosch is one of the rare places it’s just as cool to be old and mellow as it is to be young and beautiful.
I have nothing against Amsterdam, and I always have a good time there. But Amsterdam can be exhausting in the summer, from being herded through the museums to packing into the streetcars to finding a place to eat. S’Hertogenbosch is a far more charming and less stressful place with all the attractions of Amsterdam down to the canals, cathedrals and museums.
I know our family will return to time and time again, and a place we’ll want to share with our closest friends.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.