When many people plan a trip to the Netherlands, their itinerary doesn’t go any further than Amsterdam, aka “The Dam.” There is good reason for this, as Amsterdam has enough to keep anyone busy for days, even weeks. This includes exploring its 160 canals, immersing oneself in the seemingly endless art of the Rijksmuseum and/or the Van Gogh Museum, visiting the Anne Frank House, relaxing at 120-acre Vondelpark or chilling out at some of the city’s countless coffee shops, where the most popular pastime is sampling a plethora of legal marijuana, which is perhaps why some visitors never make it past Amsterdam.
However, Holland doesn’t begin and end with Amsterdam. Limiting yourself to this one Dutch city would be tragic. And because of the country’s small size, some of the best cities to visit in the Netherlands are just minutes apart, and most are in close proximity to Amsterdam, such as nearby Haarlem, a medieval, cobblestoned refuge that is a mere 20 minutes away from the mass crowds of the capital city. According to the Nations Encyclopedia, the size of the Netherlands is just 16,033 square miles.
From Haarlem it’s a straight shot down the coast to The Hague, which can be reached in about 45 minutes. The Hague is home to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice, located in the Peace Palace. And no trip to Holland is complete without visiting Delft, another canal-ringed Dutch city that is also the location of the manufacturers of world-famous Delftware and one of the best places to visit in the Netherlands. But no matter which Dutch cities you plan to see, you’re sure to have a unique experience in each one.
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The crown jewel of the Netherlands and its most famous, and infamous city is Amsterdam, aka “The Dam.” Amsterdam is one of the most venerated, historic, culturally rich and most beautiful cities in all of Europe. Unfortunately, most people will automatically think of the notorious Red Light District and legal marijuana when hearing the word Amsterdam, but this eclectic city has so much more to offer.
Did you know that Amsterdam is renowned for antiques, old prints and books and maps? Amsterdam also boasts some of the most-visited museums in Europe, such as the Rijksmuseum. This world-renowned museum houses masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals and more than 8,000 other works of art in 250 rooms.
And no art lover can leave Amsterdam without visiting the Van Gogh Museum, which has the largest collection of paintings and drawings of Vincent van Gogh in the world. Here you will find some of Van Gogh’s most iconic work, including The Potato Eaters, Sunflowers, The Yellow House and his haunting Self-Portrait.
Amsterdam is also home to one of the most historically significant sights in Europe, the Anne Frank House, which is also a museum. For over 2 years Anne and her family, and others, lived in the annexe of the building, hiding from the Nazis until they were discovered in 1944 and sent to concentration camps. Anne’s original diary, which became an international bestseller, is also on display in the museum.
Other must-see sights in Amsterdam include the Jordaan, the city’s most popular neighbourhood, which is overflowing with canals, open-air markets, restaurants, boutiques and cafes, and is also the location of the Anne Frank House; Vondelpark, the largest park in Amsterdam, which features tranquil ponds, large grass areas, a rose garden, statues, cafes and an open-air theatre; and Dam Square, one of the most popular places in the city to congregate, for both tourists and visitors.
Here you will find the 17th-century Royal Palace, the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk), Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, the National Memorial Statue dedicated to Dutch soldiers killed in WWII and a plethora of restaurants, shops and cafes.
Not to be confused with Harlem in New York City, Haarlem in Holland is a perfect day trip or overnight trip from Amsterdam. Only 17 kilometres (10.5 miles) from Amsterdam, a trip to Haarlem is like taking a trip back in time. Haarlem is a quintessential Dutch town, with winding canals, cobblestone streets, narrow lanes and old-world architecture. Haarlem is one of the most beautiful places to visit in the Netherlands.
The beating heart of Haarlem is the Grote Markt, a pedestrian-friendly square anchored by the historic 14th-century Grote Church. Grote Markt, the hub of Haarlem, is lined with restaurants and cafes, and once a week hosts the city’s best open-air street market. Grote Markt is also where you will find the Frans Hals Museum, which honours its most famous native son. Haarlem is also one of the few places in Holland where you can climb an actual windmill. The Molen de Adriaan is one of the most iconic landmarks in Haarlem and dominates its medieval skyline, which can be viewed from the windmill’s riverside platform.
Do you love to shop? If so, break out your wallet or purse because Haarlem is recognized as one of the Netherlands’ best shopping destinations. In fact, locals call the city’s shopping district “de Gouden Straatjes,” or “Streets of Gold,” and, according to Holland.com, Haarlem has been awarded the title “Holland’s Best Shopping City” multiple times.
The best Haarlem streets for shopping are Grote Houtstraat, Barteljorisstraat and Zijlstraat, all of which abound with chic boutiques, retail chains, antique stores, jewellery stores and more. And because Haarlem has a network of canals, you can see some of its best sights from the comfort of a boat. Art and history aficionados won’t want to miss the Teylers Museum, which is the oldest museum in the Netherlands, founded in 1784. The museum features displays of art, natural history and science, from paintings and prints to fossils and scientific instruments, including engravings, etchings and woodcuts by Raphael.
Although Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, The Hague, or Den Haag, is the country’s administrative capital and the seat of government. It is also Holland’s third-largest city, after Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
The Hague is the regal home of the 16th-century Noordeinde Palace, which is the working palace of the king of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, and houses the Royal Stables. The Hague is perhaps best known as an International City of Peace and Justice and the World Court, otherwise known as the International Court of Justice, which settles disputes between states. It is, in fact, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, and is located at the Peace Palace, which is a stunning work of architecture.
The Hague is also one of the most multicultural cities in the Netherlands, meaning it has a vast array of restaurants serving cuisine from around the globe.
Furthermore, the Hague is one of the most historic cities in Holland and possesses a plethora of the country’s most venerated buildings.
This includes the Binnenhof, located in the city’s oldest section, which is home to both chambers of the Dutch Parliament and is the official residence of the Prime Minister; the former winter palace of the Queen Mother, which today is known as Escher in the Palace, as it contains approximately 150 original prints and lithographs by artist M.C. Escher; and the Mauritshuis, an opulent former residence built in 1641 that today is one of the city’s most-visited museums, and contains important works of art such as Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson and Vermeer’s View of Delft.
After viewing Vermeer’s View of Delft at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, head inland to see the real thing. Delft, which is only 20 minutes from The Hague, is another classic Dutch city with a network of serene canals, but with far less traffic than Amsterdam. Delft is also the burial place of native and Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer. However, the city is best known the world over for its famous Delftware, hand-painted blue-and-white pottery.
Visitors can even tour Royal Delft, the renowned earthenware factory where artisans have been creating Delft Blue almost 400 years, which also has a museum. Royal Delft is the last original remaining Delftware factory in Delft from the 17th century. And getting back to Vermeer, visitors to the city will not want to miss Vermeer Centrum Delft, a museum dedicated to the master and his artwork.
Other important attractions in Delft include its Old Town, which is bordered by canals and whose centrepiece is the historic Market Square, where you will also find the majestic New Church (Nieuwe Kerk), which was actually built in the 14th century; the Old Church (Oude Kerk), aka “Old John,” built-in 1250 and best known for its tower that slightly leans; and the 7-story stone Rose Windmill (Molen de Roos), the sole survivor of 15 windmills that once adorned Delft, which you can climb for commanding views of the city.
One of the most popular and peaceful pastimes in Delft is to take a leisurely stroll along the picturesque 12th-century Old Canal (Oude Delft) and admire the charming homes that line the canal.
Rotterdam is the Netherlands’ second city, but its most modern. If you prefer urban skylines and a more cosmopolitan atmosphere, Rotterdam is the place for you. Rotterdam, a short 20 minutes from Delft, is a major port city.
In fact, its port is the largest in Europe, making Rotterdam the perfect place for the vast Maritime Museum, which showcases vintage ships, historic port models, cartography and has hands-on exhibits for children. Rotterdam, part of which lies along the Meuse River, is also a city of skyscrapers and is well-known for its bold, groundbreaking architecture, earning it the nicknames “Manhattan on the Meuse” and “The Architectural Capital of the Netherlands.”
Here you will find the tallest building in the Netherlands, the 165-meter (541-foot) Maastoren. And if you want to see modern architecture at its best and tallest, check out the Cube Houses and Euromast Tower, a towering observation station that has panoramic views of the city as well as a restaurant.
But for a truly mind-blowing experience, the Cube Houses are your best bet. They are, as their name implies, a group of cuboid houses that are tilted at a 45-degree angle. In addition to its innovative architecture, Rotterdam also has a thriving nightlife, one that rivals Amsterdam’s, and has a seemingly endless supply of bars, pubs and clubs. If you’re travelling with children or are just an animal lover, stop by the Rotterdam Zoo, one of the most beautiful zoos in Europe, which is home to more than 180 species, including polar bears, tigers, elephants, zebras and more.
Although it is located on the southern tip of the country near the borders of Belgium and Germany, Maastricht is still one of the best cities to visit in the Netherlands and is still very Dutch.
Medieval Maastricht, which is about 2.5 hours from Amsterdam, is also one of Holland’s most vibrant, cultural and historical cities, as well as one of its most beautiful. It is also one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, founded by the Romans in 50 B.C. Maastricht’s old town is brimming with venerated churches, historic merchant houses and memorable squares.
Did you know that the European Union was formed in Maastricht? The Euro was also born here, making Maastricht important in modern history as well.
Some of the city’s top sights include St. Servatius, the oldest church in the Netherlands; Bonnefanten Museum, a rocket ship-looking building on the banks of the River Maas that houses a plethora of paintings by Dutch Masters; the heart of the city, Vrijthof, which is a cafe-lined square where you will also find a number of historic buildings; and Boekhandel Dominicanen, a massive bookstore located in a former 13th-century Gothic church that today holds more than 50,000 books and still retains its vaulted arches, stained-glass windows and frescoes