1. It’s the home of MC Escher
With his pop art conundrums and eye-popping mathematical lithographs, Dutch graphic artist MC Escher is to Leeuwarden what Andy Warhol is to New York. Growing up in the city on Grote Kerkstraat, now home to the recently spruced-up Princessehof Ceramics Museum, Escher went on to create 3D dreamscapes of tessellating ducks and staircases that led to nowhere, becoming a pin-up for 1960s’ psychedelia. By walking the city, you’ll see what influenced him: De Oldehove, the town’s wonky, unfinished tower that leans far more than the one in Pisa; the checkerboard fields that gave context to his most famous work. But to better understand his legacy, check out the exhibition Escher’s Journey, a chronology of 80 brain-bending artworks, at the Fries Museum (April 28–October 28, 2018).
Ruben van Vliet Fotografie/Fries Museum
2. The 19th-century prison is now a radical cultural hub
Leeuwarden’s canal-side jail Blokhuispoort, gloriously framed by imposing turrets, gothic arch and lock-and-key courtyards, is not what it seems. Beyond the masonry walls, which once contained the province’s most hardened criminals, the jail has been reborn as a ground zero for Frisian hipsters and turned into an eccentric cultural centre. There’s a designer library and café, where cells are recast as reading rooms; a funky youth hostel with Alcatraz-style bunks; and Proefverlof, one of the most talked-about restaurants in the region. With its barred-up windows, it deliberately doesn’t shy away from its edgy history. Which is exactly the point.
3. You can “borrow a Frisian” for the afternoon
Leeuwarden is a city that knows gesture. Keen to share their love of this little-known province, the Frisians waste little time with formalities. That explains madcap scheme Leen een Fries, an odd collection of 90 free experiences that all comers can now try. You can rent a librarian to guide you by kayak around the canals, pedal with locals along the old town’s helmet-free cycle lanes, or cuddle a Friesian horse while seeing the rural side of Leeuwarden life. The tours are free, take around two hours and there’s only one rule: you must return your Frisian in the same condition afterwards.
4. Friesian horses are treated like A-listers
For a dramatic illustration of the underlying cultural value of the province’s much-loved Friesian horse, head to the WTC Expo this autumn to see 120 stallions take on the main roles in The Storm Order (De Stormruiter), a choreographed live-action adaptation of Der Schimmelreiter by North Frisian writer Theodor Storm. Like Warhorse, but with real galloping horses, the musical is the biggest production to date in the northern Netherlands. Don’t doubt that the primal thrill of seeing a hundred-strong studs charging will give you goosebumps.