By nature of its design, there is something immutable about Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland in the Netherlands’ northwesternmost province. Hemmed in by historic canals, reflective lakes, century-old dikes and dairy farms, the city wears its Dutch stripes well, offering a stopped-clock snapshot of the country as it once was. But look beyond the gabled houses, canal boats and cheese shops, and there’s something far more intoxicating and anarchic going on.
Despite outsider status, Leeuwarden-Fryslân is in the midst of an upswing, beating rivals Maastricht and Eindhoven to be crowned this year’s joint European Capital of Culture – a title it’s sharing with Valletta in Malta. The city is reveling in its new role as an exaggerated community of creativity, too, and the arts scene is thriving. Leeuwarden may only receive a trickle of tourists compared to Amsterdam or Rotterdam, but that’s just another reason to go. Here are six reasons why it should be your next stop in the Netherlands.
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).
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.
© Makarova Viktoria/Shutterstock
5. It’s the starting point for the bucket-list 11 cities tour
The biggest event in the Dutch sporting calendar, the Elfstedentocht is the world’s longest ice-skating competition, a 200km marathon combined with a huge natural spectacle that sees some 16,000 skaters take to the ice with childlike wonderment as if it were Christmas Day. Starting and finishing in Leeuwarden, the event is only held when canal ice reaches a minimum thickness of 15cm, a testament to the olden days when skating was the only way for Frisians to travel.
While the race hasn’t been staged since 1997, the Frisians continue to suffer from the much talked-about ‘eleven cities fever’; whenever there is the merest whisper of frost on the breeze, ice skates are sharpened and anticipation becomes electric. Still, despite the warm weather, it’s relentlessly satisfying to cycle the canals from town to town, gazing at the windmills and dikes, peeking into this far-flung corner of the Netherlands. Like elsewhere, bikes and bike racks are everywhere, so there’s no better way to get around.
6. You can map the stars at the world’s oldest working planetarium
One of the eleven historical cities, Franeker is the home of the Royal Eise Eisinga Planetarium, the oldest working model of the solar system, built in 1781. Located 20km west of Leeuwarden, and tucked away inside a modest canal house, the planetarium tells the barely believable story of Eise Eisinga, a wool comber turned amateur astronomer who became so obsessed with the stars he spent seven years building a working model of the solar system on his living room roof. Gaze up and be bamboozled, then discover the pendulum clock, complicated gears, and 10,000 handmade nails hidden in the attic holding it all together. The real genius, however, isn’t the sheer ambition. It’s that it’s still correct more than 200 years later.
Explore more of the Netherlands with The Rough Guide to the Netherlands. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Header image: Peter vd Rol/Shutterstock.