Amsterdam is so overwhelmed with tourists that the city is now are actively discouraging visitors. They even removed the iconic "Iamsterdam" sign from outside the Rijksmuseum after it became a selfie hotspot. Luckily, Holland is a more diverse country than it often gets credit for. There is plenty to do and see outside the capital. Here's three very different ways to visit the Netherlands – none involving Amsterdam.
Art in the Netherlands
2019 has been the year of Rembrandt in the Netherlands. With so much focus the 17th-century painter, at times it seems the talents of Holland’s most famous Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh, have been relatively unsung in his home country. This might be due to the fact that he spent his most productive years in France. Van Gogh's home province of Brabant is now aiming to put that right. It's making more of an effort to promote the works it holds and enhance the Brabant locations where he spent time.
Inner Circle exhibition Noordbrabants Museum © Martin Dunford
Van Gogh in Nuenen
Despite appearances, Van Gogh was actually very productive in Holland, painting many of his works in Nuenen, a small, well-heeled town just outside Eindhoven. He lived there for two years with his family in the early 1880s.
The town is worth a visit: Van Gogh painted The Potato Eaters here, and there’s a 3D re-creation of the painting on the pretty village green. It's right by where his studio would have been, along with no less than 13 other Van Gogh-related monuments around the village, including a number of little-changed spots and landscapes which he painted and are still easily recognisable today. You can see the parsonage where he lived in with his family, and opposite is the Vincentre museum which has lots on his life and his development as a painter.
If you’re here on a Saturday you should also be able to visit the house next door to the parsonage. Vincent had an ill-fated affair with one of the sisters who lived here (and who tried to take her own life following the disapproval of both families). The woman who lives in the house now is a big Van Gogh fan and has a collection of paintings by his pupils and associates, displayed in rooms furnished as they would have looked in Vincent’s time (as well as quite a few other bit and pieces to capture your attention).
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Vincent's birthplace in Zundert
You can also visit Vincent’s birthplace in Zundert, and another Brabant town – Etten-Leur – where he lived in with his family. Neither have any work by the painter but they do have visitor centres with thoughtful exhibitions and lots of background information.
On the way, be sure to stop in Den Bosch, where the Noordbrabants Museum not only has a number of the painter’s works on permanent display but is also currently staging a brilliant exhibition of his work that focuses on his circle of friends and family during the various stages of his short life. Entitled ‘Van Gogh’s Inner Circle,’ the show alone would be worth a visit to Den Bosch. But the city is in any case ideal for a weekend break, with a magnificent Catholic cathedral, the country’s largest, a partially underground canal network that you can tour by boat, and a buzzy selection of bars and restaurants that are famous throughout Holland for their conviviality.
Cycling the Netherlands
Back in the 1960s when the world was young and naïve, someone had the idea of filling Amsterdam with white bicycles, which people could use and then leave for someone else. Needless to say, they all got nicked and that was the end of that. There is one place where the white bike scheme survives – the Hoge Veluwe National Park. The park is about an hour outside Amsterdam, just north of the city of Arnhem.
Jachthuis Sint Hubertus in De Hoge Veluwe National Park in Netherlands © SHAKEE/Shutterstock
The Hoge Veluwe is one of 20 Dutch national parks. The park is just a small part of the Veluwe, the largest natural lowland heath in northern Europe. It's a dry, sandy area, not unlike some parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, with a variety of birdlife and large herds of red deer. The park was originally the country estate of the wealthy Kröller-Müller family, who indulged their two big enthusiasms from here – hunting and art.
Getting to Hoge Veluwe National Park
Bus 105 runs from Arnhem station to the pretty village of Otterlo, 500m from the park entrance. Once there, you can pay the entrance fee and pick up a white bicycle. The park is pretty flat so ideal for a spot of gentle cycling (as long as you master the back-pedal brakes!). There’s a brand-new Visitor Centre with a restaurant, shop and museum, and you can visit the Kroller-Mullers’ country residence. Known as the Jachthuis St-Hubertus it's an incredible art deco pile built by the Dutch architect Berlage in 1920.
Kröller-Müller Museum in Hoge Veluwe National Park © NBTC
Visit the Kröller-Möller Museum
The park’s biggest draw is the Kröller-Möller Museum. The collection was donated to the park when it was created in the 1930s. It’s another lure for Van Gogh fans, with the second-largest collection of the artist’s paintings in the world. The Potato Eaters is here, along with a hoard of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works.
There are canvases by Dutch painters Breitner, Isaac Israels and Jan and Charlie Toorop and works by Renoir, Seurat, Signac and Pissarro. You'll also find more modern pieces by Mondriaan, Juan Gris, Braque and Picasso. Don't miss the museum’s sculpture garden, with weird and wonderful works by Jean Dubuffet, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and many more. The perfect foil to the natural beauty of the park, it’s one of the best private art collections in Europe. There are good, well-priced hotels in Otterlo and also in Arnhem if you want to stay over.
Wadlopen – or mud walking
Way up in the north of the country, the Wadden Sea is another great place to experience nature. The best way to enjoy the area is by trying the unusual Dutch pastime of ‘wadlopen’. This translates to mudflat-walking – hiking across a string of sandbanks and islands offshore. It's not only great fun but terrific exercise too. Wadlopen is not something you can really do alone – you need a guide who understands the tides and channels you can follow. Even at low tide, some channels remain very deep. On top of that, the currents can be extremely unpredictable. You also need to get up early: most group treks start at daybreak and can take up to five hours.
The easiest island to head for is Ameland, which takes around 3 hours. You'll be wading through water and mud in knee-high socks and preferably high-top trainers. Wearing shorts is best as you will certainly be covered in mud! Whatever the time of year, be sure to take a warm sweater, waterproof and a complete change of clothes in a watertight pack. It’s normally freezing when you start and can be hot by the time you finish, so you need layers.
Hiking across Wadden Islands' string of sandbanks is known as wadlopen © NBTC
Once you’ve reached the island you still have a good hour’s walk to the nearest village, but it’s no hardship making your way through the dunes under glorious big skies. Once there you can enjoy the best-earned breakfast of your life before heading off to take the ferry back. Or, stop over for a day or two and soak up the atmosphere. Ameland is a terrific place to stay. It's busy for a couple of months in summer but the rest of the time it's a moody and atmospheric place of sand beaches, dunes and marshy meadows to explore by bike and on foot. Wadlopen tours can be organised between April and October.