With lively nightlife, beautiful scenery, and liberal values, the Netherlands is always a fail-safe holiday choice. As a world superpower in the 16th and 17th centuries, it gave rise many spectacular towns and cities, yet nowadays Amsterdam takes all the glory. If you travel a bit further afield (not that far, the Netherlands is small) you'll find plenty of other charming places to visit, and possibly a more authentic experience. To steer you in the right direction, here's our pick of the top five cities to visit in the Netherlands.
You might visit Amsterdam for its history, but Rotterdam is the place to go for architecture aficionados. The city didn't fare well in the Second World War, and when it was rebuilt, the city council decided that instead of resurrecting the city as it was, it would be rebuilt with the future in mind.
The resulting post-war architecture and modernist skyscrapers make Rotterdam a treasure trove for design fans. Make sure you check out the Cube Houses, Nieuwe Luxor Theatre and the Van Nelle Factory. For more insight into the artistic movements that inspired these buildings head to the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen to see its exhibition on De Stijl and the Bauhaus, plus several centuries of Dutch and European art.
Rotterdam is also the largest port in Europe, from where hopeful Dutch families once emigrated to New York, or New Amsterdam as it was once known. You can learn more about Rotterdam’s nautical past at the Maritime Museum.
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One of the grandest cities in the Netherlands, The Hague is the polar opposite of Rotterdam. The Dutch royal family lives here and the city is full of large, beautiful mansions, pretty parks and leafy streets. What it lacks in edginess it makes up for in casual, laid-back elegance, and it's a great city to visit for fine dining.
There are plenty of good museums to choose from too, like Museum Beelden an Zee – hidden in the sand dunes of the Scheveningen beach resort – which focuses on contemporary sculpture, to the Prison Gate Museum that brings alive tales of crime and punishment in years gone by (a great one for kids and adults alike). Before you leave make sure you see Vermeer's masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis.
If you're interested in military history, you'll be interested in Arnhem. The infamous Battle of Arnhem took place here in September 1944. Allied Forces tried, and failed, to capture what is now known as the John Frost Bridge in their plan to advance into Germany. Almost 2,000 Allied troops died in the battle (mainly British and Polish forces) along with some 1,300 German soldiers and close to 500 Dutch civilians.
Most of the Allied soldiers are buried at the Oosterbeek War Cemetery, a visit to which is a sobering yet worthwhile experience. To find out more about Arnhem’s role during the war, you can also visit the Arnhem War Museum. The city is also featured in our new book Travel the Liberation Route Europe which commemorates the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Europe.
Gouda is a cheese-lover’s paradise, of course, but did you also know the city is also famous for its pottery and waffles? Apparently the now ubiquitous-in-Starbucks stroopwafel was invented here in the 19th century.
But back to cheese for a moment… If you're in town on a Thursday make sure you head to the cheese market held in the beautiful town square from 10:00am-12:30pm from April to August. The market is a full-on celebration of things Dutch – national costumes, clogs, huge wheels of cheese and traditional crafts, plus merchants and farmers clapping hands in the traditional way each time they agree on a deal.
If you haven’t had your fill of cheese after that, you can also visit the Cheese and Crafts Museum in Goudse Waag building, where you can watch how cheese is made.
For a souvenir that won't make you put on weight, you can buy some of your very own traditional Gouda pottery at shops in the town, or at the annual ceramics market held at the end of May.
The draw of Amsterdam is clear to see: the city is an Instagrammer's dream, with gorgeous 17th-century architecture and quaint cobbled streets. If you haven't been before, make sure you see the most obvious sights – the Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank’s House, and Van Gogh Museum are all worth your time and money.
After this, take the time to soak in the laid-back vibes, wandering along the canals and sampling a craft coffee or craft beer at one of the many excellent cafe-bars.
Amsterdam's nightlife is a wholly unique experience – running the gamut from hardcore Club NYX (which even has a DJ booth in the toilet), or Progress Bar, which mixes socially progressive talks and events with epic club nights.
For more information on these cities and the rest of the country, purchase the newly updated Rough Guide to the Netherlands.
Top image: Goudas cheeses in the window © Jose Luis Carrascosa/Shutterstock