There’s nowhere quite like the Netherlands, a country always threatened by the turbulent waters of the North Sea, whose people beat back the ocean to reclaim wide, grassy-green polders from the blue-black depths. This country is one of the most urbanized and densely populated nations on earth, but its crowded flatlands still pack in a wide range of the best things to do in the Netherlands.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to the Netherlands, your essential guide for visiting the Netherlands.
There’re plenty of things to do in the Netherlands apart from visiting Amsterdam, but it would be a strange trip that missed out on the capital altogether. It’s not all clogs ‘n’ canals, though – head off the tourist track to the eastern docklands or Amsterdam Noord, newly developed and home to some cutting-edge, Modernist architecture.
Amsterdam Noord, easily reachable using a short ferry ride from behind Centraal Station boasts the city’s probably most eye-catching building and best cinema at the EYE Film Institute. Also here is the sprawling former NDSM Shipyard, which has been turned into creative arts and events hub, with a skate park and good bars and restaurants, and A'DAM Toren with the highest observation deck in Amsterdam.
Travelling on a budget? Our guide to free things to do in Amsterdam has a couple of tips on how to spend your time in Amsterdam without compromising your wallet.
A poignant and personal evocation of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Among the moving exhibits is the bookcase behind which the Frank family and friends hid for two years. A visit begins in the main body of the building with several well-chosen displays setting the historical scene. You then proceed through the premises of what was once the Frank business, before reaching a series of exhibits providing brief biographies.
Filmed interviews with some of the leading characters, including Anne’s friends Hanneli Goslar and Otto Frank, fill out more of the background. There are also displays of the persecution of the Jews – from arrest and deportation through to the concentration camps. Further sections are devoted to Anne as a writer/diarist and the importance of Anne’s diary to other prisoners, most notably Nelson Mandela.
Vincent van Gogh is arguably the most popular, most reproduced and most talked-about of all modern artists, so it’s not surprising that visiting the Van Gogh Museum, comprising a fabulous collection of the artist’s work, is one of the best things to do in the Netherlands.
The museum occupies two modern buildings that back onto the northern edge of Museumplein, with the key paintings housed in an angular building. This part of the museum provides an introduction to the man and his art based on paintings that were mostly inherited from Vincent’s art-dealer brother Theo.
To the rear of Rietveld’s building, connected with it by a glass entrance hall, is the ultramodern annexe, which provides temporary exhibition space. As you might expect, the museum can get very crowded, and the queues can be long, so come early to avoid the crush or book online.
The Rijksmuseum is without question the country’s foremost art museum, with an extravagant collection of Dutch paintings, as well as a vast hoard of applied art and sculpture. In the last few years, the museum has been thoroughly refurbished and is now equipped with a capacious and singularly impressive entrance area.
The very height of this has interfered with the building’s original floor plan and as a consequence getting from one section to another can be a tad confusing. In the permanent collection, there is some rotation of the paintings, but you can count on seeing all the leading Rembrandts plus a healthy sample of canvases by Steen, Hals, Vermeer and their leading contemporaries.
Find more accommodation options to stay in Amsterdam with our guide to the best area to stay in Amsterdam.
Den Haag (The Hague formerly ’s-Gravenhage) is markedly different from any other Dutch city. In a country built on municipal independence, it’s been the focus of national institutions since the sixteenth century but is not the capital, which is Amsterdam. Frequently disregarded until the development of central government in the 1800s, Den Haag’s older buildings are comparatively modest with little of Amsterdam’s flamboyance.
The city also holds a slew of lively restaurants and bars, offers a lively programme of concerts and events, and boasts a veritable battery of outstanding museums, principally the wonderful Dutch paintings of the Mauritshuis. It is also a brief tram ride from the long beach of kiss-me-quick Scheveningen.
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Giethoorn’s origins are rather odd. No one gave much thought to this marshy, infertile chunk of land until the thirteenth century when the local landowner gifted it to an obscure religious sect. Later, the settlers dug canals to transport the peat and the diggings flooded, thus creating the watery network that has become the number one tourist attraction hereabouts.
Giethoorn is extraordinarily picturesque, its slender brown-green waterways are overseen by lovely thatched cottages, shaded by mature trees and crisscrossed by pretty humpbacked footbridges. The only fly in the idyllic ointment is Giethoorn’s popularity: avoid the centre of the village in the summer, when the place heaves with tour groups.
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The extremely popular Nationaal Park De Hoge Veluwe is an expanse of sandy heath, lake, dune and woodland that is crisscrossed by cycle trails and inhabited by wild game, especially deer, which can be observed from a string of hides.
At the heart of the Nationaal Park de Hoge Veluwe, the Kröller-Müller Museum displays the private art collection of the Kröller-Müllers. It’s one of the country’s finest art museums, comprising a wide cross-section of modern European art from Impressionism to Cubism and beyond.
On February 1, 1953, a combination of an exceptionally high spring tide and a powerful northwesterly storm drove the North Sea over the dykes to flood much of Zeeland. The results were catastrophic and the government’s response was immediate and massive.
After patching up the breached dykes, work was begun on the Delta Project, one of the largest engineering schemes the world has ever seen and one of phenomenal complexity and expense. It took thirty years for the Delta Project to be completed.
The smaller, secondary dams – the Veersegat, Haringvliet and Brouwershaven – were built first to protect from high tides as quickly as possible. In 1968, work began on the largest dam, intended to close the Oosterschelde estuary that forms the outlet of the Maas, Waal and Rijn rivers.
One of the best things to do in the Netherlands, whether you’re a keen cyclist or an idle pedaller, is to travel by bike (fiets). Cycle touring can be a shortcut into Dutch culture and you can reach parts of the country – its beaches, forests and moorland – that might otherwise be (relatively) inaccessible.
The mostly flat landscape makes travelling by bike an almost effortless pursuit, although you can find yourself battling against a headwind or swallowed up in a shoal of cyclists commuting to work.
The four Frisian islands preserve an unexpected sense of wilderness in so populated a country: low-lying sandbanks with mile upon mile of hourglass-fine sandy beaches and well-developed networks of cycleways. A tourist magnet in the summertime, busy and developed Terschelling is large enough to swallow the holiday crowds, while car-free Vlieland resembles a grass-covered dunescape and is popular with young families.
Both can be reached from Harlingen, while the access point for busy Ameland is the port of Holwerd. The smallest of the four islands is Schiermonnikoog; this can be reached from Leeuwarden and Dokkum, but the shorter route there is from neighbouring Groningen.
If you’re after bulbs, then make a beeline for the bulb growers’ showcase, the Keukenhof gardens, located on the edge of the little town of Lisse, beside the N208 about 15km north of Leiden. The largest flower gardens in the world, dating back to 1949, the Keukenhof was designed by a group of prominent bulb growers to convert people to the joys of growing flowers from bulbs in their gardens.
The “kitchen garden”, site is the former estate of a fifteenth-century countess, who used to grow herbs and vegetables for her dining table. Several million flowers are on show for their full flowering period, complemented by thousands of square metres of glasshouse holding indoor displays. You could easily spend a whole day here, swooning with the sheer abundance of it all.
Capital of Noord-Brabant, ’s-Hertogenbosch is a lively town, particularly on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when its Markt fills with traders from all over the province. Better known as Den Bosch (pronounced “bos”), it merits a day or two’s exploration. Beneath the graceful townhouses of the old city flows the Binnendieze, its gloomy depths spanned by small wooden bridges.
Staggered crossroads, winding streets and the twelfth-century town walls are vestiges of interminable warfare between the Protestants to the north and the Catholics to the south. The town’s history is written into its street and house names – “Corn Bridge”, “The Gun Barrel”, “Painters’ Street” and more. Its most famous son is the fifteenth-century artist Hieronymus Bosch.
Stuck out in the Waddenzee, Texel (pronounced “tessel”) is the westernmost of the string of islands that band the northern coast of the Netherlands. Overall it’s a flat landscape of green pastureland dotted with chunks of woodland, speckled with small villages and protected by long sea defences. The west coast boasts magnificent stretches of sand that reach from one end of the island to the other.
Behind the beach, a belt of sand dunes widens as it approaches both ends of the island. In the north, it spreads out into two nature reserves – De Muy and De Slufter. The latter incorporates Texel’s finest scenery in a tidal inlet where a deep cove of salt marsh, lagoon and dune has been left beyond the sea defences, exposed to the ocean.
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Haarlem’s biggest draw, the main location of the Frans Hals Museum – Hof, is a five-minute stroll south of the Grote Markt, housed in the almshouse complex where the aged Hals lived out his last destitute years. The collection comprises a handful of prime works by Hals along with an eclectic sample of Dutch paintings from the fifteenth century onwards.
All of them are immaculately presented and explained on the free audioguide or app, which can also be used during the fifteen-minute film presentation.
This tailor-made trip to the best of the Netherlands and Belgium will bring you to the quaint streets, canals and windmills of Holland to beer and Belgium chocolate tasting in three beautiful Belgium cities. This trip has it all.
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Touring the small towns and villages of this region is one of the best things to do in the Netherlands. It shows a whole different side to the country than the more urbanized southwest - it's peaceful and charming in equal measure.
A region that prospered during the sixteenth-century heyday of the Zuider Zee trade, Friesland is focused around eleven historic cities and seven lakes, the latter symbolized by the seven red hearts on the province’s flag.
From earliest times, much of the region was prey to inundation by the sea and the inhabitants built their settlements on artificial mounds (terpen) in a frequently forlorn attempt to escape the watery depths. Over the centuries the Frisians finessed their skills, extending their settlements using a complex network of dykes. You can still see what’s left of some of the mounds around the area.
The Biesbosch (Reed Forest) is one of the Netherlands’ larger national parks and one of the few remaining freshwater tidal areas in Europe. Located on the border of the provinces of Noord-Brabant and Zuid-Holland, it covers around fifteen square kilometres of river, creek, marsh and reed to the south and east of Dordrecht and divides into two main sections.
The undeveloped heart of the park is the Brabantse Biesbosch, the chunk of land to the south. Almost all the tourist facilities have been carefully confined to the north on a strip just east of Dordrecht, along the park’s perimeter. A wetland habitat, the park offers a perfect breeding ground for many species of birds. Best explored by boat, visiting the park makes one of the best things to do in the Netherlands.
Wadlopen, or mud-flat walking, is one of the most popular things to do in the Netherlands, and the stretch of coast on the northern edge of the provinces of Friesland and Groningen is one of the best places to do it. It is, however, a sport to be taken seriously, and far too dangerous to do without an experienced guide: the depth of the mud is variable and the tides inconsistent.
In any case, channels of deep water are left even when the tide has receded, and the currents can be perilous. The timing of treks depends on weather and tidal conditions, but most start between 6 am and 10 am. In recent years, wadlopen has become extremely popular, and as excursions are infrequent, between May and August it’s advisable to book a place at least a month in advance.
Delft, in between Den Haag and Rotterdam, has the most beguiling of centres, a medley of ancient red-tiled houses set beside tree-lined canals intercepted by the cutest of humpback bridges. It’s no surprise, then, that visiting the town is one of the best things to do in the Netherlands, but most tourists come here for the day. In the evenings, even in the summer, the town can be surprisingly – and mercifully – quiet.
Delft boasts a clutch of handsome old buildings, most notably two fine churches – the Nieuwe Kerk and the Oude Kerk. Here you will also find a fascinating museum, the Prinsenhof, which holds an enjoyable collection of Golden Age paintings, and the imaginative Vermeercentrum, celebrating the life and times of Delft’s best-known son, Johannes Vermeer.
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Maastricht is one of the most vibrant cities in the Netherlands. With its cobbled streets and fashionable boutiques in the old town, contemporary architecture in the Céramique district, a fantastic art fair and excellent cuisine, the city buzzes with excitement and its multilingual, multinational population.
An important stop off on the trading route between Cologne and the North Sea, the town boasted a Temple of Jupiter, whose remains are now on view in a hotel basement. Charlemagne beefed up the city too, though his legacy is ecclesiastical, his two churches representing some of the finest extant Romanesque architecture in the whole of the country.
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This beautiful inland lake, formerly the Zuider Zee, lies at the heart of the Netherlands and represents the country at its watery best, with charming old ports like Hoorn and Enkhuizen and former islands like Urk to explore.
The exquisitely pretty village of Hindeloopen juts into the IJsselmeer, and is very much on the tour-bus trail. Outside high summer, however, and in the evening when most visitors have gone home, it’s peaceful and very enticing, a tidy jigsaw of old streets, canals and wooden bridges that are almost too twee to be true.
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A former Rough Guides Managing Editor, Keith Drew has written or updated over a dozen Rough Guides, including Costa Rica, Japan and Morocco. As well as writing for The Telegraph, The Guardian and BRITAIN Magazine, among others, he also runs family-travel website