Nijmegen is a lively university city around an hour-and-a-half by train from Amsterdam. Beyond its famous Four Days Marches, it’s a fairly unassuming place and doesn’t exactly sit on the country’s tourist trail.
But, with typical Dutch confidence – after all, the saying goes “God created the world and the Dutch created the Netherlands” – this year the city is claiming the title “Summer Capital of Holland”. Putting aside the fact that we would say Nijmegen is in the Netherlands (Holland is technically only the provinces of North and South Holland in the west of the country), what does the city have to offer? Rough Guides editor Rachel Mills went to find out.
Forty thousand students keep Nijmegen on its toes. Local creatives watch art-house cinema or attend debates at LUX. They shop for locally-made crafts (or rent space to sell their own) at leder z’n Vak. And for low-key year-round cool, where there was once a soup factory on the western fringes of the city now lies the sprawling Honig-complex. This disused industrial space has been redeveloped into galleries, restaurants, breweries and bicycle workshops – the city has 43km of cycle super highways.
Recent years have seen a massive transformation to the River Waal with the city’s Room for the River project. Rather than battle against the river they’ve made room for it with a secondary channel – creating an urban playground island with cool city beaches that get packed out in summer. Locals have a beautiful space to explore and the city is protected from rising water levels for years to come.
Huge music acts like Mumford and Sons and Radiohead perform in Gofferpark throughout the year and, in June, locals disappear Down the Rabbit Hole for a three-day festival with music, meditation and swimming in the lake.
The biggest party of all is in the third week of July when the entire city turns into a huge free open-air festival: the Vierdaagsefeesten runs alongside the famous Four Days Marches walk. A staggering 1.5 million people descend on Nijmegen from all over the world, there are 37 stages dotted around the city, food stalls of every type and a huge fireworks show. Everything closes – except the bars – and everyone parties until the small hours.
Nijmegen has a long and bumpy history stretching back 2000 years. During WWII, Allied bombers, mistaking it for the German town of Kleve, flattened much of the historic centre, but careful rebuilding means that you can happily spend a morning pottering around the pretty medieval streets and squares near Grote Kerk (Stevenskerk).
Stop for a jenever (a kind of Dutch gin) at the Café in de Blaauwe Hand, or take a stroll to Lange Hezelstraat for lunch at veggie Café de Plak, the coolest (and longest-running) restaurant in town, famous for their delicious kaasgehakt (cheese balls).
From the centre it’s a five-minute wander down to the lovely riverfront, where you can watch barges and boats chug up and down the busy Waal.
To fully realise the summer capital moniker you can hop over the tiny pedestrian Ooypoort (the perfect bridge to take your sunset photos from) and immediately find yourself in the countryside – the best place to rest up and recharge.
There are trails through the fields or along the dike that take you the six kilometres or so through Ooypolder Nature Reserve with its grazing cows and wild horses, towards the idyllic (and nudist – at the far end) beach at Bisonbaai.
Further afield in the village of Groesbeek, southeast of the city and best reached by car, bus or organised tour, is an unexpected sight for the Netherlands: gently rolling hills and neat row upon row of grapevines.
Following in the footsteps of award-winner Freek Verhoeven who planted the first vines at Colonjes in 2001, five more wineries have now opened their doors to the tasting public. There’s a local wine-and-cycle path to explore, and the end of September is a great time to visit for the National Wine Festival, held on the village square.
The summer days are long, the terraces of the café bars are welcoming, local politics are progressive, and Nijmegen has just been selected as 2018 European Green Capital. And did we mention the breweries and vineyards? Right now, Nijmegen could not be hotter.
Rachel was hosted by Straelman Boutique Hotel. 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.
Top image © Bernhard Klar/Shutterstock