Zuid-Holland (South Holland) is the most densely populated province of the Netherlands, incorporating a string of towns and cities that make up the bulk of what is commonly called the Randstad (literally “Rim-Town”). By and large, careful urban planning has succeeded in stopping this from becoming an amorphous conurbation, however, and each town has preserved a pronounced identity.
A short hop from Amsterdam is Leiden, a university town par excellence, with an antique centre latticed by canals and dotted with fine old buildings. Den Haag (The Hague) was once a humdrum government town, but has jazzed itself up and is now a very likeable city with a string of good museums and an appealing bar and restaurant scene. Neighbouring Delft is a much smaller place, with just 100,000 inhabitants, but it possesses an extremely pretty centre replete with handsome seventeenth-century buildings, in stark contrast to the rough and tumble of big-city Rotterdam, the world’s largest port, where an adventurous city council has stacked up a string of first-rate attractions, from fine art through to harbour tours. It’s a short journey inland from here to Gouda, a good-looking country town historically famed for its cheese market, and to the somnambulant charms of rural Oudewater. Back on the coast, Dordrecht marks the southern edge of the Randstad and is of mild interest as an ancient port and for its location, within easy striking distance of the windmills of the Kinderdijk and the creeks and marshes of the Biesbosch. Finally, the province of Utrecht is distinguished by its capital city, Utrecht, a sprawling city with a dramatic history and a bustling, youthful centre.
The region’s coastal cities – especially Leiden and Den Haag – are only a short bus or tram ride from the wide sandy beaches of the North Sea coast, while the pancake-flat Randstad landscape is brightened by rainbow flashes of bulbfields in spring with the Keukenhof gardens, near Leiden, having the finest display. A fast and efficient rail network makes travelling around Zuid-Holland extremely easy, and where the trains fizzle out, buses take over.
Historically, Zuid-Holland is part of what was once simply Holland, the richest and most influential province in the country. Throughout the Golden Age, Holland dominated the political, social and cultural life of the Republic, overshadowing its neighbours, their economies dwarfed by its success. There are constant reminders of this pre-eminence in the province’s buildings: elaborate town halls proclaim civic importance and even the usually sombre Calvinist churches allow themselves decorative excesses – the later windows of Gouda’s Janskerk being a case in point. Many of the great Dutch painters either came from, or worked here, too – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen – a tradition that continued into the nineteenth century with the paintings of the Hague School. All the towns offer good museums and galleries, most notably The Hague’s Mauritshuis and Rotterdam’s Boijmans van Beuningen.