Until the early twentieth century, the north of the Netherlands was a remote area, a distinct region of small provincial towns far removed from the mainstream life of the Randstad. Yet, in 1932, the opening of the Afsluitdijk, a 30-kilometre-long sea wall bridging the mouth of the Zuider Zee, changed the orientation of the country once and for all: the Zuider Zee, once a corridor for great trading ships, became the freshwater IJsselmeer and the cultural gap between the north and west narrowed almost immediately.
One of the three northern provinces, Friesland, is a deservedly popular tourist stopover, with its cluster of dune-swept islands, a likeable capital in Leeuwarden, and a chain of eleven immaculate, history-steeped “cities” (villages really), each with a distinct charm: Harlingen is noted for its splendid merchant houses; Hindeloopen, with its cobbled streets and pin-neat canals, encapsulates the antique prettiness of the region;while Makkum was a centre of tile manufacture and is still known for ceramics and its role as a sailing centre. As for the islands, each is barely more than an elongated sandbank, parts of which can be reached by indulging in wadlopen, hearty walks along (or ankle-deep in) the mud flats that flank the islands to the south. In the north stretches kilometre after kilometre of hourglass-fine sandy beach and a network of cycleways. Like much of the Netherlands, the scenery of the mainland is predominantly green, bisected by canals and dotted with black-and-white cattle – Friesians, of course – and pitch-black Frisian horses. Breaking the pancake-flat monotony of the landscape, sleek wind turbines make the most of the strong westerlies, a modern counterpart to the last working windmills in the area.
East of Friesland, the province of Groningen has comparatively few attractions, but the university town of Groningen more than makes up for this with a vibrant ambience, contemporary fashions, range of affordable bars and restaurants, a growing international performance-art festival and the best nightlife in the region. It’s also home to theGroninger Museum, a striking and controversial vision of urban architecture and art, and a definite highlight of the region.
South of Groningen lies Drenthe, little more than a barren moor for much of its history. During the nineteenth century, the face of the province was changed by the founding of peat colonies, whose labourers drained the land and dug the peat to expose the subsoil below. As a result, parts of Drenthe are given over to prosperous farmland, with agriculture the dominant industry. Sparsely . and the least visited of the Dutch provinces, Drenthe is now popular with home-grown tourists, who are drawn by its quiet natural beauty, swathes of wood, wide cycling paths and abundant walking trails, although many come here to visit Drenthe’s most original feature – its hunebeds, or megalithic tombs.
Once known as East Frisia, the province of Groningen does not have the high tourist profile of many of the country’s other regions, but it does boast a large slab of empty coastline where the Lauwersmeer National Park is home to extensive wildlife, the seal sanctuary of Pieterburen, and the pick of the old manor houses that dot the province, Menkemaborg in Uithuizen. To the southeast of Groningen, the old frontier village of Bourtange has been painstakingly restored, offering an insight into eighteenth-century life in a fortified town, while nearby Ter Apel holds a rare survivor from the Reformation in the substantial remains of its monastery.
Pieterburen is also the start and end point for the longest unbroken walking route in the Netherlands, the 464-kilometre-long Pieterpad to Maastricht. More information and a map of the walking route can be obtained at Pieterburen VVV or at w pieterpad.nl.
The trip to Uithuizen can be combined with wadlopen – a guided walk across the coastal mud flats to the uninhabited sand-spit island of Rottumeroog, the most easterly of the Dutch Wadden islands. Excursion buses head out to the coast from Menkemaborg at weekends two or three times a month(June–Sept); the trip costs from €32.50 per person and lasts four hours: booking is essential – contact Stichting Uithuizer Wad (w wadlopen.nl). Without a guide, it’s too dangerous to venture onto the mud flats, but it is easy enough to walk along the enclosing dyke that runs behind the shoreline for the whole length of the province. There’s precious little to see, but when the weather’s clear, the browns, blues and greens of the surrounding land and sea are unusually beautiful. From Uithuizen, it’s a good hour’s stroll north to the nearest point on the dyke, and you’ll need a large-scale map for directions.
Some 10km west of Sneek, Bolsward (pronounced bozwut) was founded in the seventh century and became a bustling and important textile centre in the Middle Ages, though its subsequent decline was prolonged and deep. It’s less touristy than the surrounding towns, with a busy and attractive central street, Marktstraat, bisected by a canal, and a couple of especially handsome old buildings.
The one significant settlement hereabouts, the town of Dokkum, about 12km northeast of Leeuwarden, made a name for itself when its early pagan inhabitants murdered the English missionary St Boniface and 52 of his companions here in 754. In part still walled and moated, Dokkum has kept its shape as a fortified town, and is best appreciated by the side of the Het Grootdiep canal, which cuts the town into two distinct sections. This was the commercial centre of the old town and is marked by a series of ancient gables, including that of the Admiraliteitshuis which serves as the town’s museum (Tues–Sat 1–5pm; €4; w museumdokkum.nl). There’s not much else to see beyond a couple of windmills, quiet walks along the old ramparts and all sorts of things named after St Boniface as penance for the locals’ early misdeeds. But there are a couple of nice places to stay, and it makes a good base for some wadlopen, or if you just want to experience small-town Dutch life in one of Friesland’s pleasantest provincial centres.
Until the early nineteenth century, the sparsely populated province of Drenthe, by the German border, was little more than a flat expanse of empty peat bog, marsh and moor. In recent decades, it’s accumulated a scattering of small towns, but it remains the country’s least populated province, whose main pull is its woods and countryside. Its only conspicuous geographical feature is a ridge of low hills that runs northwest for some 50km from Emmen, its largest town, toward Groningen. This ridge, the Hondsrug, was high enough to attract prehistoric settlers whose hunebeds (megalithic tombs) have become Drenthe’s main tourist attraction. Otherwise, Assen, the provincial capital, is a dull place with a good museum, and Emmen, its only real rival, can only be recommended as a convenient base for visiting some of the hunebeds and three neighbouring open-air folk culture museums.
Pretty much the only time Assen is the centre of attention is during the Assen TT (w tt-assen.com), the only Grand Prix motorcycle race in the Netherlands, and the British Superbike championships in September. The last TT drew a crowd of around 130,000, making it the largest one-day sports event in the Netherlands. On the three nights leading up to the event, Assen’s centre is packed with people enjoying live music and lots of beer. If you are visiting while it’s on (the last Saturday in June), make sure you book accommodation well in advance.
The Elfstedentocht (“Eleven Towns Race”) is Friesland’s biggest spectacle, a gruelling ice-skating marathon around Friesland that dates back to 1890, when one Pim Muller, a local sports journalist, skated his way around the eleven official towns of the province, simply to see whether it was possible. It was, and twenty years later the first official Elfstedentocht was launched, contested by 22 skaters. Weather – and ice – permitting, it has taken place just fifteen times in the last hundred years, most recently in 1997, attracting skaters from all over the world.
The race is organized by the Eleven Towns Association, of which you must be a member to take part; the high level of interest in the race means that membership is very difficult to obtain. The route, which measures about 200km in total, takes in all the main centres of Friesland, starting in Leeuwarden in the town’s Expo Centre, from where the racers sprint – skates in hand – 1500m to the point where they get onto the ice. The first stop after this is Sneek, after which the race takes in Hindeloopen and the other old Zuider Zee towns, plus Dokkum in the north of the province, before finishing back in Leeuwarden. The event is broadcast live on national TV, the route lined with spectators. Of the 17,000 or so people who take part, usually no more than three hundred are professional skaters. Casualties are inevitably numerous; the worst year was 1963, when 10,000 skaters took part and only seventy finished, the rest beaten by the fierce winds, extreme cold and snowdrifts along the way. Generally, however, something like three-quarters of the competitors make it to the finishing line.
If you’re not around for the race itself, the route makes a popular bike ride and is signposted by the ANWB as one of their national cycling routes; four or five days will allow enough time to sightsee as well as cycle.
Franeker, about 17km west of Leeuwarden, was the cultural hub of the northern Netherlands until Napoleon closed its university in 1810. Today, it’s a quiet country town with a spruce old centre, the highlight of which is an intriguing eighteenth-century planetarium.
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 region’s flag, which proudly flutters in many a back garden. Friesland once occupied a much larger chunk of the north and, in the eighth century, Charlemagne recognized three parts: West Frisia, equivalent to today’s West Friesland, across the IJsselmeer; Central Frisia, today’s Friesland; and East Frisia, now Groningen province. 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. It was a tough existence, but over the centuries the Frisians finessed their skills, extending their settlements by means of a complex network of dykes. You can still see what’s left of some of the mounds around the area, though in large settlements they’re mostly obscured. Always a maverick among Dutch provinces, the area that is now Friesland proper remained independent of the rest of Holland until it was absorbed into the Habsburg Empire by Charles V in 1523.
Since the construction of the Afsluitdijk, Friesland has relied on holidaymakers drawn to its rich history, picturesque lakes and immaculate villages to replace the trading routes and fishing industries of yesteryear. Grand old farmhouses define the region: their thatched roofs slope almost to the ground and are crowned with ûleboerden, white gables in the form of a double swan once used as a deterrent to evil spirits. Boating is one way of getting around and Friesland is also an ideal province to visit by bicycle. The best loop, which takes in all of the Eleven Towns, follows the 220-kilometre-long route of the Elfstedentocht, a marathon ice-skating race held during winters cold enough for the canals to freeze over. Most tourist offices stock maps and guides for cycling, in-line skating, driving or sailing the route all year round.
Finally, the Frisians have several unusual sports and traditions that can still raise eyebrows in the rest of the country. Using a large pole to jump over wet obstacles was once a necessity in the Frisian countryside, but the Frisians turned it into a sport: fierljeppen. Today Frisian and Dutch pole jumpers compete during the annual Frisian championships held in Winsum, on the second Saturday of August.
Skûtjesilen, a fourteen-day sailing race held throughout Friesland in July or August, is another regional oddity. Skûtjes are large cargo vessels, but they went out of use after World War II and are now only used for contests and recreational purposes: the tourist office in Sneek can give information on where to see the races. Last but not least is kaatsen, a Frisian version of tennis, with over 2000 contests held every year. Instead of a racket a kaatser uses a handmade glove to hit the handmade ball; a team of kaatsers comprises three players. There’s a small museum devoted to kaatsen in Franeker.
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 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. One way of reaching the islands is by indulging in wadlopen, a hearty walk at low tide across – and often knee-deep in – the mud flats that lie between the islands and the mainland. See here for ways to do this, but don’t attempt it without a qualified guide. The islands have a wide range of accommodation, particularly Terschelling and Ameland, but prices rise dramatically in summer, when vacant rooms can be thin on the ground, and you should also always reserve ahead if you’re visiting in July or August, or indeed at anytime during the summer.
Every year around the middle of June, Terschelling celebrates the beginning of the warmer season with the Oerol Festival (w oerol.nl). Oerol – meaning “everywhere” in the Terschelling dialect – is the name of a rural tradition in which the island’s cattle were released from their winter stables to frolic and graze in the open fields, an event that marked the changing of the seasons. Today, over 50,000 people head out to the island for the Oerol, transforming Terschelling into a big festival area, with the island serving as both inspiration and stage for theatre producers, musicians and graphic artists. Finding accommodation is almost impossible during the ten-day festival, so book ahead.
Wadlopen, or mud-flat walking, is a popular and strenuous Dutch pastime, 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: twice daily, the receding tide uncovers vast expanses of mud flat beneath the Waddenzee. 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 6am and 10am. It’s important to be properly equipped; recommended gear includes shorts or a bathing suit, a sweater, wind jacket, knee-high socks, high-top trainers and a complete change of clothes stashed in a watertight pack. 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. The VVVs in Leeuwarden, Dokkum and Groningen can provide details, or you could contact one of the wadlopen organizations direct.
Prices and trips vary according to location, and how long (and far) you choose to go. You can do a full trip crossing to one of the islands – Ameland or Schiemonnikoog – and coming back by ferry, or just do a circular trip across the mud flats and back again. Pieterburen is a popular place to start: a circular trip from there costs €16.50 per person, and takes three and a half hours; while a full trip to Schiermonnikoog and back by ferry costs €75 a head.
The most exciting city in the northern Netherlands, Groningen comes as something of a surprise in the midst of its namesake province’s quiet, rural surroundings. It’s a hip, rather cosmopolitan place for the most part, with a thriving student life that imbues the city with vim and gusto. Competitively priced restaurants dish up exotic curries and fresh falafel alongside the standard Dutch staples, and the arts scene is particularly vibrant, especially during the academic year. Virtually destroyed during the Allied liberation in 1945, the city focuses on two enormous squares and is now a jumble of styles, from traditional canal-side townhouses to bright Art Deco tilework along the upper facades of the shopping streets – an eclecticism that culminates in the innovative Groninger Museum sitting on its own island near the station. Finally, one of the nice things about Groningen is that the centre is almost car-free, the result of huge investment in traffic-calming measures and a network of cycle paths and bus lanes. Today two-thirds of residents travel regularly by bike, the highest percentage in the country.
Every year in mid-August, Groningen hosts the increasingly popular Festival Noorderzon (w noorderzon.nl), a ten-day blend of theatre, music, film and performance art. About a third of the events are free, many of them staged in the Noorderplantsoen park, a fifteen minute walk north along Nieuwe Kijk in ’t Jatstraat. Come night-time, food stalls and drinking-holes surround the lake in the park, while folk stroll along the lantern-lit paths or chill on the lake’s stone steps to the sound of Afrobeat, Latin, funk, rock, jazz or ambient music. Other entertainment includes circuses, mime, puppetry, videos and installations. Hotels get busy, so if you’re planning to visit around this time you’d do well to book in advance.
The town’s main draw is the excellent Groninger Museum, set on its own island on the southern edge of the centre, directly across from the train station. Aside from a very cool information lounge with computers and touch screens, the museum is mostly given over to temporary exhibitions and what you see really depends on when you’re here. If you’re lucky, a rare work by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Carel Fabritius – Man in a Helmet (probably the museum’s most prized possession) – will be on display, or Rubens’ energetic Adoration of the Magi and Isaac Israëls’ inviting Hoedenwinkel from a modest sample of Hague School paintings.
Most people, however, visit as much for the building itself as for what’s inside, which consists of six pavilions, each designed in a highly individual style: think Gaudí on holiday in Miami, and you’ll have some idea of the interior decor. Once inside, between the stylish café and museum shop, the striking mosaic stairwell sweeps downwards, depositing you among bulbous lemon-yellow pillars and pink walls, from where moat-level corridors head off to pavilions either side: east to Mendini, Mendini 1 and Coop Himmelb(l)au, west to Starck and De Ploeg.
The museum’s collection includes a number of works by the Expressionists of the Groningen De Ploeg school, housed in their own pavilion, a trapezium constructed from red bricks. The De Ploeg movement is characterized by intense colour contrasts, exaggerated shapes and depiction of landscapes – often of the countryside north of Groningen. As founding member Jan Altink put it: “There wasn’t much going on in the way of art in Groningen, so I thought of cultivation and thus also of ploughing. Hence the name De Ploeg.” As well as Altink, look out for the paintings of Jan Wiegers. Upstairs from De Ploeg, the Philippe Starck pavilion is a giant disc clad in aluminium plating and houses the museum’s wonderful collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, beautifully displayed in circular glass cases, softened by gauzy drapes.
On the other side of the mosaic stairway, the Mendini pavilions are dedicated to temporary exhibitions, while a large concrete stairway links Mendini 1 to the final, and most controversial, pavilion. Designed by Wolfgang Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky, who together call themselves Coop Himmelb(l)au, it’s a Deconstructivist experiment: double-plated steel and reinforced glass jut out at awkward angles, and skinny aerial walkways crisscross the exhibition space. It all feels – probably deliberately – half-built. Look out for the glass-walk holes, where the concrete floor stops and suddenly between your feet the canal gapes, two storeys below. This pavilion is also given over to temporary exhibitions.
Although Groningen does not have a rich culinary tradition, the Hooghoudt brewery (w hooghoudt.nl) is known throughout the country and dates back to 1888. It’s best known for its Graanjevener, but they also produce Beerenburg and other liquors like the Wilhelmus Orange Liquor, which is traditionally served on Queen’s Day.
Thirty kilometres west of Leeuwarden and just north of the Afsluitdijk, Harlingen, is a more compelling stop than nearby Franeker. An ancient and salty old port that serves as the ferry terminus for the islands of Terschelling and Vlieland, it’s something of a centre for traditional Dutch sailing barges, a number of which are usually moored in the harbour. It was a naval base from the seventeenth century onwards, and abuts the Vliestroom channel, once the easiest way for shipping to pass from the North Sea through the shallows that surround the Frisian islands and on into the Zuider Zee. Before trade moved west, this was the country’s lifeline, where cereals, fish and other foodstuffs were brought in from the Baltic to feed the expanding Dutch cities, and it was also once a centre for the ceramics industry. Its historic importance is reflected in a fine old centre of sixteenth- to eighteenth-century houses, sandwiched between the pretty Noorderhaven and the more functional Zuiderhaven canals. However, Harlingen is too busy to be a twee tourist town: there’s a fishing fleet, a small container depot and a shipbuilding yard.
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.
Its attractive church, a seventeenth-century structure with a wonky medieval tower, has some graves of British airmen who perished in the Zuider Zee, while the small village museum beside the church, the Museum Hindeloopen (April–Oct Mon–Fri 11am–5pm, Sat & Sun 1.30–5pm; €3; w museumhindeloopen.nl), displays examples of Hindeloopen’s unusual furniture, although the largest display is at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden.
Until the seventeenth century, Hindeloopen prospered as a Zuider Zee port, concentrating on trade with the Baltic and Amsterdam. The combination of rural isolation and trade created a specific culture within this tightly knit community, with a distinctive dialect (Hylper–Frisian with Scandinavian influences) and sumptuous local dress. Adopting materials imported into Amsterdam by the East India Company, the women of Hindeloopen dressed in a florid combination of colours where dress was a means of personal identification: caps, casques and trinkets indicated marital status and age, and the quality of the print indicated social standing. Other Dutch villages adopted similar practices, but nowhere were the details of social position more precisely drawn. However, the development of dress turned out to be a corollary of prosperity, for the decline of Hindeloopen quite simply finished it off. Similarly, the local painted furniture showed an ornate mixture of Scandinavian and Oriental styles superimposed on traditional Dutch carpentry. Each item was covered from head to toe with painted tendrils and flowers on a red, green or white background, but the town’s decline resulted in the collapse of the craft. Tourism has revived local furniture-making, and countless shops now line the main street selling modern versions, though even the smallest items aren’t cheap, and the florid style is something of an acquired taste.
An old market town lying at the heart of an agricultural district, Leeuwarden was formed from the amalgamation of three terpen that originally stood on an expanse of water known as the Middelzee. Later it was the residence of the powerful Frisian Stadholders, who vied with those of Holland for control of the United Provinces. These days it’s Friesland’s capital, a university town with a laidback provincial air, its centre a haphazard blend of modern glass and traditional gabled terraces overlooking canals. It perhaps lacks the concentrated historic charm of many other Dutch towns, but it’s an amiable old place, with a couple of decent museums. Its most appealing feature is its compact and eminently strollable old centre, almost entirely surrounded and dissected by water. Leeuwarden is a real student town too, so it has a bit of life about it, not to mention a decent array of good-value places to eat and drink.
Leeuwarden’s most famous daughter, Mata Hari (1876–1917) was born Gertrud Zelle. Hari became a renowned “exotic” dancer after an early but unsuccessful marriage to a Dutch army officer. Although the Netherlands was neutral during World War I, Hari seems to have accepted a German bribe to spy for the kaiser. The French intelligence service soon got wind of the bribe – partly because she was also supposed to be working for them – and she was subsequently arrested, tried and shot. What she actually did remains a matter of some debate, but in retrospect it seems likely that she acted as a double agent, gathering information for the Allies while giving snippets to the Germans. Whatever the truth, there’s a small statue commemorating her at her partially clad best on Over de Kelders, erected on the hundredth anniversary of her birth in 1976.
Just 10km west of Bolsward, MAKKUM is a very agreeable place, a collection of immaculate houses, church towers, and canals, cobbled streets and wooden boats that’s saved from postcard-prettiness by a working harbour. It’s long been a centre for the manufacture of traditional, high-end Dutch ceramics, and the town is a bit of a magnet for coach parties during the summer, as well as a year-round sailing centre. But it never feels overwhelmed, and the Tichelaar workshops, Turfmarkt 65 (Mon–Fri 9am–5.30pm, Sat 10am–5pm; t 0515 231 341, w tichelaar.nl), are worth a visit during your wander around the centre. You can have a look at the workshop out the back or just browse through the gallery-like shop, which is full of beautiful objects priced way beyond the reach of most people, before taking the weight off in its small Bakkerswinkel café.
Choosing the scenic route south from Makkum to Workum takes you along the Museumroute Aldfaerserf, in which the villages of Allingawier, Exmorra and others serve as open-air museums illustrating Frisian life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Historical buildings have been restored and refurbished, regaining their historical functions as bakeries, carpenters’ shops, farms and smithies, and the 25km route can be done by car or bicycle. Bikes can be rented at the museum route’s base at Meerweg 4 in Allingawier (April–Oct Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; €5; t 0515 231 631, w aldfaerserf.nl).
Of all the tiny hamlets in north Friesland, two of the most interesting lie on the Waddenzee. Moddergat, the more easterly of the two, spreads out along the road behind the sea wall 10km northeast of Dokkum, merging with the village of Paesens. At its western edge, a memorial commemorates the 1883 tragedy when seventeen ships sank during a storm, with the loss of 83 lives. Opposite, ’t Fiskerhuske Museum, Fiskerpad 4–8 (end Feb to Oct Mon–Sat 10am–5pm; July & Aug Mon closed but Sun 1–5pm; €4; w museummoddergat.nl), comprises three restored fishermen’s cottages with displays on the history and culture of the village and details of the disaster: as such small museums go, it’s pretty good.
Huddled behind the sea dyke 5km to the west, Wierum has one main claim to fame, its twelfth-century church with a saddle-roof tower and (as in Moddergat) a golden ship on the weather vane. The dyke offers views across to the islands and holds a monument of twisted anchors to the fishermen who died in the 1883 storm and the dozen or so claimed in the century after.
With its thicket of boat masts poking out above the rooftops, it’s easy to spot Sloten from afar. It’s something of a museum piece, and the village’s 1000 inhabitants are proud to call Sloten one of Friesland’s eleven “cities”, and a medieval one at that. Encircled by water, it’s a popular spot with Dutch and German tourists alike – the delightful central canal, Heerenwal is flanked by plane trees and pavement cafés. On the bastion at Heerenwal’s far end, the De Kaai windmill provides a sort of focus, a working mill open on Saturdays for visits (April–Sept Sat 1–5pm; Oct–March Sat 10am–noon).There’s also a small museum, in the town hall on Heerenwal (April–Oct Tues–Fri 11am–5pm, Sat & Sun 1–5pm; €3; w museumsloten.nl), but otherwise it’s just a case of wandering the cobbled alleyways and encircling bastions and admiring the gabled facades.
Twenty minutes by train from Leeuwarden, Sneek (pronounced snake) was an important shipbuilding centre as early as the fifteenth century, a prosperous maritime town protected by an extensive system of walls and moats. Postwar development has robbed the place of some of its charm but there are still some buildings of interest, notably the grandiose Waterpoort at the end of Koemarkt, all that remains of the seventeenth-century town walls. At the beginning of August, crowds flock in for Sneek Week, an annual regatta, when the flat green expanses around town are thick with the white of slowly moving sails – and accommodation is almost impossible. The town is also known for its regional speciality, Beerenburg, a herb-flavoured gin, that you can buy at the Weduwe Joustra shop, at Kleinzand 32, which retains its original nineteenth-century interior, with the old barrels and till.
Named after the Frisian god Stavo, Stavoren is the oldest town in Friesland and was once a prosperous port; it’s now both the end of the train line and the departure point for ferries to Enkhuizen. Strung out along the coast, Stavoren is an eclectic mix of the old and new: the harbour is flanked by modern housing while the shipyards are linked by cobbled backstreets. Popular with yachty types, it’s a great place to admire the carefully restored seventeenth- to nineteenth-century vessels that once plied the Zuider Zee, now moored up and awaiting rental. On a sunny day, watching the old wooden ships go by and listening to the clink of halyards is as an enjoyable pastime as any. At the southern end of town, massive, squat turbines encased in glass can be seen pumping water out of Friesland and into the IJsselmeer.
Stavoren is a good base for cycling. Options include following the coastal cycleway 10km north to Hindeloopen, or 5km south to Laaksum, past dark green and marine-blue lagoons with banks of reeds rustling in the wind. For a longer ride, continue through Laaksum and pick up the signposts to Oudemirdum, with its swathes of forest crisscrossed by cycleways and wooden bridges spanning pea-soupy canals. This 40-kilometre loop makes a pleasant day-trip, but bear in mind the winds can be forceful along the coast, and generally blow from the southwest.
Heavily protected by its sea defences, the town of Workum, ten minutes southwest of Sneek by train, is a very pleasant place that was until the early eighteenth century a busy seaport. It has a bustling main street and a pretty central square anchored by a seventeenth-century Waag, at Merk 4. This is now home to both the tourist office and a small museum exhibiting a standard nautical-historical collection (April–Oct Mon & Sun 1.30–5pm, Tues–Sat 10am–5pm; June–Aug also Mon morning; Nov–March Thurs–Sun 1.30–5pm; €2). Immediately behind is Friesland’s largest medieval church, the St Gertrudiskerk (April–Oct Mon–Sat 11am–5pm), with its enormous stand-alone bell tower and small collection of mostly eighteenth-century odds and ends inside.