Explore The Netherlands
Explore The Netherlands a European country, bordering Germany to the east, Belgium to the south, and France in the Caribbean as the Dutch territory Sint Maarten borders French territory Saint-Martin. The people, language, and culture of the Netherlands are referred to as “Dutch”.
With over 17 million people on an area of just 41,543km², it’s a densely populated country with its gorgeous capital Amsterdam being just one of many interesting cities. Once a great naval power, this small nation boasts a wealth of cultural heritage and is famous for its painters, windmills, clogs and notoriously flat lands. A modern European country today, it preserved its highly international character and is known for its liberal mentality. As a founding member of EU and NATO, and host to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Netherlands is at the heart of international cooperation. Its small size, welcoming attitude to travellers and many sights make it a unique and fairly easy to discover destination and a great addition to any European trip.
The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy. that means it has a king who has limited power, administratively divided into 12 provinces (provincies). Even though the Netherlands is a small country, these provinces are quite diverse and have plenty of cultural and linguistic differences. They can be divided in four regions:
Regions of the Netherlands
Western Netherlands (Flevoland, North Holland, South Holland, Utrecht)
- Commonly called the Randstad, this is the heart of the Netherlands with its four biggest cities as well as typical Dutch countryside.
Northern Netherlands (Drenthe, Friesland, Groningen)
- The least densely populated area, mostly unexplored by foreigners, but popular among the locals. The West Frisian Islands are excellent destinations for a few days out, as are the Frisian Lakes. The vibrant student town of Groningen is also worth a visit.
Eastern Netherlands (Gelderland, Overijssel)
- Home to the largest national park of the Netherlands, Hoge Veluwe National Park, as well as the beautiful Hanzesteden, seven mediaeval cities along the IJssel River with a traditional historic centre, such as Zutphen, Zwolle, Doesburg, among others.
Southern Netherlands (Limburg, North Brabant, Zeeland)
- Divided from the rest by its Catholic history, carnival celebrations and its “Burgundian way of life”.
The Netherlands has many cities and towns of interest to travellers. Below are nine of the most notable ones:
- Amsterdam — impressive architecture, lovely canals (grachten), museums and liberal attitudes
- Arnhem — green city on the Rhine: Sonsbeek, Veluwe and Meinerswijk, old quarters and mansions, cultural events
- Delft — historic unspoiled town with the world-famous blue and white ceramics
- Groningen — student city with a relaxed atmosphere and nightlife till the sun gets up
- The Hague — the judicial capital of the world, the seat of government and the royal family
- Eindhoven — fifth largest city, brainport of europe, little less touristic so you can really experience the Dutch culture
- Maastricht — fortified medieval city showing the different culture, style and architecture of the south
- Nijmegen — oldest city of the country, known for its marches, left-wing politics and large student population
- Rotterdam — modern architecture, good nightlife, vibrant art scene and the largest port of Europe
- Utrecht — historic centre, antique stores and the Rietveld-Schröder House
- Efteling — renowned theme park with fairytale elements like elves and dwarves
- Giethoorn — small village with beautiful traditional architecture and canals instead of streets
- Hoge Veluwe National Park — largest national park with heathlands, sand dunes and woodlands
- Dwingelderveld National Park — preserves 3700 hectares of the largest wet heathland in Europe.
- Keukenhof — more than 800,000 visitors see these enormous flower fields each spring
- Kinderdijk — these windmills show the stereotypical Dutch landscape in all its glory
- Schokland — old island evacuated in 1859, a well-preserved ghost village remains
- South Limburg — hilly green landscapes, picturesque villages, castles and orchards
- Texel — largest island suited for cycling, walking, swimming and horse riding
- Waterland and Zaan Region — typical Hollandic villages with clogs, wooden houses, windmills and the Zaanse Schans
- Zaanse Schans — open air museum with Dutch windmills and Zaan houses
The southern part of the country was part of the Holy Roman Empire until it was acquired piece by piece by the Burgundians. At the end of the middle Ages, it became a Spanish possession (together with what is now Belgium). Little survives from this period, except a few historic city centers, and a few castles.
Quite a few travellers visit the Netherlands to enjoy its famously tolerant attitude: prostitution is decriminalized but only for those prostitutes registered at a permitted brothel. It is illegal for sex workers to solicit for customers on the street and prostitutes are most common in the capital Amsterdam, where red-light districts are popular, even if tourists only visit as a memento of the visit. In more rural areas, prostitution is almost non-existent. Sex shops, sex shows, sex museums and drugs museums are also popular amongst tourists. The sale, possession, and consumption of small quantities of cannabis, while technically still illegal, is officially tolerated, but coffeeshops are subject to increasing restrictions. Harder drugs (e.g. ecstasy or cocaine) remain illegal both in theory and practice. In the same open minded atmosphere is the Dutch ease towards homosexuality, gay marriage is legalized. Also the practice of euthanasia is legalized under strict conditions.
The geography of the Netherlands is dominated by water features. The country is criss-crossed with rivers, canals and dikes, and the beach is never far away. The western coast of the Netherlands has one of the most beautiful North Sea beaches that can be found, attracting thousands if not millions of people every year, among them a lot of Germans as well.
The Netherlands have a maritime temperate climate, which means that summers are generally cool and winters are generally mild.
Schiphol Airport, near Amsterdam, is a European hub, and after London, Paris, and Frankfurt the largest of Europe. It is by far the biggest international airport in the country, and a point of interest in itself, being 4 meters below mean sea level (the name is derived from “ship hole” since Schiphol is built in a drained lake). Travellers can easily fly in from most places of the world and then connect with the Dutch largest airline KLM.
Other international airports are Eindhoven Airport, Maastricht/Aachen Airport, Rotterdam – The Hague Airport, and Groningen-Eelde Airport.
A car is a good way to explore the countryside, especially places not connected by rail, such as Veluwe, parts of Zeeland and The North Sea islands. The motorway network is extensive, though heavily used. Congestion during peak hour is usual and can better be avoided. Roads are well signposted. Driving is on the Right side. When driving in cities, always give priority to cyclists when turning across a cycle lane.
The national language in the Netherlands is Dutch.
Officially, the Netherlands is bilingual, as Frisian is also an official language. Frisian is the second closest living language to English
“They all speak English there” is quite accurate for the Netherlands. Education from an early age in English and other European languages (mostly German and to a lesser degree French) makes the Dutch some of the most fluent polyglots on the continent, and the second most English-proficient country in the world where English isn’t official (after Sweden; 90% of the population speaks at least some English).
Considering its small size, this country has brought forward an impressive number of world-famous painters. Arts and painting flourished in the 17th century, when the Dutch Republic was particularly prosperous, but renowned artists have lived in the country before and after that age as well.
- Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Vincent van Gogh, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Jacob van Ruysdael, and Piet Mondriaan are just a few of the Dutch painters whose works now decorate the walls of the world’s greatest museums. Fortunately, some of these world-class museums can be found in the Netherlands as well. The Museum Quarter in Amsterdam has the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum right next to each other, all three with excellent collections. The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam also has a huge collection of drawings, including Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and foreign masters.
- The Kröller-Müller Museum is beautifully located in the Hoge Veluwe National Park, with the second largest Van Gogh collection in the world (after the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam). Less focused on Dutch art, but with a unique modern collection, is the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. Other cities with notable art museums include Groningen with the Groninger Museum, and Haarlem with the Frans Hals Museum. The newly established Hermitage in Amsterdam has all the grandeur of its big sister in Saint Petersburg, with changing Russia-oriented exhibitions on display.
- A devastating flood in 1916, the country started the Zuiderzee Works, a massive undertaking to reclaim and tame the Zuiderzee once and for all. In the 1930s, the impressive Afsluitdijk was finished, which turned the inland sea into a fresh water lake called the IJsselmeer. The Zuiderzee Museum in lovely Enkhuizen is devoted to the cultural heritage and folklore of the region, as well as the maritime history of the Zuiderzee.
- Another devastating flood struck the country in 1953, recording 1,836 deaths in the province of Zeeland. In the following fifty years, the famous Delta Works were constructed to protect the south-western portion of the Netherlands from flooding. It can be visited at various visitor centres, the most notable of which is the Neeltje Jans park near the Oosterscheldekering (Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier). The American Society of Civil Engineers has recognised the Zuiderzee Works and the Delta Works collectively as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
- Sinterklaas is a traditional winter holiday figure still celebrated today in the Netherlands and a few other countries. His birthday (December 6th) is celebrated annually on Saint Nicholas’ eve (December 5th). Since the celebration is a family affair, the chance is small to see the celebration as a tourist. Sinterklaas traditionally arrives in the Netherlands each year in mid-November (usually on a Saturday) by steamboat from Spain. The Sinterklaasintocht (his arrival and walk through the city) is public and organized by almost every city. From his arrival until his celebration, you can walk into Sinterklaas or the ‘zwarte pieten’ (which are his helpers) in shopping malls.
- If want to you experience a part of the Sinterklaas tradition, your best option is to visit the arrival of Sinterklaas, called the Sinterklaasintocht. There is a big celebration in a designated city on the saturday between November 10th and 16th, and smaller celebrations in nearly all cities the day after. Also consider buying some Sinterklaas candy such as: Pepernoten, Kruidnoten, taai-taai, chocolate coins or chocolate letters. The candy is available in supermarkets and other candy selling stores from September until the fifth of December.
What to do in The Netherlands.
One of the most popular activities among the locals is cycling. And for a reason — the Netherlands has about 22,000 km of dedicated bicycle paths, which criss-cross the country with many of them numbered. It’s as easy as getting a map, picking a number, and start cycling! Particularly scenic areas well suited for cycling include the Green Heart, Hoge Veluwe National Park, South Limburg, and the Waterland and Zaan Region. Just be aware that winds can be strong (because of the flat lands), and that winters can be cold and rainy.
The Dutch coastline measures 1,245 km of coastline with many beaches. Popular activities include swimming and sunbathing, but these are mostly restricted to warm summer days. Expect Scheveningen to be extremely crowded when temperatures rise towards tropical levels. More mellow and family friendly beaches include Zandvoort, Bloemendaal, Bergen, and the West Frisian Islands.
Water sports is another activity mostly undertaken by the locals. Lakes can be found in every province, but the Frisian Lakes are outstanding, especially during the annual Sneekweek that starts the boating season. Boating can be done without licence as long as the boat is no longer than 15m and/or faster that 20km/h. Other lake-rich areas include Wijdemeren, Kaag, and Aalsmeer. Most of these lakes are very calm, with parasailing and rafting impossible.
What to buy
Shops usually open by 9AM and they usually close by 5:30PM or 6PM. Most shops are closed on Sundays, except at the “koopzondag”. “Koopzondag” means the biggest part or all the shops are open. It differs from town to town which Sunday is the “koopzondag”. In most towns it is the last or first Sunday in a month. In a few cities (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht and Leiden) the shops are open every Sunday, in most cases they are open from noon till 5PM or 6PM. In Amsterdam centrum area is an exception, since you can see the shops open till 9PM and Sundays from noon till 6PM. The shops can be crowded with people coming into town from outside the city. In some areas shops are closed on Monday.
For safety reasons, credit card use in the Netherlands requires a PIN-code. Credit card use in general is reasonably common, but not by far as much as in the US, UK or Scandinavia. The Dutch themselves often use local bank cards, i.e. debit cards without a Visa or MasterCard logo for which even small shops and market stands usually have a machine. In tourist destinations you will generally find credit cards widely accepted, as well as in larger shops and restaurants in the rest of the country, but ask in advance or check the icons that are usually displayed at the entrance. Note that most supermarkets only accept local debit cards, not foreign credit cards. Some have an ATM on the premises where you can withdraw cash before going shopping.
ATMs are readily available, mostly near shopping and nightlife areas. The very smallest ones excluded, even villages usually have an ATM. The Dutch word for these machines is “pinautomaat”, and the verb meaning both withdrawing cash from ATMs and paying with a debit card (“pinpas”) is “pinnen”.
The Netherlands is a good place to buy flowers. Besides florists, you can buy them pre-packaged in most supermarkets.
In most cities there’s a big variety of shops and some bigger cities even have some malls.
The Netherlands is famous for its wooden shoes. However, nowadays almost no one, except for farmers in the countryside, wears them. You could travel through the Netherlands for weeks and find no one using them for footwear. The only place where you’ll find them is in tourist shops and large garden stores. Wearing wooden shoes in public will earn you quite a few strange looks from the locals.
If you do try them on, the famous “wooden shoes” are surprisingly comfortable, and very useful in any rural setting. Think of them as all-terrain footwear; easy to put on for a walk in the garden, field or on a dirt road. If you live in a rural area at home, consider taking a pair of these with you if you can. A good quality wooden shoe protects your foot from falling objects up to 10 kg, so you won’t feel a thing. Wooden shoes are made from willow or poplar wood. Willow is more expensive than poplar, because the wood is harder and more compressed. This means that the wooden shoe of willow is stronger and more wear-resistant. Also they are better insulated and more water resistant.
For good quality wooden shoes; avoid the kitschy tourist shops at Schiphol and Amsterdam’s Damrak street, and instead look for a regular vendor (such as Welkoop which can usually be found in towns and villages in rural areas. The northern province of Friesland has a lot of stores selling wooden shoes, often adorned with the bright colors of the Frisian flag.
The Netherlands is not known for its cuisine, but hearty Dutch fare can be quite good if done well. Some of these “typically Dutch” foodstuffs taste significantly different from, but do not necessarily improve upon, specialties from other countries. For example, while Dutch coffee and chocolate can instill feelings of homesickness in expats and might be seen as “soul food”, fine Belgian chocolate and Italian coffees (espresso, etc.) are considered to be delicacies. The Dutch, however, are known for their specialties and delicious treats: What to eat in the Netherlands
The Netherlands has some of the best ‘tap water’ in the world. It is even considered to be of similar or better quality than natural mineral or spring water and is distributed to every household and controlled by ‘water authorities’. Food (either bought in a supermarket or eaten at a restaurant) shouldn’t pose any problem either. The health care system is up to par with the rest of Europe and most cities have hospitals where usually most of the staff speaks English (at least all medical staff). In general, it’s a case of common sense.
Internet cafés can be found in most cities; usually they also provide international calling booths. Many public libraries provide Internet access. Wireless Internet access using Wi-Fi is becoming increasingly popular and is available in many hotels, pubs, stations and on Schiphol, either for free, or at extortionate prices through one of the national “networks” of hotspots.
Unesco World Heritage List
- Schokland and Surroundings
- Defence Line of Amsterdam
- Historic Area of Willemstad, Inner City and Harbour, Curaçao
- Mill Network at Kinderdijk-Elshout
- Ir.D.F. Woudagemaal (D.F. Wouda Steam Pumping Station)
- Droogmakerij de Beemster (Beemster Polder)
- Rietveld Schröderhuis (Rietveld Schröder House)
- Seventeenth-Century Canal Ring Area of Amsterdam inside the Singelgracht
- Van Nellefabriek
Official tourism websites of The Netherlands
For more information please visit the official government website: