How to Plan a Trip to the Netherlands
The Netherlands literally means "Low Country", inspired by the country's low and flat geography, where only about 50 percent of the land exceeds one meter (three feet) above sea level. Since the late 16th century, large, flat land areas called "polders" have been reclaimed from the sea and lakes and protected by dikes, amounting to nearly 17 percent of the country's current land mass. The Netherlands is. This is small, densely populated country lies mainly in Western Europe but also includes three islands in the Caribbean; it's the main constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The European part of the Netherlands borders Germany to the east, Belgium to the south, and the North Sea to the northwest, sharing maritime borders with Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany. Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam serve as the three largest and most important cities in the Netherlands. Amsterdam is the country's capital, while The Hague holds the Dutch seat of government. The port of Rotterdam claims the title as the largest port in Europe, in fact, it's as large as the next three ports combined.
Places to Visit in the Netherlands
Regions of the NetherlandsNorth Holland Province
: Home to the world-renowned city of Amsterdam and other charming locales (including Haarlem and Alkmaar) packed full of historic attractions, the North Holland Province is the most popular place to visit in the Netherlands.South Holland Province
: A juxtaposition of busy urban centers and quaint former merchant towns, South Holland Province serves as the country's political nexus as well as a popular destination for a beachfront Netherlands holiday.Utrecht Province
: Set at the heart of the Dutch rail network, Utrecht Province offers plenty of things to do both in its historic main city of Utrecht and in the array of medieval towns and forts scattered around the countryside.North Brabant Province
: The combination of verdant nature, fortified towns, and modern, tech-driven cities makes North Brabant Province an interesting option for a Netherlands vacation for those wanting to get off the beaten path.Limburg Province
: Wedged between Belgium and Germany, Limburg Province maintains a noticeable sense of detachment from the rest of the country, featuring ancient cities and population that commonly speaks its own regional version of Dutch.
Top Cities in the Netherlands
- Amsterdam: One of the world's most famous cities, Amsterdam delights with canal after canal accented with classic Dutch houses, pleasant squares, and winding medieval streets, not to mention some of Europe's wildest nightlife.
- Utrecht: Located in the heart of the Netherlands, Utrecht entices tourists and locals alike with its cobbled streets, centuries-old center, and interesting split-level canals; it also supports an energetic student population and the tallest church tower in the country.
- The Hague: Home to the country's government, royal family, and important international institutions like the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court, The Hague also boasts an array of charming 18th-century buildings and an attractive seaside stretch.
- Rotterdam: Obliterated during World War II, Rotterdam has since risen to become one of the nation's--and Europe's--most important centers for international commerce, complete with fascinating modernist architecture and a multi-ethnic population that makes it one of the premier places to see in the Netherlands.
- Maastricht: Tucked away in the Netherlands' far southeastern corner, ancient Maastricht is replete with medieval architecture, fortifications, and a sense of individuality that's reinforced by its own regional dialect and conglomerations of different neighborhoods.
- Leiden: Complemented by an active student population, Leiden features lazily turning windmills, vibrant flower gardens, and beautiful buildings, all of which make the city--which happens to be the birthplace of Rembrandt--a must-see attraction in the Netherlands.
- Haarlem: Cobbled lanes, relaxing cafes, and ornate homes, plus a host of museums sporting famous paintings by Rembrandt and other revered artists, make quaint Haarlem one of North Holland's most intriguing gems.
- Delft: Perhaps most famous as the birthplace of signature blue-and-white "delftware" ceramics, Delft also impresses visitors with its towering churches, abundant canals, and wide array of delicious Dutch cheeses.
Things to Do in the Netherlands
Popular Netherlands Tourist AttractionsAnne Frank House
: The birthplace of one of humanity's most moving and heartbreaking stories, the Anne Frank House (Anne Frankhuis) celebrates the 17th-century home in which Anne Frank wrote her famous diary while hiding from Nazi troops.Van Gogh Museum
: Home to the works of one of the world's greatest creative minds, the Van Gogh Museum shows off more than 200 paintings and 600 drawings from this legendary Dutch painter, including a number of self-portraits.Rijksmuseum
: Housed within an impressive 19th-century building, The Rijksmuseum (National Museum) and its massive collection of artifacts documenting the glory years of the Dutch empire makes it one of the premier tourist attractions in the Netherlands.Vondelpark
: With 47 hectares (120 acres) of green spaces, pleasant lakes, and a historic pavilion, Vondelpark is undeniably one of the capital's premier places to visit to kick back, relax, and enjoy nature by foot and by bike.Heineken Experience
: Brewed in Amsterdam since 1867, Heineken beer is known across the globe, and the Heineken Experience offers the chance to see the production process firsthand--visitors learn about the hard work that goes into the beer's creation, and, of course, have a sample.Red Light District
: Few things are as synonymous with Amsterdam as the city's notorious Red Light District, a center of prostitution since medieval times and a popular place to visit in the Netherlands, set alongside and around beautiful inner canals. Keukenhof
: Millions of flowers, including Holland's iconic tulips, burst into bloom each spring at the Keukenhof, which features a vast array of colorful gardens spread out over 32 hectares (79 acres) of former 15th-century hunting grounds.The Jordaan
: Hip and historic all at the same time, The Jordaan represents one of Amsterdam's best-known and most enduringly popular neighborhoods, where trendy galleries and new-age boutiques bump up against timeless canals and charming houses.Rembrandt House Museum
: Visitors can get an intriguing glimpse into the life and times of Rembrandt at the Museum Het Rembrandthuis (Rembrandt House), home to many of the artist's detailed paintings, personal effects, and artifacts from the mid-1600s.Artis Zoo
: One of the oldest zoos in Europe, and one highlighted by 19th-century buildings, the Artis Zoo plays host to more than 1,000 species of plants and animals and includes the outdoor park, an aquarium, and an educational planetarium.
Planning a Netherlands Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in the Netherlands with Kids
A great mix of urban bustle and outdoor activities, the Netherlands is chock full of places to visit while traveling as a family. Head for the coast around Haarlem
and The Hague
to enjoy some seaside fun and relaxation, or rent bikes and make your way north to Texel
to explore dunes and oceanside stretches teeming with wildlife. Alternatively, Amsterdam
alone offers many days'-worth of attractions in the form of its museums and many historic buildings. And it's hard to go wrong with treating the children to a colorful and fantastical array of flowers in Leiden
and the Keukenhof
is worth including on your Netherlands itinerary for its proximity to the fantastic De Hoge Veluwe National Park
, where kids can explore huge network of bike paths through a wild landscape populated with deer, pigs, and large stands of forest.
Things to Do in the Netherlands with Kids
The Netherlands' major cities together combine to offer a vast assortment of world-class museums and science centers, including the Amsterdam Maritime History Museum
, the Rijksmuseum
, and the Anne Frank House
, all of which provide good opportunities for the kids to learn more about interesting topics in Dutch history. Amsterdam
's Parkeergarage Museum Quarter
in particular is a great spot to start for young minds, as kids can both play outside in the large grassy area or take their pick from several institutions, while The Hague
delights with its miniature array of famous national landmarks. Alternatively, try venturing into the quaint countryside near Zaandam
and step back in time at Heerlijck Slaapen op de Zaanse Schans
, a historical park built to look like a 17th-century Dutch village. It's comprised of many different wooden buildings brought in from the surrounding area, and most notably features a series of giant windmills--a scene about as stereotypically Dutch as you'll find anywhere. Kids can explore the restored homes and shops, play with farm animals, and even learn about typical Dutch crafts, making this site a solid addition to a Netherlands itinerary.
Tips for a Family Vacation in the Netherlands
Keep in mind during your Netherlands vacation that a few larger cities, particularly Amsterdam, feature a seedier side. While the Red Light District
in the capital is certainly a historic area that draws plenty of tourists and sightseers, the abundance of brothels and sex-related paraphernalia may be best avoided while on holiday in the Netherlands with kids. Marijuana- and drug-related shops, ads, and souvenirs are also ubiquitous, so plan accordingly. As a cycling haven, the Netherlands sees masses of bike-mounted locals swarming around most towns, and though the specialized biking infrastructure is extremely well-indicated, many cyclists pay little heed to pedestrians and tend to ride fast. Therefore, it's important to make sure very young travelers stay safely out of the way of oncoming two-wheel traffic, particularly in the crowded streets of Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in the Netherlands
Cuisine of the Netherlands
While Americans often get a bad rap for their eatings habits, it's certainly the Dutch that take the cake when it comes to chowing down on fried delights. You might find during your vacation in the Netherlands that just about every bar snack, holiday treat, or street-food specialty comes out of a deep fryer, with understandably rich results. Kroketten and bitterballen are variations on a theme, and are essentially breaded balls of potato puree mixed with vegetables or meat, while kaas-souffles and kipcorn are fried, breaded morsels of cheese and chicken, respectively. You'll find these in snack bars across the country, often served atop a white bread roll with mayo or ketchup. Neighboring Belgium has helped to popularize cones full of French fries as well, served hot with all sorts of toppings.
For more sit-down fare, keep your eyes open for stamppot, a Dutch home-cooked specialty blending mashed potatoes with spinach and other greens, often served up with a sausage. Poffertjes, small pancakes, and stroopwafel, caramel-filled waffle cookies, round out a balanced Dutch meal with a sweet twist. However, it's the ever-popular herring, or haring in local lingo, that's the true king of Dutch cuisine. Made a bit like sushi, a fresh herring is cleaned, boned, and served up on a paper tray or crusty bread roll with pickles and chopped onions. Stands selling these ocean delicacies are ubiquitous on squares and on the seaside. To truly get into the Dutch spirit, you'll need to hold the fish by the tail, lower it into your mouth, and eat it whole. Keep in mind during your Netherlands holiday that the country's imperial heritage means a vast influx of gastronomical influences from its former colonies and immigrants, so you'll have no trouble chowing down on popular Indonesian, Malaysian, and Surinamese dishes during your stay.
Shopping in the Netherlands
The Netherlands boasts a huge array of well-known brands, both upscale and more affordable, that you'll recognize from home, along with plenty of popular names from around Europe. Utrecht
's Hoog Catharijne
provides an easy way to kill time near the train station or to visit a number of high-end chains. However, hitting local markets combines the fun of shopping with tasty Dutch specialities and an unforgettable experience. Amsterdam
's Albert Cuyp Market
is perhaps the country's premier street market, enticing vast numbers of both tourists and locals to explore its hundreds of stalls packed with souvenirs, sweet treats, and fresh foodstuffs like fish and cheese. Alternatively, the Flower Market / Bloemenmarkt
in the capital, alongside a canal, serves to supply tulips, bulbs, and a variety of other flower products to tourists and native Amsterdammers alike. Keep in mind while on your Netherlands trip that prices for many consumer items, like clothes and books, can be potentially far more expensive than similar products in North America or elsewhere outside of Europe.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to the Netherlands
History of the Netherlands
Populated by humans more than 35,000 years ago, the region of the modern-day Netherlands has experienced a tumultuous pattern of rising and falling water levels, making the land rich for farming but at the same time habitually disrupting coastal habitats. Controlled partially by the Romans, then the Franks, and then the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands fell under domination of Continental powers, notably the Catholic Burgundians and Spain--both members of the Habsburg dynasty--between the 14th and 17th centuries.
Pushing back against what they saw as religious domination by Spain's Philip II, the northern Protestant provinces fought back during the Dutch Revolt, gradually drawing in the great powers of England, France, and the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire. The Eighty Years' War, as it came to be called, lasted on and off until 1648 and helped to create an independent Dutch Republic.
The advent of peace saw the Dutch Empire and naval power expand to a huge degree, placing the Netherlands among the richest and most powerful nations on the planet and giving rise to the famed "Dutch Golden Age." The nation dominated trade with Europe and the New World, and brought in much of the hard currency needed for the merchant classes to transform the cities they ruled into lavish and ornate displays of their wealth. Add the De Duif
and Royal Palace Amsterdam
in Amsterdam and Paleis Het Loo
in Apeldoorn to your Netherlands itinerary to see evidence of this luxury. During this time, the Dutch East India Company reached as far as China and Sri Lanka, while Dutch colonists set up camp in Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Americas. Contrary to many European countries at the time, the Netherlands, having fought so hard for religious freedom, served as a relatively tolerant destination for persecuted religious minorities.
Centuries of decline began with republican unrest in the late 1700s and saw the nation conquered by Napoleon in the early 1800s. Crushed by Nazi Germany in 1940 and stripped of its colonies by Imperial Japan, the Netherlands suffered through the horrors of the Holocaust, as movingly attested by the popular Anne Frank House
in Amsterdam. The nation was finally liberated by the Allies after months of fierce fighting throughout the country in 1945. Since the end of World War II, the Netherlands has jumped headfirst into the international community, participating actively in the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union, rising to again become one of most prosperous and high-tech countries on the continent.
Customs of the Netherlands
The Dutch generally have few taboos when it comes to chatting, and you may find that few topics are off-limits. To many North Americans, the Dutch can come across as quite abrupt and frank, and generally get straight to the point while in conversation, but everyone is happy to help all the same. When it comes to English language skills, the Dutch are nearly unparalleled in Europe, with the young generation in particular speaking nearly flawless English. While a few words of Dutch can go a long way toward making locals smile, don't be surprised if waiters, grocery store staff, tourist industry employees, and many others find it much easier to speak in English. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, give cyclists the right-of-way; you'll see them everywhere while on tour in the Netherlands--and businesspeople on their way to work, speeding students, and general traffic give little quarter to confused tourists. Make sure you don't cause a multi-bike pileup by staying on marked pedestrian paths--don't assume that the strip next to the road is a sidewalk.
Holidays & Festivals in the Netherlands
The Dutch tend to place the greatest winter emphasis on Sinterklaas, a Christmas-like celebration held on December 5. While Sinterklaas himself might appear outwardly a bit like North American Santa Claus (and is also based on Saint Nicholas), he usually arrives on a canal boat rather than a sleigh. What's more, he and his helpers, called Zwarte Piet or "Black Pete" are said to make the trip to the Netherlands from Spain rather than the North Pole. During this time, the Dutch give presents to children and loved ones and consume vast amounts of papernoten, sweet holiday cookies. If your Netherlands trip takes you through the country in late April, you'll get a chance to join in on King's Day (Koningsdag) or Queen's Day (Koninginnedag), depending on the current monarch. This wild celebration commemorates the royal's birthday, and consists of packed, round-the-clock street parties, celebratory boat cruises, and historical reenactments, all while wearing orange. The gatherings in big cities, Amsterdam
in particular, are legendary.
Netherlands Travel Tips
Climate of the Netherlands
Moderated by the surrounding ocean and lowlands, the Netherlands features a gentle, temperate climate comparable with much of continental Europe. While on your Netherlands trip, extreme weather is unlikely, as winters are generally mild and wet while spring, summer, and fall feature light rain interspersed with stretches of pleasant sunshine and warmth. Coastal and island areas like De Koog, The Hague, and Haarlem can get the occasional storm, while snowy winters in inland cities like Nijmegen, Maastricht, Groningen, Den Bosch, and Eindhoven are certainly possible.
Transportation in the Netherlands
You'll quickly find during your holiday in the Netherlands that the nation boasts one of Europe's finest and most efficient transportation networks. A huge system of trains, trams, and buses, along with the country's relatively small size, means that you can travel just about anywhere within a few hours. Contrary to what you might expect, it's Utrecht, rather than Amsterdam, that serves as the country's railway hub; it boasts direct services to Schiphol Airport and big cities far and wide. Renting a car is a great way to make the most of your Netherlands vacation, as it gives you even more freedom to come and go between cities, attractions, and outdoor areas without being bound to transport schedules. However, it's cycling for which the nation is most famous, and it would be a shame not to take advantage of some of the best biking infrastructure on the planet. Every city and town is equipped with dedicated bike lanes, racks, and services, and you'll often find that in large cities like Amsterdam it's easier to get around by bike than by foot. Try renting a bicycle for your stay and zip around the delightfully flat Dutch countryside.
Languages of the Netherlands
Many visitors on vacation in the Netherlands find the Dutch language, spoken by the vast majority of the population, both wacky and familiar at the same time. Dutch is a Germanic language, and therefore closely related to both English and German--you might find that it sounds like a combination of the two. Guttural pronunciation aside, English-speakers shouldn't have a problem picking up a few words, and you'll discover plenty of similarities in common words, particularly when it comes to the written Dutch language. In the north in Friesland Province
, many people speak Frisian as a first or second language; while it's very similar to Dutch, it's purportedly closer both grammatically and structurally to English. People in the southern province of Limburg
speak their own local dialect, and some smaller communities along the border with Germany speak German as well.
Tipping in the Netherlands
Unlike North America, tipping in the Netherlands is relatively uncommon. There's certainly no obligation, but rounding up to the nearest 5 euro or adding 10 percent for good service is always appreciated, and some more upscale restaurants may automatically add a small service charge. Keep in mind that in bars and pubs especially tipping is extremely rare, so don't feel the need to add extra to the cost of a drink, particularly when ordering at the bar.