When you think about the Netherlands, certain images are sure to come to mind: Wooden shoes. Windmills. Canals. Coffee shops. Cheese. The Red Light District.
Indeed, you can find all these things in Amsterdam, the country’s capital and its most well-known city – for good reason: Nestled smugly inside a ring of canals dating back to the seventeenth-century, lined with unique and cozy row houses that once stored the exotic spices of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and buzzing with bikes driving every which way, Amsterdam is a cultural mecca where there’s never a dull moment.
The city perfectly represents the open-minded, no-nonsense attitude that characterizes the country as a whole, but it’s a shame that the rest of the Netherlands so frequently gets overshadowed by its famously liberal capital.
I moved to the Netherlands from America three years ago, and though I spend a good deal of my time in Amsterdam there’s just so much more to see and do in this tiny, water-logged country, it’d truly be a shame to come here and miss out on these one-of-a-kind destinations, sights and opportunities.
With this in mind, I give you seven things to do and places to see in the Netherlands that are not Amsterdam:
Do as the Dutch and enjoy a dagje uit by train
A dagje uit, or a little daytrip, is the perfect way to get a feel for the country. With an easy to navigate countrywide train system, traveling within the Netherlands is a breeze – and what better way to see the countryside than by train?
The country’s main railway operator, NS, has lots of great deals to choose from: You can get roundtrip fare to Maastricht and a night in a hotel for just €50, or plan a daytrip to The Hague, including train fare and lunch, for €24.
A dagje uit is a distinctly Dutch tradition that falls in line with the concept of gezelligheid. There’s no direct English translation, but the word conjures up the feeling of coziness that comes from being around close friends and family and an overall sense of togetherness. You can travel virtually anywhere in the country in under five hours, so a daytrip or weekend getaway is a great, gezellig alternative to all those tourist traps in Amsterdam.
Take a walking tour of Delft
The medieval city of Delft is just an hour away from Amsterdam, yet you’ll feel like you’re stepping into the past when you take in the quant city’s old canals, churches and cobblestone streets. Like so many places in Holland, Delft is rich in history – from the painter Vermeer to the classic blue and white pottery, the city also has close associations with the royal family leading back to its founder, William of Orange.
The small city is the perfect destination for anyone with a penchant for history, and visitors can participate in guided walking tours that teach all about Delft’s medieval history, the famous painters the city housed, and the royalty it produced – you can even take a guided beer tour to see (and taste) the city’s best pubs and breweries.
If you’re the type who prefers to do things at your own pace, fret not: In addition to guided city walks, visitors can pick up self-guided tour books and maps from the visitor’s center to explore the city at their own pace.
See the Oosterscheldekering dam
The Netherlands has a remarkable history with water. So much of the country has been shaped by man through a carefully constructed network of dikes, dams, canals and polders and the battle against the sea is closely entrenched in the history and culture of the land, much of which is below sea level.
One of the best examples of the battle of man versus water can be seen at the Oosterscheldekering (Eastern Scheldt storm barrier), where beginning in the 1950s a series of dams and barriers have been constructed to hold back the water and reshape the land.
The area surrounding the Oosterscheldekering, a dam spanning nine kilometers in length, is now a national park where visitors can enjoy nature, go bird watching, take a swim or fish. The park is just south of Rotterdam and encompasses the Delta Works project, named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in architecture or engineering, or if you just want to experience the sheer willpower of the sea as it tries to reclaim the land.
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Retrace the pilgrims’ footsteps in Leiden
Just thirty minutes south of Amsterdam lies the city of Leiden. Home to the oldest university in the Netherlands (Leiden University, which dates back to 1575), the town is steeped in rich history and plenty of things to do and see, including a thousand-year-old citadel that helped the Dutch resist and ultimately defeat in the Spanish during the Eighty Years’ War.
A little known fact about the city is that the Pilgrim Fathers, the dissenters who took that infamous journey on the Mayflower oh so long ago, originally sought refuge in Leiden. For nearly 12 years the group lived and worked in the city, where they enjoyed greater religious freedom before embarking on their journey to the new world.
Visitors can see the Leiden Pilgrim Museum and walk the same small alleyways and side streets as the Founding Fathers once did. The breathtaking Pieterskerk, now deconsecrated, served as the central meeting point for the pilgrims, and today sight-seers can take in the late-Gothic church any time of year. Nearby an unobtrusive plaque marks the spot where the pilgrims first set sail.
Put on some orange and celebrate King’s Day
Every April, the entire country of the Netherlands goes orange. This year marks the very first King’s Day, or Koningsdag, since 1890; the royal celebration was known as Koninginnedag – Queen’s Day – until Queen Beatrix abdicated last year and the crown was passed on to her son, King Willem-Alexander.
This year the celebrations will be held on April 26. Revelers dress in head-to-toe orange in honor of the royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau, and take part in large-scale celebrations on the street, on boats, in parks – all over the country. Amsterdam is a popular spot to celebrate King’s Day, but it can be overwhelming for anyone not comfortable in big crowds.
This year, check out the celebrations in other cities around Holland, such as The Hague, which hosts a wildly popular citywide party the night before King’s Day, or Utrecht, where you can find the biggest free market (vrijmarkt) in the country. King’s Day is the only day that free markets and yard sales are allowed to be held, so get ready for lots of interesting finds.
Visit the beautiful Keukenhof gardens
Keukenhof (in Dutch, “Kitchen Garden”) is the biggest garden and flower bed in the world. Every spring millions of flowers light up the park and span an area of 32 hectaceres. Opening times depend on the season, but the garden is usually open from mid-March to mid-May. The best time to visit is undoubtedly in April when the tulips are in full bloom.
Each year Keukenhof features different flower arrangements and themes, so no two visits are ever alike. In addition to the gorgeous landscapes in the park, Keukenhof is situated in what is known as the “bulb and dune” region of the Netherlands, and the rolling flower fields surrounding the garden are just as beautiful and fun to explore.
For a really unforgettable experience, rent a bike and take a ride alongside the fields. Here the flowers are grown to be sold at farmer’s markets and in shops around the world, but you’ll feel like the rows and rows of colorful tulips, daffodils and hyacinths are blooming just for you.
Hop across the Wadden Islands
The Frisian Islands, which extend up to Germany and Denmark, make up the northernmost region of the Netherlands and are a popular holiday spot for locals. With miles of pristine beaches spotted with ancient lighthouses, nature parks and a year-round population of curious seals, these islands are a welcome escape from the bustling metropolitan areas that make up most of the Netherlands.
Because they’re only reachable by ferry, you’ll have to plan your visit in advance. The islands – Texel, Terschelling, Ameland, Vlieland and Schiermonnikoog – each offer unique activities and opportunities for visitors, and one can “hop” from island to island with ease. When the tide is low it’s even possible to walk from one to another, and you’ll be amazed by the changes in the landscape from high to low tide.
About the Author
Lianne Domenic is a blogger and editor for Flipit (www.flipit.com), a global coupon portal that offers valuable coupon codes and financial advice to audiences around the world. She has an MA in Book and Digital Media Studies and is an avid reader, writer and traveler. Three years ago she moved from Asheville, North Carolina, to her new home in the Netherlands.