For many foreigners, there is nothing that makes the image of the Netherlands better than windmills, clogs, tulips and remarkably flat land. Although some of these characteristics have become stereotypes that are far removed from the everyday life of Dutch people, there is still a lot of truth and authenticity in them. The Dutch have retained many elements from this part of their past, for both tourist and historical reasons.
Kinderdijk has a network of 19 windmills that were once used to dry the nearby polder. Zaanse Schans also has windmills and an attractive museum where traditional crafts and old Dutch houses can be seen. Schiedam, world famous for its juniper, has the largest windmills in the world, and they stand right in the heart of the charming old town.
When you think of the Dutch countryside, you imagine vast flat meadows with black and white cows. If that is the case, you are not that far away. A large part of the country, especially the western part, consists of polders, i.e. reclaimed land separated by ditches. These rural areas are dotted with picturesque villages, old farms, imposing holiday settlements and, of course, windmills; the Zaanstreek waterlands are particularly picturesque. For a touch of folklore, check out the traditional dress and fishing boats in Volendam or Marken.
The Netherlands is a major international player in the flower industry. The tulip fields are seasonal and specific to the bulb region and parts of North Holland. They are a beautiful Dutch alternative to the lavender fields found in France. The famous Keukenhof, the largest flower garden in the world, is only open between March and May. It’s a great way to see what the Dutch flower industry has to offer.
They are excellent destinations for a leisurely bike ride or can serve as a relaxing base from which to explore the region’s towns. The rolling hills of South Limburg have characteristic half-timbered houses and numerous castles. The province of Gelderland combines its many castles (‘t Loo Castle in Apeldoorn is the highest point) with the natural landscape of the Veluwe. Don’t worry if you go somewhere else: You will find beautiful landscapes in every Dutch province.
A walk through the beautiful city of Amsterdam, with its charming canals and hundreds of 17th century monuments, is a delightful experience. For most people, a visit to the Netherlands would not be complete without a good day out in the bustling capital. Yet it is only one of the many cities in the country that offers a beautiful historical centre.
Before the rise of Amsterdam at the end of the 16th century, the walled city of Utrecht was the most important city in the country. Much of Utrecht’s medieval structures remain, with canals flanked by quays, many buildings from the High Middle Ages and some impressive old churches. Maastricht is often claimed to be the most beautiful city in the country. It is known for its romantic streets, old monuments and what the Dutch call its “Burgundian” atmosphere.
Leiden, the birthplace of Rembrandt and home to the country’s oldest university, is another beautiful place with its canals, narrow streets and more than 2,700 monuments. The Hague is often called the “judicial capital of the world”, as it is home to the Peace Palace and many international organisations. It has extensive grounds with large estates and the former Binnenhof, where the Dutch government has been based for centuries. Think also of the beautiful historic centres of Haarlem, Delft, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Alkmaar, Gouda and Amersfoort.
Considering its small size, this country has produced an impressive number of world-renowned painters. Art and painting flourished in the 17th century, when the Dutch Republic was particularly prosperous, but famous artists also lived in the country before and after that.
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 adorn the walls of the world’s greatest museums. Fortunately, some of these world-class museums are also located in the Netherlands. Amsterdam’s museum district includes the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum, all of which have outstanding 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 and houses 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 excellent art museums are Groningen with the Groninger Museum and Haarlem with the Frans Hals Museum. The new Hermitage in Amsterdam has all the splendour of its big sister in St Petersburg, with changing exhibitions focusing on Russia.
- Museum card. If you intend to stay longer in the Netherlands and enjoy visiting museums, it is advisable to apply for the one-year museum card. This gives you free admission to more than 400 museums at any given time. You can buy this card at any major museum. Adults €59.90; up to 18 years €32.45.
Living with water
The Dutch are famous for their fight against the sea. A great maritime power, the Netherlands owes its 17th century golden age to water and still relies heavily on it for trade and fishing, as the huge modern port of Rotterdam shows. However, with much of the country lying below sea level, water has also caused terrible floods and great losses over the centuries.
The attempts of the Dutch to protect their land with dikes have been known since the 12th century, but began about 2000 years ago. A huge flood in 1287 created the great Zuiderzee, an inland sea now known as the IJsselmeer. From that point on, a long process of reclaiming the land lost to the sea began. To pump out the water, windmills and extensive networks of dikes were built, slowly creating the characteristic polders. One of these polders is the Beemster Polder, and if you visit it, you will get a bonus of seeing some fortifications of the Amsterdam Defence Line.
After another devastating flood in 1916, the country launched the Zuiderzee, a major project to save and tame the Zuiderzee once and for all. In the 1930s, the impressive Afsluitdijk was completed, transforming the inland sea into a freshwater lake called the IJsselmeer. The Zuiderzee Museum, located in the beautiful town of Enkhuizen, is dedicated to the cultural heritage and folklore of the region as well as the maritime history of the Zuiderzee.
Another devastating flood hit the country in 1953, killing 1,836 people in the province of Zeeland and the southwestern part of South Holland. Over the next fifty years, the famous “Delta Works” were built to protect the southwest from flooding. It can be visited at various visitor centres, the most notable of which is Neeltje Jans Park near the Oosterscheldekering (Storm Barrier). For more information, visit theDeltawerken website.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has collectively recognised the Zuiderzee and Delta Works as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.