Nestled between Belgium and Germany are the low fertile plains, soft undulated hills, brackish estuaries, and reclaimed marshes of The Netherlands. As the world’s second largest exporter of food and agriculture, the countryside of this handsome NorthSea state is a winsome mixture of cattle, tulips, dikes, and windmills.
During the 17th Century Golden Age, the Dutch dominated Far Eastern trade. With the invention of corporate finance, modern stock exchanges, and the first multinational corporations, the Dutch Empire spread from the India to China, the Americas, and the Caribbean. The spice trade brought immense riches and lead to a century of energetic and unparalleled advances in art, science, commerce, jurisprudence, and democracy. The grand architecture and beautiful canals built during this period are a testament to a time when Dutch cities were the shining lights of art and culture.
The industrial revolution of the 18th Century brought a surge in population and today the towns and cities form one great conurbation. As the most densely populated EU Member State, The Netherlands has built a tremendous national rail network, linking all major centres with high speed and regional lines. With direct flights from London to Amsterdam, you can easily and affordably explore the rural beauty and urban sophistication of The Netherlands by train.
Here are five highlights that demonstrate the diversity of sights on offer.
Amsterdam was once the wealthiest city in the world and today remains the political and commercial capital of The Netherlands. The centre was built on two sides of the Amstel river and during the Golden Age a vast lattice of mercantile grooves and notches were cut into its core. For the ubiquity of its UNESCO World Heritage-listed canals, 90 islands, and 1500 bridges Amsterdam is known as a ‘Venice of the North’.
Though the most populous city, the concentric u-shaped Grachtengordel waterways give the highly urbanised inner districts a kind serenity. Cars are scarce and waves of ringing bicycles roll down the cobbled streets past rows of tall narrow brickwork and titling 17th Century gables. The architecture is a splendid Jugendstil, Baroque, and Neo-Gothic alloy with pockets of unique Dutch Renaissance influence.
As one of the world’s most livable cities and a spring of European creativity, Amsterdam is rich in attractions. There is the home of Anne Frank, the splendid Vondelpark, and the Rembrandt lined halls of the Rijksmuseum, while in the former workers districts of the Pijp and Joordan the streets are stacked with bohemian galleries, neat boutiques, and chic cafes.
With incredibly liberal drug and prostitution policies, Amsterdam is also notorious for its cannabis cafes and red neon-lit lanes. The De Wallen red light district is usually packed with gawping, red-faced tourists, but the area is still well worth a visit for its confounding neon aesthetic and extraordinary history.
During the phase of imperial expansion, Dutch lawyers became famous for their knowledge of international law and maritime legislation. Initially, the seat of the sinecural Dutch Monarchy, the Hague quickly grew into an important European legal and diplomatic centre. Part of the same Randstad regiopolis and only 45 minutes from Amsterdam by train, The Hague today houses the Dutch Government, various International Courts of Justice, and a copious array of museums, palaces, embassies, and monuments.
For fans of art and history, there are many places to visit. The Girl with a Pearl Earring hangs at the Mauritshuis Museum along with a staggering collection of 15th Century Dutch art. The Huis ten Bosch and Noordeinde palaces host the royal family and their commensurate art collections while the world’s oldest Parliament of continual use strikes a cheerful Gothic pose before the mirror-like Hofvijver lake.
The medieval Old Town centre is a typical composition of small streets and wonderful Renaissance facades, but the surrounding suburbs are a surprising mix of modern towers, wide tree-lined boulevards, and spacious parks. Situated on the North Sea coast, the seaside suburbs are full of stately hotels, historic resorts, and pre-war casinos – such as the fabulous Kurhaus of Scheveningen. The Hague has the same pervasive tranquility of all Dutch cities, but the wider views and broader avenues contrast pleasantly with the noisier, more urbanised Amsterdam.
As a cheap and simple day trip, trains between The Hague and Amsterdam start from £7 and run non-stop.
Utrecht is a small but spirited University city, 30 minutes south of Amsterdam by train. It began life as a fortified Roman outpost marking the Empire’s northern frontier, and sections of the prodigious 3rd Century stone walls that encircled the Old Town still stand today.
Before the Golden Age Utrecht was the religious and commercial capital of The Netherlands – evident in the towering St Martin’s Cathedral. Built in the 10th Century, and bifurcated by a tornado in 1674, the French-Gothic icon and its freestanding Dom Tower belfry are Utrecht’s most celebrated landmarks.
As in Amsterdam, broad canals sweep through older neighbourhoods, but in Utrecht a unique system of low-lying wharves was constructed to facilitate trade and give the streets their iconic two-tier appearance. One example is the historic Oudegracht canal, where boats jostle at the quays and bicycles bounce over old cobblestone bridges.
The streets of the Old Town, are narrow and sinuous. The slanting Gothic houses wear colourful, quaint facades and many now house cute bars and stylish cafes catering to the throngs of matriculated students. With a young population and a decidedly fresh, small-town atmosphere Utrecht offers a less touristy and more authentic glimpse at Dutch youth culture.
Trains from Amsterdam to Utrecht start at £5 and run frequently.
As the capital of the protruding southern Limburg province and a crossroads of French and German influence, Maastricht has a rich and anomalous history. Considered the oldest Dutch city it lies 170km South West of Amsterdam, pressed hard against the Belgian border and Meuse river.
It began life as an ancient Belgic settlement and later became an important Roman garrison of East-West trade. Roman baths, granaries and some 4th Century stone gates still remain. In later centuries, as trade and manufacturing flourished, rings of thick stone walls were continually built and besieged. The 13th Century Helpoort, or Hell’s Gate, is a prime example with its impressive twin towers and now silent dungeons. Owing to Maastricht’s strategic location, huge earthworks were constructed throughout the Golden Age, and the dagger-like ruins of Hoge Fronten and Fort Sint-Pieter can still be toured today.
The Old Town contains 1677 national heritage sites, and most are centered around three main squares. Commanding the central Markt square is the 17th Century Dutch Baroque Town Hall while at Vrijthof rows of dignified Neoclassical mansions supplement the timeless Basilica of Saint Servatius. Over at the tree-lined Onze-Lieve-Vrouweplein are Maastricht’s many French cafes and Belgian beer bars. There the waiters serve tables before the 11th Century Basilica of Our Lady – seen as a pinnacle of Dutch Romanesque expression.
Maastricht is known for it’s history, and more recently its large international student population, but what makes it special is it’s palpable non-Dutch past. Bordered by large neighbouring powers Maastricht looked West to Belgium and South to France during the Enlightenment, only turning North much later in Dutch history. The locals speak with a thick Limburg accent and even maintain a unique Limburgish dialect.
The £20 train from Amsterdam to Maastricht takes 2.5 hours and winds through lush rural regions of windmills and flowers. When you arrive take a break from the archetypal Dutch city experience in what is paradoxically The Netherlands’ oldest town.
Our last destination is indicative of the many satellite towns surrounding Amsterdam that can be reached in 30 minutes or less by train. These include the fishing village of Volendam, the famous northern cheese town of Alkmaar, and the University precincts of Leiden. Located 20km West of Amsterdam, near low coastal dunes, Haarlem is almost a suburb, but the former medieval centre has an identity wholly distinct from its larger eastern neighbour and a history marked by triumph and disaster.
With a predilection for combustible wooden houses, four great 13th Century fires tore through the city. After each inferno, Haarlem was quickly rebuilt and the current Grote Markt town hall stands on the gutted ashes of William II’s Castle. Through fire, the town’s layout was also reshaped, and the unusual square proportions and regimented streets of the inner Old Town were drawn to imitate ancient Jerusalem.
In the 14th century Haarlem’s textiles, shipyards, and beer breweries brought great prosperity. Special canals were built to ship barrels of water in from the dunes, and today over 100 breweries remain, brewing a unique local beer called Jopenbier.
As Amsterdam rose to industrial preeminence during the Golden Age, Haarlem became known as Bloemen-Stad, or the Flower-City, and was the epicentre of the Tulip Mania that was then sweeping 17th Century Europe. As the Dutch invented modern finance, they also experience some of the first economic bubbles, and the sensational prices once paid for fragrant tulip bulbs lead to enormous wealth and terrible ruin. Even today the low plains between Amsterdam and Haarlem are sown with bright rows of merry tulips and their cheerful stems wave to the regional trains sailing by.
When Antwerp fell to the Spanish in 1585 scholars and artisans sought refuge behind Haarlem’s steep stone walls. They made the industrious town a centre of culture and art, and with their knowledge of print began a Dutch publishing revolution. The defensive walls were later demolished and turned into a grand arboreal park, while the rubble was reconstituted as workers’ homes and factories. The enduring Amsterdamse Poort is the last remaining gate and is over 650 years old.
After capture by the French in the 19th Century Haarlem’s importance gradually declined. Today the town is a quiet commuter city but its wonderful history and stunning architecture are still on display. Visit Teylers Museum, the oldest in Netherlands or the Frans Hals Museum of fine arts. See the Neo-Renaissance jumble of St Bavo Cathedral or the conspicuously stately Villa Welgelegen.
With train rides from £3 it’s easy to visit this singular town that stands so far from its conterminous capital.
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