If you’re going to visit the Netherlands, the first thing you need to know is that the country is not also called Holland. That’s a region. The second thing you need to know: there’s more than Amsterdam to see. Much more.
A small country, roughly the size of Maryland, the Netherlands nevertheless packs in a huge variety of places to go and sites to visit. Interested in history? The country’s got it in spades with a rich Roman and medieval past. The country also played a critical part in the World War II Allied offensive. Crave nature? Check out the unique biodiversity of the Wadden Sea mudflats or take in the vibrant beauty of Keukenhof Garden in full bloom. And, of course, if cheese and bikes aren’t a part of your trip, you haven’t really done the Netherlands.
Click through our slideshow to see all the surprising experiences you can have on your trip to the Netherlands. Then check out our picks for the best places to stay and discover more about how to get around.
Talk to a Gardener at Keukenhof
If you plant it, they will come. Open just eight weeks out of every year, Keukenhof Garden nevertheless receives upwards of 800,000 visitors annually. They come to see the nearly 7 million bulbs, planted months earlier, blossom into a stunning kaleidoscope of tulips, daffodils and hyacinths.
Independent visitors to the gardens can stop in at the Bulb Information House, where at least one gardener is always on hand to answer questions. But for a more in-depth understanding of what’s involved in creating the colorful wonder that is Keukenhof — and how you might be able to replicate a tiny, tiny portion of it at home — a guided tour with a gardener is recommended. GetYourGuide.com offers a 6.5-hour tour that includes a visit with a tulip farmer for a demonstration and talk before going to Keukenhof.
Explore Underground Tunnels
Under the vibrant green pastures of Maastricht lie 8,000 man-made tunnels totaling nearly 50 miles. The labyrinth, known as the Zonneberg Caves, was created over hundreds of years by people mining the limestone to build homes, churches and monuments. During World War II, some 25,000 residents hid in the caves for several days as the city above was liberated. Nearby is another underground marvel, a series of casemates built between 1575 and 1825 to protect the city from French invaders, including Louis XIV.
A guided visit to the tunnels can be an exercise in bravery, as the caves are completely without power; the only light comes from the electric lanterns the guides carry. Within the Zonneberg Caves, which stretch high above visitors, you’ll see dozens of statues carved into the soft limestone, as well as paintings. You’ll also find a small church with a larger-than-life statue of Jesus Christ around the corner, and even a bakery with five ovens built during World War II but never used. A short distance into the labyrinth is “the vault,” where 780 pieces of artwork were stored until the end of the war, including Rembrandt’s “Night Watch.” Tourists can visit both sets of caves, as well as the St. Pietersberg Fort above them, on guided tours, which can be purchased directly from Maastricht Underground or tour operator Rederij Stiphout.
Get Your Feet Dirty
It’s downright muddy in the Wadden Sea region of the Netherlands, where tidal flats and wetlands are rich in biodiversity. Visitors wanting to spot some of the thousands of shorebirds, crabs, fish and seals that make the area their home will need to strap on their boots and go wadlopen — or mudflat hiking — during low tide when the flats are navigable. During these periods, hikers can actually walk from island to island.
Tourists are strongly encouraged to use a licensed guide; mistiming a hike can lead to deadly consequences, and sticking to prescribed routes keeps the local flora and fauna safe from invading hikers. Several tour companies offer mudflat hikes including Wadloopcentrum Fryslan, Dijkstra’s Wadlooptochten and Beleef Pieterburen. A good tour for newbies is Wadloopcentrum Fryslan’s relatively easy 2.5-hour tour on the mudflat between Engelsmanplaat and the island of Schiermonnikoog.
Find Peace in the Hague
Known as the International City of Peace and Justice, the Hague has been a part of global peace building since 1899 when it hosted the world’s first Peace Conference. Since then, the city has been home to the second Peace Conference, out of which came a series of laws and customs of war collectively known as the Hague Conventions, and is currently the location of more than 100 international courts, tribunals and organizations dedicated to world peace.
Tourists can visit the Peace Palace, which houses the International Court of Justice (the judicial arm of the United Nations) and Peace Palace Library, on select weekends, and only with a guided tour. The 45-minute tour includes the Great Hall of Justice, Small Hall of Justice and the beautiful Japanese Room. Tour tickets can only be bought online through the Peace Palace’s website. Another way to visit the Hague, if not the Peace Palace, is through a private — and free — tour with a Hague Greeter, a resident volunteer who enjoys sharing her or his love of the city with visitors. Greeters walk you through the Hague for a few hours and give personal insights into what it’s like to live there. Hague Greeter tours must be booked at least two weeks in advance at DenHaagGreeters.nl.
See Amsterdam the Way Locals Do
The Netherlands is considered one of the two most bike-friendly countries in Europe (Denmark being the other), so it’s no wonder experts estimate that bikes outnumber people in Amsterdam. And what better way to experience life here than by getting onto a bike yourself?
Bikes are easily rented — every train station in every Dutch city has a rental agency — but to get the most out of your time spent pedaling the streets, a bike tour is the best way to go. Mike’s Bike Tours offers several options ranging from two to four hours. With Amsterdam City Tours you can combine culinary tastings with your three-hour bike ride. Other options include Sandemans New Europe and Yellow Bike.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Embracing Amsterdam by Christian Dew
“I had not been on a bicycle in years … many years. Sam took me to his friend who owns Mike’s Bike Tours. It is by far the best way to see the city and get around. The rentals are very reasonable and they will treat you like family. It was one of the best experiences I had while I was there.” Read more!
Follow the Liberation Route
The Netherlands played a significant role in World War II, particularly toward the end of the war when the Allies used key points in the country to take back Europe from the Germans though events like Operation Market Garden, Operation Veritable and the Rhineland Campaign. History buffs can follow the path of the Allied forces, known as liberators in the Netherlands, through the Historical Experience Network, a unique series of countrywide locations with audio commentaries.
Available at LiberationRoute.com are 126 audio files to download to your smartphone. The clips trace the path of the Allied forces through the regions of North Brabant, Arnhem Nijmegen and the South Veluwe from 1944 and 1945. Each audio stop is marked by a large boulder, and each commentary tells the story of what happened in the area from the perspective of the soldiers who fought and civilians who lived nearby. Contact the Arnhem Nijmegen tourist board for a copy of the Exciting History brochure, which also offers information on two other countrywide historical tours, the Roman era and the medieval era.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Danube River Cruise by Arlene Kinner
“The next stop was Arnhem, where we had a choice of tours. I chose the Liberation Museum tour. At the end of this tour, we were served Dutch apple pie, YUMMY!!!! Wonderful staff, very attentive to your every need.” Read more!
The Netherlands is famous for three things above all others: tulips, windmills and cheese. But of the three, cheese may be the country’s oldest passion. Archaeologists have discovered pots and other clay vessels indicating that cheese was being made in what is now the Netherlands as early as two centuries B.C. The oldest records of dairy markets, at which cheese was extensively traded, date back to 1266. There are still several active cheese markets throughout the country, though most are primarily for the benefit of tourists.
There are nearly a dozen Dutch cheese varieties, with Gouda and Edam the best known. You can visit the namesake cities of both. In Gouda, for instance, tourists can visit the Cheese Weighing House and Cheese Museum where you can have your weight measured in cheese, test your knowledge of Dutch cheeses and, of course, sample some genuine Gouda. If you’re visiting during the summer (mid-June through August), be sure to visit the Thursday morning cheese market. In Edam, a summer cheese market is held on Wednesdays in July and August and features locals dressed in traditional Dutch clothing.
Explore Roman and Medieval History
With a history dating back 4,000 years, including the first known Roman settlement in the Netherlands, Nijmegen is the country’s oldest — and first — city. Though little remains of these earliest of days, bits and pieces are still present throughout the city. Most prominent is Valkhof Park where a Germanic tribe, the Batavians, lived when the Romans arrived. Here you’ll find the remains of a fortress built by the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa, as well as St. Nicholas Church, the oldest existing building in the city, erected in 1030. Hundreds of items unearthed on this site are located in the nearby Het Valkhof Museum.
Visitors can stop by the tourist office to pick up a free walking tour booklet or join a partial day tour from Nijmegen Tours, HollandTourGuides.com, NL-Xperience or Tours by Locals. If you’re in the area on the first Saturday of the month (April to November), check out Guild Nijmegen’s 3.5-hour Roman Aqueduct walking tour out of the nearby town of Berg en Dal. Slightly farther afield in the town of Millingen is the Liburna, a reconstructed Roman ship open to visitors.
See Schiphol Behind the Scenes
One of the largest and busiest airports in Europe, Schiphol is the first point of entry for many visitors to the Netherlands. But it’s not just a place to catch a plane; you can visit an art museum (an annex of the world-famous Rijksmuseum), stop to download a free e-book or some Dutch music at the Airport Library, or simply watch the planes take off and land from the rooftop viewing terrace. It takes a lot to keep such a happening airport running.
Want to know how much effort goes into the daily operations? Join the one-hour Schiphol Behind the Scenes tour. Visit the airport fire station, snow fleet, airplane hangers and more. Tours depart four times a day Tuesdays through Sundays.
Best Time to Go to the Netherlands
As with many destinations in Europe, most people visit the Netherlands in the summer, when the weather is at its best, and the fewest in the winter. Fall and spring are shoulder seasons in the Netherlands — and those famous flower fields in the Dutch countryside are in full bloom in April and May. During winter months, tourism winds down, but travelers can go ice skating or shop at Dutch Christmas markets. Keep in mind that the weather can be quite chilly and damp during winter months.
The Netherlands on a Budget
Accommodations in Amsterdam are slightly more affordable than those in larger Western European cities like London or Paris. In the countryside, places to stay are even cheaper. Look for family-run guesthouses (local tourist offices can help you find them) or consider renting a house or apartment where you can cook your own meals. For an affordable flight to the Netherlands, look for shoulder-season or low-season tickets. Airfares to the country are most expensive during summer.
–written by Dori Saltzman
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