The southern part of the country was part of the Holy Roman Empire until it was acquired piece by piece by the Burgundians. At the end of the Middle Ages, it became a Spanish possession together with what is now Belgium. Little survives from this period, except a few historic city centers, and a few castles.
Following the Dutch Revolt, led by national hero William of Orange Willem van Oranje, the Netherlands became a de facto independent republic in 1572. The first split with Belgium came when the northern provinces including Flanders signed the Union of Utrecht in 1579. It grew to become one of the major economic and seafaring powers in the world during the 17th century, which is known as the Dutch Golden Age Gouden Eeuw. During this period, many colonies were founded or conquered, including the Netherlands East Indies currently Indonesia and New Amsterdam currently New York City, which was later traded with the British for Suriname.
In 1805, the country became a kingdom when Emperor Napoleon appointed his brother 'King of Holland'. In 1815, it became the 'United Kingdom of the Netherlands Verenigd Koninkrijk der Nederlanden together with Belgium and Luxembourg under King William I Willem I. In 1830 Belgium seceded and formed a separate kingdom. Luxembourg received independence from the Netherlands in 1890, as the Salic Law prohibited a female ruler.
Avoiding the liberal revolutions of 1848 and new adopted Treaty, The Netherlands quietly became a constitutional monarchy and remained neutral in World War I but suffered a brutal invasion and occupation by Germany in World War II. A modern, industrialized nation, the Netherlands is also a large exporter of agricultural products. In 1944, the Low Countries formed the union of the Benelux in which they economically and sometimes politically work together. The country was a founding member of NATO in 1949 and the European Community EC in 1957, and participated in the introduction of the Economic and Monetary Union EMU in 1999.
Quite a few travellers visit the Netherlands to enjoy its famously tolerant attitude: prostitution is decriminalized but only for those prostitutes registered at a permitted brothel. Safe sex and use of condoms is common practice, and the prostitute will usually have these available. It is illegal for sex workers to solicit for customers on the street and prostitutes are most common in the capital Amsterdam, where red-light districts are popular, even if tourists only visit as a momento of the visit. In more rural areas, prostitution is almost non-existent. Sex shops, sex shows, sex museums and drugs museums are also popular amongst tourists. The sale, possession, and consumption of small quantities of cannabis while technically still illegal, is officially tolerated, but coffeeshops are subject to increasing restrictions. Harder drugs eg. ecstasy or cocaine remain illegal both in theory and practice. In the same open minded atmosphere is the Dutch ease towards homosexuality, gay marriage is legalized. Also the practice of Euthanasia is legalized under strict conditions.
The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. No matter where you go, you are never far away from civilization. Cities can be crowded especially in the Randstad area, where congestion is a serious problem. Much of the country is flat and at or below sea level making it an ideal place to cycle. Hills may be found only at the Veluwe and Southern Limburg. Much of countryside is dominated by highly industrialized farming: despite its population density, the Netherlands are one of the largest food exporters in the world. Though there are some beautiful spots scattered across the country, tourists expecting a countryside full of picturesque villages, tulips and windmills may be in for a bit of a shock. The villages, tulips and windmills are there for sure, but you just have to find them for example, in the Waterland and Zaan Region and most Dutch have never been there actually. The most beautiful places are most of the times the places known only by the Dutch themselves. Asking a Dutch person for some ideas of what to see could be helpful. Otherwise, just visit local 'tourist shops', known as the VVV, found in all the larger towns.
The geography of the Netherlands is dominated by water features. The country is criss-crossed with rivers, canals and dikes, and the beach is never far away. The western coast of the Netherlands has one of the most beautiful North Sea beaches that can be found, attracting thousands if not millions of people every year, among them a lot of Germans as well.