Wandering through the magnificent city of Amsterdam, with its lovely 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 in its bustling capital. Nevertheless, it is only one of many towns in the country that offers a beautiful, historic centre.
Before Amsterdam's rise to fame in the late 16th century, the fortified city of Utrecht was the country's most important town. Much of Utrecht's mediaeval structures remain, with canals flanked by wharf-based structures, lots of buildings from the Early Middle Ages and some impressive ancient churches. Maastricht is often claimed as the most beautiful city of the country. It is known for its romantic lanes, ancient monuments, and for what the Dutch call its "Burgundian" atmosphere.
Leiden, the birthplace of Rembrandt and home to the oldest university of the country, is yet another beautiful place with canals, narrow streets, and over 2,700 monuments. The Hague is often called the "judicial capital of the world", as it famously hosts the Peace Palace and many international organisations. It has a spacious layout, with large estates, and the ancient Binnenhof, where the Dutch government had its seat for centuries. Also consider the gorgeous old town centres of Haarlem, Delft, 's-Hertogenbosch, Alkmaar, Gouda and Amersfoort.
For many foreigners, nothing captures the idea of the Netherlands more vividly than windmills, wooden shoes, tulips, and remarkably flat lands. Although some of these characteristics have evolved into stereotypes far off from the daily lives of Dutch people, there's still a lot of truth to them and plenty of authenticity to be found. The Dutch have preserved many elements from this part of their past, both for touristic and for historic reasons.
Kinderdijk boasts a network of 19 windmills, once used to drain the adjoining polder. The Zaanse Schans has windmills as well, and a nice museum with traditional crafts and old Dutch houses on display. Schiedam, world-famous for its jenever, has the tallest windmills in the world, and they're right in its lovely old town centre.
Thinking about the Dutch countryside, you might imagine wide, flat, grasslands with black and white cows. If you do, you're not that far off. A large swathe of the country, especially the western part of it, consist of polders; reclaimed land separated by ditches. These rural areas are dotted with picturesque villages, old farms, impressive summer estates, and of course, windmills; the Waterland and Zaan Region is especially scenic. For a touch of folklore, see the traditional clothing and fishermen boats in Volendam or Marken.
The Netherlands is a major international player in the flower industry. The tulip fields are seasonal, and are specific to the Bulb Region and some areas in North Holland. They are a lovely Dutch alternative to the lavender fields you could find in France. The famous Keukenhof, the world's largest flower garden, only opens between March and May. It is a great way to see what the Dutch flower industry has to offer. Another way to see the Dutch proudly present their flowers is by visiting a flower parade, called Bloemencorso. In a parade of this kind the floats praalwagens, cars and in some cases boats are magnificently decorated or covered in flowers. Each parade has its own character, charm and theme. Many towns and regions in the Netherlands hold parades every year.
They make great destinations for a recreational bike trip or can serve as a laid-back base, from where you can explore cities in the area. The rolling hills of South Limburg have characteristic timber-framed houses and a lot of castles. The province of Gelderland combines its many castles Palace 't Loo in Apeldoorn being the highlight with the natural scenery of the Veluwe. Don't worry if you're headed elsewhere: you'll find a beautiful countryside in every Dutch province.
Sinterklaas is a traditional winter holiday figure still celebrated today in the Netherlands and a few other countries. His birthday December 6th is celebrated annually on Saint Nicholas' eve December 5th. Since the celebration is a family affair, the chance is small to see the celebration as a tourist. Sinterklaas traditionally arrives in the Netherlands each year in mid-November usually on a Saturday by steamboat from Spain. The Sinterklaasintocht his arrival and walk through the city is public and organized by almost every city. From his arrival until his celebration, you can walk into Sinterklaas or the 'zwarte pieten' which are his helpers in shopping malls.
Zwarte Piet is felt by some to be racist, because these black men are the helpers/servants of the white skinned Sinterklaas. Today, Zwarte Pieten have become more modern servants and parents often tell their children that the Pieten have black faces because they climb down dirty, soot-filled chimneys. The discussion about Zwarte Piet being racist or not, intensified as of 2013. Towards December, this becomes headlining news and the Dutch in general are polarized about the subject. In order to avoid being hassled or intimidated by people either in favor or against Zwarte Piet, it is wise to be careful whilst discussing the subject. Some areas have since introduced Pieten in many different colors. Again, opinions on this change are heavily polarized. Do not however avoid the celebration because of this, demonstrations are not violent.
If want to you experience a part of the Sinterklaas tradition, your best option is to visit the arrival of Sinterklaas, called the Sinterklaasintocht. There is a big celebration in a designated city on the saturday between November 10th and 16th, and smaller celebrations in nearly all cities the day after. Also consider buying some Sinterklaas candy such as: Pepernoten, Kruidnoten, taai-taai, chocolate coins or chocolate letters. The candy is available in supermarkets and other candy selling stores from September until the fifth of December.
Considering its small size, this country has brought forward an impressive number of world-famous painters. Arts and painting flourished in the 17th century, when the Dutch Republic was particularly prosperous, but renowned artists have lived in the country before and after that age as well.
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 decorate the walls of the world's greatest museums. Fortunately, some of these world-class museums can be found in the Netherlands as well. The Museum Quarter in Amsterdam has the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum right next to each other, all three with excellent 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, with 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 notable art museums include Groningen with the Groninger Museum, and Haarlem with the Frans Hals Museum. The newly established Hermitage in Amsterdam has all the grandeur of its big sister in Saint Petersburg, with changing Russia-oriented exhibitions on display.
living with the water
The Dutch are famous for their struggle with the sea. As a former naval power, the Netherlands owed its 17th century Golden Age to the water, and still depends heavily on it for modern day trade and fisheries, as the massive, modern port of Rotterdam demonstrates. However, with much of the country's land below sea level, the water also caused terrible floods and great losses over centuries.
Dutch attempts to protect their lands with dikes are well recorded from the 12th century, but started around 2,000 years ago. An enormous flood in 1287 created the large Zuiderzee, an inland sea that is now known as the IJsselmeer. From that period onwards, a long process of reclaiming lands lost to the sea began. Windmills and extensive networks of dikes were created to pump out the water, slowly creating the characteristic polders. One of these polders is the Beemster Polder, and when you visit you get a few fortifications of the Defence Line of Amsterdam included as a bonus.
After another devastating flood in 1916, the country started the Zuiderzee Works, a massive undertaking to reclaim and tame the Zuiderzee once and for all. In the 1930s, the impressive Afsluitdijk was finished, which turned the inland sea into a fresh water lake called the IJsselmeer. The Zuiderzee Museum in lovely Enkhuizen is devoted to the cultural heritage and folklore of the region, as well as the maritime history of the Zuiderzee.
Another devastating flood struck the country in 1953, recording 1,836 deaths in the province of Zeeland. In the following fifty years, the famous Delta Works were constructed to protect the south-western portion of the Netherlands from flooding. It can be visited at various visitor centres, the most notable of which is the Neeltje Jans park near the Oosterscheldekering Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier. The American Society of Civil Engineers have recognised the Zuiderzee Works and the Delta Works collectively as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.