Whether it’s the mayhem of the cities or the tranquillity of the countryside, rest assured that whichever you choose, you will not be disappointed. The best option, however, is a little bit of both.
The Netherlands is one of the low or Benelux countries which also include Belgium and Luxembourg. The country is made up of twelve provinces – Drenthe, Flevoland, Friesland, Gelderland, Froningen Limburg, North Brabant, North Holland, Overijssel, South Holland, Utrecht, and Zeeland and shares borders in the north and west with the North Sea, in the south with Belgium and in the east Germany.
The name Netherlands comes from the fact that over twenty-five per cent of the entire country lies under sea level but it is also often referred to as Holland. This latter name, however, refers only to the provinces of North Holland and South Holland which have played a large role in the development of the country and as such is not really the correct term for the nation as a whole.
Because of the low-lying nature of the Netherlands, it has had a constant battle with the sea throughout the centuries. Despite this major disadvantage, the sea has also worked in the country’s favour. The fishing industry is a major earner for the Dutch and as well as this the country’s location on the estuaries of three major European rivers has also aided it greatly on the trade front. Rotterdam in the southwest is currently the largest port in the world but the Netherlands has been home to major ports since the Middle Ages.
Today the Netherlands is home to a population of over fifteen million people compared with about five million just a decade ago. This statistic should offer some indication as to just how prosperous the country is at the moment. As well as this, however, this rapid growth in population means that the Netherlands is now one of the most densely populated countries in the world with an average of four hundred and fifty people per square kilometre.
As a tourist destination, this remarkable country has a great deal to offer. Renowned the world over for its windmills and tulips, the two are still a large asset when it comes to tourism in the Netherlands but there is also much more. The major cities are home to a vast amount of museums and galleries as well as castles and monuments but for those of you who are partial to a more rural holiday, there is ample opportunity to escape urban life in a matter of minutes. And as if all this wasn’t enough, the Netherlands is also home to a host of blue flag beaches which, when the weather is suitable of course, are as impressive as any on the continent.
Dutch drinks, rather than food, have played a much more important role on a global scale thanks to the importance given to beer and its brewing over the centuries. In 1700 there were over seven hundred breweries although today there are only twenty-five working breweries in the Netherlands. Nevertheless many revival breweries are popping up throughout the country and are extremely popular tourist attractions. The most famous of all native beers is Heineken and you can visit its original home in Amsterdam but the Dutch also brew Amstel, Brandt, Breda, Grolsch, Oranjebook and Skol.
And, as if all that wasn’t enough, they are also responsible for the brewing of Jenever, a straight gin made from the juniper berry which comes in two varieties ‘jonge’ which is young gin and ‘oude’ which is old. The difference is not in their age, however, but in their colour and flavour. Try them both for a true idea of the contrast – not that you need any encouragement.
When it comes to food typical Dutch cuisine is rarely regarded as exciting or original. The one thing that everyone will commend, however, is the size of the portions because these people certainly know how to pile it on. Not big on experimentation the emphasis is on practicality.
Typical Dutch dishes include pea erwtensoep – a thick pea soup served with smoked sausage and cubes of bacon with brown or white bread as an accompaniment, hutspot – a potato, carrot and onion stew, groentensoep – clear consommé with vegetables, pasta and meatballs and boerenkool met rookworst – kale and potatoes served with smoked sausage.
Seafood is extremely popular in the Netherlands, particularly herring, mussels, sole, shrimps and oysters. Herring is the most popular and is eaten fresh when it’s in season in May. If you are in the Netherlands at the beginning of herring season you will never be forgiven if you don’t sample the green herrings sold from pushcarts along city streets and it them in the special way where you hold it by the tail and slip it down your throat. If you miss this season, however, don’t despair as pickled herring is common all year round. Lucky you. And as if all this wasn’t appetising enough, another favourite is the freshwater eel which is usually smoked, filleted and served on toast but if this doesn’t whet your appetite you can also eat it stewed or fried.
If at this stage you’re a little worried about the Dutch menu, fear not. Deserts in the Netherlands are much more gastronomically pleasing. With over twenty-five different varieties of pancake or pannekoeken as well as waffles, pastries and cakes, you really have plenty to choose from.
There is only one main international airport in the Netherlands and this is Schipol Airport located about 8 miles outside Amsterdam. Served by airlines from all over the world, this is also the base of KLM the national airline, and has been voted the best airport in the world over the past number of years thanks to its fast and efficient service. It is currently one of the busiest and most important international hubs in Western Europe. Despite this fact air fares to Amsterdam are considerably higher than they are to many of its European neighbours so many choose to fly to other destinations and make their way to the Netherlands by train.
If you do fly directly into Schipol you will have no problems making your way to the city centre as there are frequent trains leaving the terminal which will have you in the heart of Amsterdam in just 20 minutes. There are also numerous services to Rotterdam which will take you about 45 minutes and to The Hague which should take about 40 minutes.
As well as arriving in the Netherlands by air, many also make their entry to the country on board any of the number of rail services which serve the major Dutch cities. The Netherlands Railways (NS) offers a service which departs from Paris or Luxembourg travelling through Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam and The Hague before reaching Amsterdam. Both journeys take about six hours and you can use your Eurail, Inter-Rail or Europass tickets on this service. The second major service offered by NS also travels to and from Luxembourg via Utrecht and Maastricht. This service also travels through France, Germany and Switzerland.
There is also a relatively new train, the Thalys, which travels to and from Paris via Antwerp and Brussels taking just four and a half hours. All travel passes can be used on this service too and those aged under 26 get a 45% discount.
To travel to Amsterdam by bus you can avail of either the Eurolines or the Hoverspeed Citysprint services. Again those under 26 are entitled to a discount. Eurolines serves a vast selection of destinations throughout Europe and North Africa (see the link on the homepage for more information) and Hoverspeed Citysprint travels between the Netherlands and London ad Belgium.
Finally, you can also travel to the Netherlands by ferry. P&O Ferries operate a daily car ferry service between Hull and Rotterdam and this journey will take about fourteen hours. Scandinavian Seaways operate a daily car service which travels between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Ijmuiden and again the duration is fourteen hours. Finally, Stena Line sail four times daily between Harwich and Hoek van Holland and this sailing takes just three hours forty minutes.
Once you get there making your way around the country couldn’t be easier. Every single village in the Netherlands regardless of size is served by one form of public transport or another.
The most popular mode of transport is rail and with almost two thousand miles of track you really need to be travelling to somewhere quite rural if you find that it isn’t served by the NS. Trains are extremely efficient and reliable and most of the staff speak English too which is a huge help when you’re trying to get around.
The main services are between the major cities with one InterCity train leaving every fifteen minutes but even on smaller services trains leave as often as every thirty minutes. And, as if all of the above wasn’t enough to encourage you, Eurail, Inter-Rail and Europass tickets can be used on all NS services.
The public bus service in the Netherlands is used more frequently for regional travel rather than long distance. Trains are usually used in the latter case but for areas which are not served by rail, particularly in the north and the east, the bus service is an essential way to get around.
When availing of the bus service for nationwide travel, you will have to purchase a strippenkaart or strip card. The Netherlands is divided into different zones so the number of strips required depends on the number of zones in which you are going to travel.
A final option for travel within the country is the trusty bicycle. Favoured by a vast amount of visitors to the Netherlands, this is a cheap and hassle free way to see the countryside at your own pace. Distances between the major cities are short, most routes have separate cycle lanes and the country is completely flat too so you don’t have to be a seasoned cyclist to take it on. Bicycles cost about f8 per day but many railpasses will earn you a discount so there are no excuses.
Although it’s not the home of the country’s government, Amsterdam certainly holds the pride of place when it comes the cultural, financial, and social aspects of the Netherlands. From its world-renowned red light district to the Anne Frank museum and the Vincent Van Gogh Gallery to the original home of Heineken, the choice is vast and varied and will certainly keep you busy during your stay. As well as all of the above you will have a choice between a host of smaller museums, open-air markets, canal trips and the social life so allow yourself plenty of time or else.
Currently the largest port in the world, much of this remarkable city was destroyed during WW II. Nevertheless, there is plenty to see because while only small parts of the old city remain, its position as the centre of the Dutch economy means that attractions are numerous. Among the most popular are the Euromast and Space Tower which standing at 605 feet is the tallest point in the country, the Museum Boymans van Beuningen which houses a unique collection of art dating from the fourteenth century to the present day, the Maritime Museum Prins Hendrick, home to a host of marine artefacts and of course the tours of this world famous harbour.
Home to the country’s government and its queen, The Hague is also home to over sixty foreign embassies and serves as the seat of the International Court of Justice. A fascinating city located in the south west of the Netherlands, the central part of the Old Town which is known as the Binnenhof is one of the most interesting urban settlements on the continent. As well as this check out Madurodam Miniature Town, the Panorama Mesdag which is the largest panoramic circular painting in the world, the Parliament buildings, the Puppet Museum and the recently renovated Gemeentemuseum, a municipal museum housing a superb collect of modern art.
The fourth largest city in the Netherlands and one of the oldest, its location on a slightly elevated section of land has meant that the floods which have hindered the development of many urban area have not really had any lasting effects on Utrecht. Having played a leading role in religious affairs in Europe during past centuries, the host of churches in the city is probably its biggest attraction. Visit the Cathedral of St. Michael, St. Janskerk, St. Jacobkerk and St. Pietereskerk as well as the House of the Teutonic Order and the Hospice of St. Bartholomew. And, if you are running out of time for your Dutch adventure the good news is that day trips from Amsterdam to Utrecht are extremely easy to organise.
Situated in the southern part of the country, Maastricht’s history dates back to 50 BC making it the oldest town in the Netherlands. Today evidence of its first settlers the Romans is still visible in the fortress walls and narrow cobblestone streets which remain. As well as this, however, you can also visit the Bonnefanten Museum and the Baths and ruins at Heerleen on the outskirts of the city. And when you tire of the Roman influence, check out the Schatkamer Onze Lieve Basilica, St. Janskerk church and its tower and the caves of St. Pietersberg, a ten kilometre labyrinth of tunnels created over the centuries.
For the ultimate getaway from city life, this is the perfect destination. A ‘Blue Flag’ beach of international fame, Noordwijk is located between Amsterdam and The Hague as well as being close to Keukenhof, the heart of the bulb growing area. Popular in summer for the host of water and leisure activities on offer in the sea, the lakes and the dunes it is equally popular in winter for those who enjoy the fresh air and visiting the many museums in the area. Add to this the small town charm combined with the big city facilities on offer and you will see why Noordwijk is so special to both the locals and the thousands who visit every year.
Queen’s Day Celebrations
For one day only during the first week in April, the Dutch party all day and all night to help the Queen celebrate her birthday. This isn’t actually Queen Beatrix’s birthday, however, it is her mothers. Hers takes place in January which is a little cold for outdoor festivities. In the beginning all that the day involved was raising the national flag, eating orange cake and sipping a special drink but today things are a little different. In recent decades celebrations have exploded into one mass nationwide party which sees young and old, locals and visitors come together to join in the numerous events taking place. A host of street parades, craft shows, live theatre, music and dance and fireworks ensure that there something for everyone and for members of the gay community there are special celebrations for those who want them. These take place around the Homomonument and Reguliersdwaarsstraat in Amsterdam.
Not many of you out there will know this but the Netherlands is home to the oldest pop festival in Europe and Pinkpop is it. Taking place over the first weekend in June, the festival first took place in 1970 and has gone from strength to strength in the decades which have elapsed since its inception. Now attracting as many as sixty thousand revellers who come to watch bands from all over the world perform on Saturday, Sunday and Monday this is certainly not an event for the moralistic among you. Beer is consumed as if it was water, joints smoked as if they were normal cigarettes and showers completely unheard of. If you can handle this blatant disregard for personal health and hygiene, however, you are guaranteed the experience of a lifetime.
North Sea Jazz Festival, The Hague
If jazz is your thing then this is one event you certainly don’t want to miss. Taking place over three days in mid July every year, the North Sea Jazz Festival is approaching its thirtieth anniversary making it one of the oldest jazz festivals in the world. With over two hundred performances featuring musicians from all over the world playing a unique blend of jazz, blues and hip hop this is jazz at its very best and the event is renowned as being one of the top jazz festivals in the world. As well as the musicians, however, a host of internationally acclaimed singers also grace the twenty or so stages adding even more attraction for the thousands who flock to The Hague for the event every year.
While the Dutch city of Maastricht might not be best known for its Carnival, this is certainly not a valid reason to doubt its importance and its entertainment value. As is customary with carnivals all over the world the build up to the big event begins weeks in advance and culminates with a huge three day festival on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Thousands of people in full costume sing, dance and jump their way through the streets and the bars of the city causing general mayhem wherever the go. One of the highlights of the festivities is the performances by the ‘zaate herremeniekes’, unique bands whose motto is ‘not too nice but definitely loud’. In fact, this pretty much sums up the whole carnival. If you’re looking for a relaxing break forget Maastricht for these three days because it’s just not going to happen. If you’re looking for an unforgettable party, however, then this is just the place.
Flower Parade, Aalasmeer, Amstelveen & Amsterdam
Taking place between August 30th and September 2nd ever year the parade incorporates over a million and half flowers which adorn twenty enormous floats and thirty cars. The three-kilometre ribbon of flowers makes its way from Aalsmeer to Amsterdam passing through Amstelveen on the way. If you want to experience the true essence of the parade you should join from the very start. At 4.00pm on the first day the floats are prepared in the Aalasmeer Flower Auction centre but the whole thing is so much more than simple flower arranging. The atmosphere is electric with live music, plenty of booze and thousands of revellers. Officially opened on the second day amid more mayhem the parade leaves Aalasmeer on the third day where it passes through Amstelveen and heads on to Amsterdam. And if the celebrations at the start of the parade are worth catching, you can imagine the festivities which take place at the end. A fascinating traditional event, the flower parade is one you don’t want to miss.
The currency used in the Netherlands is the Euro which is made up of 100 Cent. Notes come in denominations of €100, €50, €20, €10 and €5 and the coins in use are €2, €1, 0.50C, 0.20C, 0.10C, 0.05C, 0.02C and 0.01C.
The native language spoken in the Netherlands is Dutch but the majority of natives speak English which should be a big help to most of you visiting the country. In addition, many also speak French or German.
The Netherlands enjoys a maritime climate which means that there are very little extremes in summer or winter. Summer temperatures average temperatures about 16 or 17 degrees Celsius but highs of 30 degrees Celsius are not unheard of. Winters are mild with increased rainfall and average temperatures of between 1 and 5 degrees Celsius. The most popular months to visit is between May and October when temperatures are at their highest and rainfall is at its lowest.
The Netherlands lies one hour ahead of GMT but summer times adds on one hour between the end of March and the end of September.
Shops are generally open between 8.30am or 9.00am until between 5.00pm and 6.00pm from Monday to Saturday although some may close at 4.00pm or 5.00pm on Saturdays. In more rural areas some shops may close for lunch and have one half or full day off but there are signs which will fully inform you about all closing times. In the bigger cities many stores and shopping centres are now open on Sunday too between noon and 5.00pm. Office hours in the Netherlands are between 8.30am and 5.00pm from Monday to Friday and banks are open between 9.00am and 4.00pm from Monday to Friday but many open during late night shopping and on Saturday mornings.
The electric current is 220V, 50Hz and the plugs in use have two round prongs so those of you travelling from countries which use anything else should bring an adapter with you.
In the Netherlands VAT (BTW) is charged at a rate of 19% and is included in the sales price of all items. It is worth double-checking before making a purchase, however, to avoid any confusion when it comes to payment. For non-EU nationals the good news is that you can reclaim this VAT when leaving the EU. In order to avail of this service, however, you must make purchases in stores which state that they participate in this scheme. Your purchases must exceed F300 in one shop in on day and the good must be exported from the EU within ninety days of the month of purchase. When departing you must show the purchases, the receipts and the Global Refund Cheque which you received in the store. Following this you will have several choices as to how to get your money back. You can get an immediate refund at the Cash Refund Office in Amsterdam Airport, you can get a refund on your credit card or receive a cheque.
Visitors from the EU, the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand require nothing more than a valid passport for a stay of up to three months but you must ensure that your passport is valid right up until the end of your stay. Nationals of all other countries, those who intend to stay for a period exceeding ninety days or those who intend working during their stay should contact the Dutch Embassy in your home country before travelling.
The national tourist organisation or VVV has offices in all the major towns and cities which are open between 9.00am and 5.00pm from Monday to Friday and between 10.00am and 12.00pm on Saturdays. In July and August in the larger cities, however, opening hours are extended. These offices should be able to provide you with all the information you need as well as maps and brochures for all the major tourist attractions in an area. The head office of the Netherlands Board of Tourism (NBT) is located at Vlietweg 15, Postbus 458, 2260 MG Leidschendam but it will only take queries by mail or telephone which really isn’t that useful if you are in the country already or are in a hurry for information. If you wish to call before you get there, however, the number is 070 370 57 05.
Post offices in the Netherlands are generally open between 8.30am and 5.00pm from Monday to Friday and between 8.30am and 12.00pm on Saturday. In larger towns and cities, however, the opening hours are more extensive so you really need to check with a specific branch to see what their hours are.
Banks generally offer the best exchange rates as well as charging the least commission and you will find a bureau de change in any branch of any bank but you should note that their opening hours are not always the same as that of the bank. Many close an hour earlier so bear this in mind when using this facility.
As well as using Dutch banks, you can also avail of the services of GWK (De Grenswisselkantoren), the national exchange organisation. GWK offers similar rates and fees and you will find branches at all the major railway stations and border crossings as well as at Schipol Airport. These are open between 8.00am and 8.00pm from Monday to Saturday and between 10.00am and 4.00pm on Sundays. The branches at Schipol Airport and at the Centraal Station in Amsterdam are actually open twenty-four hours a day. You can also purchase traveller’s cheques in all of these offices.
All major credit cards are also widely accepted and if you have the PIN you can use these to receive cash in compatible bank machines. The same applies to bankcards which are members of any of the international banking networks or Eurocard.
The country code for the Netherlands is 31 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial 00, followed by 31, the local area code and the local number. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within the country. You should also note that you need to omit the 0 from the local code where applicable.
Public phone booths are widespread, particularly in the main towns and cities. They accept f0.25, 1, 2.50, and 5 and a local call will cost you f0.25. . Many public phones now also use telephone cards which you can purchase at any railway station, post office and most newsagents. These come in denominations of f5, 10 and 25. International calls can be made from most public telephones by either dialing 00 followed by the relevant country code. If a public phone can’t be used to make an international call make your way to the nearest post office where they should be able to help you out.
By order of the Dutch government, all taxes and service charges must be included in the prices printed by hotels, restaurants, cafes and nightclubs. Even taxi fares include taxes and a fifteen per cent tip. If you’re in doubt, particularly in restaurants and cafes, look for the words ‘inclusief BTW en service’ and this is a guaranteed that the service charge is included. As with any other country where this is the case, however, a small additional tip is greatly appreciated if you feel that the service merits it. In cafes or snack bars any small change is fine and in a more upmarket establishment add a little more. It is worth noting, however, that at no point is tipping essential, it is entirely at your discretion.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In the Netherlands they take place on January 1st, Good Friday, Easter Monday, April 30th, May 5th, Ascension Day, the first Monday in June and December 25th and 26th. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.