Tradition and innovation intertwine here: artistic masterpieces, centuries-old windmills, tulip fields and romantic candlelit cafés coexist with visionary architecture, cutting-edge design and phenomenal nightlife.
In a country that gave birth to celebrated Dutch Masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh and Piet Mondrian, the art legacy is huge. World-renowned art museums in Amsterdam, Den Haag, Rotterdam, Haarlem and Leiden drip with iconic masterpieces, alongside a respectable portfolio of contemporary works. The Dutch influence on construction spans more than a millennia, from Romanesque and Gothic medieval magnum opuses to Dutch Renaissance palaces and romantic Golden Age gabled houses. Trailblazing contemporary architecture – green and innovative – is a perfect reflection of a country perfectly in tune with its environment (and the need to protect it).
With fabulously pancake-flat, scenic landscapes beckoning along every last dyke, canal, river and coastal shore, two-wheeling in the Netherlands is one of Dutch life's greatest pleasures (headwinds notwithstanding). While the bike-loving Dutch practically live on their well-worn, beloved fietsen (bicycles) – many, infamously only with back-pedal coaster brakes – cycling for visitors is a wonderful means of exploring and getting around. Bike-rental outlets are ubiquitous, and the country is criss-crossed with some 32,000km of cycling paths, including the Dutch 'motorways' of cycling, the long-distance LF routes. Grab some wheels and go!
When the Dutch say café they mean a pub, and there are thousands – with glorious summertime terraces peppering flower-strewn canals, looking out to sea, hidden down ancient lanes, standing on every town's Grote Markt (market square). In a country that values socialising and conversation more than drinking, cafés are places for go-slow contemplation and camaraderie, over dusk-time borrel (drinks) with bar snacks or a fabulous meal any time of day. The ultimate café kick: revelling in that deliciously snug, Dutch state of gezelligheid (conviviality, cosiness) in a timeless bruin café (brown cafe), named for the nicotine stains of centuries past.
Geography plays a key role in the Netherlands' iconic landscapes. More than a quarter of the pancake-flat country is below sea level, and 20% has been reclaimed from the sea, making regimental rows of polders (areas of drained land) omnipresent. Uninterrupted North Sea winds have powered windmills since the 13th century, pumping water over the dykes, milling flour and more. Some two-thirds of the surface is devoted to agriculture, including beautiful rainbow fields of crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths and tulips that burst into flower each year between March and May. The kaleidoscope of colour is nothing short of psychedelic.
Getting to the Netherlands
There are plenty of flights from a bevy of UK airports to Amsterdam’s Schiphol (pronounced skip-oll) airport as well as a sprinkling of flights to several second-string Dutch airports, primarily Eindhoven and Rotterdam. Alternatively, travelling from the UK to the Netherlands by train via the Channel Tunnel is just as easy and about the same price as a flight, and neither, if you live in the southeast of the UK, does it take much longer. You can also get there by long-distance bus, which is usually the most affordable option, though more time-consuming. By car and ferry, deals for drivers on ferry routes into Dutch and Belgian ports are particularly competitive.
Getting around the Netherlands
Getting around the Netherlands is rarely a problem: it’s a small country, and the longest journey you’re ever likely to make – say from Amsterdam to Maastricht – takes under three hours by train or car. Furthermore, the public transport system is exemplary, a fully integrated network of trains and buses that brings even the smallest of villages within easy reach, and at very reasonable prices too. Train and bus stations are almost always next door to each other, and several of the larger cities also have a tram network.
One great way to see the Netherlands, whether you’re a keen cyclist or an idle pedaller, is to travel by bike (fiets). Cycle-touring can be a short cut into Dutch culture and you can reach parts of the country – its beaches, forests and moorland – that might otherwise be (relatively) inaccessible. The mostly flat landscape makes travelling by bike an almost effortless pursuit, although you can find yourself battling against a headwind or swallowed up in a shoal of cyclists commuting to work.
Best Time to Visit
The Netherlands has its charms all year-round and you should plan your visit based on the types of activities you wish to enjoy.
June to September (summer) sees lots of sunshine and longer days giving you more day light hours to explore. It is a popular time to visit the country so expect the top attractions to be busy and cities like Amsterdam to be a little on the crowded side.
From November to March (winter) the weather is much cooler and days can be quite short around January. Late November, into December is a popular time again because of the festive season with Christmas Markets and festivals going on all over the country.
Another popular time of year to visit The Netherlands is in spring when the country’s iconic tulip fields are in full bloom and putting on a world class display.
Best Places to Stay in the Netherlands
Fort Resort Beemster
Built in 1912, this former fort and prison 10km west of Edam was converted a century later to a stunning spa hotel; original features include lamps, steel doors and reinforced windows. Some of its 16 rooms are in the gatehouse; those in the fort itself open to patios overlooking the lake. Contemporary Dutch cuisine at its two restaurants is organic.
Spa facilities (generally clothing-free) include Finnish, wood-fired and Himalayan salt-cave saunas, and Turkish steam baths, as well as indoor and outdoor pools.
Rainwater purified from the fort's sand-filled roof is reused in the spa; its waste water is used for underfloor heating.
The fort is part of the Unesco World Heritage–inscribed Stelling van Amsterdam (Defence Line of Amsterdam), a 135km-long ring of fortifications around Amsterdam that takes in 42 forts between 10km and 15km from the city's centre.
The Muse Amsterdam – Boutique Hotel
The Muse Amsterdam – Boutique Hotel is the muse of all hotels. This hotel’s style and design draw inspiration from the surrounding arthouses, galleries, exhibitions, and museums. The rooms hail its design from the Golden Age, an era of classic and timeless elegance. Part of this hotel’s passion is to make your experience the best possible Amsterdam experience you can ever have. To do this, it offers the convenience of having a laptop safe, a work desk, mini bar, a 32″flat screen smart satellite TV, fast wireless internet, an inner courtyard, and lounge area.
The hoteliers are knowledgeable and are glad to serve you. Inside the hotel, you will feel at home. Outside, you will experience the cultural treasure of the city. The journey awaits you!
Mother Goose hotel
Sensitively restored from what was originally a fortified 13th-century mansion, this 23-room boutique hotel incorporates many salvaged historic details and time-stressed artefacts into rooms full of contemporary comforts. The chatty local staff add a very personal touch, and the reception is wonderfully homey – you might even find a handwritten welcome postcard on your bed.
Coffee machine and kettle in all rooms. Lift reaches three of the four floors but reaching some rooms require steps. Front-facing rooms have great views across lively Ganzenmarkt but light/early sleepers might prefer the quieter back options.
Camp Silver Island HideAway
ight gleaming silver Airstream trailers occupy this glamping paradise 5km northeast of Den Burg. All are decked out with designer fabrics and shiny stainless-steel bathrooms; one has a private sauna. Breakfasts (included) are organic; the camp kitchen has a pantry with ingredients, heat-and-eat homemade meals and drinks on an honesty system; there's a geo-dome-housed lounge. Minimum stay is two nights.
Clink is a designer hostel chain with other branches in London, and here occupies a 1920s laboratory on the IJ riverbank, by the Buiksloterweg ferry terminal – a free, five-minute ferry ride from Centraal Station (ferries run 24/7). Dorms are done up in minimalist-industrial style, with four to 14 beds and en-suite facilities.
There are female-only dorms available. Breakfast costs €5.90 booked in advance, or you can self-cater using the modern kitchen. Cool Zinc bar has regular DJs and other events, plus there's a glow-in-the-dark room hosting cider pong. Join a free walking tour or you can hire bikes (€13.50 per day) to explore on your own.
Apollofirst Boutique Hotel
Apollofirst Boutique Hotel makes one of the most elegant impressions! Its creativity in combining plain and print is relaxing and pleasant to the eyes. Its well-furnished 40 rooms are ready to serve you with the most desirable experience. All rooms contain a soft feathery bed, a mini-fridge where you can store your favorite beverages and beauty products, a safe, hairdryer, TV, and complimentary tea and coffee. Other amenities include wireless internet that lets you connect to your loved ones anytime, a breakfast restaurant that will energize you, a library bar, a garden, and a terrace where you can be one with nature, a theater, elevator, and luggage locker.
In between nights of sleep, hopefully, you have the luxury of time to visit Amsterdam’s tourist attractions such as the Museum Square, Amsterdam RAI Congress Center, the Olympic Stadium, the Zuidas Business District, and Christie’s auctioneers. Prepare to get amused because the city of Amsterdam is truly enchanting.
Black Sheep Hostel
Dazzling, up-to-the-minute white dorms with pine bunk beds and the odd splash of sunflower-yellow become a minor detail when one considers the pretty flower-bedecked garden with hammock et al, the canal-side location, the designer breakfast room and the traditional thatched roof at this stunning cottage on Giethoorn's main canal. Chinese-Indonesian Jimmi and Dutch Gea are the savvy pair behind the family-run hostel.
King Kong Hostel
There's plenty to like about this hip hostel in Rotterdam's major party precinct. Female and mixed-sex dorms sleep between four and 18, with bunks, under-bed lockers and plenty of power points. Shared bathrooms are modern and clean. Facilities include a laundry (€8 per load wash and dry), a luggage room, a communal kitchen, bike storage, a chill space and a ground-floor cafe.
Private doubles have king-size bed, TV and small fridge. Breakfast is included in the room rate for these, but costs €7.50 for dorm guests. Note that the lack of aircon makes it imperative that windows are opened in summer, meaning that street-facing dorms are noisy until well into the wee hours.
One of a trio of micro-hotels in the increasingly happening Havenkwartier, Lucy Cube is a designer hotel with just one room – situated above the ground in an old grain hopper, on the water's edge in the old harbour district. The sharp, all-white interior includes bathroom, fridge stocked with welcome beer and wine, a glass ceiling for romantic stargazing and a rooftop terrace.
Breakfast, included in the rates, is wholly organic.
Opened in 2018 in the former printing and die-cast workshop dating from 1703 that once housed the royal printer Johan Enschedé, this stunning property has a monumental metal staircase topped by a stained-glass dome. Its 17 rooms ranging from 30 to 50 sq metres have chandeliers, beamed ceilings and streamlined contemporary decor. Also here are a bistro and Michelin-starred restaurant.
This prize-winning design statement is housed inside the former Crutched Friar monastery complex, dating from 1483. Modern touches, such as moulded furniture and padded walls, accent the historical surroundings. Each of the 60 sumptuous rooms is unique. Some have murals and artwork; others are in the rafters of the old church. Breakfast is suitably heavenly.
There are only three of the cheapest 'Petit' rooms. Note that while there are lifts, some rooms still involve stairs, whether internal or for access.
Part of a Europe-based chain known for high style at affordable prices, the Hoxton has 111 rooms – in sizes from 'shoebox' to 'roomy' – splashed through five canal houses. Breakfast snacks, fast wi-fi, free international calls and low-priced canteen items are nice touches. It organises events with city artists and designers, so you get to meet creative locals.