If beauty, venerable history, sylvan gardens, majestic cathedrals, and great art are at the top of your list, it can be hard choosing between the towns of the Randstad, that horseshoe arc of urban centers which dot the heartland of Holland. So visit them all.
The towns and cities of Zuid-Holland (South Holland) cluster around Amsterdam like filings round the end of a magnet. Each has prospered
and grown independently, and today their borders virtually overlap one another to such an extent that the region is now dubbed the Randstad (Border City), because locals consider it one mammoth megalopolis. Randstad also means Edge City, another term the Dutch use to describe the circle formed by the cities of Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam, since the cities lie on the same geologic ridge at the northwestern edge of the country. Whatever the terminology, this entire region is considered "The West" by young Randstad wanna-bes waiting for their opportunity to hit the big time.
In this fascinating area, you can leapfrog from past to future by journeying from Haarlem—earliest center of Dutch art—to Rotterdam, colossus of the waterways and now home to Europe's most daringly modern architecture; travel through an open-air old-master painting by visiting Vermeer's blue-hued Delft. Chief among these peripheral cities, The Hague is often seen as a little aloof—it is, after all, Holland's seat of government and home to the Dutch royal family and the International Court of Justice. A quarter of Holland's 16 million residents live within 80 km (50 miles) of the capital: welcome to "Holland in a nutshell."
Rotterdam is not only the industrial center of Holland but also the world's largest port. The city's quaint statue of Erasmus was long ago overshadowed by some of the most forward-looking architecture to dazzle any European city. When Rotterdam's city center and harbor were completely destroyed in World War II, the authorities decided to start afresh rather than try to reconstruct its former maze of canals. The imposing, futuristic skyline along the banks of the River Maas has been developing since then. Today, say architectural pundits, we have seen the future, and it is Manhattan-on-the-Maas (as locals call it), thanks in large part to the efforts of major figures such as Rem Koolhaas, Eric van Egeraat, and UN Studio. But if Rotterdam is now one of the most vibrant centers of architecture in the world, it is also many other things: a skate city, a harbor city, an artists' haven, a design inspiration, a historical museum center, a jazz lover's dream.
Clearly, Rotterdam is a city that has to be remain firmly focused on the present and future—the Nazi bombs of May 1940 took care of its past—but surrounding it is an area that is sublimely history-soaked. Within the span of a single day, you can roll the centuries back from Rotterdam's modern glitter to pursue the ghost of Frans Hals through the Golden Age streets of Haarlem and also wander through the open-air museum of Delft, which once colored the world with its unique blue. Then there's The Hague. Behind the pomp and stuffiness of this world-famed town is a lively metropolis that is both elegant and quirky, filled with grand 17th-century mansions and more than 25 public parks. The Hague's official name 's-Gravenhage (literally "the Count's Hedge"), harks back to the 13th century when the Count of Holland had a hunting lodge here. But to the Dutch it is always known simply as Den Haag, and that's what you'll hear on the streets.
All in all, although the Randstad area is small enough to drive through in an afternoon, it would take you weeks to explore fully. Even better: whereas Amsterdam tends to pander to the demands of tourists, this is the beating heart of the Netherlands where the "real" people live. And it's all the more fascinating for that.