Too often, travelers only think of Amsterdam when they think of the Netherlands, but beyond the popular Dutch city, there are exciting places to explore.
From its Golden Age to the modern era, from its laid-back atmosphere to understated natural beauty, ample places to visit in the Netherlands (a.k.a. Holland) make it an all-encompassing European holiday destination. Sandwiched between the North Sea and Germany, foreign travelers may initially overlook this northwestern European country of just over 17 million inhabitants. However, the truth is that the Netherlands is anything but bland, boasting national parks, art and culture, museums, and over 180 vineyards. (Yes, the Netherlands does produce wine!) That brings us to the question: “What is the Netherlands known for, anyways?” While it may be a small country geographically, the Netherlands is known for its cheese markets and windmills, its masterpieces of Old Masters, and its millions of bicycles.
And while we all know Amsterdam—that buzzy capital interlaced with coffee shops and canals–is often the first (and let’s be honest: sometimes only) stop for visitors in the Netherlands, there are bountiful less-touristy places in the country beyond the picturesque capital that deserve a visit. Getting around this country about the size of Maryland is a breeze: trains are very reliable and easy to find in the Netherlands. The country is also the optimal road trip destination, with a host of Dutch delights within a few hours’ drive of Amsterdam. Or, if you’re really intent on living like a local, bike some of the 32,000 kilometers worth of cycling paths to these accessible Netherlands tourist attractions. For such a compact country, travelers will be baffled at how diverse the landscapes in the Netherlands are. While about a third of the country is below sea level, the southern and eastern regions of the Netherlands have vast, rolling hills. The highest peak in the Netherlands, the Mount of Vaals (or “Vaalserberg”), is 323 meters high!
Now it’s time to dust off your favorite pair of Dutch clogs and travel beyond Amsterdam into the most charming of Netherlands destinations. Because the truth is, from small towns and sprawling beaches to iconic windmills and tulip fields, the sheer number of places to visit in the Netherlands far surpasses the country’s variety of cheeses. And–Holy dairy cow!–that’s saying something.
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Known for its eponymous and namesake cheese, Gouda (pronounced “HOW-duh”), a lively market town in the storybook-like southern Netherlands between The Hague and Rotterdam, rewards gourmands and history buffs alike. Stop by t’ Kaaswinkeltje in the heart of the village to snag one of the wide varieties of Gouda. Visit the Gouda Cheese Market every Thursday morning in springtime to witness the spectacle of cheese wheel creation and sample many locally grown products. If you’re cheesed out, Gouda offers a plethora of lactose-free wonders reachable on foot, such as the city’s 15th-century architecture and the Church of St. John, the longest church in the Netherlands, renowned for its stunning stained glass windows. If all the walking worked up an appetite, check out local favorite Brunel, which has an old-fashioned Dutch pub ambiance and serves traditional meals beneath the old fish auction tables, where the fish were once sold in droves.
Pyramid of Austerlitz
Just outside Utrecht is one of the more bizarre and fascinating relics from the Napoleonic Era that is a certifiable must-see in the Netherlands. General Auguste de Marmont, a close confidant of Napoleon’s, was stationed in the area in 1804 and commissioned his troops to construct the pyramid to pass the time while they waited for a British invasion. The 120-foot earthen structure was finished in a remarkable 27 days and later rechristened the Pyramid of Austerlitz to commemorate Napoleon’s 1805 victory. After a tedious restoration process due to problems with erosion, the monument was reopened in 2008. Today it stands as the highest point of Utrechtse Heuvelrug National Park, the largest connected wooded area in the Randstad.
Even in the summer, a dip in the North Sea is not for the faint-hearted, but the Dutch coast is one of the best places in the Netherlands to unwind and–quite literally–chill out. Bloemendaal Beach, a versatile and trendy seaside town, is easily accessible by public transport from Amsterdam or by bike from Haarlem and is a favorite hangout among locals in the summer. This waterfront destination is the place to decompress for travelers whose perfect outdoor activity day encompasses suntanning and a beach stroll after a few hectic days in Amsterdam. And if you’re looking for some action and nightlife vibrancy, the beach is lined with restaurants and bars open well into the wee morning hours.
While the entire country is inundated with towns and villages crisscrossed by canals, the village of Giethoorn is one of the only places to visit in the Netherlands that is entirely car-free. It has been inaccurately nicknamed the “Dutch Venice,” as Giethoorn is far too serene and untouched to compare to the commercialized Italian city. Pedestrian bridges and bike paths weave among the 18th-century thatched-roof farmhouses, but the flat-bottomed punt boats are the more efficient and exciting way to get around. With a myriad of canals, the best way to explore the village is on a canal cruise tour, where a skipper tells you all about the history and uniqueness of this beautiful Netherlands village. If you visit during the winter, you can join the locals in skating along the frozen canals.
This postcard-perfect city is just 15 minutes by train from Amsterdam, but the change of pace is instantly noticeable. Haarlem is one of the best places in the Netherlands to shop, with exciting boutiques and welcoming cafés that line the still largely tourist-free alleyways and quiet canals. Haarlem was incorporated as a city in 1245 and today boasts a remarkably well-preserved central market square, tracing centuries of Dutch architecture from the 14th to the 19th century and anchored by the impressive Saint Bavo Church. For some unique art and culture, visit the Teylers Museum, the oldest museum in the Netherlands, with an eclectic collection that ranges from Michelangelo’s drawings to curiosity cabinets.
It is vital to understand the Netherlands’ relationship with windmills, considering 25% of its land sits below sea level. Therefore, another Netherlands attraction that will–perhaps literally– blow you away is Kinderdijk, with 19 windmills dating back to the 18th century. They are still used today to pump water out of the polder, an area of low-lying reclaimed land. A series of walking and bike paths traverse the huge UNESCO-protected area, making it the perfect spot for a peaceful afternoon picnic and one of the most serene places in the Netherlands to visit, explore, and decompress after a rousing night hitting the town in Amsterdam.
One of the more colorful things to do in the Netherlands is to visit Keukenhof Gardens, which explodes with the blooms of more than seven million flowers each spring, most notably the famous Dutch tulips. Tulip bubble, also known as tulip mania, began in the Netherlands in the 17th century, when the vivid flowers became sought-after status symbols. Keukenhof gives visitors much greater insight into the country’s present-day horticulture traditions if you have just one day outside of Amsterdam to visit the Netherlands. The 2023 season runs from March 23 to May 14, with the best viewing usually in mid-April. Alternatively, extensive bike trails wield through the beautiful Netherlands countryside—ideal for seeing the bulbs during peak season away from the crowds.
The quiet streets, medieval architecture, and verdant canals of Delft epitomize the charm of the Netherlands’ small cities. Still, Delft stands apart thanks to its list of illustrious residents and history and is the place to visit if you’re an aesthete or history buff. In fact, several members of the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange, have lived, been married, and are buried in Delf. Dutch Baroque Period painter Johannes Vermeer depicted his hometown and its residents in many of his renowned paintings. Delft is also known for its ornate blue pottery designs, inspired by the styles of Chinese porcelain that were first brought to the city in the 1600s. If you’re traveling with the family, Delft appeals to parents and children alike, with exhibitions and activities that bring learning to life. For example, at the Museum Prinsenhof Delft, families can participate in a search around the museum to solve the murder of William of Orange.
Wadden Sea Islands
The five central Wadden Sea Islands, strung together in an archipelago in the North Sea, are one of those accessible Netherlands destinations frequented by locals but still very much a secret to foreigners. Geographically unique, the Walden Sea is the most extensive tidal flats system on the planet, extending the coasts of Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, where natural processes proceed without significant man-made disturbances. The islands owned by the Netherlands are sprinkled with picturesque seaside villages alongside expansive beaches home to large populations of diverse natural phenomena, including native species of birds and seals. Ferries to the islands depart regularly from the mainland towns along the coast. As almost everywhere in the beautiful Netherlands, a bike is the best way to explore the area, with over 300 kilometers of cycle tracks throughout the islands.
Hoge Veluwe National Park
Hoge Veluwe National Park packs a punch into its 20 square miles and is a must-see Netherlands day trip for aspiring ecologists or nature enthusiasts. This national park is a dense forest and home to a hearty wild boar and deer population, with outdoor activities, such as hiking and game-spotting, abound. For those who’d rather seek cultural encounters than those of the wild variety, a historic hunting lodge, and a small museum are also on the property and open to the public. The museum houses several historic pieces by Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Odilon Redon, and other influential artists.
De Haar Castle
De Haar Castle has often been awarded the superlative of “Most Luxurious Castle in Europe” for good reason. Outside the city of Utrecht and far off the beaten path, getting to this castle from any metropolitan area requires switching methods of public transport several times. But despite (or perhaps because of) its inconvenience, De Haar Castle is one of the best places to visit in the Netherlands if you’re looking for intrepid adventures, scandalous history, and an escape from the masses. And while De Haar may seem like a certifiable medieval castle with its suspension bridges, moats, turrets, and towers, perched stoically against the parkland landscape, it was actually rebuilt in the early 20th century after falling into disrepair in the 18th and 19th centuries. Still, the grounds are one of the oldest Netherlands attractions, with roots dating back to the 13th century. And true to its lavish style, international celebrities such as Coco Chanel and Roger Moore have been welcomed to opulent parties at De Haar Castle, hosted by the baroness and baron themselves. Pinkies up!
As you now likely realize, the Netherlands is revered for its windmills and wooden clogs. If you’re looking to experience all of these Dutch cultural highlights just a stone’s throw from Amsterdam via bike or train, consider a trip to Zaanse Schans. A distinct community still functioning today, Zaanse Schans seamlessly depicts what life was like in the Zaan district during the 17th and 18th centuries for intrigued tourists. The village and the Zaanse Schans windmills exude nostalgia and history, with continually-working shops of yesteryear on every corner: the pewter factory, the cheese factory, and even the warehouse that produces those quintessentially Dutch wooden clogs are open to the public. This village feels like a storybook with its wooden houses, barns, mills, and workshops. In short, it’s one of the best places in the Netherlands to visit to forget you live in the 21st century momentarily.
Depending on who you ask, the city of Rotterdam may have vastly different associations. Ask a mariner, and they’ll divulge that the city’s international harbor is the largest in Europe, competing for a spot in the global top five. Ask a culture aficionado, and they will likely blabber on about the hordes of festivals in Rotterdam, widely considered the best city for festivals globally, with annual productions such as the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January and the North Sea Jazz Festival in July. Whatever their background and interests, Rotterdam, a metropolis with unique outdoor activities and culture that rivals that of Amsterdam, piques travelers’ interest. In fact, Rotterdam is one of the more artistic places to visit in the Netherlands, with street art illuminating city streets once rampant with prostitution, drug trafficking, and dealers. A 2017 initiative to attract more street art to once-seedy areas of the city has blossomed into the Rotterdam Street Art Museum. This multicultural, outdoor haven is dedicated to showcasing the inhabitant’s 170 different nationalities and cultures through a medley of colors, local tastes, and voices of the “real Rotterdam.”