The Netherlands – our Road-trip Guide
The Netherlands is one of the best places in the world for challenging the irrational belief that ‘flat is boring’. The Netherlands is most certainly not boring – albeit it is mostly flat. Yet this small country in northwestern Europe will continually implore you to stay a while and soak up its culture, its hospitality and its natural beauty. We have visited on three separate occasions and each time it draws us in like the Pied Piper of Hamelin – we fall in love just a little bit more each time we venture into the land of windmills, canals and clogs. Check out our Guide to the best bits we’ve found so far, starting with our interactive map below…
Click on the map to explore some more.
The Netherlands is split into 12 different provinces – one of which is Holland, which the Netherlands is often mistakenly labelled as. Its name is translated as ‘the lower countries’ because of its topography. According to Wikipedia, only 50% of the land reaches 1m above sea level and 26% is below sea level. Back in 16th century work began to reclaim this lower level land from the sea and their efforts resulted in the polders. This region is typically speckled with windmills and canals as part of their land and sea management. The country has an intricate relationship with the sea, both in terms of protecting its inhabitants from the forces of the ocean and for their ability to trade on the world’s economic stage. Their web of canals and rivers that run from the North Sea through to Germany are critical to their economic status. With fertile soil, the Netherlands is second only to US for the exporting of agricultural and food products. So whilst it may be small, it is a force to be reckoned with.
Interestingly alongside many of their Scandinavian cousins, in 2019 the Netherlands ranked fifth out of 156 countries for happiness and wellbeing, according to the World Happiness Report. So they are doing something right.
If you want a real blast of culture, then visit the Netherlands around 27 April. This is their Koningsdag festival. King’s Day is an annual affair, often starting the night of 26 April. Then throughout 27th it is one big party, honouring their King’s Birthday. Since 1885 the Royals’ birthdays have been celebrated and it is classed as a national holiday across the whole country. Each town and region celebrate in different ways, although it is expected to dress in orange, the country’s national colour. Events are staged, parties are thrown and music is put on by local communities. It’s just one of those events that needs to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.
My dad used to work for a Dutch company and often he would travel there on business. I have vivid memories of him returning with Dutch gifts for me, one of which was a treasured doll in traditional costume that was packaged up in one of those little plastic tube containers. It was that that piqued my interest for this northwestern European country and to follow in my dad’s footsteps.
Paradoxically, my first trip was also for work – after which we extended our visit to see Amsterdam and some iconic Dutch villages that you see in the brochures. Towns interlaced with canals and protected by windmills offering cheesy delights to hungry passers-by. This was where my love affair for this fair nation began and it is a book that we just keep adding chapters to.
Whilst Amsterdam is the Netherland’s capital, it is not where the Government is located. You will find this at the Hague. Although that has no impact on this stunning watery city that gives Venice a run for its money. Its 17th century Golden Age heritage is clear to see as you weave your way around the network of canals on slowly chugging boats. Towering buildings fringing the canal banks with facades shaped and coloured like variety pack of sweets. Church spires reach high above the city roof-line and bridges interlink streets across the entire cityscape. And bicycles – let’s not forget Amsterdam’s bikes! In fact it’s hard to forget as they are strewn everywhere. This is the capital’s main source of transport, as indeed it is across the Netherlands. This country seriously knows how to cycle.
We arrived on a murky day in March and even with soft wafts of fog caressing the water’s edge you could sense the city’s beauty. Flower markets selling every kind of tulip bulb you could imagine from the iconic fields close to Lisse, just east of the city. Museums galore satiate the appetite of any curious traveller, from Van Gogh to World War 2 Anne Frank’s house. And if that’s not your cuppa, then perhaps a coffee would be better? The Koffie Huis need caution as this is no ordinary tea-house selling cappuccino and cake. Well not that type of cake at least. Amsterdam’s wild spirit throbs in these ‘special’ cafés offering you a warm welcome and a heady experience – if you dare. And the Red Light District seems a perversely voyeur activity although it’s a cultural experience to wander the area and see the ladies standing in the windows as still as manakins.
Amsterdam can satisfy the needs of every traveller and is a sight to behold. Check out our small gallery below.
Holland’s iconic villages
Amsterdam is without doubt a major draw for the tourist intent on a perfect city-break, although for an authentic glimpse into Holland’s provincial culture, you need look no further than the surrounding villages. Volendam, Edam (yes of the mighty cheese fame) and Monnickendam all to the north of Amsterdam show you the Dutch sea-farers’ life. Where the sea meets the canals, the locals work in harmony with the water, mastering as best they can, the strength of this indelible element.
Mini versions, it seems, of their capital giant, these small villages cry out tradition and authenticity, as their daily work goes on regardless of the onlookers. Whilst there are tourist shops here, it’s done so tastefully and without the all too often cheap tat that they think we love.
Further west from the city you have the charm of Delft with its wonky church that rivals Pisa and Gouda (pronounced Howda) that will tempt you with their fare at the church square market. And it is a must to buy just a little bit of their nectar produce! Dutch cheese. With rounds of delectable dairy delights, you will be at a loss as to which to buy. Although try the green pesto cheese – it is divine. Either way you will not be disappointed by the exquisite taste of their sumptuous offerings. Beyond the cheese, check out their churches, waterways and cobbled streets that have a knack of transporting you back to some sort of Dickensian era, such is the atmosphere of these amazing places.
If you want a true taste of Holland, these coastal and inland villages are definitely worth exploring. Check out our gallery by clicking on the image below.
Holland’s iconic tulips and Keukenhof
One of my bucket list trips was to see the tulip fields of Holland. Known throughout the world for their patchwork quilted fields of colour I could only imagine their beauty. After the joy I experienced seeing Provence’s lavender I knew I had to see the Netherland’s carpet of colour. And so April 2019 we finally managed to get there in our camper. Whilst I think we probably timed it two weeks too late, there were still some amazing blasts of technicolour enchantment. It was everything I had hoped for. And then there was Keukenhof. Whilst the fields may well be the commercial side of tulip bulbs, Keukenhof is all about the mastery of the blooms themselves. A landscape of sheer artistry, as lakes, fountains, curvaceous beds and steams provide the backdrop canvas to these incredible flowers. 800 varieties of tulips and 7 million bulbs conspire with a bit of human intervention to create the joy that you will behold at Keukenhof.
Only open from mid March to mid May, undoubtedly the Netherland’s most famous spring tourist attraction, it is a rare experience that visually will blow you away and give you an overwhelming sensory experience. Check out our tulip video below.
Staying up north, well west if you want to be geographically correct, there is a region of the Netherlands that is a water power house. A region that has defied nature and resiliently honours their motto ‘I struggle and emerge.’
Zeeland is a set of 3 finger-shaped peninsula that have been gradually reclaimed from the sea over time. They are classed as the least populated region of the country, that is until the summertime when their population doubles. Don’t let that fool you though, because Zeeland has plenty to offer the adventurous types. With its intrinsic connection to the sea, Zeeland is well positioned for water sports and you will find this aplenty on each island you travel to. Middelburg, its capital, is a Dutch delight with its clean-line streets, waterways and central plaza. Music vibrates out of the cafés and the cathedral’s imposing stature stakes its claim on the skyline.
As you ‘island hop’, each one takes on a different feel and yet holding them together are their battle scars and historical heritage. And you might think these rivalling factions are people based, although no! These are wounds from the sea’s impenetrable dominance. Years of flooding have consistently shaped the land formation, the dykes and technology that now holds the sea firmly at arm’s length.
A fascinating place that really needs exploring. So don’t avoid this area for the sexier appeal of Holland’s other charms. For more info on Zeeland, check out our comprehensive blog here.
We stayed at Wolphaartsdijk, Camping De Heerlijkheid (51.54217 3.78037).
The Netherland’s iconic windmills – Kinderdijk
Every image of Holland in particular is framed by a traditional windmill in some form or another. And whilst in other countries they may just now be a pretty feature, for the Netherlands, they still hold an important role albeit they are superseded by the modern structures. One place that must go on your Netherland’s itinerary to really appreciate these mechanical magicians has to Kinderdijk – a UNESCSO site and museum that is free to the public. This area just a short boat ride from the Netherland’s oldest town of Dortretch, and it is a photographer’s haven. With the right light you can produce some stunning images. And the history of this place is so intriguing, as these 19 windmills from the 15th century are working museum pieces, presenting the role they played in securing the safety of the local inhabitants.
Catch the 202 water-bus from Dordretch and for €8 per person (bicycles are free) you get to explore this incredible UNESCO site. Check out our gallery by clicking the image below.
We stayed at Jachthaven Westergoot (51.813818 4.724003) at the marina.
The Netherland’s star-fortresses
One thing you expect to see in the Netherlands are windmills. Loads of them especially up in the polder regions of Holland because of their water-management role. Although what surprised us most, in our third visit to this fair land were their fortresses. Throughout Europe you often see towns protected by the archetypal walled-cities such as Evora in Portugal and Carcassonne in France to name just two. Yet in the Netherlands, they did things slightly differently. With their water affinity, of course it makes sense that they would protected themselves with moats. And moats designed with the most incredible flamboyance. Whilst they are often best seen from an arial perspective, Heusden, Bourtange and Loevestein are still incredibly beautiful places up close and personal.
Take yourself back to medieval times, when wars and invasions where prime in the battle for national supremacy and where protection of your land was a primary goal. What better way to shield yourself from the enemy than with moats and draw-bridges. It’s like something out of a fairytale. And yet today these impressive places still hold the shadows and battle scars in their cobbled streets.
We stayed at a free camperplaats at Loevestein (51.814377 5.02747). There were two places at Heusden to park overnight; the west car park was only suitable for campers under 6m (51.73496 5.13404) and the east car park for campers over 6m (51.734599 5.145048)
To find the right words to convey the charm of Giethoorn, I would need to use half the dictionary. Adjectives like delightful, cute, serene, peaceful and unique would just be a few. And I’m sure you would be well within your rights to call me a bit gushy. Although visit for yourself and see that it’s true.
Although Giethoorn is known as ‘Venice of the north’, I think this is wholly inappropriate. Yes Giethoorn has waterways, yes there are no cars here, although Venice it is not. The comparison somehow undermines both stunning locations and Giethoorn deserves a place in a tourist’s agenda, all by itself.
These northern reaches of the Netherlands have a wild feel about them as you see the landscape change from its westerly neighbours. The polders give way to marshland and peat bogs that have served this region so well for hundreds of years. In fact Giethoorn was born from this industry. When local workers started to dig up peat from the soil they stumbled across remnants of goat horns from animals killed by floods. And from that moment Giet (goat) hoorn (horn) was born.
The 6km elongated village is strewn with narrow waterways, rickety wooden bridges and the most gorgeous thatched cottages, that would look at home on a box of chocolates. With the ‘whisper boats’ that silently glide up the canals, you get a real feel for the peaceful existence in this charming village. Arrive here early before the coach parties of Chinese turn up. So popular is it to this eastern nation, that shop signs are in Chinese and there is a dedicated Chinese restaurant to boot. Apparently it’s all due to the successful YouTube documentary Ni Hao Holland where Cherry, who lives in Beijing, dreams of swapping the stress of life there for the serene life of ‘quacking ducks’ in Giethoorn.
We stayed at Jachthaven Kuiper (52.72141 6.073414), which one of three Aires along the canal that allows motorhome parking. We paid €11 for a pitch and €1 per person with water, EHU and showers all costing extra. Wifi was free.
Anyway Giethoorn… Go! It’s a must see when you are travelling to the Netherlands and only 90 minutes east of Amsterdam. You’ll love it. Check out our gallery below to see it for yourself.
The Netherlands will always be close to my heart and each time we go, it embeds itself deeper into my affections. And I defy anyone to come to this ‘flat’ land and describe it as boring. The Netherlands is so far removed from boring as you can get. It’s one of those countries that oozes personality and culture and leaves us wanting to return for more delicious Dutch delights. With its ease of access by plane into Schipol Airport close to Amsterdam and by road from UK and Europe, the Netherlands cries out to be explored. And with Dutch hospitality sure to make you feel at home, this charming northwestern European country needs to go on your list, soon! And we hope we’ve elevate it onto your agenda.
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