When it comes to European travel, I can be a bit of a failure.
It’s my most travelled continent — I’ve been to thirty-two European countries at last count — but the vast majority of my experiences have been limited to capital cities. Take a look at where I’ve been: when you reach Europe, the amount of destinations per country drastically drops!
It’s not that I don’t want to explore more of the places I visit in Europe; I just get so excited by the opportunities the region can offer. Eurail passes make it easy to explore, and my 2012 trip saw me hitting up twelve countries in six weeks, because if you have near-unlimited travel for a month, why not try to see as much as possible? I’d like to say I’ve learned my lesson about travelling too fast (the reality is: you almost always end up exhausted and seeing very little!), but my Baltics/Scandinavia jaunt earlier this year had me visiting six new countries in two weeks.
Still, despite occasionally giving in to my wanderlust and booking fast-paced trips that I eventually grow to regret, I’m proud of my three week trip to the Netherlands this year.
There was so much temptation! And I can’t deny I tried to work in a side trip to Luxembourg or Belgium or Germany, but for once, I committed to exploring a European country in depth.
Why the Netherlands? Amsterdam is a city both Dave and I adore and we usually pay it a visit once a year. With Dave’s brother living there and more of our friends opting to make it home, we never need much of an excuse to pay this beautiful city a visit. But that was also the problem: I’d visited four times and had yet to leave Amsterdam!
Here’s why I’m so happy we chose to explore more of the Netherlands:
It’s compact: Long travel days can be a pain in the ass, so it was refreshing to not have to travel for half a day or more to reach my next destination. Our longest travel day was from Maastricht to the Hague, which came in at two-and-a-half hours. It was such a novelty not to have to write off an entire day due to travel!
Travel is cheap: For a Western European country with incredibly expensive accommodation, I was surprised at how affordable our transportation costs worked out to be. Utrecht to Leiden totalled 5 euros, and Leiden to Maastricht cost us around 20 euros.
It’s so easy: In the Netherlands, 98% of the locals we encountered spoke English and went out of their way to help us out. Everything was well-signposted so we never got lost. The train system was so modern and everything was on time — we even had a local apologise to us for the complicated ticket machines when we asked for help at a train station. They weren’t complicated; we were just being stupid. It was a breath of fresh air to not have to worry about something going wrong.
I had a fabulous three weeks there. Here’s how it went!
What an underrated city! I loved Utrecht, and its location — just a 25-minute train ride from Amsterdam — makes it the perfect destination for a day trip or weekend getaway. We stayed for four nights.
I can’t talk about our stay in this cute city without mentioning our accommodation. When I saw a houseboat up for rent on Airbnb, I dropped the owner a message before you could say but don’t you get motion sickness? Our boat was surprisingly warm, surprisingly spacious, and had me wondering how I could ever leave. It didn’t make me feel sick! Waking up to this view also didn’t hurt:
During our four day stint, I fell in love with Utrecht’s arty, student vibe. One of my favourite aspects of European travel is the cafe culture, so I was excited to find so many of them clustered around squares and alongside canals. Utrecht is an incredibly walkable city, too, which gives you the perfect excuse to break up the day’s explorations with a cup of tea and some people watching.
I loved how quiet the city is, too! Utrecht is the smallest of the big four cities in the Netherlands and you could tell: it had a small town feel but with all of the amenities you’d find in a big city. Best of all, it’s not on very many tourists’ radars, so it doesn’t have anything like the crowds of people that Amsterdam does. And because the red light district is located several miles outside of the centre, it means that Utrecht is less about drunken stag nights and more about lingering over coffees/beers.
I’d love to tell you that I did dozens of touristy things in Utrecht, but the truth is, our time there was all about recovery and rest. We didn’t climb to the top of the Dom Tower to get a panoramic view of the city; instead, we bought a bottle of wine, some olives, bread and cheese from a local shop and sat on the deck of our boat each afternoon, snacking, listening to music, drinking, and sunbathing.
The one thing I made sure to do every day? Wander around the medieval old town (Utrecht has the country’s oldest one!), stopping along the way for a drink at the bars. Then later, strolling alongside the canals. Utrecht has such a laid-back atmosphere, which helped make it the perfect start to my trip.
Stopping to Smell the Flowers in Leiden
I knew I couldn’t spend time in the Netherlands without paying a visit to the tulips at Keukenhof Gardens, so we travelled from Utrecht to Leiden, another student city, filled with even more bars and restaurants for us to sun ourselves at.
Though we were in Leiden to see the tulips, I struggled to work up the motivation to leave the canals. There were too many bars to hop to, too much raspberry-flavoured beer to savour, too much bitterballen to snack on. So, for three glorious days, we sat in the sunshine and indulged. Each morning, we’d wake up and head out to Bagels & Beans for a bagel tapas breakfast, spend our morning sunbathing on the grassy patch close to the windmill in the photo above (what a Dutch scene!), and our afternoons drinking beside the canals.
I was in danger of spending all of my time in the Netherlands eating and drinking, so on our final day, we made it to the tulips.
And they were so, so colourful. And beautiful. But to be honest, it was a bit like walking around in a giant garden and I wasn’t that impressed. It’s definitely worth seeing once in your lifetime, that’s for certain, but more than that? I’d likely pass.
The one thing I found at Keukenhof that was a twice in a lifetime experience? Posing with clogs!
A Different Side of the Netherlands in Maastricht
It took just a few minutes of research before I decided on Maastricht as the next destination for me. It sounded so different to the rest of the country!
Maastricht is a bit of an oddity. I’d call it a melting pot but then I’d have to slap myself for using such a tired cliche. Its location, way down in the south, and its close proximity to Belgium (2 miles) and Germany (20 miles) have resulted in an interesting mix of food, culture, language, and architecture that I didn’t see anywhere else in the Netherlands.
And I love that Dave went for an afternoon run to a new country and back while we were there!
The first thing I noticed was the difference in the architecture. In Maastricht, smaller, wider houses were favoured over the long and skinny design you’ll find in much of the country. The food was different, too, with a focus on game meat, extremely thick fries, and delicious Limburger cheese. Even the language changes this far south, with many of the residents opting to speak Limburgish (a blend of German and Dutch) rather than outright Dutch. And then, several locals told me they identify more as Belgian than Dutch!
Landscape-wise, much of the city is based around the river pictured above, rather than a network of canals, but most shockingly of all: there are hills!
Maastricht is also home to some delicious burgers and fries at Cafe Falstaff, and we may have had dinner there almost every night of our stay.
Fun fact: Maastricht is the birthplace of the European Union, European citizenship, and the euro!
One of my highlights of our stay was the running tour we signed up for through Maastricht Running Tours. I was terrified by the concept of a running tour, so much so that I almost cancelled our booking at the last minute. I’m so glad I didn’t, though, as I discovered an exhilarating new way to get to know a city!
And while challenging for someone who had the fitness levels of a dead badger, our guide was patient, encouraging, and helped us understand the city from a local’s perspective. I highly recommend it.
Of the places I visited in the Netherlands, I think I liked Maastricht the most. I loved the big squares that were lined with bars and cafes. I loved waking up and heading to a bakery for breakfast, then walking to the river to eat beside it. I especially loved Maastricht’s gorgeous bookstore.
Mishaps and Museums in the Hague
We had just arrived in the Hague. In front of us was some kind of art exhibition and the pathway was lined with sculptures. I found one that looked like a jail cell with a coin slot in front of the bars.
“Oooh,” I gasped at Dave. “I want to go inside!”
I grabbed a euro and dropped it into the slot.
“Well, that was dumb,” I muttered.
The Hague and I got off on the wrong foot and I struggled to warm to it throughout my visit. I decided to visit because I’d heard that, like Maastricht, it wouldn’t feel like anywhere else I had visited in the Netherlands. And that was true: it felt like a modern city, it was within biking distance of the sea, and there were very few canals.
And maybe it was because the weather transformed from sunny skies to drizzly days, but it all felt a little bit bleak. I tried my best to make the most of it and wandered around the centre for a few hours each day, but I just wasn’t connecting to the city.
And that was my three week trip to the Netherlands! What an amazing country, and I’m so glad I got to see a side of it that was far away from the Amsterdam stereotypes!
Have you been to the Netherlands? Which is your favourite Dutch destination?
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Wow, you have visited places I haven’t even been and I live in the Netherlands! Maastricht is a place that I really want to visit, you did a great job describing it as ‘almost another country’ and it’s the only place with hills so I plan to go there in 2016. From Utrecht it is only 2 hours by train after all…
When I lived in Belgium we would always take the train from Liège to Maastricht in the springtime. Laying in the grass by the river was a really nice way to spend the afternoon. Great post, the Netherlands is such a quaint, clean, and enjoyable country.
Sounds perfect! I love the Netherlands so much and was delighted to get a deeper glimpse of it this time around!
It’s so incredibly nice to see a post that does so much justice to The Netherlands. I usually scoff when people tell me they only know Amsterdam in the Netherlands; Amsterdam is not a representation of the country at all. That having been said, I don’t know my country well enough either! My goal this year is to explore my own country a bit more! :) Thanks for this post!
Oh, that’s so good to hear, Dominique! :-) I’m happy you think I did it justice!
I loved this post — it was really interesting to hear about the Netherlands beyond Amsterdam! I feel like I’ve heard a lot about Amsterdam, but I didn’t even recognize these other names. So glad you’re posting again :) (Not that the book wasn’t worth it — I bought it right away and loved that too)
Aww, thanks so much, Caroline! I’m loving having this site be my one single focus for the first time in years and I’m excited to start catching everyone up on what I’ve been up to :-)
The trips I did to the Netherlands have been mostly to Groningen in the north, as that is where an aunt and some cousin live. I have also visited the Twente area and of course Amsterdam. I would like to visit again next year and then see if I can do some travelling on bicycle around the country.
Beautiful! I have never been but I would love to visit one day.
I highly recommend it! It has so much to offer for such a small country :-)
I should be ashamed to admit that, although I am from Italy and I have visited many European countries, I know Latin America way better. I have been to Copan Ruinas and I have yet to visit Madrid (but I have been to Barcelona!). I have seen Buenos Aires, the Paris of South America, but not Paris PARIS (though I have been all over the south of France). And the list could go on. I suppose I keep thinking it can way till when I am too old and tired to bother with long flights!
And I definitely feel like I know Southeast Asia more than I do Europe, even though I’ve been to more places in the latter! The good thing about Europe is that it is easy to visit, so it makes sense to leave it for when you’re old! Get all of the tough travel places out of the way first :-)
We got off the train in Maastricht (enroute from Brussels to Amsterdam) just long enough to walk around and soak it in. Wish we could have stayed! So cute and charming.
It’s a really wonderful city :-)
I’m struggling between the desire to travel faster and see as much as possible vs. traveling slower and exploring the smaller places right now as I’m planning my Europe backpacking itinerary. It’ll be my first time in Europe and I only have 2-3 months!!
Happy to hear you had a nice, slower travel through the Netherlands! :)
It’s really tough — you want to see as much as possible, but sometimes the faster travels can leave you exhausted and unwilling to explore. A mix is good, so you get the best of both worlds :-) Enjoy your time in Europe!
I’m just the same with Southeast Asia – you have been to more places than I have in the region.
I’m in total agreement about Utrecht being highly underrated – I went there just for the Rietveld House and went away liking many more things.
I have only ever visited Amsterdam and it wasn’t a great experience as I was groped in the street. I had been put off exploring the Netherlands, but I really enjoyed reading your post and love the sound of staying on a houseboat! I might have to add it to my list of places to give a second chance.
Ugh, sorry to hear that, Emma. Definitely give the Netherlands another chance one day — it has a lot to offer!
It’s kind of weird to read stuff about your ‘own’ country, especially because it’s about something else than Amsterdam for a change, but this is definitely some great press for the Netherlands, Lauren! Great to hear that you had such a good time. If you were ever to return for another trip: I can highly recommend a visit to the Wadden Islands ;-)
I don’t think I’ve ever read a post just on the Netherlands, and I’m glad to say I loved this post even more because of it!
Everywhere looks gorgeous.
I love that you stayed on a house boat, how amazing that must have been!
Awww, thanks so much, Brooklyn! Staying on a houseboat was definitely the highlight! :-)
I loved all your photos. I especially love the flowers. My husband would have enjoyed visiting the large gardens. He’s a gardener/farmer at heart. Those burgers also looked delicious. Was that really a bookstore? It looked more like a library. HEHE!!
Thanks so much, Heather! Yep, it’s an old church that was converted into a bookstore — and it’s regularly voted one of the prettiest in the world!
Netherlands Tulipe is so exotic !
Someday i must go to Netherlands to see it by myself !
No stereotypes?! Didn’t you get a nice boat ride from a local in Amsterdam? :-p
Oh, haha! True :-D
Ahhh this post has got me regretting not fitting in some countryside visits during my visit to Amsterdam last week. I loved the city (although I did find it the most expensive destination of my trip so far). Visiting in tulip season would be so great (its on my bucketlist), the photos look amazing!
I’m a bit like you- terrible at slowing down. So I always try and pick some smaller towns to visit outside of big cities (I usually find them by looking at the UNESCO list). But then the problem is I just whip through them as well! I managed to squeeze in one day in Regensburg, Bamberg, Wurzburg, Speyer, Trier and Cologne! hahaha.
Lauren. Your’s was the first travel blog I ever started reading. And the more I read the more I realize that your grammar and spelling are meticulous. You set a very high bar for other travel bloggers to match. I have decided to not even attempt to match it and just continue to stumble along in my own attempts. I read your words in awe of your language skills.
Thanks so much, Keir! That’s so kind of you to say and means the world to me! :-) Honestly, writing this site has drastically improved my writing skills — my grammar was shocking when I first started out, so there’s hope for everyone!
Wow… That’s one big clog! I shudder to think of who could wear it.
I’m making the move from Valencia, Spain to Rotterdam in a few weeks and while I’ve visited the Netherlands a few times (my boyfriend is Dutch) I hadn’t really thought to go to Utrecht. I’m excited now! Those clogs are massive, but then again so are Dutch people (the tallest in the world on average last I read!) Great article!
Ah, exciting! :-)
Maastricht has great surroundings, such as Valkenburg and surroundings
I’ll have to add them to the list for my next visit! :-)
This is one of the most exceptional and practical guides for the Netherlands I’ve read in a while, Lauren1 Spending 3 weeks there are an excellent time period to see all the highlights there! The tulips are my highlight too! :)
Thanks so much, Agness!
I have been wanting to get back to the Netherlands to see the tulips for years. I guess I need to stop dreaming and start planning! Thanks for the tips.
Enjoy! It’s such an underrated country, and so much more than just Amsterdam :-)
Hi Lauren, your post will be very helpful for many people out there who wants to visit the Netherlands in near future. Now, they can explore these less known beautiful places and will make his/her visit memorable and enjoyable. Thanks for sharing the awesome article.
Thanks for commenting! Glad you liked it :-)
Fantastic! I’m going to be spending three weeks in the Netherlands in August and this has given me some great ideas.
Great! Let me know if you have any questions :-)
Hi Lauren, great travel blog and good to read that someone gets out of Amsterdam for a change. Maastricht and Utrecht are beautiful city’s, besides those I can really recommend ‘s-Hertogenbosch, also known as Den Bosch which is an historic city. You’ve probably passed it travelling by train to Maastricht. The city is also known for the painter Jheronimus Bosch and it’s pastries called Bosschebollen. Some other great city’s to visit are Breda and the modern city Rotterdam.
Thanks for all your stories
Thank you! I’ve added them to my list of places to check out when I next return :-)
I loved reading about your trip, but can’t make it add up to three weeks. Can you please give me more detail?
We are planning a trip for next summer and would love your advice.
Hi was wondering where is the most convient part of the Netherlands to stay north east west south of Amsterdam
Hi wondering which part of the Netherlands to stay have only 10 days but we want to find a house to rent there will be 8 of us
Friesland is a beautiful place to visit as well
It’s on my list for my next visit!
Awesome best offbeat travel itinerary to the Netherlands I have come across, this will be of great use for travellers looking to explore offbeat locations rather than big cities and famous travel destinations. The pics are really awesome especially the flower gardens.
Hi Lauren, thanks for your post. The pictures are wonderful especialy those of the tulips. Last year I traveled to Holland but It was impossible to visit Keukenhof. So, I hope to return soon to the Netherlands and to enjoy the rest of places that you are talking about.
I hope you make it back there to see them :-)