With one-sixth of the Netherlands reclaimed from water, a pretty tree-lined canal, peaceful lake or picturesque harbor is never far away. Endless stretches of sandy beaches trace the contours of the coast, from the peninsulas of Zeeland with their whitewashed beach houses to the wild Wadden Islands in the north.
As for culture, this small country has given birth to some of the biggest names in art – Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Mondrian to start. In Amsterdam, you’ll fill up on all three, then immerse yourself in its UNESCO-listed canal district, a living museum of 17 stunninge century architecture just four hours by train from London.
Current travel restrictions and entry requirements
You no longer need to present proof of vaccination or a test at the Dutch border. Masks are no longer compulsory on public transport, in taxis or in health centres. According to the Foreign Office, Britons can use the ‘All Passports’ queue at passport control.
Best time to go
Visit between early April and mid-May to see the spectacular flower fields in bloom with rows of tulips, narcissi and hyacinths. Travel to the region between Haarlem and Leiden, where you will also find the splendid Keukenhof Gardens; or take a trip to the Northeast Flevoland polder for the greatest concentration of fields.
To see the country truly let go, plan your trip for King’s Day (April 27), where an orange-themed street party takes place all day to celebrate the monarch’s birthday.
But if you are in the Netherlands for boating, come in the summer. Few things are more enjoyable than cruising a canal with the sun on your skin.
Main regions and cities
Once best known for its red light district, cafes and booze parties (it’s all still there if you want it), gorgeous Amsterdam now attracts a more eclectic crowd. Art museums attract attention, with the gigantic Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh taking center stage. Visitors should also book well in advance for the famous Anne Frank House in the city’s historic canal district. Here, splendid gabled houses tell the tale of Golden Age decadence, while across the IJ Port, beach cafes, street art and trendy new restaurants beckon visitors to discover the regenerated North. But the biggest obstacle is surely the channels themselves. Hire an electric boat and explore them yourself or soak up the atmosphere from a waterside deck.
The Hague is the seat of the Dutch government and its ambience is suitably majestic. The elegant Hofvijver lake sets the tone, bordered by the Binnenhof parliament buildings and surrounded by museums, from the medieval prison gate telling grizzly tales of crime and justice, to the lavish Mauritshuis where the famous pearl girl hangs by Vermeer. The Museum Quarter to the northwest offers more treasures, including the Kunstmuseum Den Haag, home to the largest collection of Mondrians in the world. The city borders dissolve into beautiful sand dunes to the north and west. Between them lies Scheveningen. With its Ferris wheel and jetty, it offers a classic seaside experience; while its miniature park, Madurodam, lets you experience Holland’s highlights – in model form – all at once.
Turning the devastating bomb damage of World War II into a piece of resistance, Rotterdam has rebranded itself with a wealth of cutting-edge architecture, from the quirky cube houses of the Old Port to the Museumpark’s dazzling Depot Boijmans van Beuningen, a sphere giant silver plate containing works by all the great names in Dutch art. Have lunch under the mirrored dome of the Market Hall, hop from the harbor by water taxi to one waterfront bar or, for something different, take a stroll through the once Brutus Garden the stomping ground of sex workers, – open-air gallery ready for Van Lieshout’s controversial and naughty sculptures. And if you need a dose of windmilling to feel like you’ve visited the Netherlands, take a day trip to nearby Kinderdijk – there are nineteen of them.
West Frisian Islands
This string of unspoilt islands – of which only five are inhabited and several are car-free – is heaven for cyclists looking for a few island-hopping days. Even Texel, the largest and most accessible of the islands, has a remote feel, with rugged moorland dotted with wildflowers and miles of uncrowded golden beaches. Visit the quirky Beachcombers Museum Flora to see all the crazy things the North Sea has thrown onto its shores, take a boat trip to spot seals and porpoises, or climb the lighthouse’s six stories of steps for stunning views on the island.
Best under-the-radar destinations
The Marker Wadden in Flevoland is the newest nature reserve in the Netherlands and perhaps the most unlikely. It includes five man-made islands, all experimental off-grid ecosystems that emerged in 2018 with material dredged from the depths of Lake Markermeer. Today, the once bald piles of silt are carpeted with flowers. One, Haveneiland, is open to day-trippers arriving by ferry from Lelystad, visiting yachts and holidaymakers renting one of four eco-cabins. Hike through rolling dunes, cross boardwalks above thriving wetlands, watch birds from an observatory, or snorkel on the island’s powdery beach. Few other places have such a strong sense of nature’s regenerative power or are so quiet at night.
De Hoge Veluwe National Park
There are 54 km² of woodland, moorland and quicksand waiting to be explored in this huge nature reserve in the province of Gelderland which bursts into color in late August when the purple heather blooms. At the heart of the park is De Pollen, a vast desert where you will feel like you have crossed another continent. Book a guide and go on a safari in search of the park’s “big four”: roe deer, deer, mouflon and wild boar. You might even spot one of the Veluwe’s newest and most controversial residents: wolves. Also hidden in all this nature, but perfectly clear of its crowds.
Fierce battles for land have left Limburg, the southernmost province of the Netherlands, suspended deep in the country between Belgium and Germany, creating a unique cultural mix. To see all three countries at once, head south and take the spooky Skywalk at Vaals, a glass-bottomed watchtower at the highest point in the Netherlands. Spend a weekend in Maastricht soaking up the continental atmosphere and admiring its basilicas, gourmet cuisine and beautiful architecture, then explore the surprisingly hilly landscape beyond for vineyards, caves and generous portions of wow – the local sticky fruit tart.
The best things to do
Cycling beyond Amsterdam
Some of the most beautiful little villages in the Netherlands are just outside Amsterdam – all you need is a bike. From Amsterdam Noord, cycle east past the tiny gabled houses of Nieuwendam and on to Durgerdam, a former fishing village. If you have the energy, follow the shore another hour or so to Marken, once an island and now attached to the mainland by a long thread of road across the lake. The green half-timbered houses with their gardens criss-crossed by canals make this traditional Dutch village picture perfect.
Frisian Lake Cruise
If a winter frost sets in hard enough, the network of lakes and waterways connecting eleven of Friesland’s towns becomes the running track for the legendary Elfstedentocht ice skating marathon. The rest of the year, the huge waterscape is a scenic playground for boaters. Settle into a houseboat or hire a small motor sloop and explore the tranquil lakes bordered by meadows and reeds. Frisian specialties such as pea soup and smoked sausage will help protect you from the cold.
Walk on the mudflats
“Wadlopen” (mud walking) on the sticky ground left by the tide is just about the dirtiest thing you can do in the Netherlands – and dangerous too without a guide. Typically undertaken on the north coast, where the Wadden Sea laps between the mainland and the Frisian Islands, it’s a fun way to explore the flora and fauna revealed at low tide. Choose a culinary tour and you can even harvest your own shellfish for dinner.
The Netherlands has an extensive and reliable rail service and many cities also have trams and metros. If you take a lot of public transport trips, consider investing in an OV smart card. Loading money onto the card reduces travel costs and time spent at turnstiles.
The cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is fantastic, but cycling in the capital can be challenging for first-timers. The small scale of the town means that most major attractions are within walking distance of the center anyway.
If you don’t mind driving on the right, the well-maintained roads of the Netherlands are easy to navigate by car – just watch out for all those cyclists.
How to get there
Traveling by bus tends to be the cheapest way to get there from the UK. FlixBus and Eurolines serve several Dutch cities, from London to Amsterdam in 10 hours. Ferries can also be good value for money and operate between Harwich and the Hook of Holland, Hull and Rotterdam, and Newcastle and IJmuiden. The Eurostar rail service connects London to Rotterdam and Amsterdam in around four hours. Meanwhile, Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam has the most frequent flights to the UK, but Rotterdam and Eindhoven airports also offer services.
Tip to save money
In Amsterdam, buy a digital City Card and you’ll get free entry to most of the area’s top attractions. Also included are a free canal cruise, free bike rental and public transport, plus discounts on various tickets and meals.
What weather is it?
The climate of the Netherlands largely resembles the south of England and tends to be quite mild, although its flat landscape and long coastline make it prone to wind. Temperature extremes are unusual, but summer can top 30 degrees and winter can drop below zero. It’s not uncommon to see a difference of three or four degrees between Maastricht at the southern tip of the country and the cooler, windswept Frisian Islands to the north.
What time zone is it in?
CET (one hour before UK).
What currency do I need?
What language is spoken?
You might hear regional variations such as Frisian and Limburgish, but Dutch is spoken throughout the country. English is pretty much a second language in the Netherlands, especially among the younger generation, so make yourself at home.