If you plan on visiting the Netherlands (sometimes called Holland) you might already be aware of some cool and unique things to do in Amsterdam. But what many people don’t realize, is that in the Netherlands you will find a wealth of incredible experiences outside of Amsterdam. It would be virtually impossible to cover everything to do in the Netherlands in just one article. From touring the Hague to exploring the National Parks you could spend months in this little country. Since I didn’t have months, I wanted to combine a few famous and quirky attractions on my trip. Of all the things I got to do – here are my personal favorites – 10 amazing things to do in the Netherlands.
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1. Explore the Den Haar Castle
The spectacular Den Haar Castle reminds me of the world-famous Hearst Castle in California. Much like the Hearst Castle, it was built by wealthy local royalty (Baron Etienne van Zuylen and his wife Helen Rothschild). The Den Haar Castle looks ancient but was constructed (fairly) recently, from 1892 to 1912. Much like its American cousin, no expense was spared in the creation of the Den Haar. And the castle designers build it to entertain, as much as to house a family.
Although Den Haar Castle is “new construction,” it was built upon the site of several older castles, dating all the way back to 1391. Additionally, unlike the crowded Hearst Castle, Den Haar is far off the beaten path. Located outside of Utrecht, getting here from the big cities requires switching several methods of public transport, so few tourists make it out. For me, wandering the gorgeous castle and its grounds, far from the crowds, felt like exploring a strange and exotic fairy tale. This experience is likely why Den Haar Castle is my favorite attraction in the Netherlands.
2. Stroll the Keukenhof Gardens – The Gardens of Europe
They are called the Gardens of Europe for a good reason. I usually try to stay away from the crowds and tourist favorites. But sometimes a location is worth the lines – and the Keukenhof (free with the Amsterdam Pass) is that kind of place. Gorgeous, stunning, beautiful… none of these adjectives come close to describing Keukenhof. Imagine you walk into heaven. The sweet smell of flowers permeates the air. Hundreds of birds chirp overhead and everywhere you look, a glowing field of flowers. Bees are busy at work and water burbles in the distance. You have to see Keukenhof for yourself to believe it. To beat the crowds come as early as you can, the gardens open at 8.00 am.
3. Marvel at Kinderjik
The iconic windmill, is perhaps, one of the Netherlander’s best-known symbols. If you want to see windmills, one way to do so is by visiting a historic windmill neighborhood at Zante Shaans located close to Amsterdam (free with the I am Amsterdam Card). But if you want to get away from the crowds, the UNESCO heritage site of Kinderjik is a great choice. Located in the village of the same name this large windmill complex spans dozens of acres and is a natural wildlife reserve. Exploring this area by foot takes a few hours. Tickets are only a few Euros but getting here can be a bit complicated by public transportation. Kinderjik is a good place to stop on a road trip through the Netherlands.
4. Take a Road Trip in the Netherlands
The Netherlands, much like most of Europe, has a fantastic rail system network. You should try to use it as often as possible, in order to both save money and protect the environment. But some areas are difficult to get to by public transport – Kinderjik, Keukenhof and Den Haar Castle are a good example. So, I recommend renting a car for a few days if you want to explore off the beaten path attractions in the Netherlands and don’t have much time. In addition, road tripping through the country is a real pleasure. The quaint country roads run alongside tall trees and quiet rivers, past the flower fields and windmills. A road trip to the Netherlands is a great way to explore the country and that’s why its the number four item on this list of things to do in the Netherlands.
However, if you decide to rent a car for a few days stay out of big cities Utrecht and Amsterdam. Driving and parking here are challenging, especially with bikes everywhere.
5. Drive or Bike the Flower Route – Bloemen Route
The flower route (Bloemen Route in dutch) extends 40 miles along the shoreline. From Harlem in the north, southward to Leiden. Along the way, you’ll see blooming fields of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. You can do this route in one of two ways – the fast way, by car and the slow way – by bicycle. The roads are flat and the flower smell is intoxicating, so a bicycle is a great way to explore the route if you have the time. Additionally, be sure to stop and visit the cities and villages along the way – Leiden and Harlem are exceptional. But the highlight of the trip is no doubt the Keukenhof gardens, also known as the great gardens of Europe – the second item on this list of best things to do in the Netherlands.
6. Attend a Flower Auction at Aalsmeer
Perhaps the quirkiest attraction on this list, the flower auction, is the most uniquely Dutch way to spend a morning. After all, it was the Netherlands (Holland) that was the home of the world’s first stock market bubble – the Tulip bubble. At one point, tulips became so expensive that one rare bulb could fetch the value of a house in central Amsterdam. As all bubbles do this one eventually burst. Today, you can visit and watch the largest flower auction in the world at Aalsmeer. The doors open at 7 am, and I suggest getting here early.
I made it to the Aalsmeer flower auction at 7.15 and got to walk the enormous warehouse, learn about the history (and the future) of the flower market, watch traders at work – and more. The auction is not easily accessible by public transport, so the easiest way to do this is by car. Free guest parking is available onsite.
7. Discover All the Old Churches
The age of the Dutch Renaissance was an important period for western culture. As education and science made their mark, great artists began to create realistic artworks – Rembrandt is one famous example. Many artists of the Renaissance were inspired by religion, and in turn, transformed churches into modern houses of worship and art. Today, you’ll find Renaissance churches in every major town in the Netherlands. Each church exhibits unique works by the artists of the Dutch golden age. Many people who love art go into museums, but exploring Netherland’s churches, from Haarlem to Gouda and beyond, is a great way to discover Renaissance art and architecture, off the beaten path.
8. Get Cheesy at Gouda
The Dutch town of Gouda is world-famous for a good reason – the nutty and buttery Gouda cheese originated here. But Gouda is not the only type of cheese you’ll find in this famous little town. Every Thursday morning, from April to August you can visit the cheese market at Gouda central square, and explore more local (cheesy and non-cheesy) products. The market does get really busy when the weather is good, so don’t expect an off the beaten path experience. In addition to the actual market, you’ll find some fun kid-oriented activities and attractions in the square. For a foodie, the Gouda cheese market is a great experience. If, on the other hand, you want to avoid the crowds and explore the Netherlands off the beaten path, there are probably better ways to spend a morning.
9. Explore a Working Windmill
There is no shortage of windmills in the Netherlands, but my favorite one was Molen De Valk in Leiden. Climbing the Molen De Valk is unique for several reasons. The stairs here are steep – probably some of the steepest steps I’ve ever climbed. Great fun if you looking to stretch your legs or have kids who need to work out some energy. The views of Leiden old town are spectacular. And (relative to other windmills located in Kinderjik and especially Zante Shaants) this working windmill and museum are pretty much empty. That means you get to explore it at your own pace, without the bigger crowds.
10. Stroll Around an Ancient Citadel
Build around 1100, the Burcht Van Leiden citadel was originally constructed to protect the city. But Leiden, the city it was supposed to protect, quickly grew around the defensive fort – which in turn lost its usefulness. There aren’t many places in the world where you can walk around on an almost a thousand-year-old structure, but Leiden happens to be one of them. This is a fun and quirky stop for the history buff or anybody exploring the Netherlands outside of Amsterdam.
I hope you have enjoyed this list of the ten coolest things to do in the Netherlands! Thank you for reading and see you on the road!
Travel Tipster (aka Viktoria ;))