Ah, the Netherlands…windmills, fields of tulips, and a labyrinth of romantic canals. This is how the world sees the Netherlands, but it’s merely a glimpse into the little Dutch country in Northwestern Europe. What is sometimes called Holland is a fascinating destination for travelers. The entire country is only about one-third the size of the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, so you can stay in the eclectic capital city of Amsterdam and plan day trips to see much of the countryside.
While in the Netherlands, you’ll experience a mix of traditional flower-strewn villages with Dutch colonial homes, modern architecture, and progressive culture. Dynamic cities like Rotterdam and The Hague retain their charm with old towns and seafaring history. The land is mostly flat, so bike riding is a part of the culture. This makes navigation easy and is also a touristy thing to do. Let this list of what the Netherlands is famous for, entice you to visit soon.
Rivers and canals were important in planning the Netherlands’ cities since about 26 percent of the land is below sea level. The canals were used for travel, irrigation, and the removal of floodwaters. Canals in the city of Leiden were built in the 17th century for protection. Today, the city of Amsterdam has the most canals, moats, and bridges. The city center features a multi-tiered canal system that encircles Dam Square. The Canal District is listed as a World Heritage Site and is often referred to as the “Venice of the North.”
The Netherlands has so many windmills, they’ve become one of the country’s main icons. Over a thousand of them are scattered around the countryside. Like canals, it was the low-lying land that gave rise to them, along with the country’s constant breezes. They were first used to help dry the land, and later for processing raw materials like grain and for manufacturing products. Many of these old windmills have been restored and are open to the public. And, of course, you’ll find windmills in all the gift shops from refrigerator magnets to garden decor.
Tulips are the Netherland’s signature flower. The bulbs were originally imported to the Netherlands from the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey) in the 16th century. It was the Dutch Golden Age, and people fell in love with tulips. Their rise in popularity caused the price to skyrocket, so much so, they were sometimes used as money.
Tulips, and other flowers, grow extremely well in the Netherland’s climate. In the spring, the countryside bursts with hectare after hectare of tulips. The bulbs are “dirt” cheap, and today, the Netherlands is one of the world’s main exporters of tulip bulbs and other flowers.
Clog-style shoes made of wood are another world-renowned icon unique to the Netherlands. They’ve been around since the 13th century, but you won’t see them worn anywhere except perhaps by farmers out in the rural areas. You can still buy a pair of locally-made wooden shoes; they’re mostly sold to tourists. Find them in painted bare wood or with Delft blue tulips. In Zaanse Schans and Volendam, local craftsmen make them the traditional way.
It’s easy to see why a bicycle culture grew in the Netherlands since the entire country is mostly flat. The Dutch cycle to work and cycle for sport. If their job is too far away from home, they may commute by train. But many residents keep a bike at home to cycle to the train station and another at the train station to complete the commute by bike. They may even have another bike they only use for sports cycling. Perhaps this is the reason the country has more two-wheelers than citizens. Not surprisingly, the Dutch are a healthy lot, another result of the bicycle culture.
What used to be a coffee, tea, and tobacco company is now listed by UNESCO as an “icon of Dutch modernism.” The Nellefabriek was number 10 on the World Heritage list for the Netherlands. By using glass and steel, and the concepts of light, air, and space, the architects were ahead of their time in design and materials. Today, the Nellebabriek is a bustling commercial center, and the former coffee roasting section is now an event hall.
Visitors to the Dutch town of Groningen can’t miss the Martinitoren (Martin Tower). The 500-year-old tower was erected to keep an eye out for enemies. It’s now one of the Netherlands’ most popular tourist attractions and features Europe’s best ringing bells. The tower connects to the Martini Church from the 13th century. Be sure to check out the organ and wall paintings inside the church. You can purchase tickets to climb the tower for amazing views of Groningen.
From Groningen, head southeast to the town of Utrecht to visit the Dom Tower and Cathedral, another structure of fascinating medieval architecture. The tower is part of St. Matin’s Cathedral built between 1321 and 1382 and designed by John of Hainaut. Before you see the church, you may hear the musical clanging of one of 13 bells weighing between 880 and 18,000 pounds! A tornado struck the church in 1647 and separated it from the tower. Visit the church and its medieval courtyard along with the tower. And if you’re up to climbing 465 stairs, you can see other church steeps, and even Amsterdam on a clear day.
The whole world knows the story of Anne Frank, a young Dutch-German girl of Jewish descent and a tragic victim of the Holocaust. She fled with her family to the Netherlands to escape the Nazis. Here, she began a diary she was given for her 13th birthday chronicling the time she spent hiding with her family in a secret annex. Unfortunately, her father Otto was the only one to survive a Nazi raid. Otto knew how much his daughter had longed to become a famous writer. She did, posthumously. Otto gave her writings to the world. You can learn the sad yet intruiging story at the secret annex, now a beloved museum in Amsterdam.
Vondelpark is a must-see while traveling in Amsterdam. It’s the most famous park in the country and known around the world. The park welcomes around 10 million visitors every year and is loved by locals and tourists alike. Take a tour of the park Dutch-style on a bike, or stroll through on a sunny day. You’ll see dog walkers, joggers, roller skaters, and people watching people. An open-air theatre hosts free concerts every summer at the park’s bandstand. Visit the historical pavilion and restaurant. Stop by to say hello to the statue of the poet Vondel whom the park was named after.
The Dutch Golden Age produced a list of the world’s most renowned artists. These artistic pioneers paved the way for centuries of art with styles and masterpieces of breathtaking landscapes. Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer, and M.C. Escher are among the Dutch Masters living between the 16th and 20th centuries. You’ll find museums and art galleries all around the Netherlands dedicated to Dutch artists.
Vincent Van Gogh is the best-known Dutch Master of all time. He was also the most mysterious. Van Gogh suffered episodes of mental illness that may be attributed to his love of absinthe, a strong liquor nicknamed “the green fairy.” During one episode, he cut off his ear with a knife. He remembered nothing and blamed the incident on an argument he had with another artist. His masterpiece A Starry Night is one of his most famous and best-loved paintings. The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam is dedicated to the artist and his contemporaries. It houses the largest collection of Van Gogh’s work.
The Rijksmuseum in the heart of Amsterdam’s Museum Square is one of the world’s most important art museums featuring over 8,000 masterpieces. Dedicated to both art and history, it chronicles the story of the Netherlands from the Middle Ages to present times. Highlights include Van Gogh’s Self Portrait, Vermeer’s Milkmaid, and Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Be sure to visit the Gallery of Honour and the Cuypers Library at the Rijksmuseum.
No one should leave the Netherlands without a piece of Delftware. These iconic pieces of ceramics have existed for the last four centuries and pleasantly capture the beauty, culture, and history of the country. The traditional blue patterns are hand-painted on porcelain by Delftware painters. The charming town of Delft, a good day trip from Amsterdam, is the place to go for genuine Delftware. You’ll receive a certificate of authenticity from the Chamber of Commerce. Look for vases, salt and pepper shakers, and more.
The Dutch are world-famous for their delicious cheeses and have a long history of producing it. Today, the Netherlands leads the world in cheese exportation. The types of Dutch Cheese include goat cheese, Leiden cheese, and Gouda made from cow’s milk. Gouda is the most popular and comes in different varieties. Jong (young) is soft and creamy and Belegen (aged) has a sharp flavor. Edam, from the quaint town of the same name, is also popular, with its red rind and round shape. The list of other cheeses to taste in the Netherlands is long and includes Limburger, Bluefort, and Frisian.
The Netherlands is the world’s leading exporter of beer, and many of them are very well-known. Topping the list in popularity are Heiniken and Amstel. The Dutch prefer a pale lager because of its versatile flavor that pairs well with food. The Netherlands also produces regional specialties using ancient recipes that rival German and Belgian brews. Don’t miss the House of Bols, one of the world’s oldest distilleries. It offers guided tours and features a look at the bar-tending culture. Visitors learn the basic skills of mixology. Join the locals and have a beer in of the old fashioned pubs called bruine krogen.
The Dutch have a sweet tooth, and you’ll find plenty of candy around to prove it. It’s sold practically everywhere, and holiday candy comes out several months ahead of each holiday. Favorite candies in the Netherlands include stroopwafels and chocolate letters. But licorice, or drops is the most sought after. The drops come in a variety of forms and flavors. You’ll find sweet, salty, hard, and soft drops in flavors like honey, orange, and blueberry. Most of the confections are flavored with aniseed, a 4,000-year-old exotic spice that adds an astringent, spicy flavor.
Every country seems to have a favorite toy mascot, and the Netherlands is no exception. Dick Bruna, a native of Utrecht, created stories about Nijntje, a little white rabbit called Miffy in English. The town of Utrecht has a Miffy square, traffic lights with little Miffies to show when it’s safe to cross the street, a Miffy statue, and of course, a Miffy museum.
Dutch people are intelligent and creative. They are easy to start a conversation with and exceptionally good at languages. German and Dutch are the official native languages but they are known for speaking English with almost no accent. English is taught in schools early on, and most Dutch natives speak two or three languages fluently.
The Dutch are also among the tallest people in the world. Men in the Netherlands have an average height of six feet, and women are rarely under five and a half feet tall. The tallest Dutchman who ever lived was Albert Johan Kramer at a height close to seven feet. He was born in 1897 and died in 1967.
The Netherlands is a very liberal-minded country. Cannabis for recreational use is legal throughout, and so is prostitution. You’ll smell “pot” in Vondelpark and other green spaces. Most of the time, it’s teens and tourists experimenting with their short-lived freedom. But conservative visitors are more shocked at the prostitution. The prostitutes advertise themselves quite openly to people walking the streets. The Netherlands is also highly supportive of the LBGTQ community. Gay Pride Week is celebrated with enthusiasm.
Perhaps the Dutch culture of liberal ideals goes back to historical differences in religion. They were Christians, but protestants, and lived with the philosophy that they had nothing to hide. To this day, Dutch homes typically have big windows and few curtains.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.