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Cities, Towns and Villages

Holland has numerous historic towns and cities, proud of their heritage, but also busy with modern life. Much of their charm derives from their enduring sense of human scale, evident not just in the smaller towns and villages, but also in the cities, particularly Amsterdam.

Amsterdam

Holland's capital city remains close to its historic roots as a major trading port that witnessed a 'Golden Age' in the 17th century, and was made rich by a web of contacts across the world. Its network of canals (see Top Ten Things to Do) has constrained developers over the centuries, while its cultural wealth has been carefully preserved in a clutch of world-class galleries and museums. These include the great art galleries, the Rijksmuseum and the Stedlijkmuseum (see Museums and Galleries), and the Van Gogh Museum (see Top Ten Things to Do). Also excellent are the National Maritime Museum and innovative Nemo Science and Technology Centre (see Museums and Galleries). The Anne Frank House (see Museums and Galleries) offers a deeply personalised insight into the human abyss of the Second World War. Of course, Amsterdam also has its seamy side, including its notorious Red Light District, but at least it can be said that the open attitude adopted by the city makes this a relatively safe curiosity for those who wish to glimpse this aspect of reality.

Rotterdam

Much of Rotterdam was flattened by German bombing during the Second World War; but today the city has a modern, gritty panache, as befits the biggest port-city in Europe. One of the highlights is a harbour boat trip, which shows the awe-inspiring immensity of the port facilities - fascinating by day, and magical by night when illuminated by millions of lights. You can get a fine view of the city from the Euromast, and the spiralling lift in its Space Tower, which reaches a height of 185m (607 ft). Another contemporary attraction is the Erasmus Bridge, a striking cable-stayed construction completed in 1996. The leading art museum is the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, with work by Van Eyck, Brueghel and Rembrandt (see Museums and Galleries). Rotterdam also has a famous and well-run zoo, the Diergaarde Blijdorp, with the full range of animals, many in new and inventive housing. They include rare Komodo Dragons, the giant reptiles from Indonesia.
www.rotterdam.nl

The Hague (Den Haag)

Amsterdam may be the capital of Holland, but The Hague is the seat of government, the main residence of the Queen, the location of most foreign embassies, and the home of the International Court of Justice. This, and the broad residential avenues, give The Hague a slightly stiff and formal air, but there are real charms behind this façade. At the centre is the historic Binnenhof, viewed across the tranquil, rectangular Hofvijver (Court Pond). This was originally the residence of William II, Count of Holland, who in 1274 became Holy Roman Emperor; it includes the 13th-century Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights). The Upper House of the Dutch government sits in the Binnenhof, and the Lower House in a modern block close by. Also overlooking the Hofvijver is the 17th-century mansion called the Mauritshuis, home to the royal collection of paintings (see Top Ten Things to Do). Close by is Prince William V's Picture Gallery, Holland's first public picture gallery (1774), remarkable for the way in which the paintings cover the walls, up to five deep, just as they used to. The Gemeentemuseum (Municipal Museum) is laid out in a remarkable building designed during the 1930s by H.P. Berlage, founder of the style called the Amsterdam School. It contains a fine assortment of glass, silverware, furniture and musical instruments, but it is best known for its outstanding modern art collection. This includes works by Monet, Picasso, Egon Schiele, Wassily Kandinsky, Francis Bacon, and the world's largest collection of paintings by Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944). The Panorama Mesdag is a splendid oddity: a vast painting-in-the-round, showing the Hague's seaside at Scheveningen, painted in 1881. Madurodam is a kind of Holland-in-miniature: models of the country's landmarks on a scale of 1:25, created in memory of George Maduro, who died at Dachau concentration camp in 1945. This mini-city is exceptionally well done, and wonderfully surreal when visitors are seen, Gulliver-like, towering over the miniaturised exhibits. www.denhaag.com

Utrecht

The university city of Utrecht has its share of canals, but here the canals are flanked by terraces rather than streets; canal boats offer a delightful way to see the sights. Utrecht is known above all for its numerous churches; the most famous is its Dom Kerk (Cathedral Church), with its soaring tower (Domtoren) rising to 122 m (400 ft). The church itself is an oddity: once one of Holland's finest, in 1674 a colossal storm demolished the nave, leaving just the tower standing, separated from the rest of the church. The tower contains a 17th-century set of carillons bells, which are used to play tunes, and there are commanding views over the city for those willing to climb the 700 steps. Fans of design and architecture should know that the Centraal Museum contains the world's largest collection of furniture by the De Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), and you can book a tour of the classic, ultra-modern Rietveld Schröder House, designed by Rietveld in 1924.
www.utrecht.nl

Groningen

Capital of the northern province of the same name, Groningen has a distinguished history as a centre of trade, administration and culture dating back to medieval times. Although badly damaged in the Second World War, it has a number of late medieval and Renaissance buildings, clustered around the old city centre, the Grote Markt; it also has several pretty almshouses with courtyards, known as 'hofjes', such as Heilige Geestgasthuis and St Geertruidshofje - places of timeless charm. Its leading cultural attraction is the ultra-modern Groninger Museum, with a world-class collection of art (see Museums and Galleries).

Haarlem

Lying just to the west of Amsterdam, Haarlem has been an industrious trading city for over five centuries. In the Grote Markt (Great Market Square) in the centre, little has changed since the 17th century. Its Gothic Grote Kerk (Great Church), or St Bavokerk (Church of St Bavon), still has shops and houses attached to it - a common practice in the Low Countries in medieval times, but in most other places these have been cleared away. The church is celebrated above all for its large and magnificent organ built by Christiaan Müller in 1738, which has been played by Handel, Bach and the infant prodigy Mozart. Haarlem is known for its many courtyard almshouses (hofjes). One of the grandest of these is now home to the Frans Hals Museum (see Museums and Galleries). The Teylers Museum is the oldest museum in Holland, founded in 1788 by a silk merchant called Pieter Teyler van der Hulst; It contains a quirky but fascinating collection of scientific instruments and machines, as a well as paintings and drawings, including work by Michelangelo and Rembrandt.

's-Hertogenbosch

Usually referred to simply as Den Bosch, this picturesque city of North Brabant (in southern Netherlands) has a collection of historic houses and small museums. The canal called the Binnen-Dieze follows the river beneath the city, providing an unusual kind of boat tour. Most remarkable of all is its cathedral of St Jan, the largest church in Holland and a spectacular Gothic confection of flying buttresses, gargoyles and sculpture.

Maastricht

Founded by the Romans in 50 BC, Maastricht can claim to be the oldest city in Holland. The name derives from the Latin Mosae Traiectum: crossing point on the River Maas. Christianity was brought to the city by St Serviatus (Servaas) who was buried in a cemetery (Vrijthof) in AD 384. Now the Vrijthof is the main square, overlooked by the Romanesque St Servaasbasiliek (Basilica of St Serviatus), dating from the 11th century, and built over the saint's tomb. Another fine Romanesque and Gothic church is Onze-Lieve-Vrouwebasiliek (Basilica of Our Lady). In the courtyard, and between here and the St Servaasbrug that spans the River Maas, are various Roman foundations, including those of the castellum and baths. The 13th-century city gate called Helpoort is a survivor of the medieval city walls. An unusual curiosity are the Grotten (caves) St-Pietersberg, a labyrinth of some 20,000 tunnels, totalling 10km (6 miles), created as a result of limestone quarrying over many centuries. Maastricht's big cultural treasure house is the striking new Bonnefantenmuseum, containing an exceptional collection of painting and sculpture (see Museums and Galleries).

Leiden

This venerable old city is kept on its toes by the students of its prestigious university, founded in 1584. For visitors, the part of the university that excites most interest is the Hortus Botanicus, one of Europe's oldest botanical gardens, with a splendid collection of plants in its flowerbeds and shrubberies as well as in its extensive hothouses. The Rijksmuseum van Oudenheden is Holland's best archaeological museum, with exhibits from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. The Lakenhal (Cloth Hall, where cloth was traded in the 17th century) is now the municipal museum showing silverware, furniture, and a fine collection of paintings, including work by Rembrandt, Gerard Dou, and Jan Steen. The Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology) contains a large range artefacts collected from all over the world, many of them echoing Holland's colonial past. The Museum Boerhaave has scientific and surgical instruments, as well as a reconstruction of an early 17th-century operating theatre, with surrounding viewing galleries for students and spectators. But if you want to see a real cadaver, there is a mysterious, desiccated one on view at the Pieterskerk, discovered under the floor near the pulpit in 1979. In an unrelated bit of history, it was in this Gothic church that the Pilgrim Fathers came to pray before they sailed for Plymouth, and from there to North America.
www.leiden.nl

Delft

This was Vermeer's city, and still retains much of the atmosphere captured so evocatively by the film 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' (2003), which centres on his painting of that name. See Top Ten Things to Do.

Deventer

A wealthy city of the Middle Ages, and part of the North European trading alliance called the Hanseatic League, Deventer has preserved many of its old-world charms in its squares and churches.

Gouda

Cheese is still a major theme in this attractive town in the province of South Holland (the name Gouda is pronounced 'howda', with a guttural h). Every Thursday in summer there is a cheese and craft market in the square by the 15th-century Stadhuis (town hall), where stallholders dress in traditional costume, and there is a cheese museum in the Waag (public weigh-house), built in 1668. St Janskerk is one of the great treasures of the town; the ground beneath its foundations was too soft to support a spire, so instead the church was made extra long - the longest church in Holland. Inside there are 70 stained-glass windows, rare survivors of the Iconoclasts - the Protestant rebels who went around vandalising church ornament in the 16th century. Het Catharina Gasthuis (St Catherine's Hospital) is a museum in a collection of 14-17th-century buildings; its contains an interesting mixed collection of old domestic artefacts and toys, plus medical mementoes, as well as paintings.
www.gouda.nl

Enkhuizen

This old port on the IJsselmeer still has many vestiges of it prosperous past in the 17th-century 'Golden Age' of Holland, but is now best known for its Zuiderzee Museum (see Top Ten Things to Do).

Brielle

The port of Brielle (or Den Briel) in the province of South Holland is a splendid fortified town, protected by its star-shaped 18th-century fortifications, which replaced medieval ones. For centuries, Brielle played a leading strategic role in Holland, and in 1572 was captured by the piratical 'Sea Beggars', whose intervention played a critical role in the long-running war of Dutch independence from Spain. This is one of the subjects covered by the Historisch Museum Den Briel.

Giethoorn

This famously pretty village, in the province of Overijssel, has had the misfortune to earn itself the sobriquet 'the Venice of the North', because of its numerous canals. It draws thousands of visitors, but the charms are undeniable. Footpaths run along the edge of the canals, and link up the many bridges. Thatched traditional farmhouses and dwellings line the water, many now serving as craft museums - all of which can be pleasurably explored by foot, bicycle or boat.

Bourtange

Bourtange, in the northern province of Groningen, is a remarkable fortified town, as any aerial photograph makes clear. It sits in the middle of concentric star-shaped moats, cut into the low-lying landscape and fortified with redoubts. This fortress-setlement was first created by William of Orange in 1580, then continuously developed over the centuries. It has recently been restored to how it looked in the 18th century.