Top 10 Things to Do
A guide to the 10 most unmissable sights in Holland.
Canals of Amsterdam
Holland's capital city, Amsterdam, has the comforting appeal of a city that has preserved its human scale. This is a place to explore on foot, or on that typically Dutch mode of transport: the bicycle. Maps of the city show how it is built on concentric semicircles of canals, and criss-crossed by more than a thousand bridges. The prettiest of the canals - such as Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinzengracht - are lined with trees and cobbled streets, and rows of gabled brick houses. It is a wonderful place to wander, stopping to admire the views, to look at the shops, and to take refreshment in a café. Or, if you are feeling gloriously idle, join a boat tour.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
As is widely known, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) sold very few paintings during his life, before he committed suicide in France at the age of 37; yet now his work sells for millions. His emotionally charged style and vivid colours were little appreciated by his contemporaries, but became a pivotal influence in the history of modern art. You can explore this conundrum and see the breadth of his talent at the Van Gogh Museum, where 200 of his paintings and 550 sketches are on display - in a collection amassed largely by his art-dealer brother, Theo. This, the world's largest concentration of Van Gogh's work, includes many of his best-known paintings, such as 'Sunflowers', 'The Bedroom at Arles', and 'Wheatfield with Crows'. The museum also includes work by Van Gogh's friends and contemporaries.
Kröller-Müller Museum and De Hoge Veluwe National Park
Some 65 km (40 miles) south-east of Amsterdam, near Otterlo (near Arnhem), is a delightful marriage between high art and nature: an exceptional collection of modern painting and sculpture surrounded by extensive and wild parkland. It is also the product of a marriage, between the art-lover - and German industrial heiress - Hélène Müller (1869-1939) and her nature-loving Dutch husband Anton Kröller (1862-1941). In 1909-14 they bought 5500 hectares (13,600 acres) of land; later, the collection and the park were donated to the state and in 1938 a gallery (designed by the Belgian architect Henry van de Velde) was built to house the art. It is one of the finest collections in Holland, with paintings and drawings by the likes of Van Gogh (including the famous 'Café Terrace at Night'), Seurat, Picasso, Renoir and Mondriaan; the sculpture garden outside contains work by Rodin, Henry Moore, Jean Dubuffet, Barbara Hepworth and Richard Serra, among many others. The park became the De Hoge Veluwe National Park, and is the largest nature park in Holland. This bipolar attraction offers a wonderful day out, enhanced by the possibility of picnics in the park, and walks in the woods or over the sandy heath, cycling (free bicycles are available) or horseriding. The park also includes the St Hubertus hunting lodge, a remarkable building designed for the Kröller-Müllers (1914-20) by the highly influential Dutch architect H.P. Berlage.
Mauritshuis, The Hague
This is a gem of a collection: the royal collection of paintings housed is an elegant 17th-century mansion built for Johan Maurits of Nassau in the old heart of The Hague. It is small enough to be digestible, yet full of delights. It contains work by Rembrandt (including 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp'), Franz Hals, Jan Steen, and Carel Fabritius, plus work by Holbein and Rubens. But the star of the show is Vermeer, notably his sparkling 'View of Delft' (1660), and the haunting 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' (1665), which inspired the novel and the film of that name.
Delft's most famous son, the artist Johannes Vermeer, painted a portrait of his city in 1660 - just six years after a disastrous gunpowder explosion had destroyed much of it (killing, among 100 others, Rembrandt's gifted pupil Carel Fabritius). The city was rebuilt, and since that time precious little has changed. With its canals and old brick gables, Delft is a charmed city, and a delightful place to wander. Much of it dates back to the centuries preceding Vermeer. The East Gate (Oostpoort), with its twin towers and spires, is a rare remnant of the 15th-century defensive walls that once surrounded the city. William the Silent (William I of Orange) was murdered in 1584 at his residence the Prinsenhof, now the municipal museum (you can still the bullet holes). He was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) and, since that time, the crypt has been the burial place of the Dutch royal family. The church overlooks the main market square (Markt), facing the beautiful Dutch Renaissance City Hall (Stadhuis), built in 1618. A visit to Delft will also give you ample opportunity to buy some of the famous Delft Blue pottery, first created in the 17th century in imitation of Chinese porcelain.
Say 'Holland' and you may start thinking of windmills. This is no accident: windmills historically played a vital part in the landscape of Holland, nearly half of which actually lies below sea level, protected from the sea by dykes. Windmills were used to pump out the water (as well as to mill grain). In the flat, watery landscape of the province of North Holland, on the River Zaan, there used to be 1000 windmills, and here many of them served a proto-industrial purpose, such as sawing wood, milling seeds to make oil, even grinding ingredients for paint. Today only twelve of these remain, seven of which are at the village of Zaanse Schans. It's a classic Dutch scene, preserved as a popular visitor attraction, with several of the windmills still in operation, plus preserved historic dwellings and workshops, many of them making traditional foods and crafts. This includes wooden clogs - practical footwear in this damp landscape. There are also a handful of small museums. www.zaanseschans.nl
In February 1953 the south-east of Holland suffered a disastrous and traumatic flood when a ferocious storm, coupled with very high tides, overwhelmed the sea-defences; 3240 sq km (1250 sq miles) of land were inundated, 1835 people died, and 72,000 had to be evacuated. Holland's long-term response was to put in hand a huge and ambitious plan to upgrade its coastal management in the area embraced by the delta of three converging rivers, the Rhine, the Maas (Meuse) and the Schelde (Scheldt). It meant restructuring not just the dykes, but also roads and busy shipping routes, and controlling the water levels with dams, artificial islands and storm-flood barriers, without blocking off and damaging the natural marine environment. At the inlet called the Oosterschelde (Eastern Scheldt), this was achieved by creating the world's largest storm-surge barrier called the Oosterscheldekering; it is 9 km (5.5 miles) long, with 62 steel gates that close in the event of a flood warning. The 'Delta Project' was officially opened in 1986, but is an ongoing project. You can see it by driving along the impressive coastal road in the province of Zeeland, which runs from Vlissingen to the colossal Europoort (port) of Rotterdam - where the Nieuwe Waterweg, at the mouth of the River Maas (Meuse), can be closed off by two vast arms, each the size of the Eiffel Tower. On an artificial island of the Oosterscheldekering is the WaterLand Neeltje Jans theme park, which tells the story of the 1953 flood and explains the Delta Plan. It also provides visits to dam and boat trips, and has seal pond, a dolphin enclosure, a hurricane simulator, 3D film, seafood exhibition, and a water slide and inventive 'water playground'.
Reclaiming land from the sea has been a Dutch pursuit since the 11th century. Some of the biggest projects took place around the big, shallow inlet called the Zuiderzee (Southern Sea), especially after the huge dyke called the Afsluitdijk ('Closure Dyke') was built across its mouth in 1932, creating the saltwater lake called the IJsselmeer. This was good for land reclamation, not so good for the fishing towns and villages that needed ready access to the North Sea. One of these was the historic port of Enkhuizen. Today its has made a virtue of its misfortune by developing a museum, with an indoor section (Binnenmuseum) plus an open-air section (Buitenmuseum), animated by costumed staff, that serves to recreate its traditional lifestyle in about 1900. The complex includes historic ships and boats, a sailmaker's workshop, shipbuilding yards, fish smokehouses, a working windmill, limekilns, and traditional houses rescued from other parts of the Zuiderzee.
A fantasy theme park to delight young children, De Efteling is based around fairy tales - Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Arabian Nights, and so on. It is the largest theme park in Holland, and also one of the world's oldest, founded in 1952. It includes a Fairy Tale Forest, a haunted castle, and stage shows, and latterly it has expanded its rides along more familiar theme-park lines, with heart-in-mouth rollercoasters, a bobsleigh run (without snow) and a wet-'n-wild raft run. It also has its own hotel, and an 18-hole golf course. De Efteling is at Kaatsheuvel, west of 's-Hertogenbosch, in the southern province of North Brabant. www.efteling.nl
The Dutch have a word for their particular sense of cosy socialising: 'gezelligheid'. Putting guests at their ease is the key to their sense of hospitality. You can find this in their old pubs, especially in a city like Amsterdam. The best of them are known as 'brown cafés', so called because of their smoke-darkened décor: the walls and pictures and low ceilings have a carefully preserved patina of decades of use, and a dingy charm. Here you can while away your time chatting, reading newspapers, playing cards, drinking coffee or beer or a jenever gin (or all three), and refuelling with a snack or more substantial bar food. Brown cafés are an essential part of the Dutch experience.