When I say Holland you may think of canals and cheese, windmills and dykes, but it’s a country that moves far beyond stereotypes. Holland has an overwhelming number of cultural attractions from historic landmarks to modern art. And with many cities and towns located within a small area, plus a great transport network, it’s very easy to explore many of the best places to visit in Holland in one trip.
This guide to Holland’s attractions highlights its destinations by heritage, colour, atmosphere, delicious dishes and restaurants and relaxing places to go to. Finally, we detail places to stay, how to travel to Holland and how to get around.
During our time there, we were based in the rather cool city of The Hague. Only 30 mins from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol this city by the sea was a great place to start. From here we were able to explore other cities in Holland such as Haarlem, Gouda – which lends its name to the famous cheese, and the city of canals, Leiden. However, our first journey to discover Holland’s cultural cities and regions took us two and a half hours away – north to the city of Groningen.
I have to confess to finding it odd that Groningen is little explored, even among some Dutch people I spoke to. They seemed to cast it aside a little (even if jokingly) because its northern location put it at an extreme. Granted, it is closer to the border with Germany than Holland’s capital, but a two and half hour journey from the cities of the south is no reason at all to give this gem a miss.
Where to find Holland’s heritage: Groningen, Haarlem and The Hague
I felt this even more so after being able to explore Groningen’s attractions on a guided tour. The first thing that struck us, as it did in most towns and cities we visited in Holland, was the sheer volume of bicycles. In Groningen 61% of locals ride a bike, it is clearly environmentally friendly and great for the physical health of residents, but it stands in stark contrast to what we are used to, and you do have to keep your wits about you as you wander around the city.
First, get a feel for the country here…
Historic attractions in Groningen
Still, it didn’t stop us wandering the city on foot – first stop: the 17th century Martini Tower. At 97 metres high it is the fourth highest tower in Holland, however, its name has nothing to do with the well-known Italian drink, but is instead named after Saint Martin.
To get to the top, I took a breathless climb up a winding staircase of 260 steps, but the view over the town was worth it. Part way up I also saw the huge bells of the tower, and a giant drum of a cylinder organ, that plays a number of tunes like the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy across Groningen, adding charm to the city.
Martini Tower is connected to Groetekerk, the city’s main church, and sits on the edge of Grote Markt, its main square. Right across the square, we discovered perhaps less holy, but equally unusual treasures – three bars, known as De Drie Gezusters, or The Three Sisters. Three different bars but they are all linked together on the inside.
They were very atmospheric and showed off the long and proud heritage of Groningen. In one we found seating and tables that resembled a 1930’s train carriage. It was all very reminiscent of the classic film Brief Encounter and one of the more unusual places to go in Holland.
The decór blended beautifully with the individual themes of each bar with rich reds and mahogany in the darker corners and then next-door revealed vibrant yellows and blues as the stained glass on the ceilings lit up the room.
Elsewhere in the city, we explored more of its heritage. In the city’s Jewish Quarter where an art project memorialises the lives of Groningen’s Jews who were forced from the city and many of whom died during the Holocaust.
The street Folkingestraat in the centre of Groningen between Vismarkt to Zuiderdiep was the centre of the Jewish quarter until 1942 when 2,450 local Jews were deported, and another 300 the following year.
Today, there is an art installation along Folkingestraat with brass crescent moons and full moons in the cobbled street symbolising an eye to represent the fact that many of Groningen’s residents saw what was happening but turned a blind eye.
As you wander the street, you also find that among a host of boutiques and cafés there are brass cobblestones like you might see in other cities in Europe (especially in Germany), with the names of the people who lived there that were deported from the city.
It’s a moment for reflection on this sad history before you reach the end of the street where a poignantly a dark painted door symbolises both that the residents of Groningen closed their doors on the Jews in the 1940s and also that this chapter of history is now closed.
Hope in Haarlem
We learned more about the history of Dutch Jews in the city of Haarlem a few days later. All I knew about Haarlem before was that it lent its name to the New York neighbourhood of Harlem. Yet, while they share a similar name, the look and feel of the Dutch city was quite different.
Our introduction to Haarlem Holland was the magnificent Amsterdamse Poort, once the gateway into the city via the ancient and long departed city wall.
As we dove deeper into Haarlem it revealed itself more and we were increasingly impressed.
Walking cobbled streets amidst ageless architecture, Haarlem’s history and rich culture poured forth. We made a point to visit the Corrie Ten Boom House museum. During World War Two it was the family home of the Ten Booms, who sheltered those hiding from the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo.
In February 1944 the house was raided and the family and many friends arrested, the Nazi officers though missed four Jewish people and two resistance fighters who hid silently for two days within a wall cavity in the house. Over seven decades later we looked on at the confined space and were quite incredulous that six people could live for two days in such a small space. It was an emotional reminder of a once terrible period on our continent.
Most of Corrie’s family died in captivity. However, Corrie survived Ravensbrück concentration camp, and over the years travelled the world telling her story and promoting peace and understanding across cultures and religions. It is a story that gives us hope and reveals the good in people, despite adversity.
There are guided tours of the Corrie Ten Bloom House between Tuesday and Saturday. The tours are free but you can leave a voluntary donation.
The art of The Hague
The Hague is a very cultured city, and there is nowhere better to start your explorations than at the Mauritshuis.
This 17th-century art museum is one of the foremost in the world and houses a revered collection of outstanding artworks. Its best-known masterpiece may be Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, but it is home to many more Dutch Golden Age artworks including Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp plus his famous self-portrait; then there is The Goldfinch by Fabritius, and the jolly Laughing Boy, by Frans Hals.
Next to the Mauritshuis is the Dutch parliament building, the Binnenhof, the oldest parliament in the world, and it is worth a walk through to the Inner Courtyard to explore.
The Hague is also home to the Palace Noordeinde, which today is a palace to King Willem-Alexander.
Holland is atmospheric
From the atmospheric archways of Groningen to the cool streets of The Hague, Holland has plenty of atmosphere.
In Haarlem, we got a sense of a genuine Dutch city. As is common in Holland, Haarlem is closely associated with water – canals and the winding waterways of the River Spaarne traverse the city.
Arriving into the main square of Grote Markt, we took a coffee break at the relaxing and atmospheric Grand Café Brinkmann. A coffee house since 1879, the interior is an invitation to step back into history.
Whether you sit inside as we did, or outside and look out over Grote Markt, where the 14th-century cathedral of St Bavo dominates, it is a chance to take in Haarlem’s quaint old-fashioned surroundings.
On the water in Leiden
But perhaps our most atmospheric experience was in Leiden. The picturesque city that revealed itself as one of the most interesting places to see in Holland.
The birthplace of artist Rembrandt, Leiden has 27 kilometres of canals that wind around the city and we took a boat trip with Bootjes & Broodjes to check out the scenery from the water. Our guide gave us a running commentary as we sat back and relaxed with a bottle of prosecco for the journey while taking in the landmarks and landscapes.
From the quiet calm of the waterside, the city slid by in a huddle of skinny Dutch houses. We were also fascinated by the sheer number of locals living on houseboats and even refurbished old ships on the canal.
Colourful places to visit in Holland
We also enjoyed an atmospheric evening in Groningen. We were there for the annual Museum Night when the city’s five major museums – the GRID Grafisch Museum, Groninger Museum, Nederlands Stripmuseum, Noordelijk Scheepvaartmuseum, and Universiteitsmuseum open to the public from 7pm until after midnight.
The event allows an insight into the visiting exhibitions and permanent collections and is enhanced by the imaginative use of music, workshops, and more. It now counts as one of our favourite things to do in Holland, so get dates for the next event into your diary.
Groningen region is full of colourful culture
Due to time constraints, we were only able to get to the Groninger Museum, but what a fabulous evening we had amid its kaleidoscope of colour. Heading down a brightly coloured staircase to the lower floor we were met by a large group of people dancing to a quiet beat at a silent disco – a great introduction to this creative and fun evening.
The museum’s main collection charted the colour-packed genre of Groningen’s avant-garde movement, De Ploeg that developed in the city in the early 20th century, which was inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s expressionism.
It was packed with paintings and prints of angular figures dancing on colour packed canvasses. People milled around enjoying this vivid exhibition, but the real talk of the event was upstairs with David LaChapelle’s visiting exhibition, Good News for Modern Man, containing more than 70 pieces of his work.
His bold use of colour and innovative, often-controversial imagery, grabbed our attention and the exhibition showed the range of the artist who is now as famous for his striking social statements as he is for his celebrity portraits.
Museum Night was a fantastically colourful and creative night and something well worth going to Groningen to experience.
The next day, we explored the province of Groningen and headed to the countryside. Approximately 30 minutes outside of the city in the relaxing village of Houwerzijl, we visited De Theefabriek, the only tea museum in Holland. The colourful museum and tearooms are housed in a former church and we thought it was cuteness personified.
De Theefabriek has over 300 types of tea and tea related products. But it is also a delightful location to take a refreshing break in which to enjoy a cuppa and delicious pastries.
The village of Houwerzijl isn’t a large place with extensive attractions, but De Theefabriek was worth the drive from the city.
Colour on the coast
A little further on from Houwerzijl we wanted to see the vibrantly painted boathouses at the fishing village of Zoutkamp. We set the sat-nav to take us to Reitdiepskade where we found ourselves at the pretty marina – surely one of the most photographed places in Holland.
To be fair there really isn’t much to do at this spot the colourful buildings were lovely and if you’re looking for a great spot for your next Instagram shot, this is it.
Back in The Hague, we hit the coast and one of the best places to visit in Holland for those that love being by the sea, Scheveningen. Not only did its golden sands invite us to join the locals and soak up a little of the early autumn sunshine, but its 382-metre long two-tiered pier has a whole host of attractions. There is a Ferris wheel from which you can view the surrounding area (we did so with a bottle of Prosecco for the ride), then for the adventurous, there’s a bungee jump dropping you right over the North Sea.
But our favourite attraction was actually underneath the pier where its supporting columns have been painted in a rainbow of colour that reflects on the beach where it meets the tide.
Delicious dishes and Dutch eats
What would you expect to eat in Holland? We had no idea what amounted to traditional Dutch dishes beyond stroopwafels and cheese. But we found the country’s restaurants impressive and whole cities dedicated to great eats.
Say cheese in Gouda
Gouda – a city known around the world for its cheese production – is replete with charming canals, a historic centre, boutiques and nice eateries.
In the heart of Gouda is the magnificent city hall – a fairytale-like building with quaint red and white window shutters. The building dates back to 1450, and it is a standout monument among many monuments in this historic and atmospheric city centre.
Around the corner, we discovered another striking feature of Gouda, Sint Janskerk (St John’s) church, which, at 123 metres is the longest church in Holland. However, it is its 72 stained glass windows that make it such an attraction for visitors.
Back in the square, we found numerous restaurants around the outside, but then this is an area well known for its food. It’s here that local cheese producers come during the week to sell big wheels of Gouda, each Thursday from 10am to 1pm between April and August.
We did visit the Gouda Cheese House where we discovered that it comes in many forms, from vintage to truffle flavoured goats cheeses and even unusual cheeses like black lemon and psychedelic ones made of basil, tomato and lavender.
We bought a number of cheeses to take home, then headed off for lunch where we discovered another tasty speciality. At De Zalm brasserie in the market square, we sampled Gouda cheese soup, a rich hot and tasty bowl that was like a Dutch fondue.
Something fishy by the sea in The Hague
One very unexpected dining experience we had was one of Holland’s most traditional. In the heart of The Hague, we stopped at a food stand and looked on in awe as locals picked up raw herring by the tail and whopped them whole into their mouths, with a pelican-like gulp.
This Dutch delicacy, a soused herring – raw, boned and soaked in a mild preserving liquid, then sprinkled with a good helping of raw onions is a regional speciality.
And it actually surprisingly tasty – as long as you’re a fan of raw fish – and a big part of Dutch culture.
Elsewhere, The Hague’s food brought more surprises, but this time of culinary delight. We sampled other great (this time cooked) fishy dishes at Catch by Simonis and enjoyed a fantastic evening meal at Waterproef just a few doors down in Scheveningen’s marina.
Where to eat in Groningen
The following day, between the city of Groningen and Zoutkamp, we dined at Piloersmaborg restaurant near Den Ham. We were told it was the former home of local nobility, however, today it is a highly recommended restaurant.
Piloersmaborg is in a country house built in 1633 in a beautiful rural location, reached by a tree-lined roadway, it was an oasis of tranquillity. Our heads pivoted in every direction as we gazed upon old relics, ancient furniture, antique clocks and ageless rooms as we took this short tour through the building’s history.
Lunch itself was an occasion, not just a delicious meal. The dining room was charming, the service first rate and the food divine.
We had a six-course meal which included leeks in vinegar with pink peppers, late summer salad with vegetables, barbecued lamb shank precooked in hay and served with spelt, tomato broth with seaweed and langoustines, goat cheeses with brioche and sorrel sauce, and sorbet with plum sauce and curds. These flavoursome dishes were accompanied by prosecco and a variety of quality wines.
Afterwards, we met with chef and owner Dick Soek and learned a little more about his delicious culinary creations and the history behind the Piloersmaborg restaurant. We were delighted to let him know how much we enjoyed his food and our relaxing day there.
Relaxing places to go in Holland
Groningen had other relaxing areas too. Back in the city we came upon Prinsenhoftuin or Prince’s Garden, a renaissance style walled garden, started in the 17th century, and named after a prince that lived here.
It was a relatively small, but very peaceful retreat in the city centre. It has herb and rose gardens and an interesting windowed area where each year open-air poetry readings take place.
The heritage of the Pilgrim’s Houses
In the centre of the city is the historic Pilgrim’s Houses, or as it is locally known the ‘Pepergasthuis’. We visited on a Sunday morning walking in through the gates on Peperstraat and another world of tranquillity is revealed. Behind these ancient walls is the accommodation, built in 1405, for pilgrims visiting the Church of St Martin which claims to have an arm of John the Baptist.
Today the former Pilgrim’s Houses are available to rent and the former dining room is hired out for wedding services.
Despite us finding so many things to do in Holland, we still made time to relax. In The Hague, we found many quaint and quirky cafes and bars to relax and refuel in. Then one evening we indulged in some real pampering and headed to the spa. A short walk from our hotel was Caesar Fitness & Spa Resort.
As we hadn’t booked in advance and turned up only three hours before closing we couldn’t book a treatment, however, we enjoyed a few hours relaxation in the swimming pool, Jacuzzi, five saunas and steam room. For those new to the saunas in Holland, no swimwear is allowed, but a towel is used for sitting on or to wrap yourself in.
Where to stay
In Groningen, we stayed at the Designhotel Asgard. Our third-floor room was modern, airy and very spacious, with a balcony from which you could take in the city’s rooftops over a morning coffee made with the extensive tea and coffee making facilities in the room.
A modern hotel, the Asgard also has solid environmental values, with environmentally friendly materials used and produce for their hearty breakfasts sourced from local producers and farms.
In The Hague, we stayed at the boutique Hotel Indigo Palace Noordeinde. A former bank it radiates charm and subtle refinement.
The reception staff were extremely helpful and friendly and that attitude earmarked our stay at this lovely hotel. Nicely decorated, our room was spacious and had a five-foot safe, within which was a smaller, practical in-room safe, plus tea and coffee facilities, nibbles, and a free mini bar.
The bed was very comfortable and each night we enjoyed fabulous sleep, while the bathroom had Rituals toiletries, a walk-in rain shower and thick fluffy towels. I would have preferred to have wardrobes rather than an open rail for hanging clothes. But, in all other respects, the hotel was first rate.
How to get to Holland
There are plenty of flights from the UK and US which serve Holland …
There are plenty of flights from the US and UK which serve Holland, flying into Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. There are direct flights to the capital from 165 destinations around the world and access from over 500 destinations through its global network of partners.
Getting around in Holland
Holland is very easy to travel around, and with many cities within easy reach of the capital, and each other, it means you can see much more in a short space of time.
Driving in the country is very easy, with well-signposted highways and broadly good driving on the roads making it a breeze. We did, however, find parking a little complex at times, so allow extra time to find a space and metres. In some locations like Haarlem, they have automatic number plate recognition to manage parking, but you must pay for your parking
Holland has an extensive, affordable rail network on Nederlandse Spoorwegen’s bright yellow and blue trains.
Most trains have free Wi-Fi. An OV-chipcard can save you up to 40% on off-peak fares but be careful to check in and out at the right places
You can check rail works on the company’s website before you travel, and for travel planning use Google Maps or 9292 which includes details of travel by bus, metro and train.
Plan your trip to Holland
Use this map to help plan your trip to Holland.
We travelled to Holland with Expedia and Visit Holland and were free to write about whatever we enjoyed.