Discover Dutch life beyond its biggest city! Amsterdam is fun and all, but there is so much to the Netherlands than its capital. Visitors with a taste for culture, history, and romantic canals are advised to venture outside the city and explore some of Europe’s most charming towns within 1 hour of travel. Need some ideas? Here are my seven day trip ideas. (don't forget to click on pictures to enlarge!)


A classic Dutch city with grand churches and cobbled streets, beautiful canals and cosy bars, Haarlem is one of the most photogenic and wonderfully preserved destinations with a turbulent past. Despite great fires that had completely destroyed the city in 1328, 1347, and 1351, and followed by the Black Death, Haarlem still developed into a wealthy town by the 15th century. At the end of the Middle Ages, Haarlem was a prosperous place with toll revenues collected from ships and travellers passing the busy North-South route as well as with a large textile industry, beer breweries, and shipyards.

Today, most of the buildings in Haarlem are dated back to the 17th century, the Golden Age when the city became an important tulip-trading centre (remember the Tulipmania?). However, one of the most prominent landmarks on the skyline, the Molen de Adriaan, is a reconstruction of the original windmill that burnt down in 1932. The mill is open for guided tours that include amazing views over the rooftops.

>> Not to miss: Haarlem is famous for its 21 hofjes - small courtyards surrounded by charitable almshouses that were used to house poor, unmarried or widowed women. The oldest and most modern hofjes are located next to each other in the city centre, the oldest one being the Hofje van Bakenes founded in 1395 by Dirc van Bakenes. The most recent one, the Johan Enschedéhofje, was completed in 2007. You can visit most of the hofjes for free between 10:00 and 17:00, but pay attention - these gardens are tucked away behind the street facades and aren't easy to find, with entrances concealed behind modest doorways or in simple alleyways.

Be sure to drop by Jopenkerk, a church-turned-brewery. The former Jacobskerk now houses one of the oldest beers of the Netherlands - its history goes back to 1407, the year Jopen Adriaan's recipe was registered by the Haarlem Guild of Brewers. Nowadays, this beautiful church building is part brewery, part grand café (voted “Best Looking Bar in the Netherlands” in 2013), part tasting room.

> Distance & travel time from Amsterdam: 19 km, 15 min by train


Hometown of Rembrandt and seat of the country's oldest university (and my second Alma Mater), Leiden is a relaxed but vibrant student town with a great history. Leiden's draw is in the 28km (17mi) of picturesque canals crisscrossing through the city centre, 13 museums, all within walking distance, and a lively social life fuelled by a 23,000-strong student community. The city is also only twelve kilometres away from the North Sea coast and beautiful national parks in the dune landscape.

In Roman times, Leiden was a small settlement that developed into a fortress in the 3rd century. Many archeological artefacts, including Roman artefacts, can be found on display in the National Museum of Antiquities, situated in the city centre. The first medieval mention of Leiden was documented under the name of Leithon in 860.

The city played an important role in the Eighty Years' War by siding with the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule. Besieged between 1573-1574 by the Spanish, Leiden was liberated when the dykes were cut to enable ships to deliver provisions to the flooded town. According to a popular legend, the citizens were offered the choice between a university and a special exemption from taxes as a reward for their heroic defence. Thus, Leiden University was founded by William I of Orange in 1575. The great painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), who was born and raised in Leiden, attended the university before moving to Amsterdam in 1631.

>> Not to miss: The oldest botanical garden of the Netherlands and one of the oldest in the world, Hortus Botanicus is an oasis inside the old city. De Burcht, an old keep shell from the 11th century, is situated at the spot where the Old Rhine and the New Rhine come together. Don't forget to pop into some local bars - I would recommend De Bonte Koe, 't Keizertje, and Babbels.

> Distance & travel time from Amsterdam: 43 km, 36 min by train


Founded almost 1,000 years ago, Dordrecht is the oldest (official) city in Holland and for this reason is sometimes referred to as the Ancient Capital of the Netherlands. Given this very special status and its influence on Dutch history, Dordrecht is rich in culture. It has a medieval city centre comprising 7 churches, 6 museums, and 950 monuments.

In the 12th-13th centuries, Dordrecht developed into a prominent trade city because of its strategic location at a river confluence. An important element of the town’s history is the Saint Elisabeth Flood of 17 April 1421, which killed over 100,000 people and resulted in Dordrecht becoming an island. In the 18th century, Dordrecht lost prominence as the major town in the region in favour of Rotterdam. However, it retained an important military defence position, particularly during the commencement of the World War II. On 10 May 1940, Germany troops invaded Dordrecht and intense fighting ensued, during which many bridges and buildings in the town were destroyed.

>> Not to miss: The town is famous for Rondje Dordt, a sign-posted three-kilometer-long tour on foot through the city. This is the easiest way to explore the city, fully embracing its vibe and atmosphere. Dordrecht also borders on National Park De Biesbosch, a unique freshwater tidal area that came into being after the Flood. Check out the café located inside Kyck over den Dyck (1612) - the last windmill in Dordrecht that used to produce malt used by beer brewers in the town.

> Distance & travel time from Amsterdam: 92 km, 1h - 1h30 by train


Although it's the fourth biggest city in the Netherlands, Utrecht has managed to preserve its authentic atmosphere and local character. It houses a large student population - some 70,000 students live in Utrecht - which keeps the city's spirit young and dynamic. In a way, it's a city of contrasts - it is here where the medieval two-level canals meet most modern venues, where the country's religious centre neighbours with fraternities.

Utrecht is quite different from other Dutch places. First, it is one of the few cities in the Netherlands founded by the Romans. The estimated date of the first Roman castellum in the area goes back to 50AD. The Romans left around 275, as a result of raids of German tribes. Following the arrival of English and Irish missionaries in the 7th century, the city became the centre of Christianity in the country. These various influences are still present today: for example, St Martin's Cathedral was built inside the old Roman fortress.

While hardly anyone would be surprised by canals when visiting a Dutch city, Utrecht features a two-level canal, Oudegracht, that is quite unique to the Netherlands. The water level was once used as warehouse spaces, but today they house cafés and bars of all kinds so you can have a drink on the dock. Along the canal, from house number 279 onwards runs an endless poem called Letters of Utrecht. Every The next letter is hewn into the next cobblestone every Saturday at 13:00. Contributors rotate, and every few years another member for the Guild of Poets of Utrecht takes the lead. So far, 7 poets have participated. Provided the sufficient funding, the poem will be getting 'written' up to 2300.

>> Not to miss: Whether you are 5 or 55, find Nijntje (also known as Miffy in some countries) throughout the city - a beloved picture book character who is a small female rabbit. An* Utrecht native, Dick Bruna drew the first Nijntje book back in 1955, followed by almost 30 more and selling over 85 million copies worldwide. Then, climb up the 112m-tall Dom tower, and enjoy the amazing view over Utrecht - you might be able to look as far as Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

> Distance & travel time from Amsterdam: 53 km, 27 min by train

*it is 'an Utrecht [noun]' not 'a Utrecht [noun]' due to the difference in how the name is pronounced in Dutch


When a town of only 7,500 citizens is a household name around the world, its citizens must be doing something right. Edam's claim to international fame is a kind of cheese named after the location. Usually covered in yellow or red paraffin wax, the cheese is usually 'young' and pretty mild in taste, although aged and flavoured varieties are also available. Unlike French counterparts, Dutch cheeses can be produced outside their original location.

Edam received city rights in 1357, which enabled them to make a new harbour connecting the town with the big Dutch cities and international trading routes. Due to flooding problems, the harbour was closed and the shipping industry went into a decline in the 17th century. At the same time, the cheese market was boosting. Edam was granted the right to have weekly commercial markets, which were held in the town centre until 1922. These days, it is only on in July and August (on Wednesdays) and is a bit of a, uhm, cheesy tourist attraction but still worth a visit.

>> Not to miss: The oldest brick house in Edam (built in 1530) is currently home to the Edam Museum. Once a private house, the building represents a typical Dutch construction of its time with the original interior layout. It is particularly interesting for the floating cellar that can accommodate changes in water levels.

> Distance & travel time from Amsterdam: 23 km, 40 min by bus


Synonymous with the world-renowned Delftware, Delft is often associated with its famous blue-and-white pottery. However, this city has much more to offer: these charming canal-lined alleys and traditional architecture once served as inspiration to Delft's famous son, Johannes Vermeer. It is no surprise then that you'll recognise some of the streets from the film Girl with a Pearl Earring - it was shot right here.

Founded around 1100, Delft went from being a rural village to a city flourishing on trade and weaving in the late Middle Ages. In 1572, the leader of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule and the founder of the House of Orange-Nassau, William of Orange, moved to Delft. Since then (and despite William's assassination). the city has been linked to the Dutch Royal Family.

The Delft Thunderclap, an explosion in a gunpowder store, destroyed much of the city in October 1654. Nonetheless, it remained to be the home port of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). In the early 19th century, the port and the area where it is situated, Delftshaven, became a separate municipality (and went on to join Rotterdam). In the meantime, Delft received its own University of Technology (TU Delft) and developed into a major scientific research centre.

>> Not to miss: The houses where Vermeer lived are no longer there, but you can visit Maria van Jessekerk, a site where the painter's residence once stood. Stop at the canal across Hooikade and imagine Vermeer himself working on View of Delft - this is where he painted it. Go up the Nieuwe Kerk's 108 metre tower and drink in the views over - on a clear day, you can even see to Rotterdam! Drop in on the last of the potteries that thrived in Delft in the 17th century, De Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles. and watch potters hand-paint colourful porcelain.

> Distance & travel time from Amsterdam: 63 km, 1h by train


The Dutch coastline offers many opportunities for fans of water sports and nature enthusiasts. Unless you are in the south of the Netherlands, the North Sea is in close proximity, and a trip to the beach makes for a nice day activity almost all year round. Since there are so many coastal towns to choose from, it's best to combine it with one of the places mentioned above.

> If you are in Haarlem, the beaches of Bloemendaal and Zandvoort are easily reachable by bike.

> Katwijk, Wassenaar, and Noordwijk are just a bike ride away from Leiden.

> If you are willing to travel a bit longer, Castricum and Bergen aan Zee are great quaint seaside getaways in beautiful dune landscapes.

> Distance & travel time from Amsterdam: varies

Staying in Amsterdam over the weekend or passing through on the way elsewhere and do not know what to do with your time? Not to worry, I've got you covered - check out this post.

Have you been to any of these cities? Share in the comments below!

Happy travels x

#netherlands #guide #leiden #europe

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