TravelMag.com asked more than 100 writers, photographers and selected travel professionals with a keen knowledge of Holland to name the three Dutch towns that they consider to be the most charming. Here are the 10 towns – presented in alphabetical order – that garnered the most votes.
With its distinctive flat landscape of canals, tulip fields and windmills, Holland is rightfully considered one of northern Europe’s most picturesque countries. For postcard makers, its more rural areas in particular are manna from heaven, with scenic landscapes every which way you turn.
Of course, many travellers to Holland get no further than Amsterdam, with its alluring mix of pretty canals, busting public squares and the hedonism of a world class party town. Yet across Holland there are a vast number of lesser known towns and small cities that are also worthy of visiting, each with their own unique character and appeal.
In our quest to find the ten best, TravelMag.com surveyed a number of people who have had plenty of experience of Holland, often far beyond its tourist hotspots. All towns and small cities with populations below 250,000 – excluding only Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht – were considered. Below you’ll find the 10 towns and small cities in the Netherlands to reap the most votes, from A to Z.
Broek in Waterland
Whether you’ve a penchant for man-made or natural attractions, Broek-In-Waterland never fails to delight all who come here. For the latter predilection, there’s gorgeous grass plains intersected by rivers, canals and dikes, while the picture-perfect 17th-century wooden houses painted in quaint pastel colours that surround the village church will satisfy those who enjoy traditional architecture. During winter, the town’s large lake freezes over and becomes an impromptu ice-skating rink for intrepid types. One quirky fact about Broek-In-Waterland is that it’s renowned for being kept impeccably clean – a badge of honour for its community-minded residents – so much so that people are often seen walking barefooted along its streets.
With its beautiful intersecting canals, peaceful walkways and Renaissance-style town hall, Delft is a worthy introduction to our list. Situated in the south of Holland, the picturesque town has a rich artistic heritage as well as strong regal links, with almost every member of the Dutch royal family since William of Orange having been buried in the grounds of the “Nieuwe Kerk “ (New Church). Other notable attractions here include the “Oude Kerk” (Old Church), a medieval church boasting a 75-metre church tower leaning at a slight angle, and the Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenof, home to an impressive collection of Dutch decorative arts. For souvenirs, Delft pottery (or “Delftware”), a distinctive blue and white style of pottery that originated in the town, can be purchased in a showroom located in the town centre that also runs regular workshops and guided tours.
There’s no secret to Groningen’s perpetually buzzing atmosphere – that’s what happens when you’re home to some 50,000 university students. For visitors it means there’s watering holes aplenty, including the improbably large De Drie Gezusters, said to be one of Europe’s biggest pubs. But there’s plenty more to Groningen’s appeal, with a number of cultural attractions dotted throughout the city, not to mention enchanting architecture such as the Gothic -style Martini Tower, situated on market square and offering panoramic views of the city from its 97-metre summit. Also helping make this one of the best small cities to visit in the Netherlands is the impressive Groningen Museum, featuring modern and contemporary art of local, national and international artists.
Also known as “Den Bosch” this historic town just an hour’s train ride from Amsterdam is home to a vast number of well-preserved landmarks and monuments, including some dating back to medieval times. Among the most important is The Moriaan, built in the 13th century and thought to be the oldest brick building in Holland. Sitting cheek by jowl with these legacies of the past is a pulsating nightlife scene. Beer connoisseurs may want to check out ‘t Paultje, which stocks more than 300 different beers, while those with a sweet tooth would be remiss to depart without sampling the city’s signature “Bossche bol” pastry, essentially an oversized profiterole. For culture, the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center is a former church celebrating the life and work of the medieval artist Heironymus Bosch, while Noordbrabants Museum tells the story of legendary Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.
Combining the vibrancy of an urbanised city with the the charm of a quaint riverside town, Leiden pulls off the rare trick of being all things to all people. The birthplace of the iconic Dutch painter Rembrandt, it is also a historical and cultural gem, with its role in scientific breakthroughs down the years earning it the moniker of the City of Discoveries. Founded in 1575, Leiden University is the oldest in Holland and the imposing university buildings are worth a visit in their own right. Natural attractions also abound here, with two branches of the Old Rhine river entering the city and converging in the centre, with several small canals branching off and winding throughout. There’s also an bundance of scenic green spaces, including the Hortus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world.
To many Europeans with an eye for history, Maastricht is probably best known for the signing of the epochal Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which gave rise to a fully integrated European Union. But its attraction stretches far beyond this historical quirk. One of the oldest towns in Holland and continually inhabited since the Roman Empire, it is scattered with eye-catching medieval architecture while its beautiful cobbled old town features a collection of religious art, gothic-style churches, pretty squares and cobblestone lanes. A university-town spirit is also noticeable here and there’s a buzzing café culture along with some excellent restaurants. Once a year the city also stages a popular carnival which attracts revellers from far and wide.
One of Europe’s best preserved fortified towns, Naarden offers a glimpse back to an era of gunpowder and cannons, when it played an important role during the Eighty Years’ War for Dutch independence. Some 500 years later, the town is far removed from those militaristic days and is today best known for its unusual and exquisitely picturesque layout, clustered in a vast circle and surrounded by gigantic green tips that extend into a moat. This design, technically known as a ‘star fortress’, was originally intended to protect Naarden from outside attack, but its legacy is one of Holland’s most unusual and visually striking towns, particularly if viewed from above. For visitors, places of interest include a 14th century basilica, an old town hall and Netherlands Fortress Museum.
Located in the west of the country and surrounded by green meadows, this delightful town is a popular base for hikers and bike riders keen to explore some of Holland’s finest countryside. Way back in the 16th century, the town was famous for holding witch trials, with people flocking here to be certified that they weren’t witches. Today the practice is still celebrated at “Heksenwaag” (Witches Weighhouse) where visitors can step on witches’ scales before (hopefully) receiving the all clear. The town’s history is also evident in the more than 100 registered monuments mostly found in the town centre, market square and surrounding streets.
Dotted with fairytale-like cobbled streets, historic architecture, remnants of the city walls and a Gothic church boasting medieval wood carvings, much of Valkenburg appears as if it hasn’t much changed in centuries. The town is also renowned for what lies beneath: a labyrinth of meandering tunnels and dark caves that date back to Roman times, some of which can be explored while accompanied by a certified guide. One of the town’s subterranean wonders is also the scene of perhaps Europe’s most unique Christmas Markets, when each year it is transformed into a glistening winter wonderland, complete with Santa and his trusty reindeer themselves.
Medieval squares and an array of welcomes visitors to while away their time in Zutphen, a town where it is tempting to do very little other than amble and soak up your surroundings. Gently resting alongside the river UJssel, considered by many to be the most beautiful river in Holland, the tranquil town close to the German border is charm personified, its pretty winding streets lined with quirky shops, speciality stores, cosy bars and welcoming restaurants. Meanwhile visitors who prefer more active pursuits can take the opportunity to hop on a bike and explore the rivers, forests, old farms, castles and windmills that are within easy reach.