Amsterdam — with its museums, gabled Golden Age houses and network of historic canals — is a sure bet for a weekend break. But it’s not all the Netherlands has to offer. Beyond the capital, there are a whole host of lesser-visited cities worth a trip – and they’re likely to be easier on the pocket. From Groningen to Gouda, here are seven Dutch cities that should be on your list.
1. For a culture hit: Leeuwarden
Friesland’s administrative hub will become a European Capital of Culture in 2018 – and, with its colourful street art and fascinating museums, it’s easy to see why.
The Fries Museum dominates the Wilhelminaplein, the bustling public square that hosts markets each Friday. With its name translating to “Frisian Museum” in English, it displays artworks, conveys the story of the province and has a section dedicated to the resistance movement of World War II.
Leeuwarden was also the birthplace of dancer Margaretha Zelle, who became known as Mata Hari and was executed as a spy in 1917. A bronze statue of her dancing stands proud in the city centre.
For views over the surrounding rooftops, climb the stairs leading to the top of the Oldehove. The construction of this leaning tower was abandoned due to subsidence back in 1533.
2. For stunning architecture: Utrecht
If you appreciate modern architecture then plan a visit to the Rietveld-Schröder House, whose façade and functional interiors were influenced by the De Stijl art and design movement.
The terraces alongside the city centre’s waterways are also picturesque and host seating belonging to restaurants and bars whose vaulted cellars provide shelter on wet and chilly days. For a sit down and a broad selection of brews, the Belgian Beer Café Olivier is a good option.
To view the Utrecht and its 112m Dom Tower from the water, hire a boat on the Oudegracht canal.
3. For great beer and rich history: Breda
Breda’s best-known landmark is the Grote Kerk, an impressive Gothic church whose 97m-tall spire dominates the skyline. Its Prince’s Chapel holds tombs of ancestors of the Dutch royal family.
The city was also a key location during the Eighty Years’ War, which led to Dutch independence from Spanish rule. A copy of Diego Velásquez’s masterpiece, The Surrender of Breda, depicting the city’s capture by Spanish troops in 1625, hangs in the town hall’s lobby — the original is in Madrid’s Museo del Prado.
After the day’s history lesson is done, sample weekend nightlife in cafés such as De Beyerd (whose menu lists well over 100 different beers) and ‘t Hart van Breda, on the cobbled marketplace, the Grote Markt.
Rough Guides/Tim Draper
4. For your weight in cheese: Gouda
The name of this quaint Dutch city is recognised thanks to the tasty produce of nearby dairy farms. Gouda hosts a weekly cheese market each Thursday morning from April to August, so you can sample this local delight.
Enthusiasts even don traditional costumes to demonstrate how cheeses were sold, prior to internet trading, on the cobbles between the Gothic city hall and the weigh house. You can check the weight of your goods on the wooden scale, where cheeses have been weighed since 1668.
Locals are also proud of the stained glass windows within St John’s Church, which is the longest in the country (123m).
5. For a student vibe: Groningen
Located in the northeast of the Netherlands, Groningen is just over 2 hours’ journey time from Amsterdam by express train.
Its significant student population mean there are pubs aplenty. One drink in each of the interconnected bars of the centrally located De Drie Gezusters, one of the continent’s largest pubs, would be beyond the capacity of most revellers.
There’s culture to be soaked up too. The Martini Tower, across the market square, stands 97m tall. The Gothic landmark offers panoramic views over the city and is a counterpoint to the contemporary façade of the Groninger Museum, featuring pavilions designed by Alessandro Mendini and Philippe Starck.
6. For a great night out: ‘s-Hertogenbosch
Affectionately called Den Bosch, this city is known for its vibrant nightlife. Its bars — including ‘t Paultje, which stocks more than 300 different beers — have a reputation for being particularly cosy and welcoming (or gezelligheid in Dutch).
If you have a sweet tooth try a chocolate-topped Bossche bol, essentially an outsized profiterole, at their place of origin, the Banketbakkerij Jan de Groot. Numerous cafés serve them around the city, including that of the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, a former church celebrating the life and work of the medieval artist Heironymus Bosch.
His story, plus that of Vincent van Gogh, is told in the Noordbrabants Museum — the only location in the province of Van Gogh’s birth permanently displaying original works by the influential Post-Impressionist.
7. For outdoor adventure: Apeldoorn
Apeldoorn, in Gederland, is a fantastic base for exploring the dunes, heaths and woodland of rugged De Hoge Veluwe National Park. Free-to-use bicycles are available from stations around the park, which also houses the Kröller-Müller Museum, home to the world’s second-largest collection of works by Vincent van Gogh (after Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum).
If you want to pair your outdoor adventures with a history lesson, the city is also home to the Paleis Het Loo, a former royal palace that’s now a museum. Set in formal Baroque gardens and expansive parkland, the furnished house also displays the Dutch royal family’s coaches.
Stuart Forster @stuartforster