The Netherlands is not all tulips and windmills.
Let this guide allow you to experience The Netherlands as you’ve never thought possible, and meet one of my favorite European cultures.
1. Get. A. Bike.
Biking is the single most important way of transportation in the country. The prime minister even bikes to work. Find a bike rental store and rent one. If you’re there for more than a few weeks, buy a cheap one and then sell it back. Here are a few things that are different about Dutch bikes that you need to know:
- The back lock clicks through the back wheel, locking the wheel in place. In other parts of the world, this wouldn’t stop a thief from stealing your bike, but in Holland, where bikes are heavy, this lock makes dragging your bike away a noisy and obvious crime. Use it for quick trips inside shops.
- Peddle backwards to break. Most bikes use the back peddle system, which can cause some tourists to panic. Don’t try to stop too quickly, or you’ll be vaulted off.
- The Dutch are better bike riders than you and you should stay on the right side of the road. I have seen Dutch people texting while biking with a friend hanging off the back giving out red bull; don’t even try to out bike them because it’s not worth it.
2. Shoulda, coulda, woulda…Gouda.
The cheese you know and love was actually named after – surprise – the city where it was invented. Gouda is a cute, safe and non-touristy city that has numerous ways to taste the fine cheese that has now come to define it. My personal favorite type is pesto Gouda, but really the sky is the limit. A word to the wise: pronounce Gouda with a Dutch “g,” like you’re coughing something up, otherwise no one will know what you are talking about.
3. Amsterdam has amazing Indonesian food.
The legacy of the Dutch East India Company exists in more than just history books: Amsterdam’s gastronomy is the result of blending of a variety of Indonesian and Surinamese cuisine and culture. Pop into any Indonesian restaurant and order rijsttafel with your friends. Get ready for 16 courses of different rice, vegetables and meat, sizzling hot served family style. Make sure you come in a big group, because left overs are not an option.
4. Utrecht: the best kept secret of the Netherlands.
I’ll admit I’m partial because I used to live there, but just 30 minutes outside Amsterdam is the city of Utrecht, the second largest city in Holland that is steeped in history, culture, and some of the most picturesque canals in the country. Settled in Roman times, Utrecht is home to the Dom Tower – the highest European structure until the Eiffel Tower – which looks over the city. Take a long walk up to the top and get a breathtaking view of the Dutch countryside. They also just recently opened a museum that looks at excavations under the tower, which indulges the inner Indiana Jones in all of us.
4. The Original Haarlem.
Harlem, New York gets it namesake from this Dutch town, as a reminder of when NYC used to be New Amsterdam. Haarlem is home to some amazing museums; Teylers Museum was my favorite, with it’s amazing array of inventions and machines. Think Smithsonian, but more Dutch. After seeing the sights, sit by the canal outside the Tyler’s, have some French fries, and admire the water.
5. The Dutch Beach.
The true test of whether you’re Dutch is if you can pronounce the name of this popular beach: Scheveningen. The North Sea isn’t for everyone (it’s never warm), but on one of the rare hot Dutch summer days, it’s worth a drive. Pack a picnic basket with lots of beer and settle into the soft dunes. Bonus: summer nights are long in Holland, and a late evening barbecue is not out of the question.
Delft is the city made famous by its ceramics: white with blue designs on the outside. I’m sure you’ve seen them somewhere in your grandmothers kitchen. Take a day trip to the city to see the pottery being made (always cool) and to pick up a legitimately awesome souvenir for a family member. There are also some nice windmills around if you want to have a look at those.
8. The Festival of Leiden
The city of Leiden was given a university as a present from Willem of Orange for withstanding the siege; every year, they have a massive city-wide festival (usually on October 3rd) and party to celebrate. It’s also Armin van Burin’s hometown, so there’s a pretty good shot that he might show up just for fun (which he has done in the past) and play a free set.
If you haven’t been, you should. Go to the south of the country – Maastricht – and put on a weird costume for this celebration that puts Halloween to shame. One note on costumes: unlike America, where costumes are equivalent with dressing like a playboy bunny, Dutch costumes are decided more conservative and goofy. Put away the push-up bra because Carnaval is not the time or place.
10. The arrival of Sinterklaas.
The Dutch Christmas tradition in early December involves a Santa Claus that arrives by boat with his 6-8 black helpers. (For a good laugh and introduction to the tradition, I recommend listening to David Sedaris’ piece on it). Agree with it or not, it’s a Dutch tradition that’s definitely worth seeing. Almost every city does their own festival, but I’ve heard Amsterdam does it very well.