As a Dutch resident, I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the beautiful Dutch countryside as well as charming towns that aren’t as well known to tourists. Although you’ve probably heard why you should visit Amsterdam, the prettiest Dutch cities to visit are often peaceful, less crowded, and more memorable. Keep reading for the 15 most atmospheric and beautiful cities/towns in the Netherlands.
I currently live in Amsterdam (click for insider tips!) and I love visiting beautiful Dutch towns on my weekends. Although Amsterdam is a lovely city, its centre is full of touristy shops and if you simply take the train, you'll discover some beautiful small Dutch towns and large cities in the Netherlands that are full of incredible architecture and history. As much as I love Amsterdam, the Netherlands is so much bigger and people joke that Amsterdam is like Dutch Disneyworld, so if you're wondering where to go in the Netherlands...any of these cities might be a good idea to experience the real Netherlands. It should be noted that some of the cities are near Amsterdam while others are quite far, so depending on your time, make time to visit somewhere else.
Best Places to Visit in Holland / Noord Holland
You might be wondering: Is holland the Netherlands? Well, Holland is part of the Netherlands. It refers to one specific part of the Netherlands on the west coast (aka Noord Holland/South Holland). This is where most of the population lives, so people generally tend to call the Netherlands Holland as a result...however, you're better off not describing the whole of the Netherlands as Holland since there are LOTS of other regions in the Netherlands worth visiting. However, the fantastic train system in the Netherlands means that the towns near Amsterdam (in Holland) are at most 1.5 hours away, which makes these cities the perfect one day trip from Amsterdam (or longer!).
Haarlem: An easy day trip from Amsterdam
Haarlem is often overlooked due to its close proximity to Amsterdam. People assume because they’ve visited Amsterdam that there's nothing of worth in Haarlem, however Haarlem is older than Amsterdam. (Similarly, you can easily find cheap accommodations in Haarlem and take the train to Amsterdam.)
Haarlem’s town center is dominated by the imposing St. Bavokerk (also known as Grote Kerk, Big Church). Built on the spot of a burned down 12th century church, it became an official cathedral in 1557. It’s beautiful inside and out, with stunning stained glass windows and an organ on which a young Mozart—among other musicians of yore—played many a tune.
Beyond the cathedral, Haarlem has some great museums such as the eccentric Teyler’s Museum and De Hallen, a tiny contemporary art museum. If relaxation is in order, check out the Jopenkerk, a hip craft beer bar and restaurant in a converted church, and be sure to follow up with the city’s best fries (and mayonnaise) at De Friethoes.
In short, Haarlem is a great day trip from Amsterdam for people who want to escape the hustle and bustle (and the tourist traps!) for a day. (Thanks to Alex, a Haarlem resident.)
Muiden: The perfect day trip from Amsterdam
This beautiful and historic Dutch town close to Amsterdam (only 40 minutes by bus) is the home of one of my favorite Dutch castles (Muiderslot). Muiden minimizes cars and you'll often see large ships passing through the town. Be sure to stop into one of the historic brown bars for a drink or a meal after visiting Muiderslot castle. You'll feel like you stepped back in time.
This atmospheric star shaped fortress city in the Netherlands is widely considered one of the best Dutch cities to explore due to its well-preserved walls/moat and beautiful houses. It is an easy train ride from Amsterdam to Naarden, however you'll find that there's plenty of things to do outside of Amsterdam if you discover this beautiful Dutch city at your own pace. Although there's so many cute towns in the area, experiencing Naarden means that you'll also get a glimpse into Dutch history as it has one of the oldest churches in the Netherlands (dating back to 1572!). Perfect for a half day trip from Amsterdam or a day trip combined with visiting Muiden.
Best cities to visit in South Holland (Includes best cities to visit in Zuid Holland, Brabant, and Limburg)
A bit further from Amsterdam, you'll find the cities of South Holland, Brabant, and Limburg. This area is about 1-3 hours from Amsterdam, but these towns/cities are rich in culture, history, and beauty.
's-Hertogenbosch / Den Bosch:
‘s-Hertogensbosch, or Den Bosch for short, is the capital city of North Brabant, famous for its hospitality, good food and people who know how to enjoy life. Den Bosch is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands with city rights dating back to 1185. One of the most remarkable sights is the Gothic St. John’s cathedral, built between 1380 and 1530. During a recent renovation on one of the flying buttresses there was added a statue of an angel holding a cell phone.
Those who love art can visit the Jheronimus Bosch Art Centre to learn about Den Bosch's most famous painter (Hieronymus Bosch). From the tower of the Centre, you will have a breathtaking view of the city. A different way to see Den Bosch is to take a boat tour on the Binnendieze through the city’s canals, including under many of the buildings. There are also markets on the main square on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Many restaurants are located at the Markt, De Parade and Vismarkt squares and on the streets: Korenbrugstraat and Korte Putstraat. The specialty of Den Bosch is the Bossche bol – a gigantic profiterole covered with dark chocolate and filled with whipped cream.
Den Bosch is a perfect destination for a one-day trip, however my advice is to stay a few days extra so that you can thoroughly enjoy the city. During Carnaval, the city changes names and turns into a giant party in the streets. (Thanks to Daniela fromIpanema Travels To...)
Bonus: Den Haag / The Hague
Den Haag is often overshadowed by Amsterdam, but it is full of fantastic museums as well as historic architecture. Although Amsterdam is the capital, the Hague is the third largest city in the Netherlands as well as where the government functions. For history geeks, it's also the home of the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Court in addition to hosting many of the main government bodies of the Netherlands. One of the ones not to miss is the beautiful Binnenhof, which was a castle originally built in the 13th century to house counts. It is now used for meetings of the cabinets. (The Hague is about 1 hour from Amsterdam.)
Den Haag is also full of hofjes (historic courtyards that used to be almshouses), fantastic museums, and a lively Chinatown. For math and art geeks, you can visit the Escher Museum, which is housed in a former palace. The building is beautiful, but the art is even more fascinating. Even more famous is the Mauritshuis, which houses Girl with the Pearl Earring and the Goldfinch. If you're an art geek with a love for the Dutch Golden age, this beautiful museum in a palatial setting is a must-see during your trip. If you're in Den Haag, don't miss the Netherlands' most famous boardwalk along the beach: Scheveningen. The pier is a day in itself with tons of activities for couples and families alike!
Heusden is a small fortified town on the River Maas. A bird view of the town is pretty amazing, as it looks like a star from the air. Heusden is the perfect destination for slow travel in the Netherlands as you can walk along the old city walls, get lost in the narrow streets, or sit at café Havenzicht to watch the yachts passing by.
The town was built in the early 13th century to replace a castle destroyed by the Duke of Brabant. The stronghold played a significant role in the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) against Spanish dominance. In the 70’s the town has been completely restored based on a map from 1649. There are many places to eat in Heusden, but you should try the Dutch pancakes at De Pannekoekenbakker.
When walking around in Heusden, there are many art galleries, including the shop of famous Dutch footwear designer Jan Jansen. (Thanks to Daniela from Ipanema Travels To...)
Baarle-Nassau is one of those bizarre oddities you need to see to believe. Its misshapen borders are tightly entwined with the Flemish enclave of Baarle-Haartog, thanks to a handful of fickle treaties in medieval days of yore. The task of figuring out which country a building resides in is so confusing that the town had to create a rule: country of residence is determined by which country the front door opens into. Since taxes in Belgium are lower, that led to a rush to renovate houses to have doors opening to the Belgian side!
The queer little town(s) merits a day trip at the very least. A scenic cycle, drive, or bus ride from nearby Tilburg will bring you to its wacky borders, marked on the ground with small crosses. You can pick up a pannenkoek (pancake) at De Pannenkoekenbakker on the Dutch side, then hop over to Belgium to sample a Flemish brew or three at De Lantaern. No passport necessary! (Thanks to Alex, Lost with Purpose.)
Gouda is known for its world famous cheese, but the city has so much more. It is only 55 minutes by train and compact, so you can easily make it one of your day trips from Amsterdam and it is a must see for the Netherlands if you're a cheese lover. More tips by Maartje for Gouda here.
Rotterdam is one of the largest cities in the Netherlands with a population only second in size to Amsterdam. If you're looking for another city to visit, Rotterdam is where to go in the Netherlands besides Amsterdam due to its dramatically different cityscape. Most of Rotterdam was destroyed in World War II, so they’ve had to rebuild everything. For modern architectural buffs, Rotterdam is a great place to explore for its architecture, including the famous Blaak cube houses and the Rotterdam Market Hall. You can go up the Euroscope and take in the panoramic view of Rotterdam.
There are a number of good restaurants in Rotterdam, including Guliano (Italian) and Takumi (Japanese ramen). Rotterdam has the largest Asian population in the whole Netherlands, so Chinatown is where to go for Asian food. Rotterdam is a great city for nightlife. The Witte de Withstraat street is Rotterdam’s bar street. I personally loved Wunderbar, which is a bar that is below ground but allows you to order through a window on the street level. (Thanks to Tendelle.)
Maastricht is one of the Netherlands most charming cities and it can be easily explored in a weekend. The city is perfect for a slow, romantic weekend spent exploring a beautiful cathedral bookstore, strolling the tangled streets, touring historic caves, and eating/drinking delicious regional cuisine at affordable prices. It’s a scenic 2.5 hour train ride each way south to Maastricht from Amsterdam and it costs about 25 euros per way. Its proximity makes it easy to hop over to Aachen, Germany for only 5 euros. Recommended for a weekend trip from Amsterdam or a 1-2 day stopover between the Netherlands and Germany if you're eurorailing!Read more about Maastricht here.
Delft is a quaint medieval town close to Rotterdam. about 1 hour from Amsterdam It’s well-known for being home to the Delft University of Technology, so it’s a vibrant and international university town. The “Delft blue pottery” is a famous from here, and many collectors flock to Delft to buy this special pottery. Don't miss the Nieuwe Kerk's impressive view over the city (and sizeable climb).
The city center of Delft is very beautiful. One of the hidden gems is that below street level and at the canal-level, there are tucked away benches for people to sit on. These benches are hidden from plain sight, perfect for a romantic date spot. It’s also worth it to take a twirl at the Delft University. The architecture of the library is very impressive and you can also walk up the small hill by the library to chill outside on a nice day and take in Delft’s cityscape. (Thanks to Tendelle for this write-up)
Central cities to visit in the Netherlands
Utrecht is the 4th largest city in the Netherlands and it's the major Dutch city south of Amsterdam (only 40 minutes!). Utrecht is also a very old city that dates back to 1122 and it is the kind of city that you can get (happily) lost in. I highly recommend exploring the beautiful and compact city center on foot, there are beautiful old houses, pretty canals and lots of cozy cafes (some with cellars opening up to the canals). Its canals are two stories, unlike Amsterdam's canals.
One must-visit is the Dom Tower, the tallest church tower in the Netherlands (112 meter high). Other interesting places to visit are the Railway Museum and Neude. For kids, there's the Miffy museum. If you're planning a trip around the Netherlands and you're looking for a good base in the Netherlands, Utrecht is perfect as it is exactly in the center of the Netherlands and it has reasonable accommodations. (Thanks to Lotte, a Utrecht resident) You'll hear Dutchies raving that it is one of the best Dutch cities to visit and I'm apt to agree that it is one of the top places to visit in the Netherlands outside of Amsterdam.
Northern & Eastern Cities (from Amsterdam) to visit in the Netherlands
Just an hour by train from Amsterdam is a charming little city called Zwolle. In the centre, you will find beautiful Medieval buildings that make you feel like a princess! The streets are intimate but also have a broad range of shops and restaurants to explore. One of the most unique sites you will come upon in Zwolle is Waanders The Broeren, a beautiful bookstore situated in a 15th century church. Designer BK Architecten elegantly designed the store without altering any of the church’s original structure. The best part is that you can enjoy the beautiful ambiance of the church over delicious food and drinks in the brasserie, nestled in the heart of the cathedral. It's about 1.5 hours to Zwolle from Amsterdam. (Thanks to Melissa)
Ommen is a historical city located on the banks of the Vecht River. Though it’s home to less than 9,000 residents, Ommen has been called a city since 1248, when it was granted stadsrechten (city rights) in order to protect itself from pillaging. Today, Ommen is the ideal balance between a fun tourist spot and a serene country escape. Due to its small size and “remote” location (for the Netherlands, anyway), it remains a bit of a secret in the larger international community.
Notable spots around Ommen include the Reformed Church, the city’s oldest building (originally constructed in the 12th century), and three old-fashioned windmills – two of which are still in regular operation. After wandering through the charming city square and narrow side streets, you can relax by the river, linger at a waterside café, or cycle through the picturesque Dutch countryside. The area is probably best known for the Bissingh – a festival that takes place every July, made up of markets, live music, and other events. The Bissingh now spans several weeks. (Thanks to Emily for this contribution).
You may have seen photos of Giethoorn although few people know it by name (or can pronounce it correctly). It really is one of the prettiest dutch cities that I've seen. The small village of Giethoorn is in Overjissel and it is a bus ride away from Zwolle. This little town has no streets; only bridges, canals, and bike lanes. You can rent a boat for 15 euros (per hour) to enjoy its picturesque canals although you should bring your own drinks/food as food in the town commands tourist prices (although it is possible to stop off for some frites!). Tip: Go late in the afternoon to avoid large groups and stay overnight to enjoy the quiet small town feel. I consider boating around Giethoorn one of my favorite experiences in any one of the Dutch cities to visit in the Netherlands.
Schiermonnikoog is part of a Dutch group of islands called the Waddeneilanden (Wadden islands). The island is also the Netherlands' first National Park, and the perfect getaway for nature lovers and bike enthusiasts. What makes this, and other islands like it, so special, is that it's virtually car free. Permanent residents of the island, of which there are only about 900, need a special permit to keep a car. Due to the small size and flat landscape, very few choose to do so, making Schiermonnikoog a car-free cycling paradise.
Nature lovers have plenty to look forward to on the island. Schiermonnikoog hosts the widest beach in Europe, has plenty of hiking trails, offers great bird watching opportunities, and is great for spotting sunbathing seal families. It's the perfect place to see the surprising variety of Dutch nature up close. If you tire of hedonism and history, head north to Schiermonnikoog to recharge your batteries, and immerse yourself in one of the most beautiful parts of the Netherlands. (Thanks to Alex, Lost with Purpose.) [If this appealed to you, you also might love the idea of Texel, which is about 2 hours north of Amsterdam.]
Bonus entry: Groningen
This lively student city in the north of the Netherlands is full of charm and friendly folks. It's also home of the world's tallest climbing wall, the Excalibur. (I can proudly say that I've climbed it!) We got happily lost in the beautiful historic centre with many cute shops, art galleries, and brown bars serving up delicious local beers. We enjoyed the incredible architecture of the University of Groningen, which was established in 1614. The campus is absolutely stunning and worth visiting. The Grote Markt has many food stands, including some amazing Venezuelan food (the best I've had!)
Bonus entry: Leeuwarden
The capital of Friesland, Leeuwarden, was named the 2018 European Capital of Culture and you can discover its rich history while walking around the city center. Fryslân (Friesland) as a region has a unique culture and language (Frisian). The unfinished church is one of Leeuwarden's most famous landmarks although you'll also find beautiful parks. Leeuwarden is one of Fryslân's eleven historic cities with beautiful architecture and a rich history. (To read more about Friesland or Leeuwarden, click here!)
Have you been to the Netherlands? What was your favorite city besides Amsterdam?
If you have a favorite that is not included yet, please comment below!
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Karen and Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Now in Paris!
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