Our weekend trip to Friesland was magical as it included releasing seals back into the wild (technically starting in Groningen, but we sailed into Frisian water), taking a boat tour to the UNESCO world heritage site of the Wadden Sea, enjoying the sandbanks/views of the Frisian islands, and exploring the traditional polder landscape of Friesland as well as the cute cities of Friesland.  For those seeking an ethical animal experience to add to their travel bucket list, releasing wild seals back in the wild is a must.  If you’re looking for the best activities to do in the Netherlands, I definitely rank this responsible tourism do as one of my favorite memories.
(Thank you to my friends and colleagues who took the time to give me advice on what to do in Friesland and making this post-wedding weekend so perfect.)

Things to do in Friesland on a weekend trip & ethical animal tourism to release rehabilitated seals back into the Wadden sea with Zeehondencentrum Pieterburen.

What you’ll find in this article

1. Information about the seal release (zeehonden vrijlaten): a unique ethical tourism experience where you can release rehabilitated seals back into the Wadden Sea and watch them swim away.
2. Travel tips for Friesland (Fryslân), one of the most unique Dutch provinces. Perfect for a weekend trip from Amsterdam for those ready to dive into culture, nature, and architecture. There’s so many things to do in Friesland, so stay tuned for more tips from my weekend away in Friesland (weekendje weg naar Friesland)
Note: This post uses affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more information.

Seal Release in the Netherlands: Tour Information

If you want to skip the reading, hit play to see a heartwarming video of our journey releasing the seals into the Wadden Sea (Waddenzee)!

Ecotourism in the Netherlands does exist. This amazing sustainable travel experience is offered through one of the leading seal sanctuaries, the Zeehondencentrum Pieterburen. This seal sanctuary for rehabilitating injured, abandoned, and sick seals is located about 2.5 hours by car from Amsterdam. All proceeds of this non-profit seal sanctuary in the Netherlands go directly back to helping rescue more seals. I’m not a big zoo person, but I loved the idea of supporting this seal rescue center that functions as a hospital, nursery, and nursing home for seals at all different stages as they’re found around the Netherlands.

Although the Pieterburen seal sanctuary offers regular tours from Lauwersoog showing you the wild seals on the sandbanks, this is a special tour (Zeehonden Vrijlaten) that is not offered regularly that you must book ahead costs 40 euros per person.   The website for the Pieterburen seal sanctuary is only in Dutch and German although you can use foreign credit cards (I used a Visa). That said, they post fairly last minute about these tours (1-4 weeks ahead), but if you’re willing to sponsor a seal (500 euros), you will be allowed to do a private release at a time of your choosing when the seal is ready.. It is a truly memorable experience for those seeking ethical interactions with animals.

Note: getting a ticket is not easy as I (a resident of the Netherlands) spent months checking the website weekly for upcoming seal releases. I do not recommend this as a day trip from Amsterdam as it’s a lengthy drive.  Lauwersoog is not the easiest place to get to from Amsterdam (or Rotterdam) and we ended up giving a ride to two strangers who were stranded unable to get back home. I highly recommend renting a car if you want to do this.

Rehabilitated seals by Wadden Sea. (Zeehonden naast de Waddenzee). Ethical animal experiences in the Netherlands for ecotourists visiting holland.

More about our tour of the Wadden Sea and its unique ecosystem.
(Keep scrolling for travel tips about Friesland!)

Happy Seal boat in the Wadden Sea for ecotourism in holland. This tour from Lauwersoog lets you release seals back into the sea with Pieterburen seal center

The first thing that we decided to do on our honeymoon weekend was to release wild seals back into the wild. …I know, but I am deeply passionate about seals, sustainable tourism, and ethical tourism. After an employee at another seal sanctuary in the Netherlands mentioned this unusual seal tour to me, I started checking the website monthly. I’ve been largely unsuccessful as this part of Groningen is NOT close to Amsterdam.

When I checked the calendar for the Zeehondencentrum Pieterburen for the summer, I saw that they were having a seal release the weekend after our wedding. I decided that I’d surprise my husband (who loves seals). It was very last minute, but we managed to find a reasonable hotel in Leeuwarden (the capital city of Friesland) and a rental car.

Seal on sandbank of Wadden Sea. (Zeehond op zandbank van de Waddenzee). Seal Tour with Zeehondencentrum Pieterburen to spot seals in Wadden Sea.

This whole experience made me cry after I saw the seals (finally) swimming away.  Two of the seals took off almost immediately together and played together in the water in the distance, however the remaining seal was a little confused and kept hopping back onto the shore. At one point, he put his nose into the sea foam before rolling around, which was an adorable moment. Later on, we saw the same seal swimming along our boat as it pulled away from the sandbank. I cannot imagine how strange it must be to be transported and placed back home  after weeks/months spent elsewhere.

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The Wadden Sea is a UNESCO protected site as it has the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats.  It is home to many species, including seals, who live in colonies on its many sandbars. Interestingly enough, seals are the primary predators in this unique ecosystem. They are most often injured due to boating/fishing accidents, however when a mother seal is killed, baby pups are often left helpless as they cannot feed themselves. The Pieterburen seal sanctuary as well as other seal sanctuaries often need to teach young seal pups how to hunt to enable them to be released back into the wild. Without a doubt, the Wadden Sea is one of the best areas of the netherlands to visit for nature lovers.

Consider bringing with you:

  • A good waterproof jacket as the Dutch weather is unpredictable and it is colder at sea. (I got soaked as I chose to sit next to the seals in the pouring rain. ​Worth it.)
  • Waterproof boots. If not, you’ll need to take your socks/shoes off to wade into the water.

Boxes used for transporting rehabilitated seals for responsible tourism in the Netherlands. One of the best things to do in Groningen.

Empty crates used for transporting seals

Seals swimming in Wadden Sea. One of the best things to do in Groningen. Zeehonden zwemmen in de Waddenzee. Beste dingen te doen in Groningen.

Friesland Travel Tips / Things to Do in Fryslân

​If you choose to make a weekend out of visiting Lauwersoog to do this, which I recommend, here’s some travel tips for Friesland. This province of the Netherlands has its own unique language (Frisian which is one of the closest languages to English!) and culture. Admittedly, there’s a lot to do if you’re planning to take a weekend away in Friesland, so I’ll be going through some attractions of Friesland. This lesser known area (among foreign tourists) is only about 2 hours from Amsterdam, however I think it makes a nice weekend trip from Amsterdam, especially for those trying to experience more of the Netherlands. In Friesland, you’re able to experience the coziness of cute towns, the scenic countryside, the beauty of the sea, and the peacefulness of the islands. With a car, you can see a lot.

Photo of Afsluitdijk, the sea barrier in the Netherlands. A must of road tripping in the Netherlands!

Are the Dutch the masters of the sea? Judge for yourself when you drive over the Afsluitdijk, otherwise known as the sea barrier. You might see a highway linking together Noord Holland and Friesland on a map. However, this is not a normal highway. In the 1930s, the Netherlands CLOSED off the entire sea from their country following a deadly flood. As you might imagine, closing off an entire sea from your country is a major engineering achievement and the Dutch celebrate this landmark. As a result of this large dijk, the part of the Wadden sea that was separated by the Afsluitdijk has turned into freshwater and the water level in the canals of major cities, including Amsterdam, remains fairly constant throughout the year. If you’re driving along this epic road, be sure to stop off in the middle to admire all the photos of how this epic road was built and for a snack. (30 minutes not including the drive).

Photo of Afsluitdijk, the sea barrier in the Netherlands. This dijk was built to close off the Netherlands from the sea.

Things to Do in Friesland: Stop off in Friesland’s Eleven Historic Villages

There’s 11 famous cities of Friesland, but we choose Franeker to stop off in. This cute historic city is home to its Planetarium dating back to the 1700s along with a lot of cute cafes/shops.

Photo of the City Hall of Franker, one of the eleven cities of Friesland. One of the best things to do in Friesland.

City Hall of Franeker

Photo of Franeker city. Best things to do in Fryslân.

There are 9 other famous Frisian towns (not including Leeuwarden).  I did not get to all of them, but I encourage anyone visiting to try to visit them all.
All Eleven Frisian Historic Cities: Leeuwarden, Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker and Dokkum.
Photo of Sneek, Friesland
Harlingen, Leeuwarden, Franeker, and Sneek were most recommended to me. Harlingen is an old historic fishing village while Sneek is famous for its elaborate gate.

What to do in Leeuwarden (Friesland’s capital) and where to stay in Leeuwarden

Oldenhove Tower

Friesland’s historic capital has a lot of history to be discovered while walking around the historic centre along with some nice shopping and food. Leeuwarden has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2018 and its charming streets (where you’ll hear Frisian spoken) will charm visitors. Be sure to find the old leaning church tower (De Oldehove). This unfinished church in the middle of Leeuwarden is a landmark with a bit of bad luck. Attempts to build a church tower taller than the one in Groningen failed, which resulted in the demolition of the church (besides the crooked tower). Be sure to admire Leeuwarden’s beautiful parks, including Prinsentuin. The Prinsentuin was originally part of the city halls prior to being converted to a private garden for the royal family.

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There’s plenty of restaurants to choose from and Leeuwarden is a nice city to sit outside in while enjoying a good meal/drink. There’s quite a few decent places to drink although if you’re into craft beer and befriending strangers at bars, be sure to introduce yourself to the owner at De Markies.

Where to Stay in Leeuwarden

You can stay in the old royal palace in the centre of the city, which is now a 4* hotel called Hotel Fletcher Stadhouderlijk Hof.  We stayed at The Stenden Hotel, which is a hotel within a Dutch hotel school. It’s service is on par with a 4* hotel, however its prices are around that of a 2* hotel. The food at the restaurant inside the hotel is supposed to be phenomenal although I was charmed by the three chocolate bars that you receive upon check-in.

Explore the scenic Frisian countryside and maybe even ride a Friesian horse

The countryside in Friesland is so pretty to drive through. Get off the main roads and enjoy the views of the polder landscape. Keep an eye out for the namesake Friesian horses. Not many places advertise rides, but if you research ahead (especially in summer), it’s possible to find somewhere where you can rent a horse for a few hours.

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Super Dutch things for your Dutch Bucket List: Wadlopen, Sneekweek, and Speed Skating (Elfstedentocht)

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Friesland is very famous for speed skating in the Netherlands and it is the home of many Olympic champions . If you’re visiting in winter and it’s been a cold winter, it might be worth checking the weather to see if you can go ice skating. If you’re LUCKY, you will be able to catch the Elfstedentocht, which is a 200km long speed skating race across Friesland. It’s fairly rare (once every 10-15 years) as the ice needs to be a certain width, however if you’re lucky enough to be in the Netherlands 48 hours before they announce that the race is happening, race up to Friesland!

​Similarly, wadlopen is the act of walking through the mud. You can go from the shores of the Wadden Sea onto one of the Dutch islands off the coast just by walking during low tide. It is supposed to be very laborious/tiring, but if you go with a tour, your guide will ensure that the tide is the right level. The mud can go quite high up, so be prepared to be dirty by the end of this laborious walk. (I admit: I have not gone wadlopen. I almost went mud walking, however the tour that I booked started at 5am in a small town near Groningen, so I ended up sleeping in after realizing that I’d need to leave Amsterdam around 1am AND take a taxi to arrive in time.)

Lastly, don’t miss Sneekweek. This week during the end of August (check ahead for Sneekweek 2017) is the largest sailing event within the European inner waters. During Sneekweek, traditional sail boats are sailed in between the historic cities of Friesland in a week long sailing contest. It was started in the 1930s, however now it’s a MAJOR event and if you’re into a chill day watching boats sail by while sipping on some beer, this is for you. At night, there’s typically more events, including music, however it’s just a nice excuse to visit Friesland in summer if you haven’t been yet.

Visit one of the Frisian islands off the coast!

You need to take a ferry to the Frisian islands, however you’ll be rewarded with delightful views of the Wadden sea …and maybe wild seals, dunes (there are no mountains in the Netherlands…but we manage), nice bike riding routes (some islands ban cars), cute little villages, and cozy vacation houses.  Terschelling is a popular Dutch summer trip, so book ahead if you’re thinking of trying to find vacation housing. For more information about Schiermonnikoog, click here for insider advice by Dutchies on what to do there.

Is releasing the seals on your bucket list? Have you heard of Friesland?

 

If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy these other articles:
A weekend away on Texel (including visit to the Ecomare)
Tips for Amsterdam
15 beautiful Dutch cities that aren’t Amsterdam (written by Dutch residents)

Add this ethical animal attraction to your bucket list: Release wild seals back into the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands with the Pieterburen Seal Sanctuary.

Discover what to do in Friesland for a weekend trip from Amsterdam, including exploring the 11 historic cities of Fryslân and unique Frisian culture!

Explore things to do in Friesland for a weekend trip from Amsterdam, including exploring the 11 historic cities of Fryslân and riding Friesian horses.