Located on the North Sea, the pint-sized country of the Netherlands is known for its modern mega cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam, but also its flat landscape of canals and tulip fields. The country’s most-visited destination is the capital, Amsterdam, home to leafy canals lined with gabled houses, incredible bars, a world-famous, ahem, café scene and cultural attractions like the Anne Frank House and Van Gogh Museum. Venture into the verdant Dutch countryside for traditional windmill villages – some part of open-air museums – and fantastic cycling routes. The Netherlands is a leader in cutting-edge design and culture, and travellers come for its insatiable nightlife and equally as insatiable food scene – think cheeses, waffles and pancakes.
Why cruise Netherlands
The Netherlands is an extremely popular cruise destination, easily accessed from Europe and the British Isles. Because of its proximity to the UK, lines like P&O Cruises offer short cruises to the country and Amsterdam and Rotterdam are regular cruise ports of calls for lines like Royal Caribbean, Oceania Cruises and Fred Olsen Cruise Lines. Everything from mega-ships to smaller, more luxurious vessels dock in the country. River cruising is also popular as the Rhine river flows through the country. River cruise like Scenic, Viking, Tui and Avalon Waterways all offer Dutch river cruise sailings.
Best places to visit in the Netherlands
Amsterdam is so beautiful it actually attracts too many tourists. But with Gabled houses, leafy Golden Age canals, world-renowned museums, an incredible drinking and dining scene and some pretty unique cafés – it’s no wonder traveller can’t keep away from the stunning Dutch capital. Once famous for its gritty Red Light District and said unique cafés (still worth a visit) Amsterdam has transformed into a genteel capital of culture and design, a treasure trove of museums and boutique shops. Pay homage to the country’s greatest children at the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum – championing the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer – and the heartbreaking Anne Frank House, where the famous diarist hid from the Nazis during World War II.
Rotterdam is a city steeped in maritime history, the home of cruise giant Holland America Line and a Golden Age port. When the city was heavily bombed during WWII, the locals decided to create a contemporary powerhouse instead of rebuilding the historic port city – so high-rises, modern shopping districts and futuristic structures sprouted from the ashes. Like Amsterdam, it has incredible nightlife, trendy cafés and a world-class design scene, but there are fewer tourists and the vibe is more relaxed. The city is sprawled across the banks of the Nieuwe Maas connected by the iconic Erasmus bridge. Highlights include the kitsch Cube Houses, soaring arched Central Market – an architecture marvel – and the Old Harbour and Marine Museums.
Call to mind an idyllic picture of the Dutch countryside, and you’ll probably come up with something like the village of Zaanse Schans. Just a 20-minute drive from Amsterdam, this open-air museum-cum-residential and shopping district is like something out of a postcard, where windmills, emerald fields and cottages with clogs in their doorways line the river Zaan. The area is popular with tourists thanks to its quaint handicraft shops and museums detailing village life, but also with locals thanks to its fancy Restaurant De Hoop op d’Swarte Walvis restaurant overlooking the river Zaan. Within the grounds, you’ll also find the famous Catharina Hoeve cheese shop and a historic chocolate factory (where the delicious smell of warm cocoa perfumes the air).
NSDM Wharf Is one of Amsterdam’s hidden gems, an old dilapidated shipyard-turned cultural hub and hipster hang out. Where you’d once find shipyard workers, you’ll now find creatives, artists and business owners looking to display, create and sell their wares. Just a short ferry ride from the city centre, the wharf is a maze of galleries, pop-up bars, boutique shops and street art, the most impressive being a colourful homage to Amsterdam’s most cherished and remembered daughter – Anne Frank. Make sure to grab lunch in I-J Kantine – once a canteen for the workers and now a trendy brunch and all-day eatery – and check for any exhibitions and live music events.
Often living in the shadows of Amsterdam, the Hague is one of the most beautiful places to visit in the Netherlands. The country’s third-largest city, and the only city with a sandy beach, the Hague charms visitors with its cultural scene and impressive architecture – being the seat of the waterside Dutch government, Peace Palace and home to the 16th-century royal Noordeinde Palace. While the city seems to be prim and proper, packed with politicians and businesspeople, it’s also a cultural hotspot and has a growing culinary scene. The world-class Mauritshuis museum – home of Dutch Golden Age paintings – is a must-visit, along with a trip to the Nederlands Dans Theater.
Springtime is one of the most magical times to visit the Netherlands, as the windmill-scattered emerald fields of Noordoostpolder in the province of Flevoland transform into a colourful patchwork quilt. The flower bulb fields are a highlight of any cruise to the Netherlands from March to May, scattered along the coast of the Hague and located just a 30-minute drive from Amsterdam – with many river cruises operating sailings closer. The most tulips can be seen in Keukenhof, the world’s biggest flower exhibition, where seven million colourful bulbs sprout from the soil. Bring the magic home, or even just to your ship’s cabin, by also visiting FloraHolland, the world’s biggest flower auction.
The Dutch love their cheese, and in turn cheese lovers’ love the Netherlands – thanks to fantastic shops and a rich cheese-making industry. Gouda is a cheese-lovers paradise, 30-minutes’ drive from Rotterdam and a popular cruise ship excursion. The city is known for its namesake cheese and seasonal cheese market, held in the medieval Markt Square and bringing together thousands of cheesemakers and lovers in a centuries-old tradition. Marvel at the 15th-century town hall and Gothic architecture before visiting the 17th-century Goudse Waag – a historic cheese weighing station turned museum and cheese shop.
Cobbled streets, gabled buildings and fine dining restaurants are what await visitors in Haarlem – the country’s flower-growing capital just 15-minute train from Amsterdam. Once a major North Sea trading port, the city is packed with medieval architecture like grand churches and the pretty Grote Markt market square. The city also boasts some of the best museums in the Netherlands, and visitors should head to the Teylers Museum – the oldest museum in the Netherlands – and the painter Frans Hals Museum. Haarlem is also the centre of the flower-bulb growing district, fringed by the beautiful tulip fields and the beaches and dunes of the Zuid-Kennemerland National Park.
Best things to do in the Netherlands
Celebrate its citizens
The Netherlands has birthed some of the most iconic figures in history, like Vermeer, Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Anne Frank. Make sure to visit their respective museums and pay homage to their works.
Sample Dutch treats
Dutch food is fantastic, think crispy bitterballen (Dutch meatballs), fluffy poffertjes (small pancakes), sweet stroopwafel (syrup waffle) and salty Hollandse Nieuwe (soused herring). Make sure to sample these delights in any port city or town. In Amsterdam, a great place to head is The Food Department where you'll find a bit of everything.
See the windmills
Think if the Netherlands and you’ll probably imagine verdant fields of windmills and clogs. In some places this is actually a reality, and you can actually visit windmill villages and get your holiday snaps. Visit Market, Voldenam, Edam and Zaanse Schans for a truly authentic Dutch experience.
Coordinate with King’s Day
King’s Day is a huge celebration in the Netherlands, a nation holiday marking the birth of King Willem-Alexander. Locals wear orange and the streets of its cities come alive with street parties, flea markets, concerts and general crazy celebrations. Currently King’s Day falls on 27 April.
Explore the Hoge Veluwe National Park
The Netherlands is a small country and most of its major towns and cities back onto each other. Take a break from urbanisation to visit the sprawling Hoge Veluwe National Park, with parklands, a sculpture park and residents like red and roe deer and a host of bird species.
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