The Netherlands Travel Guide | Moon & Honey Travel

The Netherlands

The Netherlands

Last Updated: March 2018

The Netherlands is an enchanting destination in terms of its picturesque landscapes, canal-ringed cities, and tulip fields. It’s also a fascinating country in terms of its innovative water management systems. They say “God created the world but the Dutch created the Netherlands.” That saying speaks to how the Dutch people have shaped their landscape, by reclaiming land from the sea and keeping formerly unusable land (e.g. soggy peat bogs) dry through a system of windmills, pumps, ditches, sluices and weirs. While thatched-roof windmills look almost decorative today, they were essential in keeping polder land dry for centuries, before steam, diesel, and electronically powered pumping systems were in use.

We also love the Netherlands for their social tolerance and progressive policies with regards to LGBTQ rights, recreational drugs, prostitution, abortion and euthanasia. Walking hand-in-hand, we always felt completely safe and welcome. 

 

This Guide Includes:

  • The Netherlands Basics
  • Where to Go (Interactive Map)
  • What to Experience in The Netherlands
  • What to Eat & Drink in The Netherlands
  • 8 Day Road Trip Itinerary
Alkmaar Cheese Market, the Netherlands | Moon & Honey Travel

The Netherlands Basics

Official Name: Koninkrijk der Nederlanden, which translates as “Kingdom of the Low Countries.” The Kingdom of the Low Countries encompasses four constituent countries, (1) The Netherlands (European territory) and three Caribbean Islands: (2) Aruba, (3) Curaçao, and (4) Sint Maarten.

The country is called low (“nether”), because it’s literally the lowest country in Europe, with 26% of the country sitting below sea level.

Sometimes you’ll hear people use Holland and The Netherlands interchangeably. However, Holland is the region that encompasses the provinces of North Holland and South Holland. Historically, Holland contributed the most to the Kingdom’s economy, hence becoming the prevailing name to refer to the entire country. 

Capital: Amsterdam

Government: constitutional monarchy

Regions: The Netherlands is comprised of 12 Provinces.  

(1) Drenthe, (2) Flevoland, (3) Friesland, (4) Gelderland, (5) Groningen, (6) Limburg, (7) North Brabant, (8) North Holland, (9) Overijssel, (10) South Holland, (11) Utrecht, and (12) Zeeland

Population: 17 Million 

Language: The official languages are Dutch and Frisian (spoken by 2.5% of the population). English is understood and spoken by the majority of the population.

Currency: Euro

Tipping Etiquette: Tipping is not required in restaurants, cafés, and bars. Dutch commonly round up to the nearest euro for small bills, and to the nearest two to four euros for larger bills.

Water Quality: Safe to drink the tap.

Something Interesting: The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage (2001).

Dutch Cows, The Netherlands | Moon & Honey Travel

Where to Go in The Netherlands

Click the dots to explore specific destinations
Destinations
  • Amsterdam
  • Lisse
  • Delft
  • Rotterdam
  • Alkmaar
  • Zaanstreek / Zaandijk
  • Giethoorn
  • Utrecht
  • Kinderdijk
background

De molen gaat niet om met wind die voorbij is.

 

 

 

Dutch Saying

The windmill doesn’t care about the wind that came before. (Don’t worry yourself with the past)

What to Experience in The Netherlands

Our favorite things to see and do
Zaandijk, Zaanstreek, North Holland | Moon & Honey Travel
Zaandijk House

Zaanstreek, land of the green timber houses 

The region that surrounds the Zaan River in North Holland, known as the Zaanstreek, was the industrial powerhouse of the Netherlands in the Dutch Golden Age. Windmills were constructed to harness the wind’s energy to grind spices, produce paint, saw wood and make oil. By the mid-1600s, about 900 windmills were in use along the Zaan river. Several windmills have been preserved and/or restored, and can be visited in the Zaanse Schans, which is an open-air museum.

Even more striking than the windmills are the green timber buildings that characterize the region. Some houses are brick with impressive wooden facades, which have an almost headdress-effect on the house. However, most houses are timber with white window frames and terracotta roofs. The tradition of painting houses a particular Zaans green stems from the green paint itself, which contains copper and thus helps preserve the wood. It was also an easy paint to manufacture.

Another distinguishing feature of these houses is a white decorative pole, called a makelaar, that extends from the house facade. These makelaars vary in size and ornamentation. The level of decoration corresponds to the wealth of the owner. Supposedly, the bigger the pole, the closer the owner is to the almighty. We asked several people what the makelaars are, and we received different answers each time. Several locals told us that the makelaars were believed to be magical and served as a protection against evil spirits.

Recommendation: Explore the town Zaandijk (opposite Zaanse Schans) and the Domineestuin neighborhood, which has a high concentration of old wooden houses along narrow ditches.

Markthal, Rotterdam, The Netherlands | Moon & Honey Travel
Markthal, Rotterdam

Rotterdam 

Rotterdam is the second largest city in the Netherlands and the largest port in Europe. In WWII, Rotterdam was completely destroyed by German bombers in an aerial attack that lasted 15 minutes. When it came time to rebuild, Rotterdam made the decision to embrace modernity. With a cityscape that looks like a playground of exotic shapes, Rotterdam is a fascinating place to visit.

We recommend hopping on a bike and cycling through the city to discover Rotterdam’s playful and cutting edge architectural landscape. Bike lanes are clearly defined and not as crowded as other Dutch cities. Just remember that motorbikes and bicycles share the same bike lanes.

Architectural Highlights:

  • Markthal (Market Hall) – this colossal arched building contains space for eateries, shops, and apartments. The most impressive part about this structure is the interior mural by Stuart Forster.
  • Rotterdam Centraal Station – this slanted triangular structure is a major transportation hub and a work of art.
  • Cube Houses – These funky yellow houses are residential spaces. Clustered together, the houses look like an urban forest.
  • Drijvend Pavlijoen – These soccer-ball-like domes serve as a floating venue.
  • Delfshaven – this historic district lined with canal houses is one of the few places that survived the 1940 bombardment of Rotterdam. It was also the departure point from which the Pilgrim Fathers sailed for the New World.
Alkmaar Cheese Market, The Netherlands | Moon & Honey Travel
Alkmaar Cheese Market

Alkmaar Cheese Market 

Alkmaar is a city in North Holland famous for its traditional cheese market, which has been taking place since 1365. Although the market functions as a tourist spectacle, it’s still cool to see. The market takes place on Fridays, between April and September, in front of the renaissance-style Weighing House (The Waag). You’ll see cheese-filled boats delivering cheese to the market. You’ll also see kassdragers (cheese porters), zetters (loaders), waagmeesters (weighers) playing specific roles at the market. Other towns that hold cheese market reenactments are Gouda and Edam.

Even if you’re not into cheese markets, we recommend coming to Alkmaar. From the narrow streets and canals to the crow-stepped gables and bridge cafés, there’s so much to fall in love with. 

Kasteel de Haar, the Netherlands | Moon & Honey Travel
Rose Garden, Kasteel de Haar

Kasteel de Haar, the largest castle in the Netherlands 

This grandiose medieval castle dates back to the 13th century, but was restored between 1892 and 1912 for baron Etienne van Zügeln van Nijevelt van de Haar. The restoration was fully financed by Etienne’s wife Hélène de Rothschild, who was a member of one of the richest European families in the 19th century. Perhaps more interesting than the fine furnishings are the photos of the various family members on display. Hélène loved to host costume parties and dress in drag. She was a French socialite, poet, motorist, and a lesbian.

Surrounding the castle are 135 acres of land. As a visitor, you can walk through the various gardens and parks. We loved the rose garden, deer park, and the various pond-centered gardens.

Delft, The Netherlands | Moon & Honey Travel
Delft

Walking in the footsteps of Johannes Vermeer 

The canal-ringed city of Delft was the birthplace of the genre painter, Johannes Vermeer. Unfortunately, there are no original Vermeer paintings in Delft today. Nonetheless, there is an excellent museum (Vermeer Centrum Delft) that exposes the painter’s life and his techniques. There’s also a really interesting film about the restoration process of the painting: Women in Blue Reading a Letter. The top floor is completely dedicated to decoding Vermeer’s symbolic love messages. For example, Vermeer used a broom to showcase moral purity. He painted a feather headdress to communicate frivolity and a cittern (small lute) to convey eroticism.

Beyond Vermeer, the city itself is delightful to explore. As you walk over small bridges that connect café lined streets, you’ll quickly see that Delft has a lot to offer. The city is lively and young and there are no shortage of places to eat and drink. 

If you like pottery, head to the Royal Delft factory and museum to learn about Delftware. That’s the blue-and-white pottery that emerged in the 17th century when artisans started to copy Chinese porcelain. Royal Delft is the only remaining earthenware factory in Delft dating back to the 17th century.

Kinderdijk, The Netherlands Travel Guide | Moon & Honey Travel
Kinderdijk

Kinderdijk Windmills 

Kinderdijk is a village in South Holland known for its 18th-century windmills. Situated on a polder (reclaimed land), these 19 windmills were built to pump the water out to keep the low-lying lands of the Alblasserwaard dry. The windmill complex is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are free walking and bicycle paths that run parallel to the windmills. Although we loved walking around the lily-laced canals, we would definitely bike next time. The countryside that surrounds the windmills is stunning and peaceful – meriting more than a quick visit.

Biking through Tulip Fields in Lisse, The Netherlands | Moon & Honey Travel
Biking through Tulip Fields in Lisse

Biking through Tulip Fields 

Biking through fields of bursting red, orange, and pink tulips is an unforgettable experience (even when it’s freezing). In April and May, Lisse is the perfect place to visually relish Holland’s blooming tulips fields. We spent half-a-day biking a circular route from the Keukenhof Gardens, through the surrounding tulip fields, and to the Dunes of the North Sea.

Beer Café Olivier in Utrecht, The Netherlands | Moon & Honey Travel
Beer Café Olivier in Utrecht

Secular Churches 

Leave it to the Dutch to convert churches to bookstores, beer cafés, and breweries. Most deconsecrated churches end of disappearing from the public realm. They often get converted into private homes or condos. But, in the Netherlands, many of these churches are given a new life and serve as a community space. We visited the Belgian Beer Café Olivier in Utrecht and the Jopenkerk Brewery in Haarlem, both of which are housed in old churches.

Here are a few other converted churches:

  • Broerenherk Church in Zwolle (bookstore)
  • 13th century Dominican church in Maastricht (bookstore)
Giethoorn, The Netherlands | Moon & Honey Travel
Hoosjesgracht, Giethoorn

Giethoorn, the village with no streets

Giethoorn is a car-free village in the province Overijssel. Unfortunately, it’s not a secret. Even though we visited in high season (July), the tourism was manageable. We biked into town in the late afternoon, ate dinner (Restaurant ‘t Achterhuus) next to a canal, and returned the next morning for a boat ride. Though you can see thatched-roof houses throughout the region, the ones in Giethoorn seem the most happily situated. Surrounded by flowers, gardens, and canals, these dreamy houses seem to invite you to read a novel under a willow tree. 

There are no shortage of places to rent a boat from. We rented our boat from across the de krummte hotel restaurant (where there’s a parking lot). They provided a map of available routes. We opted for the two hour boat tour, which was perfect.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands | Moon & Honey Travel
Amsterdam Canal

Amsterdam 

There is a simultaneous feeling of movement and stillness in the streets of Amsterdam. As you walk along the canals flanked with row boats and houseboats, you are surrounded by leaning houses, gabled roofs, potted plants, romantic bridges, and bicycles. The historical city center seamlessly blends the old with the new, resulting in a dynamic street life that is animated with bicycle traffic, bustling cafés and restaurants, charming boutiques, galleries and cannabis coffee shops. And yet, you can also find areas that are quiet and untraveled. There is something irresistible about this city that beckons you to return again and again.

Read our Amsterdam Travel Guide

Alkmaar, The Netherlands | Moon & Honey Travel

What to Eat & Drink in the Netherlands

Gouda

Gouda is a Dutch yellow cheese made with cow’s milk. It’s named after the city of Gouda, because the cheese was historically traded there. In the Middle Ages, Gouda obtained market rights on cheese, which meant that farmers could only sell their cheese product in the city of Gouda.

 

Ossenworst

Raw beef sausage, traditionally made with ox meet. We ordered this on accident (can’t say we loved it).

 

Poffertjes

mini-pancakes served with powdered sugar.

The Netherlands | Moon & Honey Travel

8 Day Road Trip Itinerary

What we did

We did this road trip in mid-July, starting and ending in Cologne, Germany (where we were living at the time). This trip gave us a good overview of the country, but it was fast. If possible, add more time to the picturesque region north of Amsterdam (Waterland, Zaan, and Kop van Noord-Holland). And, if you like to cycle, add time for a full-day, or multi-day cycling trip.

This is a skeleton itinerary. To learn more about each destination, read our Experiences. 

Day 1: Maastricht and Antwerp (Belgium)

  • We stopped for lunch in Maastricht on our way to Antwerp. Maastricht deserves more than a single afternoon. But with only a few hours, we were impressed by the city’s cafe culture and shops.
  • Next, we drove to Antwerp, a multi-cultural city in Flanders. Read more about Antwerp in our Belgium Travel Guide. We had delicious Belgian beer and a seafood soup at Take Five Minutes in Paris, which sports an almost hidden garden cafe. Next, we visited the beer café Witzli Poetzli, which is located alongside the Cathedral of our Lady. We spent the day walking throughout the city and ended up at the riverside bar Bocadero – great location but they don’t serve Belgian beer (what the heck!).
  • We stayed at the Ibis Budget Antwerpen Centraal Station (reasonable, clean, not very scenic, close to the Diamond District).

Day 2: Antwerp (Belgium), Kinderdijk Rotterdam

  • We had breakfast at Coffeelabs and took a free morning walking tour with Legends of Antwerp.
  • Next we drove to Kinderdijk, a village in South Holland known for its 18th-century windmills.
  • After a nice walk around Kinderdijk, we drove to Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands and the largest port in Europe.
  • Our first stop was an unassuming, but phenomenal Indonesia restaurant: Papaya (btw we’re not experts on Indonesia food).
  • We stayed at the Student Hotel Rotterdam (hip, clean, convenient).

Day 3: Rotterdam and Delft

  • We started the day with breakfast at Sajoer.
  • We rented a bike from our accommodation and explored Rotterdam’s playful architectural landscape for several hours.
  • In the afternoon, we drove to Delft and explored the small city center on foot. We had a slice of apple pie at Kobus Kuch and dinner at Stromboli. 
  • We stayed in an AirBnB.

Day 4: Delft and Haarlem

  • We started the day at the factory and museum Royal Delft to learn about Delftware. That’s the blue-and-white pottery that emerged in the 17th century when artisans started to copy Chinese porcelain.
  • We ate lunch at Kek. 
  • Next, we learned about Johannes Vermeer’s life and techniques at the Vermeer Centrum Delft.
  • After visiting the museum, we drove to Haarlem.
  • First Stop in Haarlem: Jopenkerk Brewery. Popular among locals and travelers, this brewery is located in a deconsecrated church.
  • We had dinner in the main square with a view of Haarlem’s Grand Cathedral at Toujours Fish and Meat. Sitting outside, watching passerby and eating dutch cheese with wine was an ultimate “life is good” experience.
  • We stayed in an AirBnB.

[Insert Amsterdam]

Day 5: Haarlem, Zaanstreek, Edam and De Rijp

  • After breakfast, we drove to the Zaanstreek region (North of Amsterdam). We visited the open-air museum Zaanse Schans and the Domineestuin neighborhood.
  • Next, we explored the towns of Edam and De Rijp.
  • We stayed in an AirBnB.

Day 6: Alkmaar and Giethoorn

  • We started the day at the Alkmaar Cheese Market. We fell in love with this town.
  • In the afternoon, we drove to Giethoorn, the car-free village in the province Overijssel.
  • We rented a bike from our accommodation and biked into the heart of Giethoorn. We explored on foot and had dinner at Restaurant ‘t Achterhuus along one of the canals.
  • We stayed in an AirBnB.

Day 7: Giethoorn and Utrecht

  • In the morning, we rented a boat and explored Giethoorn’s waterways.
  • After lunch in town, we started the drive to Utrecht.
  • We had dinner at Beer Café Olivier and watched Austria play France in the UEFA Women’s Championship (soccer).
  • We Stayed in an AirBnb.

Day 8: Utrecht

  • We started our final day with breakfast at De Ontdekking.
  • After a few hours exploring Utrecht on foot, we visited Kasteel de Haar, the largest castle in the Netherlands.

Note: For this trip, we mostly stayed in AirBnBs. If you don’t have an AirBnB account, use this link to get a discount on your first booking.

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  • We’ve spent the last few days in Pokhara and have done absolutely nothing, apart from slowly hop around from smoothie joint to restaurant to coffee shop. Pokhara is a city located on Phewa Lake and a favored destination among trekkers pre- and post-trek. After a long multi-day trek, Pokhara satisfies all your cravings and indulges you with its stress-free atmosphere, clean air, cafés, and spas. We’ve really loved our time here. However, we do acknowledge, that Pokhara is probably not best destination for travelers (if you didn’t do a long trek). It caters unabashedly to tourists, with happy hour offers, hippie clothing, German bakeries, Pizzerias, and tattoo shops. So while we’ve been enjoying the comforts of this inauthentic tourist hub, we can’t help but ask “is this a good thing?”
  • We received a question about AMS and insurance as it pertains to the Annapurna Circuit. AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) is caused by reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes. Your body can adjust and adapt to higher altitude, but it needs time. Doctors recommend that you sleep three nights around 3,500 meters before ascending further. They also recommend that above 3,500 meters, you only sleep 500 meters above where you slept the previous night. If you don’t feel well (nausea, dizziness, headaches, etc...), you’re supposed to descend to the last place you felt well. Slide right to see AMS Symptoms.  Apart from slow ascension, it’s important to avoid alcohol. In Manang, during the trekking seasons, there’s a medical facility staffed with western doctors. They conduct a free daily talk about acclimatization and how to recognize and respond to various symptoms of AMS. Definitely attend this session. In terms of our personal experience, most people we met experienced some degree of AMS - some at 2,500 meters, while others only at the pass. It’s common to take diamox (Acetazolamide) to help your body adjust to the altitude gain. Unlike ibuprofen, it doesn’t mask the symptoms of AMS, it actually prevents and reduces the symptoms. Consult your doctor about diamox usage, before you go on your trek. Re: insurance, you absolutely need it!!!!
  • Let’s talk about food on the Annapurna Circuit. The main staple food is Dal Baht, a traditional meal consisting of steamed rice, lentil soup (dal), curried vegetables, and pickles. We ate dal baht daily, sometimes twice. With free refills, it’s the best thing to eat when you’re hungry. Most menus also offer curries, momos (dumplings), fried noodles and rice, thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) as well as pizza, pasta and various soups. There are also bakeries that serve excellent cakes, crumbles and pastries. We’re going to wrap up our Annapurna Circuit posts, so let us know if you have any questions about the trek. #dalbahtpower #dalbahtpower24hour #hikeforfood
  • Annapurna Circuit Days 22 & 23: Tatopani - Ghorepani - Hile - Nayapul. Our final days of the trek were marked by stairs, leeches, mule caravans, water buffalo and good food. Though mountain views were seldom, we saw beautiful terraced fields and hiked through verdant rainforest. The final stretch was a never-ending staircase descent that was physically and mentally taxing. When the trail intersected with the dusty road just after Hile, we opted for a Jeep to Nayapul. At Nayapul, we grabbed a local bus to Pokhara. Shortly after getting on the bus, it stopped. Our fellow bus riders explained that we’d be here for 1.5 hours, because of road construction. We chatted with a few locals, who shared their views on their government, its rampant corruption, and their personal struggles. We arrived in Pokhara at 8 pm, after an enlightening and bumpy journey.
  • Annapurna Circuit Day 21: Kalopani to Tatopani. We started hiking at 6:15 am, because we were determined to end our day in the natural hot springs of Tatopani. When we reached the town in the late afternoon, people were still recovering from a landslide. Unfortunately, a few homes and lodgings were demolished. Some trekkers even lost their belongings in the landslide. When we soaked in the warm springs, a friendly Nepali family (who were touring the region) asked us where we were from, if we could swim and whether we liked Nepal. Their 12 year old daughter was really excited to speak English and shared her career (science) and travel aspirations (visit a developed country).
  • Annapurna Circuit Days 19 & 20: Kagbeni - Marpha - Kalopani. Most of the trail followed the riverbed Of Kali Gandaki. The wind picked up with a vengeance and funneled down the valley, making this part of the trek dusty and miserable. We understood why most people opted for a jeep or bus to their next destination. After lunch in Jomsom, we walked another 1.5 hours to the beautiful town Marpha, where we spent the night. Each stone building is painted white and all the wooden door and window frames are painted burgundy. The streets are immaculate - barely any mule, horse and ox poo. After a night in Marpha, we headed to Kalopani. We followed the forest trail on the east side of the river almost all the way. Only a few parts of the path were washed out. Luckily, the trail was sheltered mostly from the wind. Photos of Marpha.
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