Inhabited by strikingly lovely canals, bicycle-happy locals, and cheery flower markets, it’s no surprise that visitors flock to Amsterdam year after year. After all, there is something for everyone in Amsterdam. A tour of the Anne Frank House is likely a must-do on anyone’s list. Art enthusiasts have the world-class Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. Soccer fans can take a guided tour of the Ajax Amsterdam Stadium. Shoppers have their pick of the Jordaan district’s trendy shops, the Waterlooplein flea market, or the packed-to-the-gills Kalverstraat.
Amsterdam: folks are continually arriving by rail, plane and cruise (both sea & river) to this energetic “Venice of the North.”
Why in Amsterdam there are canals to be cruised, flowers to be purchased, and beautiful city parks to be explored! (And for the thirsty- it’s never a bad idea to round off a full-day of sightseeing with a tour of the Heineken Experience). The city is also constantly home to exciting festivals and events related to fashion, film, antiques and music. There are flower parades on the canals, and a mention must be made of the ever-exuberant Queen’s Day festivities.
Houseboats along the Brouwersgracht Canal in Amsterdam's Jordaan district
That being said, this post is dedicated to those travelers who still want to see the sights but prefer a less-crowded and more off-the-beaten-path vacation tone. If that sounds like you, luckily for you – you can have your cake and eat it too! The Netherlands is such a compact country that is easy to stay elsewhere and visit Amsterdam on day trips. This is an easy country to drive in, and if you prefer public transportation, The Netherlands has an excellent national train system (generally with tourist passes available). And by staying outside of Amsterdam, you might end up seeing more than you ever intended of this picturesque country…!
On that note, here is a list of 7 other wonderful Dutch cities and towns to consider visiting. Many work as great base cities for overnighting, while you might prefer just to pass through others on a day trip. No matter which route you take, during your explorations (in addition to making a day trip or two to Amsterdam) you’ll get to experience peaceful countryside, historic towns, beautiful seaside, traditional Dutch homes, windmills, canals, tulips, cheeses – and more!
Traditional Dutch homes line Utrecht's canals on a snowy day.
The Netherlands’ fourth largest city, Utrecht is incredibly ancient; in fact, it was founded as a Roman fortress almost 2000 years ago! Today it is well known for its universities and its terrific variety of cultural offerings (second only to Amsterdam). It has also long been known as the religious heart of The Netherlands.
An amazing view of the city’s panorama can be had atop the tower of Utrecht’s 13th-century cathedral: the Domkerk.
Utrecht’s beautiful Old Town (most of which must be visited on foot) exudes charm. While exploring, you’re likely to encounter antique shops, medieval churches and picturesque canals. (Taking one of the sightseeing cruises along the city’s canals is definitely a fun way to become acquainted with the city). Interesting sights to consider visiting include St. Catherine’s Convent, whose collections of historic manuscripts and medieval artwork are nothing short of impressive. And architecture fans (particularly those interested in the Modern Movement) will certainly want to visit the iconic Rietveld Schröder House. It was built in 1924 based on the designs of architect Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, and because of its immense cultural value, UNESCO named it an official World Heritage Site.
Historic Kasteel De Haar is located just outside of Utrecht.
After exploring the city’s beautiful and historic core, there are some great castle day trips one can make from Utrecht! Consider visiting the Kasteel De Haar, whose interiors and fabulous gardens resemble those at the Palace of Versailles. Two others that are located further from Utrecht but merit a visit include the historic moated fortress of Ammersoyen Castle (near Hertogenbosch) and Het Loo Palace (near Apeldoorn), which was formally a royal hunting lodge for the kings of the House of Orange.
Distance to Amsterdam by car: 45 minutes
Distance to Amsterdam by train: 27 minutes
Located just 13 miles west of Amsterdam, Haarlem is an ideal base for travelers who want to spend several days thoroughly exploring The Netherland’s lively capital. Additionally in its own right, this smaller city is beautiful and offers visitors a quaint, less-touristy and less-crowded experience. Over 1000 years old, visiting Haarlem feels an awful lot like stepping back in time. To plan your stay in Haarlem, you’ll want some time to visit this city’s own interesting, local attractions. You’ll also want a few days to sightsee in Amsterdam, and you’ll likely also want a few bonus days for additional day trips.
Many of Haarlem’s most-loved, historic attractions lie within a short walk of its lovely market square: Grote Markt.
As with many cities in this canal-blessed country, Haarlem is also a great place to take a canal boat cruise; many outfits offer specialty cruises like canal rides by candlelight or others that take you outside the city limits by boat. While in Haarlem, be sure to see its 14th-century Town Hall, the magnificent St. Bavo’s Church, and the outstanding art collection inside the Frans Hals Museum. And if you didn’t have the opportunity to get inside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, we definitely recommend you check out the Corrie Ten Boom Museum while in Haarlem.
Within a quick drive or train ride, there are also many great day trips to make from Haarlem. If the weather is nice, spend a day at the beach or play a round of golf in Zandvoort (20 minutes by car from Haarlem). If you want to capture that idyllic, Dutch countryside, pay a visit to the neighborhood of Zaanse Schans (30 minutes by car). While there you’ll find authentic, typically-Dutch windmills as well as shops showcasing the traditional crafts (wooden shoes) and local food products (cheeses) that the Dutch have been making for centuries. On that same note (though slightly further at 45-minutes away by car) from Haarlem you can also do the well-loved trek to Volendam and Edam for another dose of lovely windmills and tasty cheeses!
Keukenhof: Complete with 80 acres of tulips, daffodils & hyacinths, this garden is one of best attractions in all of The Netherlands!
Moving on to another world-renown export of The Netherlands, Haarlem is also well situated for green-thumbed travelers who intend to get their floral sightseeing on! Make a visit to Aalsmeer (24-minute drive). This is the mother of all flower auctions! Now you will need to arrive early (7:00 am, and it’s closed on the weekends), but it is just good fun to watch the wheeling and dealing of traders from countries all over the world. And located in Lisse (30 minutes by car from Haarlem), sits another mecca for gardeners: the legendary Keukenhof garden. If you intend to go, just remember that it’s usually only open from March to May so best to check the exact dates in advance!
Distance to Amsterdam by car: 32 minutes
Distance to Amsterdam by train: 15 minutes
Heading south just 26 miles, flower lovers can also consider the city of Leiden as a base to visit Aalsmeer or Keukenhof. But stick around for a little while afterwards, because there is still much to see in this historic place, which the Dutch often refer to as “Museum City” because of its many museums; one that you should make time for is the superb National Museum of Antiquities.
The Rhine River picturesquely frozen in Leiden
Leiden’s city’s historic center offers visitors an interesting and authentic view of a quintessentially-Dutch town. It is home to lovely canals, traditional brick homes (largely from the 16th & 17th centuries) and the oldest university in the country. Leiden’s most famous son is none other than Rembrandt himself, who was born there in 1606. Another interesting fact about this city is that it once housed some of the very first English settlers in America: the Pilgrims. Yes, at that time, many groups in Europe suffering from religious persecution sought refuge in Holland, so before setting sail on the Mayflower for America, William Bradford and his fellow pilgrims lived in Leiden for 11 years.
Distance to Amsterdam by car: 41 minutes
Distance to Amsterdam by train: 36 minutes
4. The Hague
Lining the shores of the North Sea, The Hague is The Netherland’s third largest city, and although is it not the country’s capital, it is the official seat of the Dutch government and the official residence of the Dutch monarchs. Though small in size, you’ll notice a cosmopolitan flavor in this elegant, cultural city as many foreign embassies and international organizations (like the United Nations and the International Court of Justice) call The Hague home. That being said, The Hague can serve as an absolutely lovely, relaxing sightseeing base for your travels in the Netherlands.
During your stay in The Hague, try taking one of the guided tours of the beautiful political buildings located inside the Binnenhof complex (Inner Court); almost all tours will take you to the 13th-century, spectacularly beautiful Ridderzaal (Hall of the Knights).
Both houses of Parliament convene annually inside the historic Ridderzaal building.
And when it reopens (estimated date: mid-2014), check out the superb Royal Picture Gallery (Mauritshuis), whose amazing collection contains Golden Age masterpieces by Rembrandt as well as German painter Hans Holbein’s famed portraits. And after you have taken in The Hague’s superb architectural, historic and cultural offerings and strolled through its pretty parks and manicured gardens, you can always take a short tram ride west to the popular seaside resort of Scheveningen.
Distance to Amsterdam by car: 54 minutes
Distance to Amsterdam by train: 51 minutes
Travel just 6 miles south of The Hague and you’ll arrive to what is arguably one of the most charming towns in all of The Netherlands: Delft. If the name rings a bell, it’s most likely due to the town’s world-renown export: its beautifully-crafted Delftware pottery. Delft has been producing the white and blue earthenware (all of which is hand painted) since the 16th century, and visitors traveling to Delft can still tour the workshops to learn how these traditional, abiding and downright beautiful pieces are produced.
A few relaxing hours in Delft will make you feel like you’re really on vacation!
Many visitors come to Delft to visit the Delftware factories and then hastily jump back in the car. Don’t make this mistake and stick around a little while more to explore this peaceful, serene and timeless town. It’s the perfect place to wander, take photographs, or to enjoy a nice cup of coffee at a neighborhood coffee shop.
Distance to Amsterdam by car: 52 minutes
Distance to Amsterdam by train: 57 minutes
Gouda's 15th-century, gothic Stadhuis is the oldest town hall in The Netherlands.
Another great stop lies just a half-hour to the east – to Gouda. Time for some more cheese! In addition to the delicious, cow-milk-based, yellow cheese that has been traded at Gouda’s cheese markets since the Middle Ages, the city of Gouda is also known for its fantastic architecture. Be sure to see the gothic Stadhuis, the oldest town hall in The Netherlands, which dates back to the 15th century. And if you only go inside one historic attraction while in Gouda, make it the Sint Janskerk (The Church of St. John). This church, which was built during the 15th and 16th centuries, is famed for its truly magnificent, 16th-century stained-glass windows (click here for a look-see).
Enjoy tasting Gouda's most famous export!
During the summer months, it’s best to time your visit to Gouda so that you’re in town on a Thursday morning when the kaasmarkt (cheese market) takes place. It’s pretty fun to watch the local farmers sell their bright orange wheels of cheese. (And speaking of food, we’re also partial to the Gouda stroopwafel).
And should you happen to be in Gouda in mid-December, many areas of Gouda’s historic heart are beautifully illuminated by candles.
Distance to Amsterdam by car: 57 minutes
Distance to Amsterdam by train: 54 minutes
The Saint Servatius Bridge in Maastricht
And nearing the southernmost tip of The Netherlands, nestled near the Belgian and German borders, lies our final recommendation for you to consider including on your next trip to The Netherlands: the lively, extremely likeable and ancient city of Maastricht.
Many consider Maastricht to be the oldest city in The Netherlands. It has been continually inhabited since Roman times, and is a member of the Most Ancient European Towns Network. Maastricht has excellent cultural attractions, a vibrant, university-town spirit and a wonderful café culture.
Maastricht is home to beautiful squares, cobblestone lanes, a good restaurant scene – and very festive Carnival celebrations.
While in Maastricht, be sure to stop in to visit the Romanesque Basilica of St. Servatius (Sint Servaasbasiliek); it is one of the oldest churches in The Netherlands. American visitors traveling to Maastricht often travel just outside the city to pay their respects at the Margraten U.S. Military Cemetery where over 8000 American service members died and were buried during World War II.
Distance to Amsterdam by car: 2 hours and 14 minutes
Distance to Amsterdam by train: 2 hours and 24 minutes
Include some downtime to enjoy the timeless and peaceful Dutch countryside.
On your next trip to The Netherlands, we hope you’ll consider giving yourself time to journey beyond the periphery of Amsterdam – to pleasantly continue exploring the country’s other wonderful cities and towns. For more information on what to see in The Netherlands, please feel free to take a look at our Travel Guide.
Last but not least (now we’re technically cheating!) but when planning your trip, you could even use the beautiful Belgian cities of Brussels and Antwerp as good bases for exploring The Netherlands (particularly the southern provinces). Not only are the train connections between the two countries excellent, but you’ll find that the histories of the Netherlands and of Belgium are quite intertwined; it makes for pretty interesting sightseeing.
The Flower Carpet in Brussel's Grand Place
Distance to Amsterdam by car: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Distance to Amsterdam by train: 1 hour and 49 minutes by high-speed train
Antwerp works as a great base to explore both Belgium and The Netherlands.
Distance to Amsterdam by car: 1 hour and 46 minutes
Distance to Amsterdam by train: 1 hour and 11 minutes by high-speed train