The Netherlands: experience highlife in the lowlands

Whether it’s part of an overarching trip to Europe or its own separate vacation, a journey to the Netherlands cannot fail to bring enjoyment. While famous in particular for its liberal policies, red-light district, and “coffee” shops, the Netherlands offers a blend of activities that can make it the high point of any vacation, no matter your proclivities.

 

Formerly known as Holland and the birthplace of the Dutch empire, the Netherlands gets its name from the fact that most of the country lies below sea level. Consequently, the country has developed an elaborate system of dikes and canals to combat flooding. The historical use of wind power to assist in draining flooded areas has also made this country famous for its windmills, which are present everywhere, as well as its fertile land for flowers, tulips in particular. Even though the country is densely populated, its flat land and numerous trails make it ideal to tour by bicycle. Two of the world’s great artists Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt van Rijn hail from here, as well as many others, and this makes the art museums a must-see for any patron of the fine arts.

 

Getting in, out, and about the Netherlands

 

The Netherlands is a founding member of the European Union and a party to the Schengen agreement. The country’s borders are open to travelers from any other Schengen country without having to get an additional passport stamp or visa, so long as your stay in the Schengen area is for no longer than 90 days of a 180 day period. American travelers should make sure their passports are valid for 90 days beyond their intended stay. Once you get your passport stamped in one of the Schengen countries, you are then able to travel freely to any other Schengen country. Upon entry into the Netherlands, you should register your presence in the country with the local authorities, according to Dutch immigration requirements. Hotels frequently take care of this for you, but it’s a good idea to ask to make sure, particularly if you are staying in a bed and breakfast or a youth hostel.

 

The Netherlands does not pose any problems in terms of communicable diseases that you won’t find in the U.S. or the rest of Europe. Consequently, aside from the common vaccinations against measles, small pox, and the like, you do not have to get any additional vaccinations. Some travelers elect to get an additional Hepatitis A vaccination, which is commonly transmitted through contaminated food and water; however, the Netherlands tap water is perhaps the cleanest and safest (and best tasting!) that you’ll find throughout the world. Another elective vaccine is against Hepatitis B. Rabies is not found typically in dogs or domesticated animals in this area, and it should only be considered if you plan on traveling to areas where exposure to bats is likely. Before traveling, you should consult with your doctor about your travel plans to see if any of these optional vaccinations would fit your needs.

 

While the Netherlands boasts few instances of violent crime, as with most travel destinations, tourists are often targeted for thefts, particularly in bus and train stations and near the airport. Pickpockets and other petty thieves often work in teams, using one person to distract you by doing such things as asking for directions, while their cohorts go after unattended goods such as laptops and other electronics. Travelers can stay safe by remaining aware of their surroundings at all times, keeping an eye on their luggage, and avoiding flashing money or wearing expensive clothes and jewelry.

 

The traveler’s tongue

 

The national language of the Netherlands is Dutch; however, over 90% of the population speaks English with varying levels of fluency. This provides a safety net for American travelers looking to practice basic Dutch phrases. The Netherlands also marks Frisian as an official language although only people from the province of Friesland tend to speak it. Frisian holds the distinction of being one of the closest living languages related to English. If you are fluent in German, you may find Dutch intelligible, and in the areas around the Netherlands’ border with Germany, people tend to speak fluent German as well.

 

Money matters in the Netherlands

 

Lodging costs can range from the cheapest hostel in Amsterdam at roughly $11 USD a night per person to a modest three star hotel at around $150 USD. If you want to splurge, 5 star hotels at $300 USD or more a night are also available.

 

Exploring the Netherlands on a bare bones budget of $50 USD – $75 USD per person per day is not inconceivable, but this would require taking advantage of the rampant public transportation available, eating light, and spending money frugally. A midrange vacationer should be prepared to spend around $300 a day, but this will allow you to take in the sites and get around comfortably. Taxis are exponentially more expensive than getting around via the train, bus, and tram systems. You can find various passes that will meet your transportation needs for an entire stay that compare favorably with a single taxi ride. Renting a car can often prove more of a hassle than a convenience because parking in the larger cities is scarce and expensive. The best use for a rental car is if you plan to tour the countryside, but a cheaper alternative is to rent a bicycle, especially since most of the countryside is flat.

 

The Netherlands uses the euro as its currency. You’ll find the best exchange rates through the GWK money exchange booths, which can be found in the larger train stations. Other private money changer booths that set up around high tourist areas tend to charge outrageous fees or provide poor exchange rates, so if you can’t locate a GWK booth, your second best option is to go through banks or ATMs.

 

Tipping in the Netherlands is not practiced in the same way as it is in the US. Rounding your bill up to the nearest euro is standard, and tips of 10% or more are considered generous.

 

Highlights of a vacation in the Netherlands

 

The Netherlands offers more than the drug and sex tourism activities that has made it infamous. Here are but a few vacation highlights:

 

  • Amsterdam. You will find numerous points of interest in Amsterdam, including the famous (albeit pricey) tour of Madame Tussauds’ wax museum, the Van Gogh Museum, the Rembrandt House (a museum in itself), and the Ann Frank House (which tends to have long lines, so buy your ticket in advance online). The Old Center part of the city features fantastic medieval architecture, and the Canal Ring, a UNESCO World Heritage site, offers opportunities for romantic boat rides throughout the city.
  • Edam. If your lingering image of the Netherlands is filled with windmills, tulips, and wooden shoes, the quaint town of Edam will cement that image. In addition to wonderful cheese, which you can find at the cheese market, Edam features numerous lovely buildings. Check out the Carillion Tower, the Great Church, and Kwakel Bridge.
  • Hoge Veluwe National Park. This highly forested park in the Veluwe region of the Netherlands is the perfect place to hike or bicycle around and even spend the night camping.
  • The Keukenhof. If you like flowers, come to the largest flower garden in the world between March and May to see the garden in all its glory.
  • Efteling. Forget Disney Land. Stepping into this fairy tale theme park is like traveling back in time to a world that never was. April through September marks the high tourist season, so the park tends to get crowded, but all the rides are running. The off season comprises the months of October through March. The park is quieter during these times, but with fewer shows and open attractions. Ride the famous Droomvlucht through immensely detailed fairy lands or explore the lush fairytale forest, the Sprookjesbos. Entry during the peak times is around $50 USD. Since this is a theme park, expect food prices to be wildly inflated. You can get discounts when you buy your ticket online.
  • Maastricht. This southernmost city in the Netherlands is also one of the oldest and most beautiful, and ideal for exploring on foot. The Carnival festival is a must experience where everyone dresses in costumes and celebrates throughout the night. The Vrijthof town square features gorgeous architecture, notably St Jan’s Cathedral and St. Servaas Church. The extensive network of tunnels makes the Saint Pietersberg Caves an adventure to explore.
  • The Hague. The “judicial capital of the world” features the International Court of Justice and numerous other international courts, as well as being home to the Dutch royal family and the Dutch parliament. You can take a dip in the North Sea along the beaches of the Scheveningen or enjoy watersports such as windsurfing.
  • Texel. This island is part of the West Frisian Islands region of the Netherlands. The Duinen van Texel National Park is a great place for hiking through sand dunes and grass lands that host numerous bird species and other flora and fauna.

 

In the Netherlands you will find numerous sites and activities that can make for the perfect getaway. If you can, try to arrive in time for the annual King’s Day celebration that occurs on April 30 or the closest day to that date that isn’t a Sunday.