Whether it’s your first foray into Europe, or you’re already familiar with some famous capitals, the Netherlands is an excellent choice for a mini-vacation of one week. This itinerary is more on the budget-friendly side, but you still get a taste of the best Dutch offerings. The hotels we recommend in Rotterdam and The Hague can be pricy depending on when you book. Try booking at least three months ahead to lock down the best prices.
Day 3: Groningen
Ah, Groningen! That’s the reaction you will get from natives when you tell them you are headed there next, or when you ask the person at the service counter for a train ticket to this destination. They are pleasantly surprised that a tourist is making this stop, and you too will be pleasantly surprised by this charming old university town. Groningen is the largest city in the north of the Netherlands. You will definitely notice a difference from cosmopolitan Amsterdam, though. In fact, that’s why we recommend it as the next stop – to give you a chance to rest and recuperate after two non-stop days in the main capital.
1. Intercity from Amsterdam Zuid
You should definitely hop on a high-speed rail when you are in Europe. The Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam are all very close to each other, and you can make the journey very quickly. Groningen, to the far northeast of the Netherlands, takes about four hours from Amsterdam, and offers scenic views of the Dutch countryside. This is a good chance to get some shut-eye (especially if you were out late the previous night). Or you can update your Instagram – there is free Wifi in the train. It’s called ‘WiFi in de trein’ and you can connect to it as soon as you board. This journey begins at Amsterdam Zuid station, and costs €25 per person.
2. The Student Hotel in Groningen
Yes, The Student Hotel again. We became fans of it in Amsterdam, and there happens to be another location in Groningen. On AirBnB, there are plenty of rooms, tiny houses and even boats available, and all those sound like a lot of fun if you are going to spend a week or more in Groningen. But when you’re here for about a day and a half, it makes more sense to jump right into the local sphere of activity. The Student Hotel is perfect for that. Like the one Amsterdam, people of all ages stay here, the service is very friendly, and the rooms are bright and clean with standard amenities. We made good use of their baggage storage service, useful when you want to keep exploring after check-out. It’s also excellently located, and you will figure out your way to the main town square in no time (just follow the church spire).
3. Grote Markt
The Grote Markt is an area of cafes, bars and restaurants that face the town square. You can spend most of the night here, with many of the watering holes open until 5AM. Groningen has an energetic nightlife, and dance clubs are open until 7AM. Fortunately, there are also doner kebab and durum shops that serve food all night, not shutting down until 8AM, so that even the last straggler to leave the club is covered. Other main attractions like Vismarkt, the Martini Tower, and the main shopping street, Herestraat, are also close walking distance from here.
4. The Dot
This is a creative and multifunctional building that you can see from The Student Hotel. It’s curiously shaped like a large white dome rising from the ground with a ring around it like Saturn, so it’s pretty hard to miss. Located in the Ebbingekwartier, it features a gastrobar, a film and theatre hall, and a terrace that opens to a ‘city beach’ in the summer. Come here for brunch the next morning.
Head back to the station after brunch, the lovely and historic Hoofdstation. Train service began here in 1866. Located inside the terminal is the railway that connects to the rest of the country, and outside are 41 different bus routes, local to Groningen alone, available for commuters and travelers. There are plenty of photo-ops around this area, from the drawbridge over a picturesque canal right across the station, to the historic buildings and contemporary design and installments around the perimeter. You also need to take the train to your next stop from here.
Day 4 & 5: Rotterdam
Hope you rested a bit on the four-hour journey from Groningen, or at least were soothed by bucolic scenes of the countryside, because Rotterdam is all geometric shapes and neon colors. It’s stunning, stunningly creative, pushing at the very edges of architectural design.
Of course, there is a reason why it could be built from the ground up so coherently – because it was demolished to the ground during World War II. An important shipping port and hub of commerce, the city was targeted relentlessly by Nazi bombs. Today, it is still an important shipping port and hub of commerce. You will notice immediately its sleek and business-like vibe as you walk out of Centraal station and through the downtown and midtown centers, a vibe very different from both Amsterdam and Groningen.
1. Mainport Hotel
Because this is a sleek and modern city, we recommend you stay in a sleek and modern hotel. Mainport, on the banks of the Maas river, is a 5-star Design Hotel and pretty fabulously luxurious (remember to book your stay at least three months early for a decent rate). If you can upgrade your room to get harborside views, certainly do. The amenities go way beyond ‘standard’ – there are oversized hot tubs in the room, Finnish saunas and Turkish steam rooms by the indoor pool, and the central location is breathtaking, right beside the Erasmus Bridge (Erasmusbrug).
2. Cool District
There’s a neighborhood called Cool District here, because why not? It is home to several casinos, ErasmusHuis, and plenty of options for dinner. We recommend Scharrels en Schuim. Google claims this is a Dutch restaurant. Certainly, many of the beers on tap are Dutch, but this is basically a place for really good rotisserie chicken, along with fries and ketchup and mayo. You can also check out Humphrey’s Restaurant Rotterdam Binnenrotte, and Bokaal Rotterdam for after-dinner drinks.
3. Witte de Withstraat
This hip and joyful street is where you’ll want to hang out into the night. It’s a historic shopping area, with bars, terraces and restaurants that are always busy in the evening. Walking through the street you’ll come upon Cafe de Witte Aap, which was named the best bar in the world by Lonely Planet. There are also several quirky themed bars. If you happen to be here in March, you can join the Museumnacht010 festival held here.
4. Markthal & Cube Houses
These are two of Rotterdam’s most recognizable buildings, and they are within sight of each other. Head to Markthal first, where you can get some breakfast. Markthal looks like the hull of a spaceship or an elephant’s backside, depending on how you see things. About 11 stories high, the entire border of this structure is actually comprised of residential units, where people live. The space in between is a multistory open market with a really high and gorgeously decorated ceiling. We always recommend starting the day at a market like this, for two reasons. First, you can feed yourself delectably for about 1/3 the price of a restaurant. There are excellent herring counters here, which also serve fish stew – a great way to start the day. Second, you also get thrust into a local epicenter of activity. At Markthal you can chat up vendors and see if there are any goods you wouldn’t fancy taking back with you. Protip: if the dry-cured sausage or any other food item that does not require refrigeration catches your eye, be sure to declare it on the customs form before re-entering the U.S.
5. Rotterdam Centraal
This asymmetrical, intriguingly shaped building is Rotterdam’s central train station. Its height and transparent ceilings give the inside a light and airy feel. Catch an Intercity Sprinter to The Hague. This journey is just 30 minutes long and costs €4.60 per person to Den Haag HS. Protip: buy tickets from the service center or the kiosk in the the station. It’s more expensive online
Day 6 & 7: The Hague
Ah! You have made it to The Hague. Once again, you will notice a difference from the previous destinations. Home to the U.N.’s International Court of Justice, the Dutch parliament, and the king’s office,The Hague is stately, historical and very beautiful. This is not a party destination. Bars and restaurants close earlier here than in the rest of the country, but there is a lot to see and learn. Protip: Visa is not accepted here, even in kiosks at the station. Make sure you use MasterCard, or have cash on hand.
1. Den Haag HS
The oldest station in The Hague. The HS is an abbreviation of the original Hollands Spoor. It’s located on the Amsterdam-Haarlem-Rotterdam railway, the oldest in the country. Plenty of photo-ops here as you depart your short journey from Rotterdam Centraal.
2. Paleis Hotel
We love centrally located hotels. It’s a bonus if they are also fancy. Location-wise, it doesn’t get better than the Paleis Hotel, situated in charming and historic Molenstraat, right in the middle of the city. From here, the government buildings, shopping areas, and museums are only a few minutes away. The building itself is from the 17th century. Its refined, aristocratic interiors used to be the quarters of visiting diplomats and court officials. The king’s workplace, Noordeinde Palace, is right next door. The rooms are a little small, but the ambience and location make up for that. The windows open right into the streets and little charming alleys.
Mauritshuis and Gemeentemuseum are both must-see museums in The Hague. If you are pressed for time, go for Maurithuis, which is walking distance from Paleis Hotel. The most celebrated artists of the Dutch Golden Age are the main feature, including Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
4. Scheveningen beach
If you are lucky enough to be here in the summer, when temperatures sometimes hit 80 F and the sun doesn’t set until 9:30PM, then plan to spend an afternoon and evening at Scheveningen. From Paleis Hotel, hop on the 22 tram. In 20 minutes you’ll be on the coast of the North Sea. The Pier has plenty of attractions, rides, and the iconic Ferris wheel. Stay until sunset, it’s worth it!
Time flies when you have a great time at the beach. By the time we got back (by tram again), washed off the sand and prepared to go out again, most of the eateries around were closed. That might have something to do with the fact that we lingered at the beach until 9:30PM, when the sun finally set. When everything else is closed, you can always count on some Turkish-run kebab, doner and shawarma places to feed you. (This is not a coincidence. Immigrants generally work harder and longer at jobs others don’t want, no matter which country they’re in. They provide conveniences that cannot be taken for granted, especially when you’re hungry.) Needless to say, we were very grateful for the mint tea, durum and Turkish pizza we got from Sinbad. Though eateries were closed, some were still serving beer and the streets were still merry. We ate on the sidewalk with a longtime resident cat for company.
6. Oude Molstraat
The next morning, wake up early and roam this beautiful street at dawn, when the light is magical. Fortunately, it’s just a block from Paleis Hotel. Bakeries will be the first shops to start the day. The smell of bread and pastries baking adds to the historic feel as you wander through a part of old Europe.
7. Het Binnenhof & Ridderzaal
Wrap up your morning tour by paying a visit to these two iconic buildings. Het Binnenhof is the seat of the Dutch Parliament, built in the 13th century. On either side is the Ridderzaal, Hall of Knights. For much of its history, the Netherlands was governed from here.
8. Grote Markt
Of course you have to stop at a market before you leave. There are many ‘Grote Markts’ in the country (Grote means ‘grand’), and this one is more a series of cafes and restaurants. Conveniently located on the way from Paleis Hotel to the train station, you can stop here for your last meal in The Hague.
Ah! Vacation is over. Catch a train back to Schiphol from Den Haag Centraal. This is the other main station, different from Den Haag HS. Both will take you to Schiphol, but Centraal has Sprinters more often. Now you must face several long lines, followed by airplane food and then more long lines at Customs. If it makes you feel better, we all have to go through it after a lovely holiday. Protip: if you brought back any canned or dried food items, declare it on the Customs form before entering the U.S. You should not have any trouble, but it’s better to declare it and be safe.
Another protip: immigration lines are LONG at whatever port you re-enter the U.S. If you have a connecting flight, make sure there is at least an hour and a half to clear through. Always be polite to Customs officers. While other staffers may not know the specifics of your visa situation, the Customs officers do know. Always cooperate with them!
Featured image by Rishabh Singh. Check out his Instagram!
Missed Part I of this itinerary? Read it here