Second Cities: The best destinations to visit from Amsterdam
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Welcome to TPG’s Second Cities series, where we help you find amazing places that are only a couple of hours away from your original destination. This way you get the most out of your itinerary and visit less-popular or less-frequented destinations that deserve more attention.
Roughly 20 million visitors descend on Amsterdam each year to tour world-class cultural attractions like the Rijksmuseum, pedal across picturesque bridges alongside the city’s iconic canals and bask in that feeling the Dutch call gezellig. (Loosely translated as “cozy,” it’s fundamental to the culture of the Netherlands and you’ll hear the word used everywhere.)
All those people arriving in Amsterdam, however, means that overtourism is real in this beautiful European city. After you navigate the crowds to see what you’ve come to see in Amsterdam, hop a train out of the city to check out these interesting second cities.
With stairs that descend from street level to cafes and restaurants perched right at the edge of its canals, Holland’s fourth-largest city feels a lot like a mini-Amsterdam — but without the tourist throngs. Utrecht dates to medieval times and is lively year-round thanks to a vibrant student population. In the spring, summer and fall its many squares and cafes fill with Dutch people soaking up the sun with a drink in hand and watching the world go past.
The train ride from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station south to Utrecht’s Centraal Station takes less than 30 minutes. Once you leave the station in Utrecht, it’s a short stroll through shop-lined streets to the center of town and the main canal, the Oudegracht.
Where to stay
Radisson Rewards members like the Park Plaza Utrecht, a stone’s throw from the train station and within an easy stroll of the city center. Or you can cash in Hilton Honors points for the nearby Hampton by Hilton Utrecht Central Station. For something more stylish, Mother Goose hotel is a boutique property right in the historic center with just 23 rooms set within a former city castle and pretty views of the town’s medieval bell tower.
What to see and do
One of the most pleasant Dutch towns for urban strolling and cycling, Utrecht’s many shops, cafes and parks are best explored on foot or by bike. A residential city more than a tourist town, Utrecht is a place to feel the rhythm of Dutch life without keeping a manic tourist schedule — or any schedule at all.
Get your blood pumping with a walk up the 465 steps (no elevator) of the 14th century Dom Tower, the highest church tower in Holland at roughly 368 feet. You’ll have the best views in town of the sprawling city and canals below, and if you’re lucky, you’ll hear the tower’s 17th century carillon pealing.
As in Amsterdam, a boat tour is a classic way to see Utrecht. Schuttevaer is a long-standing company offering boat tours through the city’s canals with informative historic narration. When you get hungry, dive into the Indonesian feast called rijsttafel (Indonesia was once a Dutch colony) at the popular Restaurant Blauw. It proffers a spread of tasty rice dishes, condiments and side dishes that are best shared with a friend or two. The Seafood Bar is another popular Utrecht restaurant where you can tuck into platters of fresh Dutch shrimp, French oysters, grilled octopus and the North Sea treat called kibbeling (fried white fish — usually pollock or haddock — served with tartar sauce).
German air raids in 1940, known as the Rotterdam Blitz, devastated Holland’s second largest city and left it with little of the charming historic architecture of Amsterdam, Utrecht and many other Dutch cities. Rotterdam’s appeal comes in its whimsical modern architecture and the city’s outward-looking and raffish port-city personality. Visit and you’ll likely be surprised at every turn.
It’s a 40-minute train ride from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station to Rotterdam’s Centraal Station, which is located right in the city center. Just north of the city, Rotterdam The Hague Airport has flights from points around Europe and North Africa, including regular arrivals on British Airways from London City and flights from airports in Spain, Italy, Portugal, France and Morocco on Transavia, a low-cost Dutch carrier.
Where to stay
Marriott Bonvoy points can be cashed in for a stay at the Rotterdam Marriott Hotel, across from the main train station, or you can relinquish some of your Hilton Honors stash at the pet-friendly Hilton Rotterdam. Closer to the water, citizenM offers good value rooms right near the Nieuwe Maas River and Oude Haven (old harbor) and is a short stroll to the city’s famous Cube Houses.
What to see and do
Start with a look at one of Rotterdam’s most iconic architectural sites, the canary yellow Cube Houses, a neighborhood designed by the Dutch architect Piet Blom in the late 1970s to resemble an abstract forest. It remains one of the city’s signature sights today. The houses actually sit atop a pedestrian bridge you can walk across.
To feel something of what Rotterdam was like in the prewar era, head to Delfshaven, just west, where you’ll find row houses that were spared from the Nazi bombs (similar to what you see in Amsterdam). Pop into the De Pelgrim Brewery, where the food is Belgian and seasonal beers are on tap. The brewery has a nice terrace where you can sit outside on a warm (or at least sunny) Dutch day. The historical highlight in Delfshaven is the Pelgrim Vaders Kerk (the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church) where, in 1620, pilgrims were said to have gathered before leaving to cross the Atlantic Ocean for America.
Rotterdam’s main cultural highlight and one of its architectural touchstones is the city’s main art museum, the Kunsthal Rotterdam, which was designed by Rem Koolhaas and has several gallery spaces. There’s no permanent collection here, so the exhibitions — up to 20 per year — are constantly rotating, which means every visit brings a new experience.
In the former warehouse area and Chinatown district of Katendrecht, stop for lunch at Fenix Food Factory, a market with all manner of food stalls, food trucks, a brewery and a sidewalk cafe with tables overlooking the Maas River.
In the south of Holland near the border with Belgium and Germany, Maastricht is a beautiful town in Limburg province. One of Holland’s oldest cities, it’s famous for its beautiful squares, canals and riverside setting as well as the pre-Lent carnival celebrations every March (one of the biggest parties in the land).
It takes about three hours by train from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station to Maastricht Centraal, which is right in the center of town. (You can get to Maastricht even quicker from nearby cities in Belgium and Germany.)
Where to stay
There aren’t many big international chain hotels in Maastricht, but IHG Rewards Club members can stay right on the bank of the River Meuse, within walking distance of many restaurants and shops, at the Crowne Plaza Maastricht. For a budget hotel with style near the train station, consider Kaboom Hotel. And Designhotel Maastricht in the lively Wyck neighborhood is another good bet for a central and comfortable stay.
What to see and do
Strap on your walking shoes; Maastricht is best admired on foot. Start in the town’s main square, het Vrijthof, which is the place to gather in a cafe when the weather is inviting or meet up with friends when festivals take over the town. St. Servatius Basilica on the square houses religious relics in its treasury that make it an important pilgrimage site during an event called Heiligdomsvaart that occurs every seven years. The remains of Saint Servatius are interred here at the shrine called the Noodkist.
To see art by Dutch masters, head to the Bonnefantenmuseum, which houses works by the old masters as well as contemporary artists from Limburg and greater Holland.
Maastricht’s most charming neighborhood is the Wyck, where old and new architecture blends and the cafes and boutiques bustle with an international population of students.
For something different, head just out of town to visit St. Peter’s Caves to hear stories of life underground during World War II, when the caves were used as a refuge and even served as a hiding place for Rembrandt’s famous “Night Watch” painting.
Featured photo by Nisangha/Getty Images.
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