Shrugging off its sensible reputation in favour of coffee-cool hangouts and striking new art, The Hague still has a footprint in its impressive past. Here's an inside guide to the best and most unusual things to do in The Hague.
I love the variety of things to do in the Hague.
I've visited in summer, winter, spring and even darker winter. I've slept on the beach and I've slept among ambassadors and kings (not with them, you understand. That would be a different article entirely.)
And one thing I can tell you about the place is that you'll never run out of things to do.
Amsterdam may steal the limelight (red light, Ed?!) but the Hague will steal your heart. Cold and cool on the outside. Warm and cosy on the inside. Let me try to tell you everything you need to know about the Hague (gulp!)
Hop down to the relevant section or else revel in the whole article in all its Hague-y glory.
For a more poetic look at The Hague and what it means to me, check out the box on "what's so special about the Hague?"
The Netherlands have many fascinating cities but the Hague has a few things the others just can't match.
The Hague is the home of the royal family.
It's synonymous with War Crimes trials as the head of the world's international system of justice.
It has the Girl with a Pearl Earring .
It has a great sandy beach.
With that in mind, for a first visit to the Hague (or if you discover you've been living there for a while and still haven't done these things yet) here is how you can cross them off.
"Like the Mona Lisa only better," I found written in my travel notebook. Painted in 1665 by Johannes Vermeer (and brought to the big screen by Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson), the Girl sparkles in a way the Mona Lisa doesn't. It's also a lot more pleasant to visit her. While the Maritshuis does have security (so be prepared to leave belongings in lockers) downstairs, I've visited three times, now, and each time there was only one other person in the room.
If you're short on time, you can usually race through and be out in less than an hour but it's full of other masters, too, so spend more time there if you can. Unless you've studied Fine Art, it's probably a good idea to walk around with a guide.
Many of the paintings appear dark or bleak and in shadows and it helps to have an educated mind to help you see the more that's there. Look out for a portrait of King Henry VII and a vivid depiction of vivisection.
It's no exaggeration to say that the Peace Palace at the Hague is the international symbol of peace through justice. You won't find war criminals here (they're taken to the edges of town) but there are big cases going on that involve disputes between states.
Despite this high profile, it is possible to visit and it's worth it to see the gifts provided from countries around the world and to soak in the sense of diplomacy at the highest level before war.
Visiting the Peace Palace itself depends on whether or not there are court cases taking place but the visitors' centre is always available to tell you more about it. If you're lucky, you can access a guided tour (but do remember to bring your passport or other heavy duty ID.)
Face evil at the International Criminal Court
Shop at the oldest centre in The Netherlands - De Passage.
Take the tram to Scheveningen Beach and explore the more natural coast at Kijkduin. Like everywhere in northern Europe, the success of this venture is heavily influenced by the changeable weather. But from May to September, you should be safe enough.
Take tea on the giant wheel or stroll between the dunes. Tackle a raw herring or just learn about it in the seaside museum.
For a really romantic time, sleep in a (luxury) beach hut beneath the stars.
The doors slide shut and I turn around. Scarlet chairs slip into the earth as the floor rises higher and higher and the outdoor lights appear between the sheets of glass and concrete.
The sky is busy tonight. Bulbous, rucked up clouds and the fading remnants of sunset match those I’ve just seen in oil painted landscapes, centuries old and hanging in museums nearby.
But now, in 21st century Holland, tram lights, street lights, and office lights radiate through the glass and into the clouds.
One of the best things about this job of mine (and there are many things to choose from) is the chance to go back. To re-view, re-visit, re-see.
I first came to The Hague in the winter of 2012. Like Nuremberg, I knew its name as a symbol: a marker of horrific deeds, not a place where people live.
Like Nuremberg, I left inspired.
Not only by clear evidence of the prospect of hope but also by the far less cerebral observation that they’re both pretty places worth visiting in their own right.
And so I returned for the 341 challenge: three cities in three days.
The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, all reachable via a quick ’n’ smooth train journey from airport hub Schiphol at Amsterdam (at roughly 30 mins a pop.)
So here I am, tapping away at the keyboard in the Netherland’s highest restaurant on the 42nd floor. I’m tasting scallops with white chocolate sauce and bacon followed by venison, red cabbage and a gingerbread sauce. Life is good. Life is also very different to how I imagined life in The Hague would be.
First, I envisioned lawyers and diplomats, security guards and, well, genocidal maniacs awaiting trial for their crimes. The last time, I raced straight to the International Criminal Court, striding past the canals and slate-spiked spires I had no chance to stop and see.
Today, I put that right. I strolled through the Old Town, ate Dutch shrimp (cooked in whiskey, apparently,) shopped beneath Holland's oldest arcade and unpacked my bags in a blue and white silk room.
I also found a new and old friend.
I’m not too proud to admit it (gulp) – I found out about this masterpiece through the work of Tracy Chevalier, Colin Firth and Scarlett Johannson.
I also only discovered the word “tronie” on my visit to the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague where the painting now lives (it means “face” and applies to art works made from imagination rather than as direct portrait copies of a person sat in front of them.)
Created by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in the 17th century, The Girl captivates instantly. There’s no wondering what all the fuss is about as there is with the Mona Lisa. There’s instant, headstruck bedazzlement. There also isn’t much of a queue.
She looks real, she looks alive, she looks fascinating. Everything, from the glint in her eye to the shimmer of the pearl to the hint of moisture on her lip is in exactly the right place. The art world talks about perspective in terms of the position of oil on canvas; I can’t help but think about perspective in terms of what it means to travel and to experience something the way no-one else the world can – by putting yourself in the picture and seeing it with your own eyes.
I’m drawn to that idea again at the next museum, the Panorama Mesdag, where an EU supported grant has brought 19th century Scheveningen back to life through a 360 degree panorama. A recorded soundtrack of seagulls and waves keeps me company, lobster pots and heaps of sand wait in the foreground. They give me tangible perspective – and they aim for the psychological, trying to transport me back to a world that has long since moved on.
But here I am in the 21st century on the 42nd floor, trying to put it all into…perspective?
I’m often asked “why I travel” or “what do I think about a place” and both questions are difficult to answer. How can I answer the second without climbing up on high, walking at street level and delving into history?
How many times do you need to visit a place before you can claim it’s a place that you know?
A place you can put into perspective?
And what of the places of your own?
What know they of England who only England know? Kipling.
For me, The Hague has gone from a name in a history book to a Pinterest scene to a Hollywood “tronie” to a living gourmet experience on the 42nd floor.
The journey has taken place along the canals of Holland and skirted the maps inside my mind.
And can I claim to know it?
No, not yet for sure. But each time I travel – and then return home – I am perhaps one step closer to answering that first question on travel.
"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot.
I gather my coat and my scarf and the doors slide shut. The lights of the city rise into the sky as I fall back down to earth. In The Hague.
Never before have I seen such an unexpectedly striking entrance to a museum. Designed by Dutch architect Henrik Berlage, the Gemeentemuseum is most famous for its collection of work by Mondrian (he of the coloured blocks and white space fame.)
But the museum itself dabbles in primary colours, perspective and light in a way that can't help but feel dated but which also stimulates the eyes.
The tracking of Mondrian's journey from well-behaved landscape and still life artist into groundbreaking pioneer finishes with his final work: the famous (if controversial) Victory Boogie Woogie.
Like the artist himself, the Escher Museum likes to play with perspective. One area displays his art, another explores illusions and still another allows you to join in. Over 150 original works are on display here but it's the lifesize photograph of Escher's school that is surprisingly compelling... Visit here and you'll never look at those staircase loops in the same way again.
It's easy to get museum fatigue in a city with so many. But new kid on the block, Museum Voorlinden, delivers a double espresso with a shot of ice cold shower to wake you up and make you appreciate things again.
Whereas the central museums in the Hague feature cosy, earthy browns and terracotta tones, the Museum Voorlinden is almost all brilliantly white, with huge halls specifically designed to showcase the art (and even a section with a roof missing.
This is the lovechild of businessman Joop van Caldenborgh and his art collection, set in Wassenaar, close to the Hague.
Restaurant Gember lives next door to the Gemeentemuseum and benefits from a terrace with a view across the pond. In the summer, the space becomes a city beach, but all year round you can see arty sculptures as you dine. Expect a mix of Dutch classics and vegetarian fare.
OK, in Holland this isn't particularly unusual. It's actually a traditional practice, like fish 'n' chips on a British beach at home.
But for international visitors, it seems unusual enough. And (luckily) it tastes better than it sounds.
Head to Patapaleis on Scheveningen to have raw herring with chopped onions. Grab by the tail, tip your head back. And go for it!
Pick up a gorgeous picnic basket from the Pistache Cafe and cross the road. Job done.
Far from the "tourist" hub, this district fills its streets with terraces, cafes, coffee shops and independent shops. Houses have an Art Nouveau feel and, well, the coffee is good.
Last time I visited, the world sand sculpture championships were taking place on this leafy, "Champs Elysees" like walkway. Who knows what you'll catch when you are there?
't Goude Hooft is the oldest in in The Hague, dating all the way back to 1423. It's recently (as in, still going when I last visited) given itself a shimmery golden facelift but the essentials remain the same.
Another Hague institution that's undergone a major reinvention is the Hotel Indigo, where you can dine in the vaults of the former Dutch National Bank. Money lines the walls and each room has its own bank safe.
In the summer season, luxury beach huts spring up on the sandy dunes at Kijkduin. I was hesitant, even in April, but the running water, heating, TV and beautiful New England-ish decor made the experience one of my highlights for 2018.
Sure, you've seen a Ferris wheel like the London Eye. But have you seen one that rises out of a pier and spins you around some pummelling surf below?
Welcome to the Skyview Ferris wheel, with 36 gondolas reaching 50 metres high. Although a relative newcomer to the Hague (it opened in 2016) it's already become a well recognised part of its skyline.
Watch out for it as you take off or land from Amsterdam Schiphol.
Beyond the law courts, the Hague is famous for the art contained in its museums. But there's more than the Mauritshuis. 36 more, in fact (OK, I guessed, but there are a lot.)
Here are some of the overlooked museumy things to do in the Hague:
If you don't have time to head to the beach itself, catch a curious view of Scheveningen at the Panorama Mesdag.
This 360 degree painting shows Scheveningen life in 1881 - and it's fascinating to see just how much has changed - and how much has remained the same.
An audio track of waves and seagulls.
This curious spot lives close to the Mauritshuis and parliament buildings yet somehow falls under the radar a little.
This was the firest museum open to the public in the Netherlands and its interior shows just how much styles have changed since 1774. And we're not just talking about the wigs (although, as it happens, this period is referred to as the "wig era.")
Paintings cram themselves into the wall space from floor to ceiling like an over-enthusiastic pinterest page.
It's another spot where a guided tour helps to make sense of the Jan Steen, Bloemaert, Wouwerman and Willem van de Velde.
This cutesy little art museum (don't tell them I said that!) is worth visiting to have a look at the 18th century townhouse as much as as the art within. Despite the chandeliers, gold frames and polished wood, their ethos is to make people feel at home and to learn more about the art. It's another spot where a guided tour is a must. They are so warm, approachable and informed.
On the surface, this looks like a cheeky lego-like introduction to all the key sites there are to see in Holland.
But the introductory video reveals a far sadder, yet somehow inspirational, story. George Maduro was a law student and war hero with Jewish ancestry who died in Dachau concentration camp. His parents contributed the capital to found Madurodam and bring happiness to a generation of children who would hopefully never need to know war.
I may have gone soft but I choked up a little on the entrance to the place. It's mainly a place for children but it's also fascinating to see so much Dutch heritage in miniature form. After all, there are more than 65 000 figurines and 338 Dutch miniatures.
s'Goude Hooft - a central guesthouse founded in 1423. Serves Dutch prawns, whiskey style, as well as soups and sandwiches. Outdoor tables for summer.
The Penthouse - Holland's highest restaurant on the 42nd floor. Bar area or gourmet dinner. Don't miss the scallops in a white chocolate and bacon sauce.
Carlton Ambassador Hotel in a leafy, relaxed diplomatic part of town within walking distance of the Old Town. I loved Residence No 5 for a touch of ambassadorial class.
Disclosure: I have visited the Hague on many occasions, some with the help of the tourist board, some not. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, what's the point?
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