Three days, three cities: Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. It didn’t sound wild enough to be madness. But nor did it sound like astoundingly good common sense.
Why take three cities into the shower when you can just take one?
Why watch windmills and tulips through the windows of a train when you could be out there and at it, in a cultural sense of course.
Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s amazing how often the world rolls over and relishes in how wrong you can be. It’s as though your wrongness is the equivalent of tickling the world on its tummy and getting it begging for more.
Or at least, that’s what happened to me.
Here’s the lowdown of my three day challenge to see Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague.
This is the Netherlands with gravitas. Beautiful gravitas, uplifting gravitas but gravitas nonetheless.
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.
No, not really. No otters to be found (or none as far as I’m told…)
But Rotterdam does like to put the provocative into its cityscape, its art museums and pretty much every factor of daily life.
When the Nazis bombed the city centre, Rotterdam decided not to “rebuild” but to start anew.
When the old port faltered as fewer emigrants fled to New York , Rotterdam redesigned its waterfront.
And when the EU threatened to ban the outdoor sale of fruits and vegetables (don’t ask, or at least don’t get me started,) Rotterdam responded with Europe’s largest indoor market (and most spectacular one to boot.)
Cool architecture is to Rotterdam what yellow taxicabs are to New York: ubiquitous and characterful. Unlike the taxis, some of the buildings are easy to miss if you don’t have a helping hand to put them into context. Enter ArchiGuides (and if you take a tour with Willem Besselink you get an insight into the city’s visual art scene too.)
Take a tour through Rembrandt and Van Gogh in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (and in addition to the art, enjoy the free wifi and banter about the nearby big city that we shalt never mention by name.)
Check out work from the less well known local boy Hendrik Chabot at the museum that bears his name.
And watch out for another local boy: Erasmus. Not only does his name decorate the backpacks of hordes of European students each year, but he also has a bridge. The Erasmus Bridge, in fact ;-)
Marvel at the bubbly floating buildings that represent Rotterdam’s scientific efforts to combat the threat of global warming.
Cafe-Restaurant Rodin – a light and airy restaurant in the vibrant Witte de Withstraat, this place brought warmth to my shivering bones through its truffle and mushroom soup and uber-friendly service.
Las Palmas – taste the city in all its modern glory in Las Palmas, creation of Dutch TV chef Herman den Blijker. Sea bream on pearl barley can seem dry and dull in lesser hands; here it’s perfection.
As a member of the delicious Design Hotels Group, The Mainport matches Rotterdam’s sense of style. It’s modern and funky with an international flavour (each floor has themes from a different part of the world and as Europe’s largest port, Rotterdam claims to be one of the most international cities in the world.) The Mainport suffers from a common affliction among modern hotels – difficult-to-find-all-the-light-switches-to-turn-them-off-at-night-itis but the view from the glass walled elevator more than makes up for that.
Unencumbered by the weight of the world’s wrongs or the pressure of reinvention in the wake of Nazi bombs, the university town of Utrecht seems to carry the spirit of Holland in more of an Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard kind of a way than the other two we’ve talked about so far.
Bicycles rest alongside canals like overlapping slates on an old church roof.
Church bells chime through courtyards and museums snuggle in between narrow, cobbled lanes. Chic and-perhaps-less-so bars and cafes pop up with aplomb wherever you look and from high street chains to unique boutiques, Utrecht is a place to shop, shop, shop.
Plus, there’s Miffy. Who’s that you ask? Well, let me refresh your memory…
Climb the Big Bad Dom. OK, confession time, I didn’t actually do this. Blame the bad foot still and the ongoing physiotherapy. BUT it’s beautiful to look at from below and, hey, if you have a spring in your step, climb all the way to the top of this 465 step tower (Holland’s highest, naturally.)
On one side of the road, it hosts furniture and classical painted art. On the other, it becomes the Dick Bruna Huis, home to the legend and creation of childhood character Miffy. Here you can see original sketch drawings, colour cut out and other insights into how to make a bunny in a dress come to life before the age of CAD.
Shop, shop, shoppety shop
If you arrive by train, Utrecht will greet you with shops. Modern shops, high street shops, indoor shops, well, you get the idea…
Venture along the canals towards the museum district for a different flavour of shops. Old comic books, kooky art, vintage clothes and cute cafes set up their wares here. And, of course, right by the water’s edge, you’ll find painted clogs and buckets of tulips. For all the taste of the modern, sometimes it’s good to see a flourish of vintage Holland.
Cafe Olivier – specialising in Belgian beer and Dutch croquettes (watch out, they’re HUGE in Holland,) the real draw of this place is the cosy yet curious fact that it lives inside a renovated church. Full of student chatter and down to earth bites.
Each city can be reached with ease by train from Amsterdam Schiphol airport. You can buy tickets on arrival at the yellow ticket machines – and instructions are also given in English. The highlights of each city are close enough to manage on foot as long as you’re wearing a sturdy pair of shoes and are happy to clock up the miles (8 1/2 miles and counting, for example, on my Rotterdam trip.)
All that said, there are buses and trams in each city and plenty of helpful, friendly people about who speak spectacular English and are happy to help you out.
Disclosure – The challenge to explore the three cities of Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague in three days came from easyJet (as did the flights.) I put the itinerary together myself, with some assistance from Rotterdam Partners and Den Haag Marketing. The pick of what appears here was entirely down to me, as ever, as always etcetera etcetera. After all, if I’ve had a bad time somewhere, why on earth would I recommend it to you?!
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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