Amsterdam is full. It’s too busy. It doesn’t belong to us any more. In a few years it will be like Venice: a Disneyland, just for tourists.’ Such complaints by local people about overtourism ring true not only for the Dutch capital, but for other vortices of visitor frenzy across the Netherlands.
Earlier this year, traffic warnings advised against even attempting to travel to the world-famous flower gardens at Keukenhof. Bulb farmers have been complaining that selfie-snapping tourists are laying waste to tulip fields as they trample about seeking that perfect shot.
Amsterdam, where the core city has a population of just 870,000, attracts 6.7 million overseas visitors a year — an influx of 17 million if you count local day-trippers and commuters.
Entrepreneurs and those associated with the tourism industry may gleefully be pocketing the gold, but according to critics, all this has a damaging effect on the environment and also destroys neighbourhoods, overruns beauty spots, and risks poisoning the very source of what attracts people in the first place.
Clearly, something must be done. Current proposals in Amsterdam include raising tourist taxes, curbing hotel growth, restricting numbers on organised tours, and moving the cruise ship terminal out of town.
Even the national tourist board began talking about ‘destination management’ rather than promotion, in an attempt to divert attention away from the capital and a few well-trodden paths.
So, what is the best way to avoid becoming part of the problem? You can view fine Old Masters in collections other than in the Rijksmuseum, be charmed by canals and gabled houses in places other than Amsterdam, visit intriguing attractions that don’t feature in conventional itineraries, or simply take off on a bicycle and leave the crowds behind.
Here are 10 holiday suggestions to get you started.
The Wadden Islands
Streaked through the North Sea, across the very top of the Netherlands, the Wadden Islands (friesland.nl), also known as the Frisian Islands, offer long, wide beaches and wild dunes, along with forests and wetlands, quiet fishing villages and abundant bird life. Texel (famed for its lamb) is the most popular; Terschelling has vast empty beaches; the slim sliver of Vlieland is one of the least densely populated parts of the country, and Ameland is famous for its bird life. But Schiermonnikoog tops them all. Fewer than 1,000 people live there, and it is pretty much car-free, with just a handful of vehicles licensed to locals. Walk or cycle through woodland, wander across the windswept dunes where rare orchids grow, or soak up the sun on a broad 10-mile beach.
Rotterdam’s metropolitan air makes it feel larger than Amsterdam, somehow more able to bear the impact of visitors. Its flash contemporary architecture and big-town buzz are combined with high art – the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum (boijmans.nl) packs it all in, from medieval painting to zany contemporary installations; the Kunsthal (kunsthal.nl) hosts excellent changing exhibitions. There’s a busy gallery scene (start looking along Witte de Withstraat), the Laurenskwartier is the place to go for quirky shopping and hip eateries, and there’s even a canal-side stretch of old-world gabled charm at Delfshaven.
The Eleven Cities
Best known for the Elfstedentocht (“Eleven Cities Tour”), a skating race that takes place on the increasingly rare occasions when the inland waterways freeze over, the Eleven Cities (friesland.nl) – in Friesland, in the far north-west – escape the attention of most overseas visitors. Leeuwarden, the Frisian capital, has an excellent ceramics museum (princesse hof.nl). The walled settlement of Sneek, once a centre of shipbuilding, is one of the most charming of the towns, while Franeker retains the grandeur of its glory days and is home to an absolute must-see: the Eise Eisinga Planetarium (planetarium-friesland.nl), the oldest planetarium in existence – complete with moving planets – built by an 18th-century amateur in his parlour. Beyond the Eleven, countryside villages such as Janum and Hegebeintum feature houses and churches perched high on terps – artificial hills built as flood defences.
Just half an hour from Amsterdam by train, Utrecht offers a less crowded alternative and some excellent museums. Residents call the city “Little Amsterdam” and say it is like the capital 40 years ago. Spruce and stately, yet low-key and romantic, it is graced with two long canals and a network of side streets with chic and quirky shops and cafes. The medieval Catharijneconvent (catharijneconvent.nl) brims with centuries of sublime sacred art, and the Centraal Museum (centraalmuseum.nl) is stashed with both Golden Age treasures and modern classics from De Stijl. Just east of the centre, Rietveld Schroder house (rietveldschroderhuis.nl) preserves original features, indoors and out, just as renowned De Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld designed it in 1924.
The south-western province of Zeeland comprises almost more water than land and is the least populous in the country. The Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta provides resorts that German visitors in particular love for the water sports, but you can escape the crowds inland. Fertile soil south of the charming town of Goes feeds swathes of orchards. The capital Middelburg was a power almost to rival Amsterdam in the Golden Age, and today attractive alleys lead to grand squares lined with patrician mansions, while a medieval abbey lords it over all.
De Kwade Hoek
Seaside holidays in the Netherlands are something of an acquired taste, as they are seldom sun-and-sand affairs. At De Kwade Hoek, at the tip of an island, the surges and (literally) shifting sands of nature still hold sway. The Dunes of Goeree that back on to the beaches are an untouched realm of wild flowers and wetlands that are home to spoonbills, waders and all manner of wildfowl.
Groningen and the German Border
Groningen is a lively university town. The zanily designed Groninger Museum (groningermuseum.nl) has a reputation for innovative contemporary exhibitions, and though the city suffered badly in the Second World War, it retains a good share of monuments, including the Gothic Martinikerk (martinikerk.nl), famed for its Baroque organ. Along the German border, you can visit the star-shaped fortress town of Bourtange, and, further south, pretty Ootmarsum with its timbered houses and numerous resident artists.
De Biesbosch National Park is one of the few remaining tidal wetlands in this part of Europe. Canoe through interconnecting rivers, hide in the reeds observing migrating geese, go boating to look for beavers, or wander quietly in the forest. If you tire of nature, the river port of Dordrecht, which preserves its medieval street plan and many venerable buildings, is nearby, and is great for antiques.
In the Middle Ages, the river IJssel was a busy trade route. Towns along it prospered, and many joined the powerful Hanseatic League. Of these, Zutphen is the most alluring: bustling with cheery burghers, bristling with towers, and retaining much of its medieval atmosphere. Be sure to see St Walburgiskerk (walburgiskerk.nl), begun in the 12th century when Romanesque was all the rage, and finished off four centuries later in Gothic. It contains a 16th-century library (librije-zutphen.nl) complete with ancient illuminated tomes.
Do it all by bike
The countryside and cities are criss-crossed by cycle paths, so travelling by bike is safe, easy and fun. You can easily take bikes on trains, and hotels along the way will understand your needs. The website hollandcyclingroutes.com is a great resource for suggested routes.
The Sunday Telegraph