The Netherlands is a diverse country with a long coastline, one of the greenest countrysides anywhere around, and cities and towns steeped in history. Most visitors to the Netherlands (also popularly known as Holland – though this name only refers to two provinces North- and South Holland) make a beeline for Amsterdam, Utrecht or Rotterdam, and rightfully so. But to get to know the country better, I recommend visiting its smaller towns and villages. Many of these places not only offer charming cobblestone streets and a rich history to delve into, but also lots of cultural attractions, great shopping and top-notch restaurants. Here are 21 beautiful towns in the Netherlands to visit:
Small towns in the Netherlands you shouldn’t miss
I’ve lived in this country for most of my life and explored almost every corner of it. There are many towns in the Netherlands I can recommend for a visit so it was a challenge to narrow it down to twenty. I didn’t include places like Utrecht, The Hague, Groningen and Maastricht as these are bigger, well-known cities, or famous villages like Giethoorn. Instead, I selected smaller cities and a few villages with great historical and cultural importance.
Amersfoort is a historic city in the province of Utrecht (map), less than an hour’s drive (or a train ride) from Amsterdam. It’s a gorgeous medieval city with picturesque canals, old city walls and impressive gates.
Stroll along the Langestraat (the medieval town’s main thoroughfare), visit the 15th century Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren (Our Lady tower), the vibrant Hof square, and don’t miss the beautiful Koppelpoort, a unique medieval gate. Read more about things to do in Amersfoort.
This old city – Alkmaar gained city rights in the 13th century – is located about a 45-minute drive northwest of Amsterdam, or a 35+ minute train ride (map). Famous for its traditional cheese market, held every Friday morning (April to September) at the Waagplein (Waag square), Alkmaar also has quaint canals, beautiful houses and interesting shops to entice visitors.
Located between The Hague and Rotterdam in South Holland (map), Delft is an important historic and cultural centre in the Netherlands. Delft’s main square, Markt (‘Market’), is home to two of the town’s most important buildings, the Nieuwe Kerk (‘New Church’) and the Stadhuis (‘Town Hall’).
The Nieuwe Kerk was completed in 1496 and its bell-tower is an impressive 109 meters tall! This church has an important place in the history of the Dutch monarchy as it’s where the royal family’s burial vault is located. As the birthplace of Vermeer, the famous Dutch artist, a visit to Delft wouldn’t be complete without a tour of the Vermeer Centre! I also recommend visiting the Royal Delft, the original 17th century Delft Blue ceramics factory. Join a private walking tour of Delft. Read more about things to do in Delft. Search for hotels in Delft.
Haarlem is located about a 30-minute drive/train ride west of Amsterdam (map). The capital of the province of North Holland, it’s a town of beautiful medieval cobblestone streets and charming canals but there’s much more to see. The Cathedral of Saint Bavo is one of the must-sees in Haarlem. This Gothic cathedral in the city centre is famous for its 18th century Müller Organ; the likes of Händel and Mozart once played this world-famous organ.
Haarlem is also home to important art museums such as the Teylers Museum and the Frans Hals Museum, dedicated to the famous master. Another must-visit is the historic De Adriaan Windmill (dating from 1779). A canal cruise is a great way to see the town.
This city in South Holland (map) is home to the country’s oldest university (Leiden University, since 1575), centuries-old buildings and the famous Leiden Botanical Garden (founded in 1590 and where the tulip was first introduced in Western Europe). Leiden University is still one of the top universities in Europe, having produced 13 Nobel prize winners, and with students from around the world, creates a vibrant, international atmosphere in the city. Leiden is also famous as the birthplace of Rembrandt and played a pivotal role in the Dutch revolt against the Spanish occupation in the 16th century.
Stroll around the picturesque canals, cosy lanes and the city’s ‘hofjes’ (courtyards), visit the Leiden Botanical Garden (Hortus Botanicus Leiden), the Burcht (Castle) of Leiden and the Pieterskerk (which is especially interesting for American visitors due to its connection with the earliest Pilgrims). Just outside the city centre, visit the spectacular Naturalis Biodiversity Centre.
World famous for its cheese, Gouda is one of the most beautiful towns in South Holland (map). The Markt (Market Square), with the iconic 15th century Stadhuis (Town Hall), the Waag (weighing house) and the weekly cheese market (every Thursday morning), are the main attractions for most day-trippers, but I recommend spending more time wandering around the town.
The best way to get to know Gouda is to simply stroll around its picturesque canals and streets. Don’t miss the Sint Jan Church, the longest church in the Netherlands and home to stunning stained glass windows. Read more about things to see in Gouda. Search for hotels in Gouda.
This city on the banks of the Ijssel River in the province of Gelderland (map) can trace its roots back to the 1st century A.D. In the 12th century, Zutphen joined the Hanseatic League (a commercial and defensive confederation that encompassed major merchant cities in northern Europe, from the Baltics, Scandinavia and Germany to the Netherlands), which resulted in great wealth for the city.
Its medieval core, surrounded by fortifications and moats, is pretty much intact. Enter the gates of Zutphen and discover a town bursting with character. Its picturesque cobblestone streets, squares and courtyards are packed with 400 national monuments. These include beautiful 14th century houses and important buildings such as the Drogenaps and Wijnhuis (Winery) towers, the 11th century Walburgis church and its Librije (library), and the 14th century monastic Broederen church. Search for accommodations in Zutphen.
Situated downstream along the Ijssel River from Zutphen, in the province of Overijssel (map), Deventer is another ancient Hanseatic town (1st century A.D.) with a rich history.
Its main square, Brink, is lined by beautiful houses and the historic Waag (the old weighing house). The adjacent medieval quarter is a gorgeous district to explore. Other main attractions in Deventer include the imposing St. Lebuïnus Church and St. Nicholas Church (a classical concert venue). Search for accommodations in Deventer.
9. Naarden Vesting
A prime example of a star fortress (there are several others in the Netherlands such as Heusden and Fort Bourtange), Naarden Vesting (map) is part of the larger town of Naarden, and is a lovely place to visit (just 20 minutes east of Amsterdam). In 1675, the city was fortified with six bastions and two moats which can still be seen till this day.
One of the most famous visitors was Napoleon Bonaparte who came to inspect the fortress in 1811, a year after annexing the Netherlands. I recommend a stroll around Naarden Vesting, which is full of boutiques, antique stores and art galleries, a walk atop the fortress walls and a visit to the Fortress Museum. At the centre of the town is the Grote Kerk (Great Church), which is famous across the country for its Matthäus–
This harbour town in the province of North Holland (map) was one of the richest in the country in the 17th century! These days, Enkhuizen is especially popular amongst yachting enthusiasts and visitors to the nearby Zuiderzee Museum (an open-air museum that’s dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage and maritime history of the Zuiderzee region).
Among the main attractions of Enkhuizen are the 16th century Drommedaris tower (that now houses a cultural centre and bar), the Oude Haven (Old Harbour), the Westerkerk and Zuiderkerk (Western and Southern churches) and the town’s old fortress walls. There’s even a ship-in-a-bottle museum (Flessenscheepjes Museum) with a pretty impressive collection. Search for accommodations in Enkhuizen.
Hoorn is a town in North Holland (map) that rose to prominence in the 17th century. Don’t miss the gorgeous harbourfront, with its beautiful gabled houses and iconic 16th century Hoofdtoren (‘Head Tower’), the Roode Steen square, the Westfries Museum (a wonderful museum full of artifacts from the Dutch Golden Age) and the Oosterpoort (East Gate). There’s also a steam train that runs from Hoorn to Medemblik, a fun thing to do.
Leeuwarden is the capital of Friesland, a province in the north of the Netherlands (map). In 2018, Leeuwarden was named the European City of Culture. It’s a pleasant city with leafy parks, beautiful canals and a vibrant café culture.
There are around 800 national monuments, including the Oldehove (a leaning, unfinished church tower) and the City Hall. There are also numerous museums to visit including the Fries Museum (a museum dedicated to Frisian art, culture and history) and the Princessehof Ceramics Museum. Search for accommodations in Leeuwarden. Read more about the best places to visit in Friesland.
This quaint village in the province of Friesland (map) is actually an ancient city that was granted city rights in 1225. In the 14th century, Hindeloopen became a member of the Hanseatic League. Local merchants sailed along the North Sea coast to Scandinavia and the Baltics to trade with other Hanseatic cities. This brought great wealth to the city and also led to the development of the unique Hindeloopen language (or Hindeloopers), a mix of West Frisian, English, Danish and Norwegian!
Often listed as one of the most beautiful villages in the Netherlands, Hindeloopen has a busy marina, picturesque lanes and charming houses. Read more about things to see in Hindeloopen.
Zwolle is the capital of the province of Overijssel (map). A city with a long history, it experienced its Golden Age in the 15th century. Much like Zutphen and Deventer, Zwolle thrived on trade and joined the Hanseatic League in the 13th century.
The main highlights include the Museum de Fundatie (with its extraordinary ‘egg’ atop a palace), the Sassenpoort (a 15th century tower gate), the Grote Kerk (Big Church), the Peperbus church tower and remnants of the ancient city walls. Zwolle also has the distinction of having the best restaurant in the country: De Librije, an excellent 3-Michelin star restaurant. Search for accommodations in Zwolle.
Gorinchem (or ‘Gorkum‘ in the local dialect) is the largest fortress city in the Netherlands, with its impressive moats, ramparts and bastions largely intact since the 17th century. Strategically situated at the confluence of the Linge and Merwede rivers in the province of South Holland (map), Gorinchem was first settled in the 11th century and became a fortress town in the 13th century. In the 16th century, after Gorinchem was liberated from Spanish forces during the Eighty Years War, the fortifications were strengthened by the Dutch, structures which can still be seen today.
Places of interest in Gorinchem include the Old City Hall (home to the Gorgums Museum), the Grote Kerk (Main Church), the ‘Dit is in Bethlehem‘ house, the Lingehaven (the Linge harbour which runs through the fortress city), the old city walls and the beautiful Langendijk street, with its shops and restaurants. Gorinchem is one of the stops I recommend on a road trip around the Great Rivers region of Central Netherlands.
Surrounded by impressive moats, fortifications and windmills, Heusden is one of the best preserved medieval towns and star-shaped fortresses in the Netherlands (map). Its beautiful 16th century inner harbour, complete with a drawbridge and overlooked by a windmill, is a popular spot for day-trippers, but there are no less than 120 national monuments in the town.
17. Den Bosch
‘s-Hertogenbosch or simply Den Bosch is the capital of the province of North Brabant (map). The vibrant city centre is filled with cafés, restaurants, shops and historic monuments so take your time to soak up the wonderful atmosphere. The main attraction in Den Bosch is the iconic St. John’s Cathedral (Sint Janskathedraal), a must-visit in my book. You can also climb the Cathedral tower for great views of the city.
Other places of interest in Den Bosch include the Market square, the Citadel (with its imposing walls), the Binnendieze (the network of canals inside the walled city which can be seen on a cruise), the Museum Quarter (home to the Stedelijk Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Het Noordbrabants Museum) and the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center (born in Den Bosch, Jheronimus Bosch is one of the most influential Dutch masters, along with the likes of Rembrandt and Van Gogh). Search for accommodations in Den Bosch.
Perhaps one of the most under-rated towns in the Netherlands, Dordrecht is an absolutely charming city on an island at the confluence of five rivers (map). One of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, Dordrecht has a rich merchant history that’s reflected in its beautiful houses and picturesque harbours.
The main attractions in Dordrecht include the Minster or Church of Our Lady, the three historic harbours, and the many stately merchant homes. If possible, I recommend spending the night there to truly experience Dordrecht’s charm. You can also join a walking tour of Dordrecht. Read about things to do in Dordrecht. Search for hotels in Dordrecht.
19. Bergen op Zoom
One of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, Bergen op Zoom (or BOZ) is one of my favourites in the south of the country (map). For centuries, the city’s strategic location in the province of North Brabant made it an important military and trading centre. During the Dutch wars with Spain and France (17-18th centuries), BOZ was a major stronghold that played a pivotal role.
These days, BOZ, with its cobbled streets, lively squares and ancient buildings, is an absolutely lovely city to visit. The main sights include the Grote Markt square, the 15th century Markiezenhof palace and the 14th century Gevangenpoort, an impressive medieval city gate. Search for hotels in Bergen op Zoom.
Middleburg is the capital of the southern province of Zeeland (map). During the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ in the 17th century, Middelburg was the wealthiest merchant city in the Netherlands after Amsterdam. Lavish 17th century houses still line the canals that dissect the city.
The main sights in Middelburg include the 12th century Abdij (site of the Zeeuws Museum) with its 90m tall Lange Jan church tower (which you can climb), the stunning late-Gothic Stadhuis (City Hall), the Dam en Prins Hendrikdok (old docks), the octagonal Oostkerk (Eastern church), the 17th century Kloveniersdoelen building and the gorgeous medieval houses in the Kuiperspoort. I also recommend going on a canal cruise to see and learn more about the city’s many monuments. Search for hotels in Middelburg.
Thorn is a small town in the province of Limburg (map) with a fascinating history. It is best known as the ‘white city’ due to its whitewashed houses, an unusual sight in the Netherlands. In the 12th century, Thorn formed the smallest independent principality in the German Holy Roman Empire, a status that lasted till the 18th century. I recommend spending a few hours wandering around this little whitewashed town and tasting some of the local wines.