From its vibrant cities to the never-ending beaches, the Netherlands is incredibly easy to discover by train. Leave the crowds in Amsterdam behind you and set out on a railway journey to Rotterdam, Groningen and the coast of the Wadden Sea.
Many visitors to the Netherlands – often referred to as Holland – flock to enigmatic Amsterdam on a visit. And who can blame them, when the capital boasts UNESCO World Heritage-listed canals, buzzing markets and countless brown cafes. But if you choose to only visit Amsterdam, you’ll miss out immersing yourself in Dutch culture, interacting with the locals and seeing the bountiful hidden gems this country has to offer. Luckily, there’s an easy way to combine Amsterdam with a visit to all the best destinations in the country: setting out by train. The railway network in the Netherlands is easy to navigate and connects more than 400 train stations. And best of all? All destinations can be reached in under three hours.
Setting out from Amsterdam
Amsterdam Central Station is crowded this morning. Groggy-eyed commuters weave their way through groups of tourists perusing the colorful shop windows of the underground passageway Amstelpassage. Those heading past the IAMsterdam Store through the northern exit will get a panoramic view across the IJ River towards the modern EYE Film Institute and A’dam Tower. Those heading out on the south side will be able to appreciate the red-brick façade of the train station, designed by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, who was also responsible for the castle-like exterior of the Rijksmuseum. The busy square in front of the station leads to the Damrak and the heart of the city center. My destination, however, lies up on the platforms. I’m catching a train to Rotterdam.
From the old to the new in Rotterdam
I settle down on a comfy bench in the second class next to a window and as the train pulls out of the station, I get a quick view of the famous canals and 17th century warehouses, before we gather speed. Exactly 41 minutes later the train arrives at Rotterdam Central, a decidedly modern train station. The airy atrium opens up unto a triangular wall of glass, flooding the place with sunlight. From the outside, the wooden and stainless-steel structure extends upwards like a lopsided shark tooth.
The contemporary atmosphere of the train station is exemplary of the whole city. Rotterdam was bombed heavily during the Second World War and after losing its historical city center, has had to reinvent itself. Stepping out of the train station, the Groothandelsgebouw – one of the first buildings to be completed after the war – is dwarfed by the surrounding high-rise office buildings. This is Holland’s trade city, a place with a no-nonsense work ethic, but also a city of innovation and creativity.
From Rotterdam Central, I catch a metro to Wilhelminaplein in the old harbor district Kop van Zuid. The neighborhood was completely revitalized at the end of the 20th century and is now home to the Maastoren, the tallest skyscraper in the Netherlands. Walking along the quay of the Nieuwe Maas river, I get a great view of the Erasmusbrug, which connects Kop van Zuid with the city center on the north side of the river. The cable-stayed bridge has become an icon of the city’s skyline. I walk past an enormous cruise ship docked at the quay and reach the southernmost building of the neighborhood: Hotel New York. This national heritage site used to be the head office of the cruise line Holland-Amerika Lijn and is now home to a hotel and restaurant. The terrace and surrounding public park are great places to learn more about the history of emigration to the United States and the port of Rotterdam, which to this day is one of the largest in the world. Looking out across the water, it’s not hard to imagine bygone times.
A footbridge connects Kop van Zuid to Katendrecht, a neighborhood nestled between the Nieuwe Maas river and the Maas harbor. For decades, this was one of the most infamous red-light districts in the city, but it’s now one of the most up-and-coming places. Everywhere I look, I see hip restaurants, terraces and bars. There’s also an entire former warehouse that has been converted to a food hall: the Fenix Food Factory. The different stalls sell local products such as craft beers, fresh bread and Dutch cheeses.
‘In Rotterdam, there’s something new to discover every week,’ tells local Esmay Verschuren, owner of fair-trade webshop Pretty ECO. ‘Rotterdam is so special to me because I genuinely feel there’s a different type of energy running through this city. I’ve traveled a lot but cannot compare it to anything else. The vibe in Rotterdam is very honest and there’s no keeping appearances here, it just is what it is and I love that.’
Trains to Rotterdam depart from Amsterdam at least six times per hour. A one-way ticket costs € 16,10 – for the fast Intercity Direct you have to pay an extra € 2,60 (ns.nl).
For a budget stay, head to King Kong Hostel (kingkonghostel.com) at the Witte de Withstraat, one of the best spots in the city for foodies. For a little more luxury, the SS Rotterdam (ssrotterdam.nl) is a great option. This former cruise ship is now a hotel and permanently docked next to Katendrecht.
Party with the locals in Groningen
Heading north, there is one constant to the landscape: the flatness of it. Cities stretch into fields and fields into forest, but there isn’t a hill or mountain in sight. Sitting next to the window, I get a front-row seat view of the many meadows with spotted Friesian cows, slowly chewing on the luscious grass, sometimes raising a large head as the train flashes by. In springtime, there are fields of color as well: the famous flowering tulips, neat rows of red, pink, yellow and orange. And above, white clouds chasing each other in an endless cerulean sky – the sky that inspired painters such as Jacob van Ruisdael, Aelbert Cuyp and Vincent van Gogh.
The city of Groningen lies in the far north-east of the Netherlands and is a lot smaller than Amsterdam and Rotterdam, but has an impressive history as a Hanse trading city. Because it’s such a compact city, it’s easy to explore the canal-ringed center on foot. I exit the Central Station through the ornate entrance hall – Groningen was named the most beautiful train station in the Netherlands in 2019 – and make my way past the strikingly post-modern Groninger Museum. Next is the Folkingestraat, home to an array of specialty shops, selling everything from artisanal sausages to handcrafted toys. The street is filled with pedestrians and bikers, miraculously managing to avoid colliding with each other.
I exit the street on the Vismarkt (fish market), which together with the Grote Markt (grand market) forms the epicenter of the city. The market stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables are just closing up for the day and as the sun sets behind the Korenbeurs, the city gears up for a night of revelry. Students make up one quarter of the cities’ inhabitants and thanks to their influence, the nightlife in Groningen is unmatched by any other city in the country – cafes and bars are open from dusk till dawn.
De Uurwerker is a student’s favorite in the University District to the north of the Vismarkt. I order a Bufala pizza, prepared in a large wood-fired oven, and settle down with a cold beer below a canopy of lights at one of the picnic tables outside. Surrounded by locals, I tuck into the hot pizza, generously topped with mozzarella and fresh rocket. After dinner, I make my way past the university’s illuminated academy building to Mr. Mofongo, one of the best cocktail bars in the country. A robot arm picks homemade rum, whiskies and gins from a wall of bottles and the bartenders mix delicious cocktails such as a Dutch gin & tonic or a Mofongo in Bloom, a spritz-style drink with homemade liqueurs. The night is getting on when I step out to continue my ‘kroegentocht’ (pub-crawl), but seeing as there’s no closing time, I feel like I’ve got all the time in the world.
The direct train to Groningen departs from Rotterdam once every hour and takes just over 2,5 hours. A one-way ticket costs € 26,50 (ns.nl).
Simplon Hostel (simplonhostel.nl) in the trendy Ebbingekwartier is a good pick for a budget stay. For some luxury, head to boutique hotel Miss Blanche, located on the most picturesque canal street in the city, right on the edge of the University District (hotelmissblanche.nl).
Immerse yourself in nature on the Wadden Sea coast
Harlingen Haven is the end of the line – it’s as far northwest as you can go on rails. The train pulls in at a tiny station right next to the harbor that has put the small city of Harlingen on the map. I would love to explore the old warehouses and walk past the traditional sailing ships moored here, but I have a ferry to catch. Harlingen sits on the coast of the Wadden Sea and connects to two of the five Dutch Wadden Islands. Today, the small island of Vlieland is my final destination.
It’s just a five-minute walk to the ferry, which is already docked. I make my way to the open top deck to get the best possible view. The Wadden Sea is a UNESCO World Heritage site and extends all the way to Germany and Denmark. It’s the largest unbroken system of intertidal sands and mud flats in the world. I’m in luck, as it’s low tide when the ferry departs from Harlingen. On both sides of the boat, I see the sandbanks appear as the ferry carefully navigates the channel in-between, and I even spot some seals sunbathing. Too quickly for my taste, we reach the island.
The ferry docks right next to the single village on Vlieland. I rent a bicycle across the street and set out across the brick road. The main street of the village is lined with cozy restaurants, hotels and boutique shops. The small houses are very old, some dating as far back as the 16th century. Cars are banned from the island, but there’s a network of cycle paths and I pick one that takes me through a pine wood and on to rippling grass dunes. I can’t hear anything but the wind, the grind of the wheels on the gravel and bird song. There’s not a soul in sight. I park my bike at the base of a particularly large dune, which I climb to find a beach on the other side. The wide stretch of white sand is completely deserted. The beach along the north side of the island is over 12 kilometers long, so there’s plenty of room to go around. I walk towards the water and look out over the white-capped waves of the North Sea. As I close my eyes, I can feel the sun and the wind on my skin and taste the salt of the sea on my lips. The crowds of Amsterdam Central Station feel like a world away.
Trains to Harlingen Haven depart from Groningen at least once every hour and take just over one hour, with a change of trains in Leeuwarden. A one-way ticket costs € 15,44 (arriva.nl). There are two ferries to Vlieland, a regular and a fast one. The regular ferry to the island departs three times a day in high season, takes about 1,5 hours and costs € 28,60 (rederij-doeksen.nl).
For a budget stay, head to campsite Stortemelk in the dunes. You can pitch your own tent or opt for a rental (stortemelk.nl). For a luxury stay, boutique Badhotel Bruin is a great option in the village (badhotelbruin.nl).