Maastricht is a beautiful, historic city in the Netherlands. I went there in search of medieval churches, charming plazas, and – best of all – a delicious local delicacy called vlaai.
I had arrived in Maastricht just before noon, on a train from Eindhoven. As I left the station and began my exploration of the city center, I quickly noticed how different Maastricht felt from other destinations in the Netherlands. Honestly, if I hadn’t known better, I could’ve sworn I’d crossed the border into a different country altogether!
The most important reason is the city’s location. Maastricht is located in the southern tip of the Netherlands, right next to the Belgian border, and very close to Germany. This close proximity to both Belgium and Germany has influenced the city’s architecture, culture and cuisine – and even its language. Most of the locals here speak Limburgish, a blend of Dutch and German that’s very different from the national language spoken up north.
And Limburgish isn’t the only language you’ll hear in Maastricht. As I wandered through the city’s narrow, cobblestone streets, I also picked up traces of Dutch, Flemish, German and French, not to mention English – the main language spoken by the city’s large population of international students. It seems that, despite it being a lesser-known city, Maastricht still attracts a fair amount of tourists and day-trippers from neighboring countries, as well as the Netherlands itself.
It’s hardly a surprise, though. It’s a stunning and incredibly charming place, and definitely worth a visit, whether you live nearby or not!
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One of the city’s charms is its gorgeous historic center, located on the banks of the river Meuse (or Maas in Dutch). Maastricht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, originally established by the Romans, and its historic center is full of impressive architectural landmarks, centuries-old churches, and large squares surrounded by stately houses.
Not surprisingly, the city is home to over 1600 national heritage sites, more than any other place in the Netherlands except for Amsterdam.
But this isn’t just a city for history geeks. Maastricht is also known for its good food and lively bar scene. Many people come here to enjoy a delicious candle-lit dinner, or to try some local craft beers at one of the many bars you’ll find dotted across the city. All in all, it sounded like the perfect place to spend an afternoon.
As I always do before a trip, I had researched Maastricht the day before, compiling a list of every historic location I wanted to visit. To be honest, I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to cram it all in one day – there was so much to see here! – but I was determined to cross as many places off my list as possible, without rushing things too much.
Lucky for me, the city center is relatively small, and many of its highlights are located within walking distance of each other. In fact, it took me less than fifteen minutes to reach the first item on my list: the Saint Servatius Bridge (or Sint Servaasbrug in Dutch), an arched stone footbridge dating from the 13th century, one of several bridges crossing the river Meuse.
The bridge was named after Saint Servatius, patron saint and first bishop of Maastricht, and it’s known as the oldest surviving bridge in the Netherlands – even though it was largely rebuilt after World War II. Beyond it lies the city’s historic center, and as I walked across the narrow stone bridge, I caught glimpses of impressive churches in the distance, their towers rising high above rows of picturesque houses.
I couldn’t wait to see it all up close.
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Stepping off the bridge on the western side of the river, I immediately plunged into the maze of winding streets beyond, following my pre-planned route. I was heading straight for the Markt, the city’s market square and the location of one of its most iconic buildings: the City Hall (Stadhuis).
I’d chosen a sunny afternoon in October for my visit, and the atmosphere in the city was laidback and cheerful. The streets were filled with people out shopping or on a walk during their lunchbreak, talking animatedly with each other, their laughing voices echoing across the cobblestones. I felt myself relax a little as I walked, my worries about whether or not I would be able to visit every single item on my list slowly ebbing away.
Looking back now, I guess that’s what Maastricht does to you – it makes you feel happy and relaxed, as if life is exactly the way it should be.
I reached the market square after a couple of minutes, passing through Maastricht’s busy shopping streets. The squareturned out to be a large, traffic-free plaza surrounded by stores and restaurants. It was empty that day save for a handful of stalls selling local delicacies – oliebollen, hot waffles, grilled chicken and fresh herring.
Since I hadn’t had lunch yet, I was tempted to buy a snack, but I managed to stop myself. After all, I was saving my appetite for something better!
Dominating the square was the City Hall. This impressive, stately building was constructed in the 17th century, during the country’s famous Golden Age, and is a stunning example of Dutch classicism. Gazing up at its tall windows, I was glad I’d included it in my tour of the city.
From the Markt, it was a short walk to the Vrijthof, the largest and best-known square in Maastricht. If you’re strapped for time, you have to at least come here – it’s such a beautiful, atmospheric place!
The Vrijthof is a romantic, tree-lined plaza paved with cobblestones. Bordering the plaza are several historic landmarks, such as the 16th-century Spanish Government Building (Spaans Gouvernement) and the Basilica of Saint Servatius, a Romanesque church dedicated to the city’s patron saint.
Directly adjacent to the Basilica lies another church: the Sint-Janskerk, a Gothic church with a single deep red tower. It was originally painted with coats of ox blood – these days, they just use red paint.
Opposite the Basilica, on the other side of the square, stands a row of restaurants with lively, open-air terraces. It’s a great place to have lunch or dinner – or, if you’re not hungry, to sit down with a cold beer and just enjoy the view. This is also where you’ll find In Den Ouden Vogelstruys, the oldest café in the city dating from the year 1730.
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I had been wandering around the city for nearly two hours when my stomach began to rumble. Thankfully, I came across a cozy little café called Lunch En Zo, where I managed to snag the last table available and ordered bagel with salmon.
By that time, I’d visited several more historic sites in Maastricht, including the Basilica of Our Lady, a medieval church located on the edge of a small, leafy square. It’s one of the strangest churches I’ve ever seen – with its massive westwork and lack of windows, it looked more like a fortress than a place of worship.
I also visited the Dominicanen Bookstore, a unique store located inside a former 13th-century Dominican church. In 2008, the Guardian named it one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops, and I can only agree. Its gorgeous interior has been kept mostly intact, and you can still see the stained-glass windows and high-painted ceilings of the old church.
I actually returned later that day – on my way back to the station – to wander around a little bit more before catching a train back to Eindhoven. That’s how much I loved that place!
After lunch, I had about two hours of daylight left, so I slung my camera around my neck and continued my walk through the city. This time, I headed south towards the Jekerkwartier, a neighborhood named after the river Jeker, a small tributary of the Meuse.
The Jekerkwartier is a dream for history lovers. The neighborhood is full of beautiful historic houses, old churches, and towering medieval city walls. I wandered around the area for a long time, following the river Jeker where it ran beneath the walls, and then crossing through a small gate in the wall to visit the neighborhood itself.
On my way, I also passed through Hell’s Gate (Helpoort), an imposing gate with two tall towers. It’s known as the oldest gate in the Netherlands, dating back over 700 years, and was built into the city wall. It’s an impressive structure, and as I passed underneath it, I almost felt like I’d gone back in time to the middle ages.
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When the sun began to set, casting long shadows across the narrow, winding streets, I went in search of my final destination: the Bishop’s Mill (Bisschopsmolen). You can’t visit Maastricht without having a piece of vlaai – a sort of pie that’s famous throughout the country – and I’d heard the Bishop’s Mill had the best vlaai in the city.
The Bishop’s Mill is the oldest watermill in the Netherlands still used today. Adjacent to the mill is an artisanal bakery, where I sat down at a small wooden table and enjoyed a delicious cherry vlaai and a hot cup of coffee. It was the perfect way to end my afternoon in this stunning historic city!