10 Cosy Dutch Villages and Small Cities You Should Know About

Dutch flag hanging off a brown brick building over trees | Photo by Adrien Olichon via Unsplash
Photo by Adrien Olichon

Living in the Netherlands has totally redefined my ideas of cities, villages, and everything in between.

A big city used to mean millions of people; around here, you don’t even have to crack 100,000 before you’ve got yourself a regular booming metropolis.

A small town used to mean out in the “middle of nowhere”; around here, you drive 20km and you’ve probably passed three. (And now you’re in a city again.)

I don’t subscribe to any of that “real Netherlands” nonsense — if all you’ve done is take a photo in front of the Rijksmuseum, you’ve been here — but I do think a huge part of this country’s spirit and essence lies within its smaller settlements, and I encourage you to visit one or two if you ever get the chance.

In that spirit, here are 10 Dutch villages and very small cities that I (and a few other bloggers) think are worth seeing.

Valkenburg

River running through the village center of Valkenburg, the Netherlands

Valkenburg is the main village of Valkenburg aan de Geul in the southern province of Limburg. It has a population of 6000 and a bucketload of charm.

Its numerous attractions include the ruins of Valkenburg Castle (the only Dutch castle to be set upon a hill, and I’m not joking); two sets of underground limestone caves, both of which were used to hide the villages residents during WWII; and the Cauberg — a hill known mainly for its inclusion in cycling races such as the Amstel Gold and the Tour de France, as well as a memorial to the Limburg branch of the Dutch Resistance during the war.

Valkenburg is also noteworthy for its proximity to the city of Maastricht, one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, located just a 10-minute train ride away. Click here for more on both spots.

Heusden

by Naomi at Probe Around the Globe

Heusden
Photo by Probe Around the Globe

The small town of Heusden, located in the province of North Brabant, is located along the river Meuse and is one of the Netherlands’ old defense towns (or “vestingstad” in Dutch).

Heusden was first mentioned around the 1210, and has suffered quite a bit during its existence. Plundered, burned to the ground on numerous occasions, her population extinguished by the plague — it is a miracle we can still visit this old Dutch town today.

Heusden is surrounded by fortifications and defense works; one of the most fun things to do is walk over the ramparts and see the layout of the town unfold before you (it is *really* small). As you head into the center, pay special attention to the town hall. Most of all, enjoy the cute cobblestones, old warehouse-like buildings with stepped gables, and still-functioning windmills!

If you’d like to escape the bigger cities of the Netherlands and indulge in typical small-town Dutch life, Heusden is the perfect place for a break.

Schiermonnikoog

Schiermonnikoog

Schiermonnikoog is actually the name of an island (the smallest of the five inhabited Dutch Wadden Islands), as well as the island’s one and only village. If the name looks a bit daunting to you, just repeat after me: SKEER-mon-nik-OAG. (See? Not so bad.)

Schiermonnikoog is accessible by ferry from the port in Lauwersoog, a small village in the northern province of Groningen. Besides being heaps of fun to say, the island is remarkable due to its *very* small size (a scant 947 residents) and being almost entirely car-free. Visitors are not allowed to bring cars with them, and while a few of the residents own vehicles, they almost never drive them on the island itself — so it’s highly likely you won’t see a single one during your visit.

What you can see there: two lighthouses, miles of sand dunes, an old WWII-era bunker and museum, and the Netherlands’ first official national park (called, rather predictably, “Schiermonnikoog National Park”), established in 1989. (Sidenote: I was alive then. That’s weird.)

Goes

by Zoe at Together in Transit

Boats in the historic harbor of Goes, the Netherlands | Photo by Together in Transit
Photo by Together in Transit

The small fishing village of Goes is located in the southern Dutch province of Zeeland. The village was not affected during WWI or WWII, which you can tell when walking around and viewing the buildings — such as the city hall from the 15th century, and the Maria Magdalena Church from the 14th century.

If you like your beer, check out a tour at the brewery Slot Oostende en Emelisse, located in one of the oldest buildings in Goes. You can try their special beers during the tour, which is quite a treat. They also have a restaurant and terrace area for a bite to eat afterwards.

One of the cutest things to do in Goes is walk around the historic harbor, just a few minutes from the market square. This photogenic area has a great atmosphere with a few cosy places to eat and drink. Many locals also hang out here on their boats here when the sun shines.

Deventer

Church tower in the city center of Deventer, the Netherlands

Deventer is an old Hanseatic city along the IJssel river, with a population of just under 100,000. It’s got all the stunning features you probably expect from Dutch cities, including narrow cobblestone alleyways, slightly tilted brick buildings, and high, elaborate church towers. Its weigh-house (“waag” in Dutch), which now is home to the city history museum, looks particularly apt to crumble at any moment. (Disclaimer: I don’t actually think it will. You can go visit that museum.)

Deventer is also great for literature fans. The city hosts Europe’s largest book fair each summer, where booksellers set up stalls along the city streets and riverbank and sell everything from cookbooks to graphic novels to world atlases.

And if that isn’t enough, just wait till December, when the Dickens Festival comes to town. Hundreds of volunteers dress up as various characters from Dickens novels (including Ebeneezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, carolers, drunkards, and more) for a weekend of holiday-themed markets and festivities — attended yearly by more than 120,000 visitors.

Leeuwarden

Leeuwarden

The small city of Leeuwarden is the capital of the province of Friesland, and was chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2018.

It’s also the start and end point for the Elfstedentocht (“Eleven Cities Tour”), the famous Dutch ice skating race that follows various canals and rivers through Friesland — though it’s been awhile since the water froze thick enough for the event to actually take place (1997, to be exact).

Some notable spots in Leeuwarden include the Oldehoeve, an unfinished and not-entirely-upright church tower; the Blokhuispoort, a former prison complex that now houses a hostel, cafe, and some other businesses; the Froskepôlemolen, the city’s last remaining old-fashioned windmill; and the Achmea tower, the tallest structure in the city.

You can also learn more about Fries culture at the Fries Museum, or about the natural side of the province at Natuurmuseum Fryslân.

Lisse

by Sinjana at Backpack & Explore

Tulip garden in Lisse, the Netherlands | Photo by Backpack & Explore
Photo by Backpack & Explore

Lisse is a town located southwest of Amsterdam, famous for the Keukenhof Tulip Festival — the world’s grandest flower show, which hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year during the spring (mid-March to mid-May).

With over 30 diferent flower shows comprising seven million tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths, Keukenhof gardens is nothing short of a dreamland (except for the huge crowd, which is unavoidable if you visit during the peak season). Besides the visual spectacle of Keukenhof gardens, there are large stretches of tulip fields accessible by boat, bicycle, or on foot.

The best time to visit Lisse is during the blossom season; however, the town is also famous for the tulip museum called Museum de Zwarte Tulp, which showcases the history of tulip cultivation and business in the region, and the 17th century castle of Keukenhof, both of which can be enjoyed all year. Castle-lovers can also visit the Huys Dever (built in the 14th century) and the Teylingen castle (built in the 13th century).

Lelystad

Pink tulip field near Lelystad, the Netherlands | Photo by Eddie Hooiveld
Photo by Eddie Hooiveld

Lelystad sits three meters below sea level, on the “polder” of Flevoland — reclaimed land that used to be the Zuiderzee (South Sea). In fact, the city is named after Cornelis Lely, the engineer behind the Afsluitdijk (which dams off the sea in the middle of the Netherlands, and was a major part of the reclamation project).

Since Lelystad was only established in 1967, you won’t find the typical old-fashioned buildings you would in other Dutch cities. Instead, you’ll find new and shiny architecture, like the Zilverparkkade – a row of bright, geometric buildings, all constructed in the 21st century.

Stop by the Batavia Shipyard to see a replica of this 17th-century ship and learn all about its rather gruesome, mutinous history. Or visit the Aviodrome, home to the National Aviation Museum, where you can view all kinds of historical aircrafts.

Hoorn

by Lesia at Dutch Wannabe

Harbor in Hoorn, the Netherlands | Photo by Dutch Wannabe
Photo by Dutch Wannabe

If you have the time, a visit to Hoorn is a must. The town is filled with history — after all, it was founded in 716 — and the city’s charm and old architecture will give you the sense of being transported back in time.

Today, Hoorn is one of four Dutch cities that still hold a cheese market. Like the one in Alkmaar, Hoorn’s cheese market was reinstated to preserve the tradition. The market is held on Roode Steen square every Thursday from the middle of June to end of August.

Hoorn also has a beautiful harbor, with the Hoofdtoren (“head/main tower”) on the edge. It’s a lovely area for a stroll; as you walk past, you will notice the statue of the ship boys of Bontekoe.

Once you’ve experienced the beauty of Hoorn, you might like to ride the Hoorn steam train, which will take you as far as the city of Medemblik.

Katwijk aan Zee

Old white church set against a bright blue sky in Katwijk on Zee, the Nethrelands

Katwijk aan Zee (literally, “Katwijk on Sea”) is pretty much what it says: a village on the seashore. It’s part of the larger municipality of Katwijk, which also includes Katwijk aan den Rijn, situated on the Rhine River.

Katwijk aan Zee has existed in some form or another since the time of the Roman Empire. Later on, it spent a few hundred years as a fishing village before being mostly destroyed during WWII and re-emerging as a touristy beach destination in the late 20th century.

Today, the town’s main draw is its long beach and promenade. Other features include the Andreaskerk (St. Andrew’s Church), a bright white church that dates back to the 15th century; the Vuurbaak, one of the oldest lighthouses in the Netherlands; and the Katwijks Museum, which displays artwork by the painters of Katwijk’s 19th-century artist’s colony.

Katwijk aan Zee is also very close to the adorable city of Leiden; the seaside is just 20 minutes by bus from Leiden’s central train station.


Thanks to my fellow bloggers for your contributions!

Did we miss your fave Dutch village or small city? Feel free to let us know why we should visit in the comments below.

All photos not otherwise credited are my own.

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Pin to share or save for later:

Need a break from the big Dutch cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam? Try one of these charming villages or smaller cities in the Netherlands -- ranging from 947 residents to just under 100,000. | Photo by Adrien Olichon     Ideas for charming Dutch villages and small cities to see, including Lisse, Schiermonnikoog, Deventer, and more. | Photos by Dutch Wannabe (top) and Eddie Hooiveld (bottom).

A collection of smaller cities and miniscule villages worth visting in the #Netherlands -- featuring Heusden, Hoorn, Goes, and more. | Photos by Together in Transit (top) and Em Dashed (bottom).

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