As a foreign resident of the Netherlands, I occupy a kind of sweet spot. I’m enough of an insider to know what’s what, but enough of an outsider to guess what other foreigners might find unusual or confusing when they visit — and, in case it’s not already clear, enough of a blogger to write it down and put it on the internet.
The following is my incomplete, mostly objective, and super official compilation of things to know when you visit the Netherlands. There won’t be an exam or anything, but it might help you avoid a mishap or two along the way.
Words and Language
• A coffee shop is where you buy weed; a café is where you buy coffee. If you ask someone for directions, make sure you’re clear about which one you’re after.
• Most people can speak great English, especially in the cities, but you should really try some Dutch while you’re here. Even if you totally mess it up, the locals will probably appreciate it. The fact that English is so widely spoken means that very few tourists even bother trying.
• Women’s bathrooms will typically be labeled “dames” and men’s, “heren.”
• In Dutch, “ij” is pronounced “eye” — not “idge,” like English speakers might assume. (As an example, the Dutch city of Nijmegen rhymes with High-megen, not Fridge-megen.)
• The Netherlands never dubs foreign-language films or programs, whether on television or in the cinema. Everything is shown in its original language with Dutch subtitles (with the exception of some films or programs for young children, which may be dubbed over in Dutch — but these will generally be labeled as such).
Summer sunset near Nijmegen
• King’s Day is biggest in Amsterdam, but it’s not the only place people are celebrating. Nearly every Dutch city or town will have its own party going on. Consider heading somewhere besides Amsterdam if you’d prefer a less “full-on” experience.
• The Dutch observe two days for most Christian holidays — Christmas is the 25th and 26th, Easter is both Sunday and Monday, ditto for Pentacost (Whitsunday/Monday). If you’re traveling around these holidays, be aware that opening times and availabilities might be more limited.
• The 4th of May is Dodenherdenking (Remembrance of the Dead), in honor of all who have died in and since World War II. There is a large ceremony in Dam Square in Amsterdam, and two minutes of silence observed at 8pm. Be respectful of the silence if you are out in public during this time.
• The next day, the 5th of May, is Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day), which marks the end of Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands during the war. The Dutch celebrate Bevrijdingsdag with festivals and live music all over the country. It’s not quite as big as King’s Day, but again, opening hours and public transport timetables might be different — so it’s not a bad idea to check beforehand if that will affect your plans.
Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day) festival in Zwolle
• Don’t take photos of the people in the windows in the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Don’t take a quick photo, or a sneaky photo, or “just one” photo. Sex workers are people, and you are not at an aquarium.
• Queueing politely for trains or buses isn’t really common. It’s not chaos or anything (there’s no pushing or fighting), but you will have to be assertive.
• The Netherlands is not a paradise of love, acceptance, and equality. I like living here most of the time, and you can certainly argue it’s more progressive than some places; but it’s got plenty of its own problems, just like any country.
Vrijthof in Maastricht, the southernmost city in the Netherlands
Food and Drink
• The Dutch version of “bon appetit” or “enjoy your meal” is “eet smakelijk” (“ate smah-ke-lick”).
• Bottles with blue labels/caps usually contain plain water, and bottles with red labels/caps contain sparkling water. (The Dutch refer to these as “spa blauw” [rhymes with “cow”] and “spa rood” [like “road”], respectively.)
• Fries are served with mayonnaise by default. Most places will have other sauces available, but you’ll have to ask.
A quiet side street in Utrecht
Trains and Transport
• It’s highly likely you will be asked to show proof of ticket purchase on the train. I don’t recommend trying to avoid paying — aside from the ethical implications, there’s a very slim chance you’ll get away with it. Buy a ticket.
• Intercity trains usually have silent compartments, denoted by little signs of a person with a finger to their lips. You should keep noise to a minimum in any part of the train, but it’s especially important that you do so here. Don’t sit in the silent compartments if you want to chat with your travel companions, make a phone call, or listen to music without headphones (actually, don’t do that last one anywhere in public).
• Dutch people like to talk as if this place is so far from that place, but the Netherlands is small. You can get to dozens of cities from Amsterdam in an hour or two. Don’t feel like you have to come visit and stay in one place the whole time. (Might I suggest my adopted home province of Overijssel?)
• You knew it was coming: look out for the bicycles. Most cities have a designated pathway for cycling next to the street or sidewalk, and if you’re not accustomed to this, it can be very easy to forget. Pay attention to where you’re walking or standing, especially when you’re crossing the street or waiting for a traffic light to change.
Twilight in Amsterdam
Money, Money, Money
• The smallest coin used in the Netherlands is 5 cents, and all prices are rounded accordingly for cash payments.
• There’s usually a fee between 50 cents and €1 for public toilets (for example, in train stations or shopping centers). Exact change isn’t usually necessary, but it’s a good idea to hang onto a few coins in case you need to pee while out and about.
For obvious reasons, this list focuses on handy information for a short visit to the Netherlands. If you’re curious about what it’s like to live here long-term, check out my thoughts on Dutch life or the living abroad tag.
As usual, if you have any questions or your own tips for the Netherlands to share, feel free to leave them in the comments!