Weekend in Valkenburg, the Netherlands: Caves, Castles, and a Day Trip to Maastricht

Weekend in Valkenburg + Maastricht, Netherlands

Look: you could visit Maastricht the easy way — by which I mean, go to Maastricht and stay there in the city, like a chump your standard visitor.

Or you could take advantage of this opportunity to do something a little bit wild — by which I mean, choose instead to stay in the lively and atmospheric village of Valkenburg, only 10 minutes from Maastricht by train. (Note: your defintion of wild may or may not differ slightly from mine. Also, what happens in Valkenburg stays in Valkenburg, unless of course, you write about it on your blog later. Moving on.)

Valkenburg is the main town of Valkenburg aan de Geul, the latter part of which refers to the Geul river. (I told you the Dutch were literal.) It’s home to only about 6000 inhabitants, but it’s a fairly popular weekend getaway spot for the Dutch and residents of other nearby European countries.

Among other things, you can see centuries-old castle ruins, go underground into man-made caves used as hiding places during World War II, and even climb a real-live hill (though I guess that last one is much more impressive if you’ve been in the Netherlands for awhile).

And hey, if you’re still set on visiting Maastricht — which, for the record, I fully support — it makes the perfect day trip. In fact, it’s so close by, it barely counts as a “trip” at all.

Old buldings, the Geul river, and a lone bicycle against a railing in the town center of Valkenburg

Maastricht and Valkenburg are both located in Limburg, the southernmost province of the Netherlands. As someone who has visited many beautiful and charming Dutch cities and villages, there’s definitely something unique about this part of the country.

I don’t know if it’s the hilly landscape, the styles of architecture, or the accent (oh boy, that accent); but sometimes, I would straight up forget I was still in the Netherlands at all. (If any Limburgers are [still] reading this: hi! Your accent is lovely and I’m sure you would be, too, if you’d just go ahead and put down that pitchfork.)

Anyway, here are some suggestions for a visit to Valkenburg, including a few ideas for a side trip to Maastricht.

A few ideas for a visit to the charming and atmospheric village of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands -- including castle ruins, underground caves, and a day trip to the city of Maastricht.
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Things to see during a weekend in Valkenburg

The Cauberg

One of the most famous parts of Valkenburg is the Cauberg: a hill that ascends from the Grendelpoort (Grendel gate), a 14th-century city gate located in the village center.

View of Valkenburg Castle on the Cauberg

In addition to the Grendelpoort, the Cauberg is also the sight of a monument to the Limburg residents who fought in the Dutch Resistance during World War II, as well as the Gemeentegrot (see section on “Valkenburg Caves” below).

The Cauberg is also very well known for its inclusion in many different cycling races, such as the Amstel Gold and the Tour de France.

Valkenburg Castle ruins

The ruins of Valkenburg Castle (Dutch: “Kasteel Valkenburg”) are located on the hilltop overlooking the village (that’s them in the photo above, as viewed from the Cauberg). I really don’t mean to harp on this theme, but it’s actually the only castle in the Netherlands that was built on a hill — and there are a lot of castles in the Netherlands.

Originally constructed in the 12th century, Valkenburg Castle been destroyed and renovated three times, eventually falling into the crumbling remains you can see there today. Underneath lies the Fluweelengrot (see “Valkenburg Caves” section below).

You can learn more about visiting the castle here (available in Dutch, English, French, and German).

Valkenburg Caves (Gemeentegrot and Fluweelengrot)

There are two sets of man-made caves open to the public in Valkenburg: the Gemeentegrot, dug out of limestone and located on the Cauberg, and the Fluweelengrot (called “Velvet Cave” in English), a set of passegeways located beneath Valkenburg Castle. Both were dug out and constructed in the middle ages, and both were also used toward the end of World War II as hiding places for the village residents.

Visitors can tour the Gemeentegrot either on foot or in a little go-kart-like train. Unfortunately for non-Dutch speakers, the tour is given only in Dutch; however, a small amount of written info is available in both English and German at the ticket counter. After the guided portion is over, you can also view a light and art show deep within the caves. (It’s, uh, really something.)

I haven’t visited the Fluweelengrot myself, so I can’t give you my personal experience. That said, it seems like a natural choice to tack on a tour if you’re already visiting Valkenburg Castle.

Opening times for both vary considerably depending on the month. You can find the hours of the Fluweelengrot here and the Gemeentegrot here. Also note that both caves maintain a steady temperature of 12 degrees C regardless of outside weather, so be sure to dress accordingly.

Other beautiful structures

We’ve already talked about the Grendelpoort, located at the foot of the Cauberg. There are two other city gates in Valkenburg dating back to the Middle Ages: the Geulpoort and the Berkelpoort.

The village’s oldest and perhaps most recognizable church is H.H. Nicolaas en Barbara, a Roman-Catholic church originally constructed in the 13th century. However, various parts of the building have been destroyed, burnt, and/or reconstructed over the years, and the bulk of the structure you see today was done in the early 1900s.

Exterior of H.H. Nicolaas en Barbara church in Maastricht, Netherlands

And of course, we can’t forget the one and only railway station. I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for…well, almost any railway station (when you live in a town without one, it’s hard not to romanticize them all), but especially ones with a bit of flair. Valkenburg’s offering certainly fits the bill.

Beautiful railway station in Valkenburg, the Netherlands

Clearly, you could easily spend a weekend just roaming in, on top of, or underneath Valkenburg; but if you’re looking for a little something more, a 10-minute train ride from this very station will take you to the city of Maastricht…which brings us to our next section.

Day Trip: Things to Do in Maastricht

Maastricht is the capital city of Limburg province. It’s located on both banks of the Meuse river (called the “Maas” in Dutch), which runs through France and Belgium before arriving in the Netherlands, and is considered by many to be the oldest Dutch city. There are some who argue that title actually belongs to Nijmegen, but either way, the point stands: it’s old.

Boat sailing down the Meuse (Maas) river in Maastricht, the Netherlands

It’s also an historical and cultural hotspot, with the most national heritage buildings in the country besides Amsterdam (and like, that’s hardly a fair fight). Here are a few of my personal highlights.

Climb to the top of Sint Janskerk

Well, maybe.

But first things first. Sint Janskerk (St. John’s church) is located in the Vrijthof, the largest city square in Maastricht, and it’s kind of hard to miss — it’s the one with the bright red tower, stuck on top of the decidedly not bright red church.

People standing in the Vrijthof, the largest city square in Maastricht, surrounded by row houses and churches

You can climb to the top of the tower for a view of the Vrijthof and Maastricht from above. However, be aware that this climb is up a tighly-winding and very narrow staircase — so narrow, in fact, that if you’re going up and you meet someone coming down, one of you will have to flatten yourself against the side of the wall to let the other person pass. If you’re not a fan of small enclosed spaces or you get dizzy easily, you might want to skip this one. (There is no lift or other option besides the staircase to access the the top of the tower.)

The viewing platform isn’t particularly roomy, either — it’s basically just a thin platform encircling the tower — and it’s surrounded entirely by a tall chain-link fence.

Weekend in Valkenburg + Maastricht, Netherlands
Accurate representation of the view from the top of Sint Janskerk

Is the view worth the hassle? Well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. (I wasn’t tall enough to reach over the fence, but Simon was — so you can thank him for the following photos.)

View from Sint Janskerk over Maastricht, the Netherlands

View over the Vrijthof and rooftops of Maastricht's city center

Visit the Boekhandel Dominicanen

If you like books and/or repurposed buildings, Maastricht has quite the treat for you. Boekhandel Domincanen is a bookshop housed in a 13th century church, which is immediately recognizable by its high vaulted ceilings and tall, ornate windows.

Interior of Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen -- a former 13th century church which now houses a bookshop in Maastricht, the Netherlands

The Dominicanen Church was used for several other purposes (including exhibitions, parties, and even bicycles) before being remodeled and turned into a bookshop in 2006. These days, it sees more than 700,000 visitors per year and hosts regular readings, workshops, and other events.

As expected, most of the materials for sale are in Dutch; however, there are also materials in a range of other languages available, including German, French, and English. You can learn more about visiting the bookshop here (available in both Dutch and English, at least partly).

City walls and defenses

In the Middle Ages, Maastricht was a fortified city (Dutch: “vestigingstad”); and you can still find remnants of the old defenses strewn around the city. The Helpoort (which literally translates to “Hell’s Gate”) was part of Maastricht’s first medieval city walls, and is the oldest remaining city gate in the Netherlands.

A short walk from the the center brings you to the Hoge Fronten (High Fronts), a set of 17th- and 18th-century fortifications. Today, the area is a quiet park, with earthen paths worn through the grass around the old stone battlements, and the occasional cheeky red door.

Two people standing on top of a grassy hill above stone walls at the Hoge Fronten in Maastricht, the Netherlands

Dirt walkway past green grass and old stone wall with a red door at the Hoge Fronten in Maastricht

Of course, this is only a taste of what Valkenburg, Maastricht, and Limburg have to offer, and you could easily spend far more than a weekend in this part of the Netherlands. As always, feel free to share your own recommendations in the comments below.

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A few ideas for a visit to the charming and atmospheric village of Valkenburg in the southern #Netherlands -- including castle ruins, underground caves, and a day trip to the city of Maastricht.

A few ideas for a visit to the charming and atmospheric village of Valkenburg in the southern #Netherlands -- including castle ruins, underground caves, and a day trip to the city of Maastricht.

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