Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Overijssel before. Anyone?
Well, it’s a good thing I’m here.
Overijssel is a province in the east of the Netherlands, and it’s been my adopted home for the last two and half years. One of the reasons I started this blog was to share this part of the Netherlands with the rest of the world; and it’s high time I gave a proper introduction.
There’s no denying that life in Overijssel is a bit different than in the Randstad (the part of the Netherlands containing its four biggest cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, the Hague, and Utrecht). Around here, the cities are a lot smaller and the livestock more plentiful. Dutch traditions and customs are often kept more strongly, for better or for worse. Perhaps most notably, we don’t get nearly the amount of foreign tourism they do in the west.
And you know what? That’s okay. I’m a city lover myself, but the countryside exudes its own brand of charm and appeal. And considering how compact and connected the Netherlands is, it’s not nearly as “far away” as the Dutch like to make it sound. Overijssel can easily be explored in a weekend — or even a day trip, depending where you’re coming from.
If you’re thinking of visiting Overijssel or wondering why you should, here are my recommendations for what to see and do in the province.
Fast Facts about Overijssel
Capital city: Zwolle (ZWOLL-uh)
Biggest city: Enschede (EN-ske-day)
The IJssel (EYES-sel) is a river that cuts through the province — hence, the name “Overijssel,” as in the land that goes around the IJssel.
The combination “ij” is considered one letter in Dutch (pronounced like “eye”), which is why it’s written as the IJssel, not the Ijssel. You don’t really need to remember that, I’m just kind of a language fangirl.
Overijssel is considered by most to be “the country,” and it certainly does live up to that stereotype. I’ve met other foreigners in the Netherlands who’ve never even heard of it — though I’m not sure whether that says more about the province or those people. (But let’s be real: it’s probably those people.)
In any case, it’s a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam or the Hague. Aside from the occasional city, it’s covered in a mix of small towns and farmland. People blow up footballs on New Year’s Eve, and when the wind blows strongly, you can smell cows from my balcony.
So yes, Overijssel is definitely country. But then, that’s kind of the point.
Getting to and around Overijssel
Overijssel is well connected by train and bus service, and you can travel on both using an OV chip card (a prepaid card that can also be used on public transport in many other parts of the country, including Amsterdam). You can also purchase individual tickets at the station or onboard buses.
Zwolle, the province’s capital city, is home to the main train station of the area. It links the south and west to the north, and is easily accessible from any other main station in the Netherlands. In general, any train heading towards either Groningen or Leeuwarden will stop in Zwolle.
Prefer driving yourself? Traffic isn’t much of an issue around here, but you might get stuck going 20 km/hour behind a tractor. It’s funny, but it’s not a joke. Hopefully you’re not in a hurry, and you can just relax and get into the charming spirit of it all. (I mean, this is Overijssel. Where are you going?)
Notable Places to See in Overijssel
If you’re looking for a charming village with tiny winding streets and old-fashioned Dutch architecture, Ommen is for you. Despite its rather small size, it has historical status as a city and sees a fair amount of regional tourism.
Ommen is located on the banks of the Vecht river (often referred to as the Overijsselse Vecht, to distinguish it from the river of the same name in Utrecht). It’s a glorious place to spend a warm and sunny summer’s day — and yes, we do occasionally have those in the Netherlands.
The town is built around its oldest structure, the Reformed Church, which dates back to the 13th century. There are three old school windmills, for those of you who came to the Netherlands to validate your stereotypes, and a tin figure museum, for those of you who like quirky and slightly creepy museums.
Ommen also hosts an annual summer festival called the Ommer Bissingh, comprising several weeks of markets, live music, and other festivities. The festival begins every July and has existed in some form or another for hundreds of years.
Sometimes referred to as “the Venice of the Netherlands,” Giethoorn is a nearly-roadless village famous for its canal system and old-fashioned thatched-roof houses. This a very popular spot for Dutch and foreign visitors alike, so visit on a cloudy weekday if you can (not hard to come by in the Netherlands).
Giethoorn is pretty small (is anyone else sensing a theme here?), but it’s the kind of place you can easily enjoy for hours. Meander along the pathways and across the quaint little bridges; join a boat tour down the canals; or go for the DIY approach and rent a boat yourself. If you’re interested in local history, check out ‘t Olde Maat Uus, a museum that will give you a peek into the old way of life in Giethoorn. Or just head to a waterside cafe, grab a drink, and watch the world go by.
Though it’s the capital city of the province, Zwolle is more like an overgrown town, just entering its adolescence and beginning to test its boundaries. If I was going to live anywhere in Overijssel — uh, besides the place I already do live — I would pick Zwolle.
It’s active enough, but rarely overwhelmingly crowded. The city center is condensed and easily walkable; you can wander the side streets without getting hopelessly lost miles from wherever you meant to end up (not like that happens to me on a regular basis in other cities, or anything).
Zwolle is also full of instagram-worthy architecture — from its iconic “Peperbus” tower, to the remnants of the old city walls along the water, to the weird green angel statue I’ve never been able to figure out.
And of course, you can’t forget Waanders in de Broeren, a 15th century church that’s been converted into a bookstore. Though most of the shop’s design is quite modern, you only have to look up to be transported back in time by the intricate ceilings and organ pipes. Most of the materials for sale are in Dutch, but there is a small section devoted to English-language novels.
In addition to being the biggest city in Overijssel, Enschede is also the easternmost city in the Netherlands, located just a short distance away from the German border.
Enschede is home to Grolsch, one of the most popular Dutch beers, known for its distinctive “swing-top” bottle. Tour the brewery, taste the beer, and learn how its history ties into the region’s. Or explore the city’s artistic side at one of its many museums, theaters, or musical venues.
When you’ve had enough culture, grab a meal or a drink in the Oude Markt, a large and undeniably Dutch city square — complete with a church tower too tall to fit into any of my photos.
Honorable Mention: Ponypark Slagharen
If you’ve seen the “Netherlands second” video* that went viral after Trump’s inauguration, you may have heard of this theme park, located in the town of Slagharen. I’ve never actually been here, but according to the video, it’s the “best ponypark in the world.” I guess that should count for something. (It’s actually now called “Attractiepark Slagharen,” but everyone seems to refer to it by the old name, anyway.)
* Link leads to the video on YouTube.
Misc Tips for Overijssel
• Opening hours: Most shops will be closed by 6pm in the evenings and all day on Sundays. Some are also closed on Monday mornings, till midday or 1pm. There are exceptions, but try and plan ahead a little, and don’t assume things will be open whenever you need.
• Language: Like most parts of the Netherlands, Overijssel has its own distinct accents and dialects, even within the province itself. Don’t worry too much about this; if you’re not a Dutch speaker, you won’t even notice, and no one will care.
However, you shouldn’t expect everyone to speak or understand English. Most of them will, especially younger people, but not everyone will be fluent. Also, you should at least attempt a bit of Dutch; even if you can only say two words, people really appreciate the effort.
• Weather: Typically not so different from the rest of the Netherlands. Wear layers, bring a rain jacket, and except conditions to change quickly.
As always, feel free to ask any questions or share your own suggestions for Overijssel in the comments.