Between charming cities, endless canals and green landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see, there’s no shortage of things to do in Holland, the most famous area of the Netherlands. Not to be confused with the Netherlands as a whole, this region is located to the Western coast of the country. And as the area where you’ll find the likes of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, this former province is formed of North and South Holland.
What is Holland and where is it located?
Contrary to what you may think, the Netherlands and Holland are not the same things! Instead, Holland is simply a region of the wider country of The Netherlands. Furthermore, the entire country as a whole is officially known as the ‘Kingdom of The Netherlands’.
As a result, only the western side of the Netherlands is known as ‘Holland’. Going back in time, the (now defunct) Province of Holland was one of the best-known places in Europe. After all, during the Dutch Golden Age, it was from this area that many ships sailed. Today, this region of the country is characterised by its countless canals, stunning cities, and wealth of history.
#1 Explore the University City of Leiden
Truth be told, of all the places to visit in Holland, Leiden is easily the prettiest. Characterised by its many canals and cobbled lanes, so picturesque is this city that it was selected to be the filming location for ‘the Miniaturist,’ a movie based on a novel of the same name in 17th-century Amsterdam.
Visit Leiden today and you can expect to find plenty of hidden gems, including one of the oldest Botanical Gardens in the Netherlands, a once residence of Jan Steen, and even the school where Rembrandt once attended. For those in search of a quintessentially Dutch experience, a beer inside De Vergulde Kruik is an absolute must, while cycling around some of the city’s more residential neighbourhoods is never a bad idea.
#2 Check out the Political City of The Hague
Though you may well associate The Hague with ‘boring’ politics and endless embassies, this is simply not the case! Though, of course, there’s plenty of fascinating political buildings to be spied in this Dutch city, there’s also a myriad of museums, and many don’t know this… But the Hague even has its own beach!
Scheveningen is the seaside district’s name, and what was once a fishing village in its own right has since become absorbed into the fabric of The Hague. Meanwhile, the vegan scene in the city is unparalleled, with a myriad of meat-free options at every price point. Less expensive than Amsterdam though with plenty of activities and things to do for all ages, Madurodam is a miniature Netherlands, while the world-famous Girl with a Pearl Earring can be spied in the Mauritshuis.
#3 Take a day trip to the canal city of Dordrecht
Filled with canals and close to Rotterdam, many people leave Dordrecht off their Netherlands travel itineraries in favour of more popular destinations. However, this Holland city has plenty by way of attractions and the kind of charm seldom found in larger locations.
Just across the water from nearby Rotterdam, Dordrecht is often abbreviated into English as ‘Dort’ and is alleged to be the oldest city in Holland. Some of the best things to do in Dordrecht include the centuries-old Dordrecht Minster, the Dordrechts Museum (which features plenty of 16th-century paintings), and eating at the best café in town, Coffeelicious. I highly recommend their pancakes- they’re simply delicious!
#4 Venture out into the Holland Countryside and enjoy the windmills
There is perhaps no Dutch scene quite as iconic as the windmill. Though the most famous mills of Holland can be found in the form of Kinderdijk, a UNESCO world heritage site close to the architectural city of Rotterdam, there are plenty more windmills dotted all over the Dutch countryside.
One of the best-kept secrets of Holland can be found close to Voorburg, an ancient district of the Hague which was once a town in its own right. ‘Molendriegang’ is quite literally translated as ‘three windmills,’ and once upon a time, the mills were used to dry mill the De Driemanspolder. For those unfamiliar with the term ‘polder’, it’s a piece of low lying land which has been reclaimed from a river or from the sea which is then protected by levees.
#5 Shop Delftware in Delft
If you’ve ever read about European pottery, then no doubt you’ll have come across Delftware, which is also known as Delft Blue. Though you can, of course, visit a factory tour and learn all about how this famous export is made, there’s plenty more to Delft than just its ceramics! Ancient and almost as pretty as Leiden, highlights of this University City include a Gothic Protestant Church with a famous leaning tower, the City Hall, and the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk).
Finally, at the end of a day of sightseeing, climbing ancient towers, and playing tourist, retire to a cosy traditional Dutch bar, Bierhuis de Klomp. This pub is often alleged to be the oldest drinking establishment in the city, and while the building dates back much earlier, to 1538, the café itself has been open for all manner of drinks since 1652…
#6 Admire the Kasteel Duivenvoorde
One of the prettiest castles in the Netherlands can be found in the form of Kasteel Duivenvoorde, a stunning brick castle located somewhere between the University City of Leiden and the Political City of The Hague. Easy to reach via bicycle if you have a spare day, Castle Duivenvoorde is all brick splendour, carved façades, and landscaped gardens.
And with roots dating all the way back to the 13th-century, this typically European castle makes for the perfect historic day trip from The Hague or Leiden. Though guided tours of the interior only take place in Dutch and cost upwards of €10, the gardens and parkland can be strolled around for as little as €1.
#7 Wander around the Dutch capital city of Amsterdam
Of course, while many visitors make the mistake of believing that ‘Holland’ and ‘the Netherlands’ are one and the same, in assuming this, they correctly guess that Amsterdam is part of Holland. The Dutch capital city can be found in North Holland and should undoubtedly be found on every Europe bucket list.
Highlights of Amsterdam include more museums than you could hope to see in several visits, a foodie scene to rival that of any other European capital, and the kind of charm that’s rarely found in the largest city in the country. After all, the best way to get around the city is by bicycle, or indeed on your own two feet.
For a local’s perspective on the city, be sure to visit one of the more unusual things to do in Amsterdam. Otherwise, make your way to one of the city’s many hofjes, or simply stroll around the Jordaan district, simply letting your feet guide the way. To make the most of your visit, you’ll likely want to purchase the I Amsterdam card, which allows free transportation, includes museum entrance, and encompasses plenty of discounts throughout the city. Purchase your I Amsterdam card here.
#8 Enjoy the Cheese City of Gouda
I’m sure you’ve heard the word ‘Gouda’ before and it’s likely thanks to the iconic Dutch cheese which originates in the city! Truth be told, my favourite place in Holland was most definitely the city of Gouda as a result of its rich history, great foodie scene, and wealth of historical sites to explore.
Other highlights of Gouda include the chance to wander alongside ancient canals, see an ancient hidden house church (the most famous of these is Our Lord in the Attic in Amsterdam, but hidden churches can be found all over Holland), and even purchase freshly ground flour from a traditional Dutch windmill.
#9 Marvel at the architecture of Rotterdam
The modern and futuristic city of Rotterdam is different from pretty much the entirety of the rest of the region, and indeed the entire country, making a visit here one of the most unusual things to do in Holland. Home to fantastic sites such as Piet Blom’s ‘Cube Houses,’ the impossibly large ‘Markthal‘ food establishment, and more modern buildings than you could possibly imagine, Rotterdam is easily one of my favourite Dutch destinations.
Some of the best things to do in the city include going in search of hidden gems, spying plenty of street art, and seeking out cultural museums. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that thanks to some fantastic transport links and a central location, Rotterdam is a great place from which to base yourself for exploring the wider region of Holland. Cheaper than Amsterdam, there are plenty of day trips to be taken from the city.
#10 Snap photos of the Keukenhof Gardens
Only open for a couple of months every year, the Keukenhof Gardens are also known as the ‘Garden of Europe’ and are a must-see for any budding botanist or tulip lover out there. Before planning your trip, however, one thing I must stress is that, despite what you might have seen online, Keukenhof is a garden and so if you visit the Dutch destination with the expectation of frolicking in tulip fields, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Instead, the current garden was established in 1949 when the then-mayor of Lisse wanted to create a space where growers from the Netherlands, Europe, and beyond would be able to display and exhibit their wares (including hybrids) and even further the export of flowers, and especially tulips, from the Netherlands. Today, the Netherlands is the largest exporter of flowers in the world and Keukenhof is easily one of the best things to do in Holland.
Things to know before visiting Holland for the first time
Though there’s no denying that the region is certainly busier during the European peak season (i.e. the Summer and other major school holidays) than at any other time of the year. With this being said, Rotterdam, The Hague, and especially Amsterdam, are eternally popular, meaning that you’ll want to book your place to stay well in advance.
Check the best Holland accommodation prices here. For an über unique experience during your Holland visit, you might even consider booking to stay on a Dutch houseboat. During a recent stay in Amsterdam, I did exactly this and couldn’t recommend it more! Check out all of my best Amsterdam houseboat recommendations!
If you’re visiting The Netherlands from the USA, UK, Canda, and a plethora of other countries, then you should know that you’ll need to bring along a travel adaptor. The plugs in The Netherlands are C and F. If you want to save money, then purchase this all-in-one travel adaptor that will allow you to use your electronics in over 150 countries!
Though you’ll soon discover that the Dutch are incredibly good at English, it’s only polite to learn a few words of the local language in any country you’re visiting. Buy this Dutch phrasebook and you’ll soon have easy access to any commonly used little phrase that you might need during your Netherlands adventure!