1. The Netherlands in a nutshell
The Netherlands is located in the north-west of Europe. To the west, the country faces the North Sea and the United Kingdom. The Netherlands borders Germany to the east and Belgium to the south. The Netherlands is often referred to as Holland, although North and South Holland are actually only two of its 12 provinces.
The Netherlands literally means ‘low land’ and for a reason! About 25% of its area and 21% of its population is located below sea level and 50% of its land is lying less than one meter above sea level. The people, language and culture of the Netherlands are referred to as ‘Dutch’. As the Netherlands is flat and a small nation, it can all be seen from the comfort of a bicycle seat. Although you’ll not find a lot of people on clogs living in windmills (1,180 in total) anymore, you can still enjoy the numerous villages, cities, flowers, boats, cheese, cafés, dykes and bridges on foot, by bike, train or car.
More than 60% of the Dutch population speaks English as a second language. This makes it easy for North American visitors, although Dutch people are (sometimes painfully) direct as they don’t like to beat around the bush. The word ‘gezelligheid’ is a very common word and part of the culture in the Netherlands. Basically, it means that visitors are very welcome. Simply put, there is no place like the Netherlands!
- The Netherlands have the highest population density (493 residents per square km) of any European country with over 1 million inhabitants. Worldwide only Bangladesh and Taiwan have a higher density of population.
- The microscope, telescope, pendulum clock and the mercury thermometer are Dutch inventions made in the 16th and 17th century. In the 20th century the Dutch company ‘Philips’ invented the audiotape (1967), videotape (1972), CD (1982) and CD-Rom (1985).
- Dutch people are the tallest in the world, with an average height of 6' 2" (184 cm) for men and 5' 8" (170 cm) for women.
- New York used to be named New Amsterdam as it was a Dutch colony in the 17th century. Australia was named New Holland and New Zealand was named after the Dutch province Zeeland by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (yes, he also discovered Tasmania).
- Almost every Dutch person has a bicycle and there are twice as many bikes as cars; the Netherlands has at least 15,000 km of bicycle lanes.
- The Netherlands highest point is 1,060 feet or 323 meters 'high' (Vaalserberg) and is therefore called a "mountain". But when your plane arrives at Schiphol, it lands almost 15 feet (4.5 meters) below sea level.
- Amsterdam is entirely built on piles, has 42 museums and 1,281 bridges.
- A large part of Holland has been reclaimed including the worlds largest man-made island Flevoland. This led to the Dutch saying "God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands".
You can also view our Flickr photo album about the Netherlands.
- Travel documents: Canadians and Americans only need a valid passport.
- Driver's license and registration: For none EU-members a valid national driver's license is sufficient, so you don’t need an International Driving Permit. Roads are relatively narrow in the Netherlands. Motorists should be aware that priority is given to trams, cyclists and mopeds on all roadways. Trams have right of way in all circumstances and their passage should not be blocked. The Netherlands have a very high amount of well-constructed bicycle lanes. Within city centres, most of them are separated from traffic lanes and include traffic lights. Biking is a common way of transport, and there are big bicycle parkings near stations. Helmets are neither officially encouraged nor frequently worn.
- Medical passport: If you are using medication, ask your doctor for a ‘medical passport’. This can be a signed and dated letter from your physician describing your medical conditions and medications, including generic names which details your affliction and what medicines you need to use. Bring medications in their original, clearly labelled containers. If carrying syringes or needles, be sure to have a physician’s letter documenting their medical necessity.
- Insurance documents (travel/health)
- Tickets and reservations
- Money and credit cards
Like most European countries, the Netherlands has the euro as it’s currency. The seven euro notes come in denominations of € 500, € 200, € 100, € 50, € 20, € 10 and € 5. The eight euro coins are in denominations of € 2 and € 1 and of 50, 20, 10, five, two and one cents. The one- and two-cent coins are still in circulation, but are unofficially being phased out. Almost all shops now round up or down to the nearest five cents.
Cash is still quite common in the Netherlands, so plan to pay cash for most daily expenses. Usually the easiest and quickest way to obtain cash is by making a withdrawal from your home bank account via an ATM (Dutch: pin-automaat). ATM’s are widely found at most banks, airports and most train stations. Most ATM’s are linked to international networks such as Cirrus (Mastercard), Plus (Visa), Star and Maestro. Generally your best bet for exchanging money is to use GWK Travelex offices (GWK = Grens Wissel Kantoor meaning Border Exchange Office). They are in almost every medium-sized and larger train station as well as at the borders on major highways. Many locations are open 24 hours, but you’ll need to show your passport. Banks are also options, they stick to official exchange rates and charge a sensible commission.
All major international cards like MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Diners Club are recognized. You’ll find that most hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies, gasoline stations and major stores accept them. Still, always check first to avoid disappointment.
Traveller’s cheques are on the way out in the Netherlands. You’ll be very hard pressed to find a bank who will change them for you. If you insist on carrying cheques, take American Express or Thomas Cook as their offices don’t charge commission. GWK Travelex offices still exchange traveller's cheques.
Tipping in The Netherlands
Restaurant bills include a service charge and tipping is not compulsory. Generally you tip about 5% to 10% to reflect the service. If you're eating out as a group, it's perfectly fine for each party to pay separately (Dutch Treat). Usually the server will go from person to person and calculate the amount each owes - to which you then add a tip at your discretion.
A visitor to the Netherlands faces no special health risks, as the overall health conditions are excellent. Dutch medical care is of high quality and is comparable to the medical care one finds throughout Western Europe. Diagnostic laboratories and specialists in all fields of medicine are available. Hospitals are well-equipped and maternity hospitals and many clinics are available. Most doctors and dentists speak English. North American tourists are reminded that medical services cannot be provided free of charge, as the Dutch National Health Service does not cover visitors to the Netherlands. It is therefore recommended to obtain an estimate of the cost involved before receiving any services and that the necessary health insurance provisions are made before travelling. It is also important to telephone the doctor's office for an appointment.
Pharmacies (Dutch: ’Apotheek’) are widely available and can assist with emergency prescription needs or medicines. They may not, however, be the same brand names as those used in North America and prices are generally higher. Tourists should bring a supply of the medication that they know they’ll need whilst abroad and provide proper documentation.
4. Public transport
Public transport in the Netherlands is well organized. The highly developed rail network is efficient and inexpensive. It connects all cities and towns. Rail and bus timetables are well connected. The best way to connect on long distances is via trains, which usually run on half hour intervals during the day and evening. You can buy a ticket at the automated dispensing machines located at each station.
The Dutch rail network is the busiest network in the entire world. The NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen, www.ns.nl/en/travellers/home) is the national train company in the Netherlands.
There are several kinds of train services:
- Intercity trein (Intercity train), which only reaches major cities
- Sneltrein, which only stops at main stations
- Stoptrein, which stops at all stations on the route
- International trains like Eurostar (between London, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam)
When buying a ticket, you can choose between first and second class, date of travel and single or return ticket. You save € 0.50 through purchasing your train ticket via the ticket machines (also in English) rather then at the counter. Travellers who cannot present a ticket when checked, can expect a considerable fine. Once you arrive at your destination, you can continue your trip by bus or taxi (or bicycle...). It is also possible to take your bicycle along with you on the train, but you need a separate ticket for your bike. This ticket costs about € 6, no matter where you go in the Netherlands. During weekdays you are only allowed to take your bike on the train after rush hour. Rush hour is from 6.30am till 9.00am and 4.30pm till 6.00pm. During weekends, holiday and July and August you can take your bike with you whenever you like.
The OV-chipkaart (OV= Openbaar Vervoer, Public Transport Card) is now in use throughout the Netherlands as the official transport payment system for metro, bus and tram. The smart card is the size of a bank card and contains an invisible chip. The OV-chipkaart can be loaded with credit in euros with which you can travel anywhere within the Netherlands. There are several options for buying the OV-chipkaart, such as buying an OV-chipkaart and adding up to € 30 of credit to calculate the fare based on the distance you travel. Alternatively you can also buy disposable OV-chipkaarts that are preloaded with just the credit for a single journey. The anonymous OV-chipkaart costs € 7.50 plus the value of any added credit. For most visitors to Amsterdam, a disposable OV-chipkaart is an easier option and often works out cheaper as you avoid the added expense of buying the card. It can be bought at the ticket office and vending machines at the station.
The network of regional and local buses in the Netherlands is fine-grained and frequent and usually connects well with the train network. Nearly every town and many rural areas have scheduled local bus services. In larger towns and cities, lines crisscross the city. Where local rail service is offered, buses compliment those services.
There are four types of bus services for travel throughout the country:
- City bus, which serves large towns
- Regional bus, which covers main cities and their nearby towns
- Express Service, which runs in and around the main cities with fewer stops than a regional bus
- Interliner, which long distance connection between selected towns (makes very few stops)
Buses and trams run generally from 6.00am till 12.00pm, although on Sundays and public holidays, transport services may start a little later.
There is a large city tram network in the agglomerations of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. Utrecht has two sneltram lines (fast tram or light-rail). The two largest cities Amsterdam and Rotterdam have a metro network which runs mainly on elevated railways outside the city centres and underground within the centre. Amsterdam's metro system is mainly used to get to the suburbs and is of limited use to most travellers. However the metro is the best way to get between Centraal and Amstel stations. Currently, part of the metro in Amsterdam is under construction.
The metro consists of both regular metro trains and the sneltram. The sneltram is like an express tram which runs on a dedicated track before entering the metro system and stopping at metro stations. All metro lines run on the same track between Centraal and Amstel Stations. You can find information about all Dutch public transport (train, bus, metro, tram and ferry) with schedules and prices on this journey planner:
Taxis in the Netherlands are rather expensive and not allowed to pick up people on the street except by reservation or at a taxi stand (Dutch: 'standplaats taxis'). Taxis should have meters inside to indicate the fare, including the tip. Taxis have an illuminated ‘taxi’ sign on the roof and have a blue license plate. There are taxi ranks at railway stations, hotels and various other points in the cities. Taxis are usually ordered by phone, rather then hailing them in the streets. In the larger cities, at bar closing times, you can sometimes flag one down. In smaller cities, you can organize a Train Taxi (Dutch: treintaxi) when you buy your train ticket. This is a shared door-to-door taxi service at a fixed price (€ 4.30). These run between 59 railway stations within a limited area from 7am (8am on Sundays and public holidays) until the last train arrives.
The Netherlands is generally considered a safe country with low crime rates. Still, you have to beware of pickpockets, bag snatchers and other petty thieves who target automobiles and hotel rooms. You should use your room or hotel safe and keep your baggage locked or secured when you’re away. If you travel by public transport, keep track of your purse/suitcase/wallet at all times, especially at train and subway (metro) stations and never leave your personal items or luggage unattended when going to the restroom, buffet table, etc.
Police, ambulance and fire brigade have one general emergency number 112. Mostly visitors will deal with the regional police. Some specialized forces, such as the railway police and the highway police on main roads, are run by a separate national force (highway police being the KLPD - ‘Korps Landelijke Politie Diensten’ and railway police being the ‘spoorwegpolitie’).
- Bring an adapter for the 220Volts/AC system to charge your phone, computer, etc. (European - two round pins, 220Volts/50 Hz.).
- The Netherlands are in the Central European Time zone (Greenwich +1h).
- The international access code for the Netherlands is +31. The international code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). All numbers must be preceded by 0, whether originating in the Netherlands or out, unless calling a cell phone.
- National holidays in the Netherlands: 1 January (New Year’s Day), Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Monday, 30 April (Queen’s Day), Ascension Day (40 days after Easter), Pentecost/Whit Monday (7th Monday after Easter), 25 December (Christmas) and 26 December (Boxing Day).
- Frans Hals (1580-1666)
- Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)
- Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
- Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
- Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944)
- Boudewijn de Groot (1944), singer/songwriter
- André Rieu (1949), violinist/composer
- André Hazes (1951-2004), singer Dutch folk
- Golden Earring (since 1961), greatest hit ‘Radar Love’
- Armin van Buuren (1976), popular international Trance DJ
- Kroket (fastfood, meat ragout covered in bread crumbs and deep-fried)
- Erwtensoep or Snert (substantial pea soup with smoked sausage)
- Pannenkoeken (Pancakes)
- Stamppot (Dutch mashed potatoes with mashed vegetables)
- Zoute Haring (Salt Herring, filleted while you wait, with chopped onions)
- Fanny Blankers-Koen (1918-2004), athletics
- Joop Zoetemelk (1946), cycling
- Johan Cruijff (1947), soccer
- Pieter van den Hoogenband (1976), swimming
- Sven Kramer (1986), speed skating
- Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), humanist
- Peter Stuyvesant (c.1612-1672), Director-General of New Netherland (NY)
- Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), philosopher
- Anthony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), scientist and first microbiologist
- Anne Frank (1929-1945), holocaust victim (born in Germany)