The province of South Holland (Zuid-Holland) is, as the name implies, the southern half of Holland proper - that is, the two Dutch provinces that comprise "Holland", a term that has erroneously come to refer to the whole of the Netherlands (to the consternation of those who hail from the 10 other provinces of the country). Most of South Holland is eminently well-connected to Amsterdam and the other major cities of North Holland by train, and travel from Amsterdam to any sizable city in South Holland rarely takes more than an hour; this makes the historic cities of the province excellent choices for a day trip or extended weekend.
1. The Hague
Beside the national capital of Amsterdam, each province has its own provincial capital, and in the case of South Holland it's The Hague (Den Haag). What started out as a count's country house in the 13th century has matured into one of the most important cities in the Netherlands: the pond-side site where Count Floris IV of Holland built his abode has been the seat of the Dutch Parliament for centuries, while the city has also come to be associated with international justice. The marvelous juxtaposition of historic and modern architecture results in a unique atmosphere, and the ample touristic attractions - world-class museums, nationally renowned restaurants and much-anticipated festivals and events make The Hague one of the most worthwhile excursions outside Amsterdam. Don't miss the Mauritshuis, renowned for its wonderful collection of 17th- and 18th-century Dutch art; the Gemeentemuseum, filled with modern artists like Piet Mondrian, Picasso and Monet; and Escher in Het Paleis, devoted wholly to the oeuvre of M.C. Escher.
Not a city on its own but a district of The Hague, Scheveningen is synonymous with the beach for countless Dutch and Germans. But the beloved beach resort has more to offer than sun and sand, and many of its attractions are year-round - such as the wildly popular Panorama Mesdag, a trompe l'oeil, an optical illusion that depicts the dunes and the nearby cityside, and the sculpture museum Beelden aan Zee. The International Sand Sculpture Festival returns to Scheveningen each year from April to June for a spectacle that leaves visitors in awe.
As the second most populous city in the Netherlands, Rotterdam tends to invite comparisons with Amsterdam - but there's little that's comparable between the two cities beside their size. Rotterdam's city center was all but wiped out in the second World War, and only a few remnants of its pre-war past survive; in its stead, some of the most remarkable modern architecture in the Netherlands has arisen, which has endowed the city with its special character. Rotterdam is well-known as one of the world's chief port cities, and its maritime past and present pervades the city. Arts and culture thrive in Rotterdam, which has a number of excellent art museums and exhibit spaces; the Kunsthal (Art Hall), for example, features temporary exhibits from such stars of the modern art world as Edvard Munch, Edward Hopper and Alberto Giacometti - and made the international headlines in 2012, when a thief made off with irreplaceable works by Picasso, Monet, Matisse and others.
Seat of the oldest university in the Netherlands, Leiden is my personal favorite city in the country thanks to its picturesque streets and architecture, its abundance of canals, and its numerous, excellent museums. Visitors can look out over the entire city from De Burcht, a hilltop fortress where the two branches of the Rhine - the Old and New Rhine - meet in the center of city; two of the city's marvelous churches, such as the Pieterskerk and Hooglandse Kerk, are included in the panoramic view. Leiden has more than its fair share of museums, such as Museum het Lakenhal, a former clothmaker's hall filled with 17th-century art and other relics; the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, dedicated to Mediterranean antiquities; and the Siebold Huis, the erstwhile home of Philipp Franz von Siebold, a German physician and Japanophile who collected precious artifacts of Japanese culture in his travels to the country.
Another picturesque university city with much to offer tourists, one of Delft's claims to fame is as a production center for the world-famous Delft blue (Delfts blauw), or "Delftware", porcelain, with its characteristic blue and white color scheme. Visitors can witness first-hand how the special porcelain is produced at Royal Delft. Two more icons of Delft are its two famous churches, the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church); the former is where Dutch Master Jan Vermeer, a native of Delft, is entombed, while the latter is the traditional burial place of members of the royal family, as well as national hero William I. Visitors to Delft can learn all about William I and the history of the Dutch Republic at the excellent Museum het Prinsenhof; the city houses a number of other museums, such as the Museum Nusantara, which celebrates the history and culture of Indonesia.
The name "Gouda" is known the world over as a characteristic yellow cheese, and this city, its namesake, derives part of its popularity with tourists from that association. Each summer, the city revives its Cheese and Crafts Market, where visitors can see the traditional cheese market in action as it's been for centuries. Beside Gouda cheese, the city is also justly famous for its other hand-made specialties, such as Goudse stroopwafels (syrup waffles), candles and clay pipes. The city center is also crammed with historic architecture - such as the Stadhuis, one of the oldest Gothic city halls in the Netherlands, whose sumptuous interior makes it well worth a peak inside. In addition, the city has an assortment of fine museums, from history museums to a harbor museum where 18 monumental ships are docked. Each December, Gouda illuminates some of its most spectacular monuments with thousands of candles in its yearly Gouda bij Kaarslicht festival.
This series of 19 windmills, erected in the 1600s to drain the Alblasserwaard polders, has become an icon of the Netherlands and its quintessential windmills - not to mention a UNESCO-listed monument that draws tens of thousands of admirers each year. The windmills have since been retired in favor of more efficient screw pumps, but the spectacular landscape remains; visitors can drive, bike or walk a route past the series of windmills, or relax on a boat tour that takes in the views. At least one of the windmills is open to visitors year-round.