For such a small country, the Netherlands packs in a wide variety of lifestyles, from skyscraper-thicketed cities to rural farm towns; landscapes, from the northern mudflats to the western dunes; and cultures, from Frisia on the North Sea to the community of Volendam on the IJsselmeer. All this diversity is compressed into a country about the size of Maryland, with a superlative rail network that makes inter-city travel about as effortless as can be. The cities and towns below, each one a tourist destination in itself, make for splendid day trips that will broaden your horizons of the Netherlands.
The Netherlands' Major Cities
Each of the Netherlands' major cities has its own distinct character, but often with familiar elements, such as typical 17th- to 19th-century Dutch architecture and networks of picturesque canals. Rotterdam, however, can be an exception: north of the Nieuwe Maas river, the city center was all but demolished in the Second World War. Its rebuilt cityscape consists of a fair share of mid-20th century architecture (like its Cube Houses, left) that lends it a wholly contemporary vibe. The Hague escaped with most of its historic architecture intact, from the Binnenhof to the Mauritshuis, both former counts' mansions that have become the seat of Dutch politics and a world-class museum, respectively; the same is true of Utrecht, whose iconic Domkerk (Dom Church) lost its central nave in a tornado, but retains its Gothic choir and transept as well as its 369 ft. tower.
Day Trips to North Holland
North Holland, the province in which Amsterdam is situated, is full of smaller cities and towns that can feel a world apart from the capital. Zaanse Schans (left) is an epicenter of traditional Dutch architecture, arts and crafts: monumental edifices from all over the country were relocated here to create a veritable open-air museum. Alkmaar is associated with one particular Dutch tradition: the oldest cheese market in the Netherlands, where uniformed cheese bearers ceremoniously transport wheels of Gouda back and forth while spectators look on. Haarlem, the provincial capital, combines a 17th-century feel with all the stellar cultural attractions, cafes and restaurants, and retailers of a modern mid-size city; in recent years, it's become a haven for ex-Amsterdammers.
Day Trips to South Holland
North Holland's other half, South Holland, has a diverse variety of cities and towns for visitors to explore, each with its own proud hallmarks. (Collectively, the provinces of North and South Holland are the only part of the country that can properly be called "Holland".) Delft, the hometown of Dutch master Jan Vermeer, is the provenance of Delfts blauw ("Delft blue"), the world-renowned blue and white china. Leiden (left), the birthplace of Rembrandt, bustles with the students of its namesake university, the oldest in the country; with nearly 20 museums and more canals than any Dutch city besides Amsterdam, it's a justifiably popular destination for tourists. Kinderdijk's chief attraction is the series of 19 monumental windmills that define its horizon.
Day Trips to Other Provinces
While North and South Holland bode the most day trip-worthy cities and towns -- thanks to their sheer proximity to Amsterdam -- it's scarcely inconvenient to travel to further provinces; quite frankly, any town with its own train station is suitable for a day trip, even those at the country's extremities. Just a stone's throw from the German border, the city of Nijmegen (left) offers open-air Roman ruins and a fantastic antiquities collection at its Valkhof Museum. In the deep Dutch south, on a loose curl of land that droops onto Flanders, Maastricht's peculiar dialect and Bourgundian flair makes it feel like another country entirely. And Groningen, in the far north, makes the most of its position as the only sizable city for miles around: with its star Groninger Museum, a culinary landscape that combines both provincial and international flavors, and a vibrant student community, it condenses the best of the Netherlands into an all-in-one destination.