Location: Western Europe
Capital City: Amsterdam
Population: 16.8 million
Government: Constitutional monarchy
Currency: Euro (€ EUR)
Main Language: Dutch
Main Religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism
The Kingdom of the Netherlands is a small country in North West Europe, bordered by Germany, Belgium and the North Sea. It is often referred to as ‘Holland’ because two of its twelve provinces, North and South Holland, were independent states until 1813. With more than 20% of its land area under water, the title ‘the Netherlands’- which is Germanic for ‘lowlands’ - aptly reflects the country’s geography. It is one of the world’s most densely populated countries (16.8 million inhabitants) and the largest and most important cities are the capital Amsterdam, The Hague, which is the seat of government, and Rotterdam, home to Europe’s largest port. The Netherlands began life as a republic, when it became one of the world’s most powerful maritime trading nations, but is now a constitutional monarchy. It is considered to be one of the driving forces behind the formation of the European Union and the UN, with The Hague being home to the International Court of Justice. The country also enjoys a reputation for artistic brilliance on a par with Italy, producing legends such as Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Vermeer.
Dutch culture is uniformly considered to be one of tolerance and individuality. The prevalent liberal attitude towards gay rights and same-sex marriage, gender equality and the legalisation of soft drugs and prostitution is an essential part of the Dutch national identity. Dutch people take pride in promoting individualism and this laissez-faire attitude permeates society. There is a general expectation that everyone has a right to their opinion and equality and democracy is enshrined in most laws. Indeed, the Netherlands was one of the first countries in the world to have an elected parliament. Dutch people are known for their progressive values compared to many other European nations and the Netherlands has an egalitarian society where status and respect are obtained through education and work rather than through money, power and privilege.
Despite its diminutive size, the Netherlands is a diverse country with a huge range of things to do. Its countless canals and waterways mean that river cruising and canal boating are a popular pastime. One of the best times to visit the Netherlands is in the spring, when the famed tulip fields (or ‘bulbfields’) are in full bloom.
The national sport of the Netherlands is football. The distinctly orange-clad national team have an unwanted reputation as ‘the bridesmaid’ of the international game on account of their record of having been to more World Cup finals than any other nation, without ever winning the competition.
Cycling is a national obsession and the Dutch own more bicycles per capita than any other nation in Europe. Nearly all roads and cities are adapted for cycling and the Netherland’s pancake-flat geography make biking long distances easy. Even before they can walk, Dutch children are immersed in a world of cycling, with babies and toddlers travelling in special seats affixed to the front of bicycles. The Netherlands also has its share of white sandy beaches and the popular resorts of Cadzand, Oostkapelle, Dishoek, and Domburg in the province of Zeeland attract thousands of walkers, cyclists and sun-worshippers every year.
Food and Drink
The Netherlands is famous for cheese-making, the red-rind bound Edam (Edammer) being the most well-known. Indeed, the Dutch themselves comment that their love of cheese and dairy in general has contributed to their status as the world’s tallest people - on average, Dutch women stand almost 1.71 metres (5.6ft) tall, and its men 1.84 metres (6ft).
Traditional dishes include erwtensoep, a thick pea soup cooked with ham or sausage and hutspot, a potato-based stew to which klapstuk (lean beef) is sometimes added. Seafood is also hugely popular, particularly oysters, mussels, herring and freshwater eel. For breakfast and lunch, the Dutch generally eat broodjes, small buttered rolls usually filled with ham and cheese or beef. Although the Netherlands has numerous restaurants serving international cuisine, for authentic Dutch dishes, look for the ‘Neerlands Dis’ sign, which identifies restaurants specialising in the native cuisine.
The Dutch are a nation of beer drinkers with home grown brands such as Heineken, Grolsch and Amstel being among the most popular. Also a favourite is Dutch gin, jenever, a colourless spirit distilled from grain or malt, usually enjoyed neat.
Dutch is the official language of the Netherlands, with the Frisian language group recognised as the second language in the northern province of Friesland. Over 90% of Dutch people speak English to a high level of competence, and many people also speak a good level of German and French. Most Dutch people are expected to learn and speak non-native languages fluently from an early age.
Accents and Dialects
Considering its size, the Netherlands has a wide range of dialects and accents, some varying from town to town in the same area. Some dialects can be difficult to understand but in most cities, standard Dutch is widely used. The Low Saxon dialects (Gronings, Drents, Limburg and Brabants) are spoken in the east of the country and The Zeeuws group of dialects are spoken in the Zeeland area. Many Dutch dialects are related to Flemish (or Belgian Dutch), which is a West Germanic variation on the Dutch language spoken in neighbouring Belgium.
The Netherlands has a rainy climate with cool summers and mild, humid winters. The average high in summer is around 22°C and temperatures drop to an average low of 1°C in winter. The country sees around 185 days of rainfall each year so it’s important always to carry an umbrella and raincoat – as the Dutch do!
Safety and security
The Netherlands has low crime rates in comparison to other European countries but care should be taken in large cities such as Amsterdam where tourists frequently fall prey to pickpockets, bag snatchers, and other petty thieves. Bicycle theft is a common problem and the Dutch authorities estimate around 750,000 bikes are stolen each year. It’s wise to keep your bicycle locked and parked in a designated bike stand. Bikes that have been removed by city officials or found without an owner are taken to the local Bicycle Depository (Fietsdepot).