Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg comprise the Benelux countries, small countries between northeastern France and western Germany. Over the years, they have been overrun numerous times during wars or disputes between the larger European powers. However, they have maintained their cultures in spite of the oppression, and have emerged recently as powerful and important members of the European Union.
Below are descriptions of some of their major tourist sights. A photo album will soon follow.
1. Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ most famous city, is well known throughout the world for its tolerance and laissez-faire attitude. Marijuana smoking and possession is allowed and prostitution is tolerated. But this large city with its many canals has much more to offer than a refuge for wayward souls.
The major attraction in Amsterdam is the Anne Frank House. At Prinsengracht 263, visitors can walk behind the bookcase and climb the ladder to the attic where eight Jews hid from the Germans during World War II, for almost two years. Various multimedia exhibits chronicle the construction of the hiding place, the arrangements with helpers who supplied food and other necessities, the conditions under which these poor people lived, and finally their fate. In addition, there are discussions of the holocaust and its ramifications. The entire experience is carefully orchestrated and is moving and extremely well done. Plan on waiting in line to enter. The queue is often long, so plan to arrive early, when the attraction opens, to minimize the wait.
Other notable sights in the city include the Rijksmuseum, which specializes in the Dutch masters, particularly Rembrandt, the Royal Palace, which is located on the hectic and noisy Dam Square, and several churches, such as, Niewe Kerk (also on Dam Square), and Oude Kerk. Also of note are the Begijnhof, the old city’s almshouse, and, of course, the Red Light District, where prostitutes flaunt their wares behind large windows under red awnings.
Take a canal boat tour to get oriented to the layout of Amsterdam. There are many stops to embark or disembark. There are several different routes and the ticket allows travelers to get off one and get on another.
St Nicholas Church, located near the docks, has a beautiful interior and is well worth a visit.
At the Rijksmuseum, be sure to check out Rembrandt’s Night Watch, his largest and most famous painting.
4. A popular excursion from the city is to travel west to the town of Haarlem, with its lovely Grote Markt (main square) which showcases the Church of St Bavo (Sint-Bavokerk) and also the 14th century Stadhuis (Town Hall).
A fantastic excursion from the city is southwest to Keukenhof Gardens, in the town of Lisse. It is like a theme park centered on flowers. Especially in the spring, the area is alive with the bright colors of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and many other bulbs for which the country is famous. Stroll the extensive pathways and admire the meticulous landscaping. Stop at the various pavilions for an immersion in other types of flowers, such as, orchids and bromeliads which are not hardy in the Middle Latitudes. Interspersed with all this color and greenery are interesting sculptures, wonderful playgrounds for kids, ponds and streams, and even a windmill. It makes a wonderful day trip from Amsterdam, and can even be visited by bicycle since Holland has extensive bike paths throughout the country. It ranks as one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.
2. Brussels, Belgium
Brussels is Belgium’s capital and largest city, yet its town-like center contains a number of notable sights. The premier attraction is, without doubt, the Grand Place, Brussels’ main square. It is arguably the most elegant square in all of Europe. The Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) is positively magnificent with its 70 meter (215 foot) tall tower and its numerous statues, spires, and gargoyles. Because Brussels was the headquarters for many of the Medieval Guilds, preludes to modern Unions, their administrative buildings were showplaces, displaying their wealth and power for all to see. There was also some obvious rivalry which contributed to the elaborate and decorative structures. Stop in at the tourist office for a map of the square and descriptions of the various buildings.
The center of the Grand Place is covered with a carpet of multicolored begonias every other year during the third week of August. Quite a spectacle!
Near the Grand Place is the iconic statue of Manneken Pis, a symbol of Brussels since the 15th century. It is a statue of a small boy who is relieving himself and one wonders what all the attention is about, but people flock to see his steady stream. He is dressed, from time to time (on holidays), in various costumes and his costumes are on display in the Musee de la Ville, on the main square.
Further a field, but still within walking distance and worthy of a visit is the Royal Palace, the Notre Dame du Sablon church, and nearby, the Place du Petit-Sablon, an adorable little square of greenery surrounded by a wrought iron fence topped with numerous statues.
Be sure to have a Belgian waffle, not in a restaurant, but from a street vendor or stand.
For a regal treat, stop in at Mary Chocolatier, in the Upper Town, somewhat near the Royal Palace, for some chocolates to die for.
A bit further away are the Atomium, a huge model of an Iron molecule, a remnant of the 1958 World’s Fair, and Minieurope, which has miniature scale models of many of Europe’s great structures. Both these sights are great for kids.
3. Bruges, Belgium
Bruges, Belgium, is a picture-perfect time capsule of the Middle Ages and one of the most delightful towns in all of Europe. Called the “Venice of the North” because of the numerous canals which traverse the city, it also has two splendid squares (the Markt and the Burg) which provide a glimpse into the architecture and lifestyle of Belgians in the past.
Other notable sights include the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses a relic (a cloth with the reputed coagulated blood) of Jesus Christ along with a beautiful interior, and the Church of Our Lady, whose spire dominates the skyline of Brugge, and whose Michelangelo sculpture, Madonna and Child, is one of the few examples of the great artist’s work that can be seen outside of Italy.
Brugge is an ideal city for walking (cars are not permitted in the town center), so stroll the narrow streets and stop occasionally in the squares for a Belgian beer (among the best in the world) and perhaps a treat.
Take a canal boat cruise for a different perspective on the city and delight in the tranquility of the setting.
4. Delft, Netherlands
Delft, Netherlands is a pretty, little town, famous for its blue and white earthenware called Delftware. It is available at many shops in town, but look for the stamp “De Porcelyne Fles” which denotes the traditional, hand painted method. One shop on the main square even offers demonstrations of the process. The town square is very pleasant, anchored by the Town Hall at one end and the Niewe Kerk (New Church) at the other end. The New Church dates to the late 14th century and contains the very intriguing tomb of William the Silent which is adorned with many figures and objects, some religious and some secular. The spire of the church is very tall (almost 400 feet) and dominates the skyline of the town.
The Oude Kerk (Old Church), founded around 1200, can also be visited (combination tickets include both). It houses the tombs of many important and famous Dutchmen, particularly Jan Vermeer, the artist, and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope.
Stroll the village and soak up the Dutch ambiance of quiet, cobblestone streets pierced by canals.
For a well-deserved break while in Delft, stop off at Stads, near the Tourist Information Office, for a bite to eat or drink. It’s a great place to try Dutch pancakes or Pannenkoechen (more like thin pizza than pancakes) with various toppings. While there, check out the restrooms!
From Delft, visitors should plan on an excursion to see the Dikes and Windmills which have been associated with Holland for centuries. Because the “low countries” (Belgium and the Netherlands) are mostly at or below sea level, the residents had to find ways to prevent flooding during high tides or storms. They erected dikes and used windmills to pump water back into the sea. Windmills, in particular, dotted the landscape for many years.
Today, there are other ways to hold back the sea, so the windmills are disappearing. However, UNESCO has preserved a cluster of them in the Kinderdijk area as a World Heritage Site. Here one can walk along the canal and see 19 working windmills. It is a spectacular sight and worth a short stop during a trip to the Netherlands.
5. Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
Luxembourg City is an elegant city with an old town which harkens to its history of siege and battle. It is a veritable fortress, rising above the Petrusse River (really not much more than a stream). The old town is fairly compact, easy to walk, and includes a number of significant sights.
The main gathering place in town is the Place d’ Armes, a cute little square lined with shops and cafes. Nearby attractions include the Place de la Constitution, with its Memorial Column and great views across the river to the new town, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Palace of the Grand Dukes, an elegant building constructed with light-colored stone, and, of course, the Fortifications which can be viewed along the Promenade de la Corniche, a pleasant walkway along the edge of the river valley.
6. The Hague, Netherlands
The Hague, Netherlands’ seat of government (despite Amsterdam being the major city), is an elegant and stately city, just 43 miles (about 60 kilometers) southwest of Amsterdam. Internationally, the city is well-known as the location of the World Court, housed in the Peace Palace. As a result of its presence here, there are over 60 foreign embassies in the area.
One of the most important tourist sights is the Binnenhof, a former hunting lodge which now houses the official governmental branches of the country. At the center of the complex is the Ridderzaal (the Hall of the Knights) which is decorated with flags of the provinces and coats of arm from the various cities.
Also of note are several palaces, Noordeinde, where the reigning monarch and her staff are employed, and Huis ten Bosch (House in the Woods Palace), which is the royal residence and can be found east of the city.
A great attraction for both adults and children can be found north of the city center, in Westbroek Park. Madurodam is “Holland in miniature”, a sprawling assemblage of towns, buildings, roads, etc. where things actually move — fascinating and captivating!