I spent my formative years living in “the judicial capital of the world”, The Hague. It doesn’t quite sound like the sexiest spot on earth, but it is a place where one may purchase food straight from a wall, smoke the green stuff to your heart’s content and indulge your cravings for the some of the best and most varied multi-ethnic cuisine this side of Europe. The Hague (contrary to popular belief) is not the capital city of the Netherlands – that title belongs to good old Amsterdam. The Hague, the quieter of the two cities, is the seat of the Dutch government and parliament, residence of the current king Willem-Alexander and his beautiful wife Maxima, as well as home to a stunning, picturesque beach on the North Sea called Scheveningen – one which celebrates its 200 year anniversary this year. This quaint Dutch city can best be described as “gezellig” (a Dutch concept akin to the Danes’ Hygge). It’s got about half a million residents, so I always wonder why so many are yet to hear about it (I’ve had travel agents ask me what it was). Blank glares are shot my way when I talk about living there as a child. Only when one mentions its proximity to Amsterdam is it legitimised as its own place. Finally stepping out of Amsterdam’s shadow, The Hague is coming into its own with regeneration and major sprinklings of glitz. Here’s what to do when visiting Amsterdam’s little sister.
Head to Scheveningen
This one’s certainly a mouthful. Many struggle to pronounce Scheveningen (Sh-keh-veh-nin-ghen), the coastal region of The Hague. If you struggle to get the words out, just ask for directions to the beach (or “strand” in Dutch) and someone will point you in the right direction. Scheveningen has somewhat optimistically been referred to as the Santa Monica of Europe. Come here for a spattering of beachside restaurants and bars which are torn down each winter and rebuilt every summer. The pier burnt down a few years back and thankfully, has been colourfully rebuilt. The tacky arcades have been replaced by “gezellig” (cosy) stores and restaurants to take in the sway of the North Sea. There’s an open air deck too and you can even bungy jump from De Pier.
Standing majestically in the backdrop is the Steigenberger Kurhaus hotel, a regal structure which has been standing since 1885. Scheveningen also hosts an annual European fireworks festival and when the mercury isn’t quite as high, you’ll find thousands (around ten) diving into the ice-cold North Sea for the annual Unox sponsored New Year’s Day dive. Brrr. Fret not however, as Unox provides daredevil divers with warm orange hats before and hot soup afterwards.
Scheveningen New Year’s dive. Photo credit: The Hague Online
Try the food
While many will argue that Dutch food “isn’t a thing”, I absolutely love going back to visit and indulging in all the edible splendours that the country is recognised for including raw herring, traditionally served with pickles and raw onions. The dish is traditionally eaten by picking up the herring by the tail and gradually sliding it into the mouth. Lekker! I had to have some the second I laid eyes on the tiny herring stall opposite Buitenhof – one of Holland’s many iconic little street-side fish stalls or “stalletjes”, which are typically adorned with patriotic red, white and blue colours alongside Dutch flags. You may also have yours cut into pieces or with bread. Don’t ask to have your herring with mayonnaise on top – you’ll be laughed at and told that it’s not a hamburger. Also watch out for the birds (meeuwen), they’re cunningly fast and your tasty meal will disappear within seconds.
Also typically Dutch is vla, a cream dessert made from custard and cooked milk, and normally sold in cartons (debate still exists as to whether one eats vla or drinks it). A trip to Albert Heijn, Hoogvliet or any other fine Dutch supermarket will unearth such lovely vla flavours such a vanilla, caramel, chocolate and banana. Certainly worth a try. Hearty sausages aren’t solely reserved for the German neighbours, the Dutch love Rookworst, thick smoked sausages normally eaten with mustard. It’s also the main adornment of the country’s national dish, stamppot.
The Dutch are also suckers for sweets or “drop”. It isn’t only children you’ll see at sweet shop Jamin filling up paper bags with liquorice and other sugary things your dentist would advise you against. Hailing from The Hague are Haagsche Hopjes, a caramel and coffee sweet that’s slightly reminiscent of Werther’s Original. Another The Hague exclusive is Haagse Kakker, a not-so-photogenic pastry that’s technically named after faeces (just Google what kak means).
Fries are also a standard snack here and you will almost certainly find a vendor selling fries or “patat” on almost every corner you turn. Oh, and you’re spoilt for choice toppings-wise! I’m never sure whether to go for patat met (fries with mayonnaise) or patatje oorlog (fries with mayonnaise, sate sauce and onions), which translates as ‘war chips’ (I’ve been wondering about the name for years). Sate sauce, a spicy mixture of peanuts, kecap manis, ginger, chilli and turmeric, is widespread in the Netherlands due to the sizeable Indonesian population in the country. Trying Dutch cheese also goes without saying.
Spruce up your vocabulary
It of course always helps to know a few words whenever you go somewhere new; the locals will appreciate it even though many speak perfect English here (The Netherlands is ranked second for best English speakers in Europe outside of the UK). Learn how to say “hallo” (hello), “dooie” (bye), “dankjewel” (thank you) and “alsjeblieft” (please). Absolutely nobody ever says “neuken in de keuken” by the way.
Get on your bike
You’re much more likely to find bicycle parking lots than car parks dotted around the city. No joke. With the Dutch being the most prolific everyday cyclists in Europe, biking around the city is remarkably safe and easy as there are countless bike paths, which even have their own cute traffic lights. You’ll see the Dutch cycling to walk the dog, texting, smoking, holding a briefcase, in a tuxedo or carrying two large buckets of paint as I witnessed earlier this week. For the perfect Dutch day out, get on your “fiets” or bike, explore, indulge and enjoy all the beautiful little things this charming little city has to offer.
The Hague is also great to explore on foot and my uber-central hotel, re-launched Hotel Babylon beside The Hague Central Station, certainly allowed for thorough exploration of the city’s central areas.
Hit up Grote Markt
The lion’s share of The Hague’s partygoers flock to Grote Markt, a grand square with an array of bars and restaurants and a large seating area in the middle for all the various establishments’ clientele to mingle together. Boterwaag and Zwarte Ruiter are two of the more popular bars but my personal favourite is Vavoom, a low-lit Tiki bar with evocative Polynesian decor and funky glassware. Across the street is the crowd-funded Bleyenberg, a dazzling rooftop bar offering fine cocktails and a coveted view of the Grote Markt revellers below.
Many flock to Amsterdam to get lost in clouds of weed smoke but The Hague also has it’s share of coffee shops too. Grand café Cremers was where all the cool kids from my high school would go to fly high, now it’s just a takeaway spot apparently. In true Dutch style, the coffee shops have great tongue-in-cheek names like Sky High, Sky High 2 and Happy Smile.
While Amsterdam boasts the globally-famed Van Gogh, Rijksmuseum, Rembrant, and Anne Frank museums among others (with hour-long queues to boot), The Hague is home to the M.C. Escher museum, Escher in the Palace, which fans of the artist’s mathematically-inspired optical illusions will find particularly enjoyable. It’s a permanent exhibition set in the former winter palace of Queen Mother Emma of The Netherlands. There’s also the Mauritshuis to sink your teeth into and meet the original “Girl with the pearl earring” by Vermeer as well as other fine works from the Dutch golden age.
Binnenhof is the seat of the Dutch parliament in the centre of the city, flanked by the hofvijver (or Court Pond) and a picturesque leafy park which my friends and I affectionately dubbed “little Paris” growing up. The Hague is a city of palaces. The Koninklijke Schouwburg or Royal Theatre, was originally built as a palace for Prince Karel van Cristiaan van Nassau-Weilburg. The Dutch royal family has three official residences, two of which are in The Hague; Paleis Huis ten bosch in the Haasge Bos forest, and Noordeinde. The Peace Palace (Vredespaleis), the home of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Permanent Court of Arbitration, deceptively is not actually a palace. The exceptionally grand building is the global home of world peace, presented by Andrew Carnegie to the Permanent Court of Arbitration during the first World War. The Peace Palace is open Tuesday – Sunday from 11am till 4pm for those wishing to lay eyes on its majestic walls. A more family-friendly attraction is Madurodam or “mini Holland”: all Holland’s sights and sounds presented in miniature form.
Binnenhof surrounded by the Hofvijver (Court Pond)
Take a day trip
Close by Leiden is home to Leiden University, which lends it an effervescent energy. It’s also blessed with a myriad of lovely canals that are best enjoyed by boat. There are lots of boat tour operators in the area but you can also rent a private one from companies like Olympia Charters for around 150 Euros per day. Don’t worry, if you’ve never operated a boat before, they do give detailed instructions before you sail into the sunset.
The Hague is 29 minutes from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and a 2nd class one-way ticket costs 9.80 Euros. Once in The Hague, it helps to buy an OV Chipkaart, a touch in and touch out system much like the Oyster cards in London. Top up your balance at any station and you can use it on all forms of transport; train, bus and tram. Always, always remember to touch out.
You might just fall for The Hague due to the very fact you always find someone who speaks your language. This quaint European city with its cobbled floors, houses over 150 international organizations including countless embassies, multinational corporations, EU Institutions and international schools. It’s also simple, easy-going and a refreshing alternative to Amsterdam’s hustle and bustle (read mayhem). In less than hour by train, you’re in a refreshing, quaint city where things cost half the price and there’s half the kerfuffle. Lekker, eh?
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Rosie Bell is an international travel writer, author of the book “Escape To Self”, and Content Editor for Club Elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram @TheBeachBell.