The Hague might be might be the seat of government, but it’s also a hip and happening place, says Michael Smith.
For such a small country, the Netherlands has certainly punched above its weight when it comes to legendary artists: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer and Rubens to name but a few.
And this year, The Hague, its capital city, celebrates the 100th anniversary of De Stijl (The Style), a Dutch artistic movement that embraced all things abstract and favoured the use of simple, basic colours.
For all that, there are myriad old masters on show here in this, the third-biggest city in the Netherlands.
Of course, The Hague is also famous as the home of the Dutch parliament and the base for the International Court of Justice.
So it’s well-ordered and ultra-efficient. OK, it can’t offer the irresistible urban vibe of Amsterdam (an hour away by train) but that doesn’t make it dull. Far from it, it’s a city that’s cosmopolitan, cultural, artistic and even incorporates a charming seaside resort (Sheveningen) complete with pier, promenade, a lighthouse and a long, sandy beach.
Of course, putting mayonnaise on your chips started in the Netherlands and it’s by far the most popular snack or street food. Unbelievably, some of the country’s top chefs have started opening chip shops but (naturally) only using the best-quality potatoes.
Top art, magnificent museums, walkable canal-side streets, stylish and quirky shops, a seaside setting, more than 1,000 acres of open space; here is where you can take your pick, and do so at your own pace. But don’t forget those chips.
My favourite place- The Binnenhof, a collection of stately and elegant buildings in the centre of the city, which lie alongside the Hofvijver lake. The Binnenholf’s courtyard is a wonderfully atmospheric area to stroll around as well as being the best place to base yourself for your ‘museum’ day. Today, the country’s venerable chambers of Parliament are based here and the 13th-century Knight’s Hall is a spectacular Gothic masterpiece that is still used for state functions today. The Museum Bredius displays a private collection of imposing Dutch paintings and resplendent silverware as they would have looked in their original 17th century setting. You can’t miss the magnificent Mauritshuis, an absolute gem of an art gallery that believes less is more. The art gallery, which was originally a residence (built in 1641) now houses around 300 art works but most are masterpieces. One standout is Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. On the north side of the Binnenhof is the Prison Gate Museum. It has been standing since 1296, was once a gatehouse and served as a prison for 400 years from the 15th century. The old torture chamber, complete with all manner of gruesome instruments, makes for a perfectly horrible (but enjoyable) visit.
Highlights- For getting your head around The Hague’s heritage, head to Friet District. It’s an old part of the city but one where hipsters are happy to shop, eat, drink coffee and hang out. Here, stores with in-house cafes abound, and here simply being a window-shopper makes for a relaxing couple of hours. And as we kicked off talking about art, and The Style, then the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag is where to peruse the most prestigious works by The Style’s guru, Piet Mondrian. The display is chronological, and showcases the minimalism and use of primary colours that made his name. However, you won’t be spending too long wandering around the museums if the weather is fine so head west to Scheveningse Bosjes, a lush park in a forest that dates back to the Middle Ages. Here, the star attraction is Madurodam, a model village that depicts Dutch cities in miniature; the exhibits are extremely authentic in their detail. The kids will love ’em.
Lowlights- None, but do take the usual precautions and protect your belongings and other valuables.
Souvenirs- The Hague has the biggest outdoor market in Europe, called simply The Hague Market. Since it was first set up about 100 years ago, it has always had a reputation for unique artefacts, fabrics and trinkets. Here about 500 stalls offer everything from fruit, flowers, sweets, shoes, fish; you name it. The market is on Herman Coster Street between the areas of Transvaal and Schilderswijk, two of the city’s most multi-cultural hubs. Don’t miss it; the market is open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Getting there- Etihad and KLM offer flights from Muscat (via Abu Dhabi) to Amsterdam. From there, it’s an hour’s train ride to The Hague.
Where to stay- For such an important city politically, there is no shortage of options from the main hotel chains. Check out the usual websites such as Booking.com, Hotels.com. Kayak or Trivago. There are some delightful boutique options too.
1. View the magnificent masterpieces at the Mauritshuis
2. Take a tram to Scheveningen for a stroll on the beach
3. Shop or stop and refuel at a café in the Friet District
4. Wander around the wondrous Japanese Garden
5. Book a guided tour around the Peace Palace