The Netherlands!

Picturesque urban escapes and quaint rural villages beckon amid canals and world-class art in the Netherlands.

Zaanse Schans, Zaandijk, Netherlands windmills
Zaanse Schans, Zaandijk, Netherlands: a popular destination for tourists, thanks to its collection of well-preserved historic windmills and houses

Esteemed museums stand shoulder-to-shoulder with flower markets festooned by rainbows of color. People crowded into cafes and pubs chat, sip coffee and other beverages and watch the passing traffic, which consists of as many bicycles as automobiles.

This is the setting in one of the greatest small cities in the world — and the capital of one of the smallest countries in Europe — Amsterdam.

But anything that the Netherlands (only about half the size of Maine) may lack in dimension, it more than makes up for in diversity.

First-time visitors soon understand why the name Netherlands, which means “lower countries,” fits.

Much of the land has been reclaimed from the North Sea and lakes, and more than one-quarter of the pancake-flat area is beneath sea level. It’s protected by an elaborate drainage system of canals, dikes and pumping stations. Windmills, which pump water back over the dikes, are also used for milling flour and other grains.

Unique roof lines preside over the Amstel River in Amsterdam, which is known for its many picturesque canals.

Amsterdam’s city life 

Indeed, Amsterdam offers attractions that would make a much larger metropolis proud.

Elegant homes that were built by wealthy residents during the Golden Age in the 17th century overlook cobblestone streets and a network of canals that crisscross the city. Because of the many canals, boat tours are a popular way to take in many sights.

Belying Amsterdam’s modest size are more than 70 museums, ranging from world-class to intimate.

The Rijksmuseum, the country’s national showplace, which houses the most extensive collection of Dutch paintings in the world, includes nearly two dozen Rembrandts.

A priceless collection of works by Rembrandt also resides in the Rembrandt Huis, where the artist lived from 1639 to 1658. My favorite was the View of Amsterdam, which was painted in 1640 and depicts a row of windmills lined up like soldiers in formation.

Amsterdam — with its charming architecture, picturesque canals, bicycle culture and a whopping 70 museums — is a must-see destination in The Netherlands.

The Van Gogh Museum contains the largest number of masterpieces by that renowned artist, including about 200 paintings and 500 drawings.

Much smaller, yet certainly as well known, is the Anne Frank Huis. In this narrow townhouse, the young Jewish girl hid with her family for more than two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II.

Among the items on view at the biographical museum are Anne’s hand-written diaries. Her observations and memories, some heartening, others chilling, have been translated into more than 50 languages.

The Netherlands’ many rural villages offer a taste of slower-paced Dutch culture as well as rich history.

Rural appeal

Even with the many reasons to enjoy what Amsterdam has to offer, there are just as many reasons to  visit several of the country’s rural villages. Their tranquil charms and laid-back personality present a different — yet equally as appealing — experience of The Netherlands.

Delft once was the world center for production of graceful Royal Delft Pottery with 32 factories there that produced ceramics with the distinctive blue and white colors. While only one factory remains, the town also boasts buildings dating from as early as the 13th century along with museums, markets and other destinations.

The area around IJsselmeer lake is dotted with inviting old towns — the fishing villages of Monnickendam, Marken and Volendam, the cheese town Edam and the historic burgs of Hoorn, Enkhuizen and Stavoren.

A different experience awaits visitors in Giethoorn — a mostly car-free village northeast of Amsterdam. Locals traverse its four miles of canals in small flat-bottom boats, and many farmhouses boast thatched roofs dating back to the 18th century.

The medium-sized city of Maastricht at the southernmost tip of the Netherlands mixes elements of Dutch, French and Belgian cultures.

Amazing Maastricht 

A contrasting atmosphere is encountered in Maastricht, a city of about 120,000 residents at the southernmost tip of the Netherlands. It combines some of the best features of the country with touches from France and Belgium. The result is an enticing amalgam of history, sightseeing and activities.

The people exhibit the characteristic Dutch friendliness and dry sense of humor. The joie de vivre of the French is evident in crowded cafes, tempting patisseries and boutiques displaying the latest Paris fashions. Even the surrounding countryside provides a different touch. It resembles the rolling hills of nearby Belgium more than the flat lowlands characteristic of the Netherlands.

Residents revel in their city’s reputation as a place for fun and frivolity. They’re quick to point out the statue of the Spirit of Maas, a dancing sprite sporting a look of joy with a hint of naughtiness. They also note that their town contains a church for every week of the year, but a bar for every day.

A street scene in Maastricht

At the same time, locals take pride in their city’s history and reminders of its past. It has some 1,450 historic buildings and monuments. Most are crowded into the town center. The mid-17th century Stadhuis (city hall) includes an interesting interior decorated with Brussels tapestries and painted ceilings.

The medieval Basilica of St. Servatius was begun in the sixth century, making it the oldest house of worship in the Netherlands. Of particular interest are the ancient crypts and largest bell in the country, a 150,000-pound clanger affectionately called Grameer (Grandmother).

Even a local hotel, the Derlon, has its claim to fame with an archeological area in the basement spanning several centuries. On view are sections of a pre-Roman cobblestone road, part of a second-century Roman square and the remains of a wall and gate from the fourth century.

Victor Block is a veteran travel writer and has contributed to numerous national publications.