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Amsterdam is one of the world’s great cosmopolitan destinations. And it’s rapidly becoming a victim of its own charm. The canal-laden capital of the Netherlands welcomed 19 million visitors in 2018. By 2025 The mayor expects that number to exceed 25 million. As a result, the tourism board recently made the bold move to shift from tourist promotion to tourist management. To put it bluntly: they don’t want you anymore. Not within the city center, at least. But all is not lost. Quite the contrary. There is so very much to be found.
Hardly some standalone spectacle, Amsterdam is merely a slice of its surrounding country. Thanks to a comprehensive train network that's as reliable as it is affordable, you can explore it all with relative ease. If it’s canal-inspired romance you seek, there are dozens of cities offering a mirrored aesthetic—minus the hoarded masses. And now a taste of Dutch culture, or more specifically Dutch courage, is drawing some folks out to explore a side of Holland most vacationers never get to see.
Ride the rails for ninety minutes south of Schiphol International Airport, and you'll arrive in Dordrecht. The city of some 120,000 residents is currently celebrating its 800th anniversary, making it 55 years older than the capital. "There are many canals, pretty small ports, old streets, and picturesque courtyards, and it is packed with hundreds of monuments and churches,” notes Myriam Hendrickx, a local distiller. “We became an island because of a massive flood in 1421, which also created a national park right next to the city, full of waterways, creeks, and special nature.”
At Rutte, in the heart of town, Hendrickx crafts genever: the malt-based national spirit of the Netherlands. Production in this part of the world reaches back to the 16th century. Robust in mouthfeel yet herbaceous in aroma, it splits the difference between whisky and gin. The same geography that defines the beauty of this locale positions it as a prime place to produce the booze.
“Simon Rutte started his [namesake] distillery here 150 years ago,” she explains. “Thanks to the trade in the ports, he got hold of botanicals from all over the world, and he also had easy access to nature so he could forage plants, berries, and fruits to add to his products. Today, we do the same.”
On weekends, visitors can explore the historic tasting room that once served as the founder’s 19th-century living room. You can pair the drink with traditional Dutch snacks such as pickled herring and gouda. Then rent a wooden bicycle and peddle around town. Snap photos along the Wijnhaven canal and your friends back home will be left wondering how you found such a quiet corner of Amsterdam.
Thirty minutes north Schiedam showcases a similar scene, providing a stark contrast against the sleek modernity of neighboring Rotterdam. A tranquil composite of brick and hand-drawn bridges, it was once the distilling epicenter of Northern Europe. In its 19th century heyday, more than 250 producers called the city home. Although most of them have long since shuttered, its agricultural legacy is enshrined in six perfectly-preserved windmills, including the world’s tallest—the 110-foot De Noord. Today the structure houses a namesake restaurant and bar where contemporary renditions of seafood belie the bygone setting. Be sure to ask for a pour of Bobby’s Jenever, or a vodka martini with Ketel One—two prominent producers who remain active within city limits.
From here you’re ten miles from Delft, yet another medieval relic, ringed with canals. “The town really epitomizes the Dutch feel,” observes Jared Ranahan, an American travel writer who once called the region home. “It offers the sort of easy comfort you just want to wrap yourself up in. In Amsterdam this is a precious commodity. In Delft it hovers over everything.” He also recommends wrapping yourself up in warmth by sneaking into Kek for fresh-baked pastries and juice smoothies. The cozy cafe sits near the junction of two of the town’s primary waterways.
“Make sure to visit Nieuwe Kerk in the Market Square,” Ranahan adds. “Inside you’ll find a stunning mausoleum, and tombs dedicated to members of the House of Orange.” Their most famous patriarch, however, is interred in Westminster Abbey in London. After becoming King of England in the Glorious Revolution, William III helped popularize genever throughout the island nation, where it eventually transformed into the more popular style of gin recognized today. Tie one down in his honor at nearby De Wijnhaven, a cozy cocktail lounge specializing in aromatic G&Ts.
As quaint as Delft may seem, it’s still a city of 100,000 residents. If you want to get real remote, venture north to the town of Giethoorn. Dubbed the ‘Venice of the North’, it is tied together by 150 bridges, and is accessed only by boat. Once here, book a tour at 't Olde Maat Uus—a living museum celebrating (and reenacting) the area’s historic farming traditions.
For an even deeper understanding of that agrarian ancestry head further north—near the German border—to the province (and city) of Groningen. “At one time it was considered Europe’s grain silo,” according to local Sander Meijerink, who manages exports of De Borgen Genever from here into the US. “In the coming months, an educational attraction called Grain Republic will open in our town. It will be an interactive exhibition space celebrating grain in every use: of course in genever, but also in beer, bread, pasta, and many other carbohydrate delights. It will allow visitors to take a look at rural life.”
Groningen, however, is decidedly cosmopolitan these days, owed in part to its massive population of undergrads. Nightlife spills out onto the Vismarkt until predawn hours, when you can still tackle a tipple at the speakeasy-inspired Stockroom or marvel at the robotic barkeeps at Mr. Mofongo.
After making it to morning, rejuvenate yourself with a 260-step climb to the top of Martinitower. The gothic church tower constructed in the mid-15th century looms large over the outdoor shops and stroopwafel carts lining Grote Markt.
“We have great shopping, street art, canals, hidden courtyards, and museums; a bit further afield we have a national park, an historic fort, and beautiful estate houses,” adds Meijerink. “Like anywhere in The Netherlands definitely do your exploring by bicycle.” After you work up a thirst, he recommends a genever-inspired stopover at the Hooghoudt Distillery on the outskirts of town, where tastings are available daily by appointment.
Back on the opposite end of the country, Hendrickx attributes a continued uptick in visitors to the recent rise in gastro-tourism. “We are definitely welcoming more people [into our tasting room],” she confirms. But it’s not going all Amsterdam just quite yet. “We’re still a very quiet town—a local community.” In other words: all of the canals, none of the crowds.