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Holland and Belgium: Consider smaller destinations beyond the capitals

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Utrecht canals
A view of Utrecht's canals from the Dom Tower. Photo: Bernt Rostad

Avoid the crowds. That’s always a good travel maxim, and it is especially true in the Netherlands and Belgium. The great majority of travelers heading for the Netherlands make straight for Amsterdam, and for British holders of InterRail passes Amsterdam has become almost the de rigeur first stop on the continent.

In Belgium, it is Brussels that pulls the crowds, and we certainly find the city a great spot to while away a day or two. It can be pricey, so it’s good to remember that rates for the more business-orientated hotels in Brussels plummet on weekend nights.

Beyond the capitals

But there’s more to the Low Countries than merely Brussels and Amsterdam, and we find that the smaller cities in this region better capture the flavor of their respective countries.

Bruges Martk Square

Cycling through Bruges’ Market Square. Photo: Beardymonsta

Here’s a handful of smaller cities in the Netherlands, any or all of which make a great overnight stay:

+ Middelburg
+ Delft
+ Gouda
+ Utrecht
+ Maastricht

Hop over the border into Belgium, and the following trio really deserves a day or two:

+ Bruges
+ Ostend
+ Spa

Creative travelers can devise smart itineraries, hopping from one small town to the next through the Low Countries. Flanders, Zeeland and Holland are much too good to just speed through on the fast train. These regions boast gentle landscapes of delicate beauty which powerfully influenced local artists from Pieter Bruegel the Elder to James Ensor.

An Amsterdam-bound alternative

European Rail News this week published our preferred route for Amsterdam-bound travelers coming from Paris and London. With a few days to spare, travelers with a zest for adventure can ride from Lille to Amsterdam by local train, bus and ferry, stopping off along the way at three of the small towns mentioned in our list above: Bruges, Middelburg and Delft. Indeed, with only modest detours off that route, one can also take in Ostend (a real heaven for fish lovers) and Gouda (good for more than merely cheese).

Taking time for smaller communities always makes sense. Accommodation is often cheaper than in the bigger cities favored by most tourists, and the chances are that in a smaller place you’ll get a warmer welcome from the locals.

And just now there is very good reason to by-pass the main tourist trail from Brussels to Amsterdam. The posh new train service called FYRA, launched last month to bring high-speed style to that route, has ground unceremoniously to a halt. Apart from the premium Thalys service (which carries hefty supplements for rail pass holders) there are at present simply no direct trains from Brussels to the Netherlands. Good reason, therefore, to think about inventive alternatives.

About the author

hiddeneurope

About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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