Why going Dutch might be your next European getaway
Amsterdam draws travelers for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it’s a weekend getaway to indulge its European charm, or maybe it’s been more practical, like a brief layover from the U.S. while jetting across the continent on a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight. Either way, few use the city for its true potential: a launching point to discover the gems of the Netherlands beyond the capital.
At just over 16,000 square miles, the western European country between Belgium and Germany is relatively small in size—about half the size of South Carolina—yet it’s packed with global importance in so many realms. While its cheeses, windmills and tulips are certainly iconic, the nation was, in many ways, built on water. That accounts for its nearly 280 miles of coastline and about 2,700 miles of navigable rivers, canals, and lakes. In fact, practically a third of the country lies below sea level—but what it really represents is the ingenuity of the Dutch to find innovative ways to live more in sync with the environment.
Today, that forward-thinking attitude has made the Netherlands one of the world's greenest nations (driven in great part by its cycling culture with 1.3 bikes for every person in the country), as well as a global leader in modern design and architecture. This combination has resulted in 11 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and is simply so enthralling that it has to be experienced to be believed.
That immersion can begin on home soil, by boarding a flight on KLM, which serves 162 global destinations and 13 U.S. gateways, including nonstop flights from New York City’s JFK airport in seven hours, Chicago in eight hours, Austin and Houston in nine hours, Los Angeles and San Francisco in 10 hours. Travelers have a cabin choice of economy, World Business, or Premium Comfort, the carrier’s first new cabin in nearly three decades, which debuted on August 31, bringing an elevated sense of Dutch sensibility to every element of the flight experience.
Much of the comfort of the sleek seats come from its spaciousness. They feature a 38-inch pitch, compared to economy class’ 31-inch, as well as an eight-inch recline, as opposed to five to seven inches in economy. Despite the extra room, the seats themselves are lighter than previous ones, thanks to a more sustainable design that was created in conjunction with Collins Aerospace.
What really stands out at every turn are the details that are exclusively designed for Premium Comfort—like an curated menu (including an espresso martini), served on either reusable dishware or those made of recycled PEF, as well as its amenity kit, which showcases KLM’s commitment to sustainability. It is housed in a drawstring bag made out of plastic bottles that can be easily reused for other purposes, perhaps to carry laundry or store essentials in their suitcases. Inside, the bamboo toothbrush combines eco-consciousness with a polished design, while the toothpaste tablets remind passengers of thoughtful ways to minimize packaging and waste.
It’s just a slice of the Dutch airline’s Fly Responsibly initiative, which also includes a 0.5 percent Sustainable Aviation Fuel surcharge on every flight to help offset carbon emissions, as well as the option for travelers to additionally contribute to the reforestation project in Colombia, Panama, and Uganda, to assist with the planting of more trees that can absorb emissions.
Once on the ground at Schiphol Airport, which will debut a new terminal next year, the journey continues to be worry-free, especially with the train station being located right in the terminal itself. No tunnels to wind through or shuttles to ride, the ticket kiosks are right on the ground floor and the tracks are just an escalator ride down. The only thing easier than getting to the platform is finding a train to get you where you want to go. The schedule is packed with options to get you anywhere in the country to easily complete your onward trip.
To help guide you to some of the most essential locations to visit in the Netherlands, here’s how to plan your visit to Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and The Hague (or all four) to see how eco-consciousness, cycling and design are infused throughout the Dutch way of life.
(10 minutes by train from Schiphol Airport)
The Dutch capital has a distinctly clear vision of what life will be like there in 2050: Everything produced and consumed will be reusable, no natural gasses will be used, and carbon dioxide emissions will be cut by 95 percent. But it’s not just talking the talk—among its initiatives already in full gear are the installation of the world’s highest concentration of electric charging stations, more green energy hotels, and an accelerator project for sustainable fashion.
It's also doubled down on its green space policies, by adding amenities to less popular parks to disperse visitor volume. City center favorites Vondelpark and Frankendael Park showcase the Dutch’s love for their public spaces, and Amsterdam Forest (which is three times the size of New York's Central Park) is looking ahead to installing permanent power circuits to eliminate diesel generators, as well as improving air quality through carefully selected plantings.
Trams, buses, metros, ferries, trains, electric bikes, and scooters—there are almost too many options for getting around Amsterdam without a car. But none dominates more than the whizzing cyclists crisscrossing filling the 477 miles of the city’s reddish cycling paths and bike lanes, clocking in 1.2 million miles daily on their 881,000 bikes. And those numbers are just the beginning, as city planners hope to eventually sway the streets away from car use completely.
There are many ways to define Dutch design but when it comes down to it, it’s all about keeping it simple, with an element of off-beat surprise. The idea is best encompassed in modern entities, like conceptual designers Droog Design at its shop and restaurant, as well as Moooi, whose eclectic works are the result of giving its designers no rules. Wayward lines and fascinating designs can also be seen inside and out at Stedelijk Museum, as well as in the architecture of the Eye Filmmuseum, NEMO Science Museum and Sluishuis residential building.
While the Canals of Amsterdam may get the headlines, the Defense Line of Amsterdam, is impressive in its own way. The UNESCO World Heritage site is an 84-mile fortification ring around the city that was built between 1880 and 1914. The system of 40+ fortresses, locks, dikes, barracks and depots now allow biking, hiking and rollerblading alongside the relics.
(29 minutes by train from Schiphol)
Celebrating its 900th anniversary, the Netherlands’ fourth largest city has cemented its commitment to sustainability as a Global Goals City, both working with the community on an eco-first future, as well as sharing those learnings with the greater world. Green areas are also a top priority for Utrecht to preserve its existing spaces, ranging from the University of Utrecht Botanical Gardens to Wilhelminapark and Maximapark. Repurposing landmarks has also given them new life, like the Ganzenmarkt Tunnel, which transformed an old horse carts’ tunnel into a light display with shadow play.
Biking has long been in Utrecht’s DNA, with the first cycling path opening back in 1885 on the Maliebaan. Today there are 261 miles of bike paths, as well as the world’s largest bicycle parking lot with 12,500 spots. The city has also designed a 14-mile De Stijl biking route on a path with 10 statues between Utrecht and Amersfoort.
As the hometown of Dutch furniture designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld, Utrecht is filled with eye candy for those who gravitate to the concept of De Stijl, simply translating to “the style.” Centraal Museum of Utrecht is home to his largest collection, while the Grachten Galerie and Morren Galleries display more current artists. It’s all contrasted with the classic architecture, like St. Martin’s Cathedral from 1254 and the neo-gothic St. Willibrord Church.
As evidence of how tied to De Stijl design Utrecht is, its only UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Rietveld Schröder House. Built completely by the philosophy’s principles, the home, which was designed in 1924 and a private home until 1985, scored the prestigious status in 2000. Now it's open to visitors via tours Tuesdays through Sundays.
(26 minutes by train from Schiphol)
Home to Europe’s largest port, Rotterdam is driven by a resilient attitude. After being destroyed during World War II, the city rebuilt, stronger than before—and instead of seeing the challenges of its waterfront location and rising sea levels as a detriment, it’s taken things one step beyond by finding opportunity. Case in point: a self-sustaining Floating Farm, complete with an automated feeding belt and robot that does the milking. The dozens of cows with waterfront housing on the Merwe harbor aren’t just stuck on the island—they can also roam over to an adjacent meadow. Among other sustainable entrepreneurial efforts are the Concept House Village, filled with experimental sustainable homes; Dakpark, the continent’s largest rooftop park; Luchtsingel, a crowd-funded bridge connecting three parts of the city; and the Smog-Free Tower, a city-sized air purifier.
Whether it’s a visitor following one of its two tourism routes or a local going about their everyday lives, Rotterdam’s 373 miles of bike paths keep the city’s wheels spinning. To show how important cycling is, the submerged Maastunnel has an entire tunnel tube just for cyclists (there’s also one for pedestrians).
When it comes to architecture, the Netherlands’ second-biggest city turns things on its side—sometimes literally. The Instagram-favorite Cube Houses are made up of actual cubes titled on 45-degree angles. Day visitors can check out the Show Cube Museum, while overnight stays can truly get topsy-turvy. Coming soon to town is the Dutch Windwheel, a 570-foot tall structure that will also capture rainwater, filter water and serve as a solar facade.
The Van Nelle Factory has had past lives as a coffee, tea and tobacco factory since it was first built in 1925, but now its focus is completely on its architecture. Tours of the UNESCO World Heritage Site highlight its steel and glass facades, which have made it symbol of Dutch modernism design.
(30 minutes by train from Schiphol)
This coastal city on the North Sea values a quiet delicateness to its green spaces: The tucked-away Paleistuin (meaning palace garden) behind Noordeinde Palace dates back to 1609, while the moss-covered Japanese Garden in Clingendael Park is only open eight weeks a year to preserve its rare flora.
The city also allows its residents to rent plots for gardening in a municipal space. It’s all part of The Hague’s four-pronged approach to a sustainable future, focusing on cleaner energy, transportation, living environment, and use of resources. Among the initiatives are programs for restaurants to cut back on waste and excess packaging and hotels, like Court Garden and Hotel Sebel, that were built with sustainability front of mind.
Most places within The Hague are accessible by bike within 20 minutes—in fact it only takes 45 minutes to pedal end to end—yet there are still 230 miles of cycling paths and 43 miles of bike lanes within the community. One example of how ingrained biking is to the city's DNA is Lola Bikes & Coffee, which is equally as focused on fine-tuning bikes as it is a fine cup of joe.
The Kunstmuseum is a treat for the eyes, on both the exterior and interior. Its art deco building from architect H.P. Berlage is striking for its open design with yellow bricks that invites in the natural light, while a single Piet Mondrian work that started out hanging in a stairwell has grown into the largest collection of his art in the world. Over at the Royal Academy of Art, artists and designers have been trained since 1682, continuing to propel the Dutch design into the next generation.
Wherever it is you go within this tight-knit country, there are elements of a thoughtful past merging with a hopeful future, showcasing the inviting and can-do Dutch spirit that makes any visit there a transformational one.