Stepping off the train at Amsterdam’s central station, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d just walked through the gates of Disney World. Masses of crowds push forward towards the exit, and when you finally do get outside into the fresh air, there are even more people in your way.
And while it’s a beautiful city with its romantic canals, exquisite architecture, and events going on every single night, the crowds — and constant action — certainly aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Drunken bachelor parties staggering around with inflatable women can leave a visitor begging for some peace and quiet. For a quieter experience built on traditional Dutch culture, art, and food, head to Groningen. This university town in the north of the country is located in a quiet area far removed from the Randstad, and any real Dutchie will tell you this is where you’ll find the real Netherlands.
Take a break from the big-city vibe
Groningen feels remarkably different than its big-city counterpart to the south. Passersby speak in hushed tones, quiet enough that you can actually hear the sound of bike wheels turning on pavement and the bells of the Martini Tower ringing in the distance. The city center is home to museum-lined canal streets that, along with the city’s massive parks system, host many festivals throughout the year.
Despite the fact that the first known mention of Groningen was in a letter dating back to the year 1040, this is a city that feels youthful and hip. Students bike around town, cafes are filled with locals and tourists chatting over a koffie verkeerd, and the bars of the city center are always busy on Saturday nights. Yet Groningen still retains its historical past, allowing visitors to skip the crowds and visit a city that is still in touch with its authentic Dutch roots.
Visitors will find just as much to do
1. Spend a day at the museum
No matter the time of year, start your trip with a visit to the Groninger Museum, right across the street from the central station. The building itself is a work of art, a colorful angular structure seemingly floating on the canal. Inside, the decor delivers, too, but if you’re more interested in the display than the design, this is a great place to learn about the history of Groningen and view a steady stream of exhibitions and modern art, including a tribute to the man who designed the museum, Alessandro Mendini.
Despite its strong focus on history — be sure to check out the pre-Christ earthenware mask — the museum is packed with imaginative works of art. Allow most of a day to thoroughly tour the building, with a break for lunch at the adjacent Mendini Restaurant. Admission costs 15 euros ($16.75). The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM.
Where: Museumeiland 1, 9711 ME Groningen
2. Enjoy a cinematic experience
Just down the street from the Groninger Museum is the Groninger Forum. This movie theater is far too unique to show the typical Hollywood blockbusters. Instead, you’ll find documentaries, indie and foreign films with subtitles, and even live streams of shows, on occasion. In 2018, the theater streamed live ballet performances from the Royal Opera House in London.
For less than $12, you can enjoy a film that you likely wouldn’t see anywhere else, a great way to spend one of those inevitable rainy days in the Netherlands. Sit back, order a drink, and get in touch with your artsy side. The view from the roof is spectacular, so make sure to make your way to the top of this fascinating building.
Where: 9712 JG Groningen
3. Take in the view from the Martini Tower
Located on Groningen’s main square, the Grote Markt, or Martini Tower, stands at a menacing 318 feet high and can be seen from almost everywhere in the city. This tower has seen it all since it was built in 1482, especially conflicts, during which the tower has been damaged many times. A bullet hole, leftover scarring that occurred during the liberation of Groningen in World War II, can be seen in one of the bells. If you’re feeling brave, climb 250 steps up the d’Olle Grieze (Old Grey One) to take in a spectacular view of the city.
Where: Martinikerkhof 3, 9712 JG Groningen
4. Dig into traditional Dutch cuisine, beyond friet and mayo
P.S. Cafe, just around the corner from the University of Groningen, is the go-to location for a warm drink and a sweet-tooth fix. The smell of coffee and cinnamon greets customers as they walk in the door, and the counter is lined with a variety of cakes and sweet treats. A big slice of their delicious carrot cake is absolutely recommended.
Alternatively (or if you want more) head over to Pure, a café that is famous for its scrumptious donuts and delicious homemade croissants. We highly recommend the red velvet cake if you don’t care about upping your pant size. Old brick walls line the interior of the shop, conjuring the type of hideout Ernest Hemingway preferred to hunker down in to jot in a leather-bound notebook.
Were a Groningen resident to invite you over for dinner, there’s a high chance that stamppot would be sitting on the table when you arrived. The dish is as hearty and filling as Dutch winters are cold and wet, consisting of potatoes typically mashed together with an assortment of vegetables, served warm and with meat. Gino’s is the best place to try Stamppot because the kitchen crafts multiple varieties — go traditional with carrots, onions, and potatoes, or spice it up with ingredients like sauerkraut.
For an authentic beverage experience, stop in for a drink at a Dutch “brown cafe.” These cafes are exactly as described, with walls and tables covered in brown wood. The best place to blend in with the locals is Cafe De Sigaar.
5. Take something home with you
Along Folkingestraat, an alleyway-like street right in the center of town, you will find lesser-known clothing stores and boutiques. One of these unique shops is Baroche, a place so mysterious there isn’t even a sign on the front. Step inside and you will find hardwood floors, brick walls, and a kind shop owner willing to help you find the perfect attire.
You can also take a walk down the Herestraat, Groningen’s busiest and longest shopping street. Here, you’ll find places like Zara, H&M, Bershka, and The Body Shop. If secondhand shopping is more your speed, check out Mijn Tafel, a concept brought over from Finland. This maze of a store is full of shelves that people can rent to sell whatever they want, from clothing, kitchenware, and furniture to handmade art and everything in between.
6. Get some fresh air (unless, of course, it’s raining)
Vondelpark in Amsterdam is on every tourist’s to-do list, which is why you will always find it crowded in summer. In Groningen, the locals hang out at Noorderplantsoen, a big public park with a large pond in the middle. On those rare sunny days, you can befriend the students who lay on the grass, having barbecues and playing soccer. Every August, the park hosts the Noorderzon Festival, with music and art performances, as well as delicious Dutch street food.
If you’re looking for some alone time, wander over to the Prisentuin Gardens located right in the center of Groningen. The only thing separating this secret location from the big city surrounding it is a tall brick wall. Walking in here is like being transported to your own personal oasis, the madness of the world — and the hordes of tourists down south — left far behind.
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