Years ago, when I thought about the Netherlands I would picture tulip fields, windmills, and clog-shod Dutch girls in traditional dresses. But after traveling there many times, it has become clear that while these iconic things still exist, they’ve aligned with the times: clogs are a lot more comfortable, windmills are, more often than not, of the giant turbine variety, and tulips are now part of a global billion-dollar industry.
Though tulip production happens year round, most travelers target their visits for spring, when the nation’s famed flowers are in full natural bloom. But there are plenty of things to do in the Netherlands any time of year—even during the bleakest days of winter when cold temperatures make getting around more difficult.
“Difficult?” scoffs my Dutch friend Lot van Wijngaarden of Beverwijk. “We just do the same things, with a coat on. We cycle everywhere, even if it’s minus ten [degrees].”
With that said, here are five memorable things you can do in the Netherlands in the “off-season”—just remember to bring a warm coat:
1. Get Your Skate On. Ice skating is a national pastime in the winter, when the Dutch (and willing visitors) enthusiastically embrace sub-zero temperatures. If it stays cold enough in the northern province of Friesland, it’s time for the Elfstedentocht, an ice-skating marathon along a network of frozen canals with thousands of participants and even more spectators. Unfortunately, mild winters have prevented the legendary skating event since 1997—but that doesn’t mean you can’t glide on a frozen canal on a smaller scale (when permitted) with the locals.
2. Look for the Dutch Boy. Speaking of ice skating, you may have heard of Hans Brinker; or The Silver Skates, a novel by Mary Mapes Dodge. Though Dodge, an American author, had never been to the Netherlands before putting pen to paper in the 1860s, her prose contributed a memorable image to Dutch lore: the boy who stuck his finger in a leaking dike to save his country. Several statues have been erected around the Netherlands to honor the fictitious hero. Find them at the Madurodam “miniature park” in the Hague, the Frisian city of Harlingen, or the village of Spaarndam in North Holland, and ponder the same question I did in the following video: Can a finger successfully plug a hole in a dike?
3. Say Cheese. Amsterdam may be known by some as a place to indulge on particular vices, but if your habit is cheese, check out the Cheese Museum on Prinsensgracht or travel to Alkmaar for a much bigger (and more in-depth) museum dedicated to the beloved dairy products. Gouda, the country’s most famous cheese, is produced from the eponymous Dutch city, where there’s also a museum and the historical Waag (weighing house) where group tours may be arranged in the winter by appointment. To sample from the entire spectrum of Dutch cheeses, including Edam and Maasdam, make a reservation at the Reypenaer Tasting Room in Amsterdam.
4. Experience the Great Indoors. No matter how cold it is outside in Amsterdam, there are plenty of places to visit indoors, from classical music concerts at Concertgebouw and tours of the Anne Frank House to an array of world-class museums. If you’re interested in Dutch art, the obvious choices are the Van Gogh Museum or the Rijksmuseum to see the likes of Vermeer and Rembrandt, but architecture enthusiasts should find their way to the Museum Het Schip to brush up on the famed Amsterdam School style. Not only are these places culturally and historically rich, they’re sure to keep you warm.
5. Tiptoe Around the Tulips. Can’t wait for spring to see the tulips? Head to the village of Slootdorp in North Holland to take a tour of Siem Munster, a family-run farm that produces the famed flowers, from bulb to bouquet, all year round. The rows of bright colors normally seen out in the green pastures of spring are all here, just in giant, climate-controlled greenhouses.
Erik Trinidad spends most of his time crisscrossing the globe in search of exotic food, high adventure, and scientific curiosities. Follow his travels on Instagram and Twitter @theglobaltrip.