Friesland has a long history. Its inhabitants are first referred to by the Roman writer Tacitus, in his work Germanica. After the collapse of the Roman empire, Frisia grew in importance, and at one point Frisian kings controled the entire coast of what is now the Netherlands up into Belgium and parts of Northern Germany (which is still known as East Frisia).
The Frisians were later subjugated by Charlemagne, and have never achieved independence since. During the Dutch golden age in the 16th and 17th century, Frisia has stood in the shadow of Holland, remaining largely rural while trade and later industry flourished in other parts of the Netherlands. During this period, peat was dug from the soil, causing lakes to form. Also, all transport was done via water. This combination of lakes and connecting canals has made Friesland a mecca for water sports enthausiasts.
Nowadays, Frisia is one of the most sparsely populated provinces in the Netherlands (with 'only' 160 people / square km) and is mostly known for its lakes, wide open spaces, and general peace and quiet, as well as for its population. Frisians have a well-earned reputation for bloodymindedness and distrust of authority.
As the Netherlands are sometimes referred to as Holland, let it be known that Friesland is not part of Holland. This is a common mistake among tourists, and one which can be almost guaranteed to grossly offend any native Frisian you may be talking to. Holland is comprising only the (coastal) provinces of North Holland and South Holland.
The 11-cities-tour (Dutch: elfstedentocht, West-Frisian: alvestêdetocht) is a skating event, which can only be held in winter when all the water through and between those 11 cities is frozen. Friesland has only 11 cities, settlements with historical city rights. They vary in size from the provincial capital Leeuwarden (+92,000 inhabitants) to Sloten, with less than 1,000 inhabitants.
Friesland is bilingual, with West Frisian, the local language, enjoying equal status as Dutch. Everyone in Friesland speaks Dutch; however the preference for Frisian is strong with some. Signs, streetnames, etc. are mostly in two languages, depending on the community council.
As in the rest of the Netherlands, almost everyone in Friesland speaks at least some English, and especially young people are likely to be fluent or near-fluent.
It is only possible to travel overland to Friesland. By train one can travel from the direction of Groningen or Zwolle. And by bus from Den Helder or Hoorn. In the latter case you will pass through the Afsluitdijk, a 30 km long dike separating two seas. The bus stops at a viewpoint halfway on the dike.
The train system is low-grade by Dutch standards, which means that only the major cities are connected by rail. Sneek, Leeuwarden, Franeker, Harlingen, Heerenveen and Grou are accessible by rail. To get to the smaller town towns you will have to take buses, which usually leave from the train stations as well. See the article on the Netherlands for more details on the baroque system of public transport, and note that bus services will be sparse in the summer vacation.
Another way to get around is by boat. Friesland is noted for its large amount of lakes, but especially for the way they are all interconnected by canals. It is therefore possible to travel from one city to the next by sailing-boat. See the Do section for more information.
Like the entire Netherlands, Friesland is extremely bike-friendly. See the main article on the Netherlands for details.
There are many activities you can undertake in Friesland:
The main event in Friesland each year is the yearly sailing contest between 14 ships on the various lakes, which takes place in early August. The 14 10-meter long boats, each with a crew of more than ten people, compete over 14 matches on anything from the huge IJsselmeer to tiny Veenhoop. This event is called Skûtsjesilen, Skûtsje being the traditional type of sailing boat used in these contests.
It is quite possible to watch these matches from the shore, and many people do so. Inquire locally about the best place to watch, and be prepared to come early or the locals will beat you to the best places. It is also possible to watch these matches from the water, but be advised that certain areas of water may be off-limits for spectators.
If you are traveling by boat, make sure you get a program of this because certain lakes or parts of lakes will be closed off, and the waterways towards those lakes will be filled with traveling spectators.
Do not refer to the local language as a dialect of Dutch, as this might be considered insulting, as well as being untrue. Although they are somewhat mutually intelligible, and nearly all Frisian people are able to speak Dutch, the language is old and distinct, bearing more linguistic similarities to English than to Dutch. Otherwise, the general mentality and rules of etiquette are the same as in the rest of the Netherlands. The region is by no means separatist, but there is a strong national feeling among Frisians. Its relationship to the Netherlands is comparable to the relationship between Wales and England within the United Kingdom.