South Limburg (Dutch: Zuid-Limburg) is a region in Limburg, starting with Sittard in the north and covering the whole area south of it. Although not a separate administrative region, it is commonly distinguished from the rest of the province and country through its hilly landscapes, local culture and dialects. It's a popular holiday destination for Dutch and foreign tourists alike and generally considered one of the most beautiful parts of the Netherlands.
Bustling middle-point is of course the famous city of Maastricht, with its charming and Burgundian atmosphere and European allure. Nevertheless, the region has numerous other picturesque villages and historic towns worth a visit.
The gently rolling landscape that characterizes this region is caused by its location on the outskirts of the Belgian Ardennes and the German Eifel. With the 322.7 meters Vaalserberg being the highest point, the South Limburg hills aren't nearly as high as those low mountain ranges just across the borders. Nonetheless, it provides lovely scenic views and a strong contrast to the strikingly flat lands that define the rest of the Netherlands.
The river Meuse runs through the region, from south to north. It is called Maas in Dutch and several town, including the Limburgian capital Maastricht, are named after it. The Meuse depositions account for a large part of the South Limburg surface. The touristic appeal of the region doesn't lie in its landscape alone. The South-Limburg countryside is dotted with charming villages, farms, ancient churches and a good number of castles. In many villages and most of the cities, old buildings in the historic center remain. As it has been a relatively popular destination for many decades, tourism has become a main source of income for the region. Not only hotels and restaurants are plentiful, but also attractions particularly developed to entertain tourists.
The earliest evidence of human life in the Netherlands was found in the South-Limburg region, in the form of Neanderthaler camp remains near Maastricht. The oldest traces of farming in the Netherlands were also discovered in this region, where the fertile loess grounds led to farming initiatives long before the rest of the Netherlands. In Roman times the region was Romanized throughout. The Romans laid the foundations for Maastricht and Heerlen, now two of the main cities in South Limburg. Christianity was introduced in 384 by Servatius and would play a major role in the further history of the region. This later canonized bishop became the patron saint of the city Maastricht and his grave became a popular pilgrimage destination.
The mostly Catholic population of South Limburg, like the rest of Dutch and Belgian Limburg, strongly opposed its absorption by the Reformist Northern provinces and fought alongside the Spanish. Still today almost 75% of its population is Catholic, although ever fewer people actually practice their faith.
Throughout its history, South Limburg was a mostly rich and flourishing area. It was constantly disputed between regional duchies, the French, the Prussians, the Dutch and the Spanish. From around 1900 to the 1960's, the economy blossomed as coal mining activities developed. The closure of the mines in the mid 60's led to severe unemployment, as up to 15% of the population had been working for pr in the mines. In recent decades, the South Limburg administration has made strong investments to change and renew the local economy. Beside the fast development of tourism, the region has also tried to established itself as a European cooperation hub, especially focusing on its central position in the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion.
A large part of the South-Limburg population speaks a form of Limburgish, a dialect that shares many characteristics with both Dutch and German. People from different villages all speak their own specific variety of the dialect, but are still well able to communicate amongst each other. In villages and small towns you'll find that Limburgisch is the main colloquial language used by locals in every day life. This often extends to interaction with locals just across the German and Belgian border, as they too speak versions of Limburgish.
In the Netherlands, Limburgish has been recognised as an official regional language and it therefor enjoys a certain level of protection under chapter 2 of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. However, the validity of that status is an ongoing subject of debate among linguists.
Of course, Dutch remains the official language. You'll find that everyone speaks it, although many people do so with an accent. Virtually all written information (including menu's and signs) are in Dutch. As in the rest of the Netherlands, the command of English is fairly good and many Limburgish people also speak a good word of German.
Getting in is fairly easy as there are quite many road and public transport connections to the rest of the Netherlands but also to Germany and Belgium. If you're flying in, several small and large airports are within reasonable travel distance.
Maastricht Aachen Airport is the only airport within the region itself, located about 9 km south-west of Maastricht in the town of Beek. It's mainly a cargo hub but also serves some (partly seasonal) international flights. Destinations include Berlin-Schönefeld, Ankara, Antalya, Monastir and from feb. 2012 also London-Gatwick. During summer there are some extra flight to popular tourist destinations in Spain and Italy.
Locals often turn to other airports in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium to get in and out of the region. Some options (including travel times) are:
If you're coming from the north, direct Dutch intercity trains lead to South Limburg from the direction of Amsterdam, Utrecht, 's Hertogenbosch and Eindhoven. Within the South Limburg region, they stop in Sittard, Maastricht and Heerlen. Regional trains and buses can take you further to most other towns.
Until dec. 2011 an intercity train runs directly from Brussels to Maastricht. After that date, take an intercity train to Liège and change there for the regional trans border train to Maastricht. Furthermore, there's a regional train connection between Aachen (Germany) and Heerlen.
Local roads make border crossing from Belgium or Germany straightforward. The main highway connections are listed below.
There are plenty of options to make your way around. Biking and hiking are a popular way to see the best of the region, but if your time is limited you might consider renting a car. Bus and local train connections are a useful alternative as well.
Public bus transport is operated by Veolia . You can buy an OV-chipcard (a plastic card on which you can load a travel budget) on all bus and train stations. You can also purchase a ticket from the driver, but that will cost extra. The Euregioticket is a 16 euro dayticket, valid on all buses and on the regional Veolia Heuvelland train line (between Maastricht and Kerkrade). In weekends and holidays, this same ticket is valid for up to 2 adults and 3 children.
The bus network is extensive and will take to almost every village in the region. Use the national online 9292 journey planner to plan your trip.
Biking & hiking
You can rent a bike at tourist offices in larger towns but many hotels and campings offer bike rental as well. Take into account that the region is not as flat as the rest of the Netherlands and some stamina is required. If you don't feel up to it, consider renting a vespa for the day in Maastricht. All tourist information points sell maps and routes. Also make sure to ask them about th good number of (free) marked routes available.
A good number of castles remind the visitor of times long gone, when South Limburg's lands were scattered over many different fiefdoms, all with their own respective lords and manors. Even small villages boast fine examples of Ancient Regime housing and medieval strongholds. Some are now private property or not open for the public but others house upscale restaurants or even a museum. Some great examples are the large Kasteel Hoensbroek, (now a museum), the picturesque castle Schaloen in Valkenburg, the castles of Eijsden and Gulpen (all no entrance). The two castle buildings in Vaals and of course the main chateaus near Maastricht are beautiful and house restaurants and hotels.
The Mergelland route is perhaps the finest and best marked touristic route in the Netherlands, and an initiative of the Dutch Automobile Organization ANWB. There's a version for bikers (125 km) and one for motorized traffic (110 km). Many tourists pick just a piece of it or take the full route in parts. Of course you can find different accommodation for each part. If you're taking the route by car however, heading back to a single hotel every evening is an option as you're never more than half an hours drive away (if taking the main roads, of course). Any tourist information office can provide you with maps and more information.
With 8 Michelin stars awarded in just a 20 x 20 km area, South Limburg (and the Maastricht area in particular) maintain a reputation for fine dining opportunities. Notable restaurants include the 2 star restaurants Beluga in Maastricht and De Leuf in Ubachsberg. For a royal haute cuisine experience, try the 1 star restaurants in Chateau St. Gerlach or Chateau Neercanne.
If your budget doesn't allow for such a splurge, a taste of traditional local cuisine is a good alternative. The laid-back restaurants on the town squares make an excellent place to try some of South Limburgs favorite local foods. Local cuisine is clearly influenced by those of nearby German and Belgian regions. You'll find a good deal of sweetness, and many sweet and sour dishes. The story goes that the use of sugar, apple syrup and other sweeteners resulted from the close ties of Maastricht and the surrounding area to Liège. As Liege was one of the main Belgian pâtisserie cities, young boys would grow up in a sweet environment. When they would grow up to be cooks later, their would integrate their love for sweet tastes in savory dishes.
Popular sweet treats include Limburgse vlaai, a pie or tart with a fruit or pudding filling, originally from the North Limburg city of Weert but a very common sweet dish here as well. Nonnevotten or poefelen are a deep-fried sweet pastry originally associated with carnival celebrations, but now available year round.
For long the South Limburg region has been known for its beer making traditions. Still today, a number of South Limburg breweries exist and produce beers that are popular throughout the rest of the country. The most prominent examples are the old Brand-brouwerij in Wijlre, de Gulpener-brewery in Gulpen, Leeuw-brewery in Valkenburg and the Alfa-brewery in Thull. Many bars in the region serve one of these beers as a standard beer and if you're interested the breweries themselves often offer beer tasting activities and tours.
Wine making is becoming increasingly popular in South Limburg. Experiments have been undertaken since the 1980's, trying to establish which grape varieties would be most suited for the local climate and soil. The Apostelhoeve  near Maastricht is the largest vineyard in the Netherlands. Also notable is the vineyard of the beautiful Château Neercanne, again near Maastricht. This is the only Dutch vineyard with an actual castle, and able to use the term "Château". Its wines are available in the upscale castle restaurant.
Although travelers will encounter few problems, Limburg is quite densely populated and crime is relatively common. Drug-related crimes are more widespread than in some other Dutch areas, due to Limburg's location on the German and Belgian border and the associated smuggling potential. If you do not seek contact with drug traffickers however, you are unlikely to notice much of all this. If you just want to smoke a joint go to one of the legalized "coffee shops".
For the rest, common sense will generally be enough to keep you safe. Prostitution is legalized in all of the Netherlands but make sure to use condoms as STD's remain a problem. Pick pocketing isn't nearly as much of a problem as it is in e.g. Amsterdam, but keep an eye on your personal items nonetheless. As in other Dutch regions, you might meet an occasional drug addict or wanderer on the streets, asking for small change. The social welfare system is pretty well arranged and begging (which is illegal) is often related to drug addiction. Kindly declining is usually enough to send them off. An exception are homeless people selling "street newspapers" ("straatkrant"), often at supermarket entrances. This is a legal and organized initiative in the Netherlands which you may support, but sellers should visibly be wearing an ID card.
The German city of Aachen is just at the other side of the border and makes a great daytrip. You can take a train from Heerlen or a bus from there, Maastricht or Vaals. To the Belgian side, Liège is close and well connected. To go further, train times from Maastricht include: