Vaals is a small city in the South Limburg region, in the Dutch province Limburg. It is located right on both the Belgian and German border, with the much larger German city of Aachen at just a stone's throw away.
The borders of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet here in Vaals, on the Drielandenpunt. The official place of the Drielandenpunt is just a few steps aways from the highest point of the Netherlands, the Vaalserberg. Vaals is a friendly town for tourists, with regular activities and a beautiful natural area surrounding it. The Dutch call it "a piece of abroad in the Netherlands".
The municipality Vaals comprises this town itself as well as a few other villages and hamlets. The main population centres are:
A large number of the inhabitants, up to 26%, are Germans. Nowadays, the town's main activity is tourism. Many Dutch, German and Belgian tourists visit this friendly town each year, with the Drielandenpunt as it's main attraction but mostly of course for the beautiful scenery and picturesque hamlets around town.
The oldest archaeological traces of human settlements in Vaals were found in the nearby Vijlener forest, and date from the time of Linear Potter culture, about 5000BC. The origin of the town's name is Roman, with its ancient names Vals and Vallis meaning "in the Valley". Vaals is first mentioned in documents in 1041. In that time, Emperor Henry III donated land to the St. Adalbert Abbey and to distinguish between the city of Aachen and this land, it is referred to as "in the valley"/in Vallis. In those days, the centre of the municipality was Holset, also home to a high court of justice.
Given the location of the municipality, along the main (and originally Roman) road between Aachen and Maastricht, Vaals observed many armies passing by. During the war against the Spanish occupation, in 1568, the armed forces of William of Orange passed through Vaals and looted St. Pauls Church.
In 1661 Vaals became part of the Republic of the United Netherlands. Many wealthy citizens moved to Vaals and turned it into a flourishing industrial hub. One prominent industrial family were the Von Clermonts, who moved from Aachen to Vaals in 1761 and established a large linen factory, with clientèle in Prussia, Belgium, Austria, Poland and even Russia. In 1717, Tsar Peter the Great visited the Von Clermonts. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, and his wife Josephine de Beauharnais visited Vaals and stayed in Bloemendal Castle, one of the outhouses of the Von Clermont family.
During the Conference of Vienna, Aachen was assigned to Prussia and Vaals to the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Upon the Belgian declaration of independence in 1830, Vaals was Belgian claimed territory until it was reassigned to the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1839. As a result, the four national boundaries of Prussia, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Neutral Territory of Moresnet, met near Vaals until Moresnet was absorbed into Belgium in 1919 and the current 3 countries point remained.
Due to increased competition and the political closure of the German and Belgian regio to Vaals, industrial activity went down after 1840. Vaals turned from a wealthy industrial town into a leisure and holiday destination for the citizens of Aachen. Its casino's in this time made it a Monte Carlo like destination for the well-to-do of the surrounding regions. Germans referred to the town as the "Vaalser Paradies". To stimulate industry and tourism, a tram was installed in 1922 from Aachen, via Vaals to Wijlre, which was expanded to Maastricht in 1924. This prestigious and costly project was not very successful, as the tram ran no more than 13 years.
Before and during World War II the borders were closed and Vaals grew isolated due to its remote location in the Netherlands. After the war, commerce rose. Germans visited Vaals on a daily basis, as they still do today. Many inhabitants of Vaals found jobs in Aachen and smuggle routes across the border prospered. The smugglers of Vaals were called "The Owls of Vaals", referring to their nightly endeavours. Nowadays, the borders are of course open and Vaals is well embedded in the Aachen local transport system.
The main way in by car is over the N281, which is connected to the E14/A76.
There's no train station in Vaals. Buses run frequently and connections include:
The nearest airport is Maastricht-Aachen Airport, but from nearby Aachen direct trains also run to Dusseldorf, which is just over an hour away but has many more international destinations.
The old center can be reasonably well be explored by foot, but a bike or car is a good option since many of the sights lie on the outskirts of town. Also, the surrounding natural area and villages make one of the towns greatest assets, but take quite a hike on foot. Unlike most other Dutch cities, the center is not car free and it therefor easy to get around when driving your own or a rented car.
Electric bikes are an increasingly popular way to get around, as they provide all the benefits of a normal bike but make it a lot easier to make your way to the hill tops. This "groenfietsen" (green biking) is an extensive initiative and comes with route proposals. If you book ahead, several restaurants, hotels and campings in Vaals can make these so-called "green-bikes" available for you. If you haven't reserved one, try nearbyHerberg Oud Holset, Holset 54 Lemiers. For more information and a list of participants, see the project website.
Vaals has a good range of shops, including clothing, shoes, toy and giftstores as well as many daily grocery options. Most of the stores are along the Maastrichterlaan, the main road through town.
There's a fairly large weekly market on Tuesday mornings, in front of the town hall. During the tourist season (roughly from May to October) a regional products market is held very second Saturday (in the evenly numbered weeks). It's small but sells local products like mustard and jams that make good souvenirs. You'll find it on the Prins Willem Alexanderplein, in front of the Albert Heijn Supermarket.
There are quite some lodging options, with a number of good ones in the surrounding villages (which belong to the Vaals municipality).
Several hotels and other accommodations offer wifi for their guests. The public library offers free use of computers with internet access.
As the old German city of Aachen is just a stone's throw away, it makes for a great day trip. You can easily bike there, or take bus line 50 from the bus station in Vaals.
Other nearby travel destinations include:
For further destinations you can catch an intercity train in Maastricht or Aachen.