The Northern Netherlands is the most rural area of this densely populated country. Although it is quite popular among domestic tourists, the three provinces of Groningen, Friesland (Fryslân) and Drenthe are hardly visited by foreign tourists. This is a shame, as there are numerous things worth exploring to be found here.
Outside settlements, Friesland and Groningen mostly consist of meadows and arable land. Also, they are great areas for water-based activities such as sailing. Drenthe is a little different in that it also boasts large forests and more hilly terrain. Finally, the West Frisian Islands have a character all of their own.
Life is generally lived at a somewhat slower pace than in the west. Drenthe in particular is popular with people looking to move to a more quiet area after their retirement. Conversely, many young people leave the region looking for work.
The north of the Netherlands is great for bike tours with its web of butter smooth bicycle paths connecting every inhabited spot on the map. Often about 3-4m alongside the roads separated from them by old trees.
Even though the northern part of the Netherlands (consisting of three provinces, Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe) is the least visited part of the Netherlands and for a large part unknown to foreign tourists, it has quite a lot of interesting and surprising things to see and do. There is a reason why domestic tourists in the Netherlands head to the three provinces to spend their holidays for a long time already. There is a fair share of beautiful cities and villages that are surrounded by beautiful rural and natural areas.
Cities and villages
If there is just a single city a visitor should visit in the Northern Netherlands, it should be Groningen. Groningen is the economic and cultural heart of the region, and with 200.000 inhabitants also by far the largest city of the Northern Netherlands. Groningen is known for its student vibe, beautiful Hanseatic city centre (albeit partly destroyed during WWII) and music festivals. There is also a whole lot to see in terms of modern architecture and Groningen is a shopping paradise, with one of the most beautiful markets held three times a week at the Vismarkt square. The city is particularly nice during the early summer and the early autumn, when many of the 40,000 students are still in town and enjoying their spare time in the green of the Noorderplantsoen and on the many terraces in the centre.
Another town in the province of Groningen worth a quick look is Appingedam, with its hanging kitchens. Bourtange is a small village in the isolated eastern part of the province that is built inside an ancient border fortress between the Netherlands and Germany.
Other cities worth spending time in are to be found in the Province of Friesland/Fryslân. Originally there were 11 cities that acquired city rights here, but a large majority of these are more like villages by current standards. Leeuwarden (Frisian: Ljouwert), the capital of Friesland was the European Capital of Culture in 2018 and has been wonderfully renovated just before this year. Leeuwarden has a beautiful historic centre with links to the Dutch royal family; the current King Willem-Alexander is a descendent from the Frisian branch of the Oranje-Nassau family. Harlingen (Frisian: Harns) is another interesting member of the Frisian 11 cities due to its location at the sea and it is a convenient stopover point to the West-Frisian islands of Terschelling and Vlieland. One of the most beautiful architectural monuments of the Northern Netherlands should be the Waterpoort (Water Gate) in Sneek (Frisian: Snits). The oldest astronomical observatory in the world is also to be found in one of the Frisian 11 cities; the Eise Eijsinga Planetarium was established in Franeker (Frisian: Frjentsjer), a former university town in between Harlingen and Leeuwarden. The other members of the Frisian 11 cities are Dokkum, IJlst, Bolsward, Workum, Hindeloopen, Stavoren and Sloten, all having a more or less intact historic centre worth exploring.
The province of Drenthe has only three towns that once acquired city rights: Coevorden, Assen and Meppel. The one most worth seeing of these is Meppel with its varied and interesting surroundings, and a famous motor racing event is held every year in Assen. None of these match the interesting urban layout and history of their Frisian and Groningen counterparts. Drenthe is more about villages; the higher grounds here led to one of the earliest forms of human presence in the current territory of the Netherlands and therefore some very picturesque villages are to be found here. Some notable examples include Dwingeloo, Havelte, Westerbork and Orvelte. Other villages rapidly grew during the twentieth century, becoming small cities. The most notable one is Emmen, which is most famous for its world-class zoo.
Landscapes and natural attractions
Some of the most interesting attractions in the Northern Netherlands are to be found in the rural areas. The Middag-Humsterland region just northwest of Groningen is one of the oldest cultivated landscapes in Europe and consists out of tiny little villages built on artificial mounds to protect them from the tidal waves of the then much bigger Wadden Sea. The Wadden Sea is a unique tidal system that extends all the way to Germany and Denmark and is as such recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While visiting the West Frisian island you need to cross it and you are likely to spot some of the thousands of seals that call this area home. Similar landscapes could be found in the North of Friesland, but the main attraction in terms of landscapes here are the Frisian Lakes around Sneek. Each year, thousands of people spend one or more weeks here in summer to sail around this maze of lakes, canals and marshlands that is dotted with picturesque villages. The province of Drenthe offers some completely different landscapes, due to its more varied elevation (here you can find 'hills' up to 26 meters) there are extensive forests, moorlands and bogs to be found in Drenthe. On these higher grounds, the earliest inhabitants of the Netherlands left so-called hunebedden (dolmen), prehistoric burial mounds. They are dotted around the province, but clusters can be found near Borger and Havelte. Much of the territories around the edges of the province of Drenthe once consisted of extensive moorlands, which have been dug off to be used as a fuel in the West of the country. Some of the peatland remains however, and these areas are now strictly protected as natural areas with unique flora and fauna (e.g. Fochteloërveen and Bargerveen).
The West Frisian Islands of Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog offer a completely different landscape, dominated by picturesque villages, dunes and some of the widest beaches in all of Europe. Some of these cannot be visited by cars and are prized for their quietness, while others are famous for their popularity among young party goers. Either way, the West-Frisian islands are all popular holiday destinations among Dutch domestic and German tourists alike.
One of the more infamous sites in the Northern Netherlands is the former German concentration camp near Westerbork, from where more than 100.000 Jews, Roma and Sinti were deported to extermination camps in the present territories of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Especially the countryside is one of the safest parts of the Netherlands, but drug and alcohol abuse is somewhat more common here than elsewhere and is frequently the cause of deadly traffic accidents, particularly during the weekend.