Cultural capital in Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Lonely Planet put Leeuwarden, Netherlands in its top 3 places to visit in Europe in 2018.  Why is a small town in the northern Netherlands so high up the list?  Well it is, along with the rest of Friesland  the European Capital of Culture 2018, it also turns out that Leeuwarden has cultural capital by the bucketload and is worth visiting even when her year in the spotlight has finished.  

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WHAT TO SEE IN LEEUWARDEN

Leeuwarden is a charming town with all the canals, bars and bicycles that you would find in Amsterdam but not of the crowds or sky-high prices. 

QUAINT CANALS

Water surrounds Leeuwarden, take a peek at the map and you can see that the centre is really an inland island.  In turn that island is criss crossed by canals.  Some of the roads even used to be canals before they were filled in to make way for cars about a century ago.  You don’t have to go far to see a quaint canal in Leeuwarden.

Kelders Canal Leeuwarden Netherlands

WAAG

The Waag, or weigh house, stands slap bang in the middle of the market place.  Produce from the surrounding farmland would be bought here to be wieghed.  Nowadays the handsome building is a cafe and neighbouring buildings home to many enticing shops.

ROYAL PALACES

Leeuwarden was home to the Stadtholders or rulers of Friesland, the Princes of Orange-Nassau who eventually became rulers of the whole of the Netherlands and are still the Dutch Royal Family today.  Many grand houses line Leeuwarden’s canal and there are two royal palaces.  One of them the Stadhouderlijk is now a hotel complete with a dining room lined with seventeenths century paintings.  

Stadthouderlijk Hof Leeuwarden

CERAMICS MUSEUM

The other, the Princessehof, is now home to a rather fine ceramics museum.    If ceramic floor tiles are your thing, then this is the place for you as it has the world’s largest collection of them.  I am a fan of museum shops but the one at the Princessehof is very special,  ceramics by the world’s finest ceramists are on offer, as well as many desirable things priced to suit the more modest pocket.

Ceramic Museum Leeuwarden Netherlands

LEANING TOWER OF LEEUWARDEN

You’ve heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa?  Well, the Oldehove leans even more than its more famous Italian cousin.  In the sixteenth century work was started on a grand Cathedral, rather unfortunately the ground too soft causing subsidence and only the first 39 matures of the tower was ever built.  In the summer you can climb the 183 steps to the top (or catch a lift) to stand in a scary looking perspex box looking down over Leeuwarden the surrounding countryside.

  • Oldehove, Oldehoofsterkerkhof
  • Open: April – September 1pm – 5pm
  • Admission: €3.50
Oldehove Leeuwarden Holland

FRIES MUSEUM

The Fries Museum is housed in sparkling modern building.  It tells the tale of the history of Friesland very well, with lots of maps and fascinating exhibits.  I was keen to see the Alma-Tadema works having seen them when came to visit Leighton House in London.

Fries Museum Leeuwarden
REMBRANDT AND SASKIA: LOVE IN THE DUTCH GOLDEN AGE

Rembrandt and Saskia: Love in the Dutch Golden Age is a temporary exhibitons which celebrates the love and marriage of local girl Saskia and the greatest of all Dutch painters.  A tender portrait of Saskia by Rembrandt has travelled to Leeuwarden from Cassel where it lives.  Elsewhere the exhibition explores how a love affair moved from proposal, to marriage, to children and death in the seventeenth century Netherlands.  Proposals were made with beautiful silver hearts, the woman would unscrew the silver arrows and find a betrothal gift inside.  2019 is the year to visit The Netherlands in search of Rembrandt as it will the 350th anniversary of his death and there are many events to mark it , this exhibition being the first.

Rembrandt and Saskia Fries Museum
  • Fries Museum, Wilhelminaplein
  • Open: Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 5pm
  • Admission: Adults €15, concessions available

FRISIAN HORSES

You’ve heard of Frisian cows, they are the black and white ones.  Well it turns out that the Frisians are actually more proud of their horses.  Frisian horses are handsome black horses.   They made fine military horses and more peaceful times are adept pulling carts and ploughs.  Nowadays they are popular as riding horses.  Whilst the streets of Leeuwarden are not thronged with Frisian horses, you can see a statue of one on the Waagplein.

Frisian Horse statue

WHAT TO DO IN LEEUWARDEN

DRINK THE LOCAL HOOCH

How could you resist drinking something called Boomsma Beerenburger?  It even comes in a cute ceramic bottle.  Boomsma Beerenburger is Leeuwarden’s very own herb flavoured gin.  It is no longer made in the old distillery in the centre of town but rather in a modern one just outside but you can still visit the old site or pop into the shop and buy a bottle.  Leeuwarden students like to start their evenings out with a glass of Boomsma and 7-Up, I just drank it straight as a digestiv and very nice it was too.

  • Boomsma Beerenburger Museum, Bagijnestraat 42a
  • Open: Monday – Saturday 10am – 5pm
  • Admission: €1.50 including a glass of Beerenburger
Boomsma Beerenbergen Leeuwarden

SPEND THE DAY IN PRISON

Well not really prison but a former prison.  The Blockhuispoort was used as a prison from 1500 up until 2007.  Now it houses the local tourist office, the public library, a youth hostel and a restaurant.  All them retain the heavy doors and mesh walkways of when it was a prison but are all laid back friendly places to be, the library has a really good cafe too.

blokhuispoort Library Leeuwarden

WHY VISIT LEEUWARDEN

Leeuwarden, Netherlands has an array of festivals throughout the year and is the start and end point of the Elfstedentocht.  What is the Elfstedentocht?  I hear you cry.  It is a skating race that encircles eleven towns. 200km or 125 miles long, only held when the canals freeze over which last happened in 1997.  Skaters must collect stamps at each town and complete the circuit before midnight.  There is now a cycle route to follow so you can pedal along  getting stamps as you go, but with no time limit.  A couple of years ago we hired bikes for a day and collected a couple of stamps in Hindeloopen and Stavoren.

For me the landscapes of the Northern Netherlands were the stuff of childhood dreams.  One of my favourite books The Cow Who Fell in the Canal (click on the link for my choice of Books to read in the Netherlands) the idea of the Afsluitdijk mesmerised me and I just longed to visit the Frisian or Wadden Islands.  Leeuwarden is an excellent base to see the landscapes of Hendrika the cow, to cross the Afsluitdijk and visit the Wadden Islands.  

HOW TO PRONOUNCE LEEUWARDEN

Dutch is a really hard language to get your tongue around if you are not Dutch.  After many attempts this version of mangling the town’s name raised fewest eyebrows!  LEE – OH – VARDEN.  One easy way to remember this is that a lion is the town symbol, but a strong debate rages as to whether or not this is how it got its name.

FAMOUS PEOPLE WHO CAME FROM LEEUWARDEN

For a small place Leeuwarden has produced a large number of notable people.  William IV, Prince of Orange-Nassau was born in Leeuwarden and went on to become the first hereditary Stadtholder of the United Provinces, which eventually became The Netherlands.  M C Escher the mind bending artist who came up with the never ending staircase was born here. ,Mata Hari, exotic dancer and spy was born here and has a statue in her honour.  Saskia Rembrandt, wife of the most famous Dutch painter of them all Rembrandt van Rijn was a Leeuwarden girl.  Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema the painter of lush Victorian women also was Leeuwarden native.

Mata Hari Leeuwarden

WHAT NOT TO DO IN LEEUWARDEN

Do not under any circumstances refer to the Frisian language as a dialect, it is a language in its own right.  Or rather three languages in their own right …. West Frisian, North Frisian and Saterland Frisian.  All of them share close links with English, especially the local dialect spoken in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk.  Maybe that is why I feel such an affinity with Friesland, back when sea transport was king East Anglia and Friesland were each others nearest neighbours.   The breakfast placemat at the Hotel Post Plaza had a handy translation for all your breakfast needs in English, Dutch and Frisian.

WHERE TO STAY IN LEEUWARDEN

POST PLAZA HOTEL

Once upon a time the Post Plaza was a post office and sorting office.  Post and post men are a recurring theme in the decor of the hotel and opulent Grand Cafe.  

HOTEL PALEIS STADHOUDERLIJK HOF

Hotel Post Plaza Leeuwarden Netherlands

As its name implies the Hotel Paleis Stadhouderlijk Hof used to be a palace.  The building dates back to the fifteenth century and was in the possession of the Dutch Royal family until 1971.  Those paintings in the dining room …. they real.

ALIBI HOSTEL

OK, so now its a bit of theme with Leeuwarden hotels buildings that used to be something else.  Before it was a hostel, Alibi was a prison.  You sleep in a cell and get to your cell by walking along the distinctive metal prison walkways.  Family and ensuite cells are available.

Alibi youth hostel Leeuwarden

WHERE TO EAT IN LEEUWARDEN

Leeuwarden does not lack tempting looking cafes, bars and restaurants.  Some of the bars right by the canal on Kelders looked as if they would be perfect on a summers evening and the Restaurant Élevé offers Michelin starred food with panoramic views.

PROEFVERLOF

Proefverlof is located in the old prison and means “day release”, the food is as local and seasonal as possible.  I opted for a succession of fish dishes, all of which were stunning.  In the summer you can opt to eat out on a canal side terrace. If you fancy dinner at the weekend make sure you book as it is very popular.

Proefverlof Leeuwarden

GRAND CAFÉ POST PLAZA

You don’t need to stay at the Post Plaza to eat there.  The Grand Café occupies a stunning high room that used to be used for sorting the mail!

Grand Cafe Post Plaza Leeuwarden

GRAND CAFÉCAFE Z

They like to call a cafe ‘Grand Café’ in Leeuwarden, I spotted at least two others as I wandered round!  Grand Café Z is located in one of the ugliest buildings in Leeuwarden, but don’t let that put you off it is cosy inside and opposite the Fries Museum.  

ORANJE BIERHUIS

I confess that I didn’t eat or drink in the Orange Bierhuis, I just took a photo of it because it looked so good.  I love those carpet table cloths.  It is oldest bar in the town centre.  Time ran out and I was unable to visit but will be back!

Oranje Bierhuis Leeuwarden Netherlands

PADDY O’RYAN

I am not an Irish Bar kind of a girl but for this one I made an exception.  As you sup your Dutch or Irish beer look up to ceiling.  The painted beams were exposed when the building was being renovated and date back to the seventeenth century.  Culture and beer in the same venue!

Painted Ceiling Leeuwarden

HOW TO GET TO LEEUWARDEN, NETHERLANDS

From the UK you have four choices of how to get to Leeuwarden.  You can catch the Stena Line ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland and then drive a couple of hours north crossing  the Asluitdijk as you go.  You can fly into Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, walk to the train station and catch a train which will take you a couple of hours.  Still flying you fly to Groningen from Southend and then catch a train that will take just under an hour.  Finally you can catch the Eurostar direct to Amsterdam Centraal and then change trains for the 2 hour journey to Leeuwarden.

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