While most tourists flock in throngs to the Netherlands for the sights and spectacles of Amsterdam, the Hague (or Den Haag as the Dutch know it) remains a less-traveled gem, save for the academics and law enthusiasts from all around the world that are drawn to the courts and organizations of this international seat of peace and justice. Home to the International Criminal Court, an institution currently carrying out investigations of atrocities in countries including Libya, the city is also host to the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
If internationally notorious criminals and genocide cases don’t tickle your fancy, then do not despair because the Hague has a plethora of other things to offer. From its traditional canals with Monet muse-worthy water lilies to its beautiful lush parks perfect for alfresco lunches and afternoon bike rides, Den Haag has a quaint charm and allure all of its own. It contains stunning architecture from various historical periods that can be enjoyed while walking around the city streets. If you’re just visiting for the weekend or are moving there indefinitely, the following must-visit neighborhoods and locations—from enchanting cafés and restaurants to lively squares—from a local expatriate are a good starting point to explore the Hague.
De Grote Markt
A casual and laidback alternative to its more upscale neighbor, the Plein, Grote Markt literally means “large market” in Dutch and is a square comprised of six cafés/bars and restaurants each featuring different décor, music and clientele. Depending on your mood, your taste and the time of day, these establishments will cater to your various needs. Grote Markt features outdoor tables and benches where one can enjoy the long summer days of Holland with friends and cozy, sheltered interiors when the country’s often unpredictable weather turns sour.
Hungry? Cold? Stop by De Boterwaag, a cavernous brick-vaulted café and restaurant for some hot, mouthwatering cheese soufflés (fried Gouda, of course, because that’s the Dutch cheese of choice) or warm up with a large frothy cappuccino accompanied with a crunchy cinnamon cookie. On Wednesday evenings, come watch the locals heat up De Boterwaag at the bar’s weekly salsa night—don’t worry if you don’t have the moves of Celia Cruz because there is always someone willing to impart their dancing wisdom.
Fancy listening to a jazz concert or spoken word performance? Check the agenda at De Zwarte Ruiter where local artists often perform shows in the café’s dimly-lit, intimate setting— the perfect relaxation after a long day of work or sightseeing. Just nearby, Café Restaurant September has two floors and large tables suitable for chatting with friends and/or working— WIFI included. For weekends out, the Super Markt has live DJs, concerts, and a center stage suitable for dancing and a crowd that just wants to have fun—be wary, however, of the overabundance of young teenagers that this locale tends to attract.
An overall ideal place to spend some downtime, Grote Markt provides an ideal location to unwind with friends and make new ones. Oh, and a visit is not complete without spotting the statuesque blonde man who can be seen walking around the square checking in on his various establishments or chatting with his employees.
Similar to its counterpart, the Grote Markt, in terms of layout and its reputation as a spot to kick back and take it easy, the Plein (translated as “square” in English) is more elegant and known to be the stamping ground of local politicians and government figures. Located next to various ministries and the Binnenhof which houses the Dutch parliament, the Plein attracts many smartly dressed ladies and gentlemen grabbing a bite to eat or drink at the many restaurants and cafés on their way home from work. Sit on the terrace long enough and you may even spot a minister or two remaining faithful to the country’s infamous cycling culture and biking in suits with briefcase in hand—à la Dutch.
For the traditional Northern European meal of moules frites, I recommend Café Luden in the Plein—crispy French fries (though the Dutch eat so many patat themselves I don’t think the French should claim the treat entirely) coupled with fresh, rich mussels in broth make for a delicious and filling meal. This location also has a terrace ideal for meeting friends or colleagues and watching passersby. Close by is Café Cloos which has a beautiful, well-lit interior and clean- cut décor—it also has great seating, not to mention waiters.
At nighttime, the cafés in the Plein turn into trendy nightclubs, attracting an upscale and slightly older crowd than that of Grote Markt. You can people watch outside one of the terraces and if you feel up for it, go inside to enjoy the sounds of the DJs spinning everything from Top 20 to Latin music to classics like Michael Jackson. At the end of the night, you can satisfy your hunger with the Turkish shops nearby selling their traditional pizzas and of course, patat and mayonnaise. Croquettes, another Dutch treat, are also sold at all hours of the night.
The Fred (Frederik Hendriklaan)
For the traveler who is also an epicure, the one who experiences the world through his or her palate, the Hague has many different cuisines and gastronomical corners to discover. A gourmand myself, one of my favorite areas to go for a meal or to purchase food in general is Frederik Hendriklaan, or “The Fred” for short, a chic street with around 125 shops including many restaurants serving everything from Indonesian cuisine to delightful brunches, adorable cafés and gourmet food shops. The latter serve as a breath of fresh air from the plethora of blue AH signs in Holland that signal the location of yet another Albert Heijn, the popular Dutch supermarket chain that can be found anywhere and everywhere.
The old world charm of Europe is captured in The Fred’s cheese shops, traiteurs, bakeries and award-winning produce markets—fresh-bought cheese, bread and meat is what Europe is supposed to be all about! For the best lemon meringue pie in the Hague, I suggest heading into the Kicking Horse Café located within the Paagman stationery and bookstore (which is also an excellent source for foreign language books and cheap foreign films, by the way—Almodóvar’s classics at €5 each? Yes please!) and grabbing a slice of lemony goodness topped with just the perfect amount and sweetness of meringue. The café’s fruit and vegetable smoothies and coffee drinks are also a hit.
In addition to delicious, fresh food products and dishes, the Fred also features many original clothing boutiques and beauty shops. It is a lovely place to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon before or after heading off to the beach nearby!
The most pleasant surprise I have had since moving to the Hague was discovering that this cold city had a beach. Not only did it have a beach, but it had soft white sand and elegant beach clubs that stay open from March onward. The beach and cafés/restaurants of Scheveningen offer an incredible view of the sea and gorgeous, colorful sunsets that you can enjoy from the hammocks and comfortable deck seats.
Enjoy the sights with an order of calamari from Boonoonoos Beach Restaurant—fresh, airy and with just the right amount of batter. Not a big squid fan? The beach clubs also have delicious hamburgers and various vegetable dishes. Finish off with a class Dutch appeltaart (you guessed it, apple tart) topped with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream and a cup of coffee or tea.
In addition to its more than 35 beach clubs, Scheveningen has many activities from beach yoga to kite surfing to volleyball and soccer. It provides a pleasant refuge from the bustle of the center.
In one small package, the Hague offers its visitors and residents a taste of many things and even includes a beach. Next time you decide to visit Holland, consider visiting Den Haag—it is well worth the entire group’s time!
This was a guest post by Tripper Sarah Alaoui. For more tips on the Hague, connect with her via her Tripping profile.