If your mind immediately flits to windmills, tulips, bicycles, even cannabis, you'd be right that they feature on the nation's list of credentials. But you'd also have barely scratched the surface of this small European country. Criss-crossed by watery canals, punctuated by coastal ports, this is a land of tradesmen and seafarers, suave political masterminds and liberal-minded citizens.An accommodating capital
To the north, the thousand-bridge city of Amsterdam reels in its constant flow of culture vultures, pot smokers and sex seekers. Here is a capital full of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions. You'll find tourists, businessmen and punks enjoying a beer on the same terrace or extravagant museums dedicated to torture and sex populating the same pavements as sober memorials to Anne Frank and Van Gogh.Let's talk about sex
Its red light district may have a reputation which leaves nothing to the imagination, but quit the infamous neighbourhood and you'd never believe the hyped image of lewd nightlife as you stroll through the bubbling late-night cafés and bars. Whether you decide to explore by bike or on your own two feet, the going is easy and the nights are electric.Everything administrative
In almost implausible comparison, The Hague draws in international diplomats and politicians by the thousands. To an outsider, the city gives off an air of efficiency, importance, punctuality. But wander between grand government buildings, royal palaces and Roman ruins and you'll find that a lot more than politics goes on within this city's walls. Thirteenth-century architecture appears everywhere you look, often sheltering a thriving, if expensive, café scene.Urban fare
For something a little different, Rotterdam is a post-war marvel of quirky architecture and contemporary design. This city's green credentials are the envy of Europe and draw some of the continent's most innovative tech-heads to its doors. But if it's savvy student style you're after, Maastricht awaits you with a lively international atmosphere, ancient architecture and beer-relishing inhabitants. Or if you want to see something of the up-and-coming minor leagues, the canal towns of Leiden, Haarlem and Utrecht offer a host of delights to peruse from the comfort of a barge.Rural splendour
At the cities' gates, the countryside opens up into tulip fields, flat farmland and thousands of windmills. In spring, the entire landscape is drenched in colour, making for relaxed cycling trips and wild picnics. For those on a quest for beautiful coastlines, the Netherlands can provide by the bucket-load. Ever windswept, wonderfully rugged and rimmed by a terrifyingly cold sea, they perform just as well in winter as in summer.
Surface area : 41526.0 km2
Population : 16663831 inhabitants
Glazed earthenware (among which features blue Delft), traditional costumes and clogs are the typical souvenirs that tourists bring back. If you like cheese however, take some mature Gouda home with you.
Amsterdam has been one of the world's main centres in the diamond trade since the 16th century; the prices are not necessarily more economical, but the cutting is impeccable.
Food, flower and flea markets are very common here and they allow you to take in the atmosphere of the cities as you stroll around them. Shops are open from Monday to Saturday from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, except in large cities, where they welcome you 7 days a week, sometimes until 10:00 pm.
In the north of the country and around Amsterdam, Alkmaar cabbage soup and cheese soup are traditionally served as starters. As for the main course, you must try Dutch sauerkraut and smoked eels or 'Stamppot', which is mashed potatoes with cabbage or chicory, served with smoked sausages and pork loin strips.
Surrounded by the sea, the northern province serves many different types of fish: raw herring, fried mackerel, turbot or sole form some of the everyday meals here. Mussels, a very popular dish, are cooked in white wine with onions and leeks and traditionally served with chips.
The Dutch have hearty breakfasts but frugal lunches: they nibble on fresh herring or a broodje, a small meat and fresh vegetable sandwich.
Many countries celebrate Saint Nicholas's Day on 6th December, but the Netherlands are the only country to begin the festivities in November with a reconstruction of the bishop's arrival by boat, and all of this is aired on TV. On 5th December, in the afternoon, work and activity in the country is brought to a standstill as everybody goes home to celebrate and party in honour of the saint and give one another presents.
The Netherlands is the country where the most people ride bicycles, after China. There are roughly 14 million bikes for almost 16 million inhabitants and cycling has become second nature for the people and a very common way of transport (cycling lanes and bicycle rental shops are everywhere).
In January, when the days are cold and dark, everybody begins to ice-skate on the frozen canals. Elfstedentocht is a marathon which organizes an ice-skating tour through eleven cities of Friesland. Thousands of inhabitants take part or follow it in a festive atmosphere.
Remember to gather as much information on the country as possible before leaving. There are many tourist offices, signalled by the letters VVV (initials of the society for the circulation of foreigners, in Dutch) but you have to pay for their brochures (maps, recommended places) and services (such as reservations).
If you want to dine out, think about getting there between 6:00pm and 10:00pm because most of them stop serving after 10:00 pm. Much like British culture, the Dutch will often have a large breakfast and only a quick lunch. Dinner is usually the main event of the day and is eaten early. In restaurants, it is standard to leave a 10 percent tip for good service.
If you are planning on seeing the country's many museums, it is advisable to wait until lunchtime or towards the end of the day. Long queues often form during the rest of the day and many stay open till late in order to accommodate as many visitors as possible.
In Amsterdam, be constantly on your guard for the arrival of trams which, unlike other European cities, don't have their own, reserved tracks. They are, however, a great and relatively cheap way to get around the city, though if you want to take to the water, hire a boat and enjoy the city's canals. It's one of the best ways to get to grip with Amsterdam's often complicated layout.
Marijuana smokers should be aware that it is still illegal to smoke in public places and even worse if you are caught rolling a joint. The only place you can legally buy it is in designated coffee shops and smoking is confined to private places only. Those who want to venture into the red light district should know that taking photos is strictly out, as a form of respect for those women who choose to earn their living this way.
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