Highlighting the hidden gems of the Netherlands, this article explores the Dutch UNESCO World Heritage Sites. For such a small country, it boasts a surprising amount of heritage sites. Find inspiration for your future trips and discover some unique sights and tourist attractions in the Netherlands. You might even end up looking at those iconic Amsterdam canals in a completely different way afterwards. And learn that there are even fabulous Dutch islands in the Caribbean!
Explore some special hidden gems of the Netherlands
The following unique sights in the Netherlands are listed in geographical order, starting North and finishing in … the Caribbean!
1. Wadden Sea (Waddenzee)
Wadden Sea Netherlands (Photo credit: Ralf Roletschek / Wikimedia Commons, licence CC BY-SA 3.0)
Let’s start at the most northern part of the Netherlands, the Wadden Sea. Formed 18,000 years ago, the Wadden Sea is the intertidal zone in the southern area of the North Sea. It extends from the northern coastline of the Netherlands to Germany and Denmark.
What makes this area so special according to UNESCO, is that it’s ‘the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world.’ But being such a dynamic region, due to the ever-changing tides, it’s also home to unique biodiversity, equal to the Great Barrier Reef in its natural significance.
The Wadden Sea gets its name after the word ‘wad’, Dutch for mud flat. These become visible during low tide twice a day, making it possible ‘to walk over water’. Besides human ramblers, the sand plates in the Wadden Sea are also very popular among seals who take a lazy break here during low tide. Being rich in shellfish, the Wadden Sea is also a bird spotter’s paradise as it’s frequented by about ten million of birds a year who stop here for a good meal.
You can find several islands in the Wadden Sea, including the five islands in the Dutch part of the Wadden Sea: Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog. (How many of these can you pronounce without spitting?) Measuring just over 405 square kilometres in total, these islands are characterised by their striking and diverse landscapes consisting of glorious sand dunes, endless white sand beaches and lush woodlands.
If you’re keen to explore a lesser-known part of the Netherlands, then I highly recommend a short stay on one of several of the islands in the Wadden Sea. Although it’s such a small country, I’ve only been to one of them once in my life! I might not have experienced tropical island weather there, but neither did I feel like being in the Netherlands still. It really is such a unique part of the country, best to be experienced in person. (If you do want to enjoy a tropical island climate, then scroll down to the last place in this list!)
2. D.F. Wouda Steam Pumping Station (Ir. D.F. Woudagemaal)
D.F. Wouda steam pumping station (Photo credit: Hanno Lans / Flickr)
Opened in 1920 by Queen Wilhelmina, the D.F. Wouda steam pumping station is the largest steam pumping station in the world that’s still operational. It has the incredible capacity to drain 4 million litres of water per minute! Since a large part of the Netherlands is situated below sea level, it’s a living reminder of the country’s centuries-long battle against water.
Designed by engineer D.F. Wouda, the imposing brick building features elements of the 20th-century rationalism architecture style. As its name suggests, rationalism is a rational approach to buildings, prioritising a building’s functionality and logical lay-out rather than its aesthetics. Its simple yet handsome exterior is usually characterised by simple, straight lines, leaving the brickwork exposed. Living in a former Victorian textile factory myself, I obviously love this brick industrial pumping station!
The station was originally built to pump excess water out of the northern province of Friesland, parts of which got severely flooded in winter, into the Zuiderzee (Southern Sea), a former inlet of the North Sea. In 1932, they built the 32-kilometre long dyke Afluitdijk across the sea to connect Friesland with the province of Noord-Holland. This changed the sea inlet into a lake and was thus renamed IJsselmeer (IJssel Lake).
With the opening of the nearby electric pumping station in Stavoren in 1966, the D.F. Woudagemaal, as it’s called in Dutch, is used less frequently. Yet, it still comes into action during extreme circumstances in support of the electric pumping station, on average one day a year. And when it does, it’s quite a spectacular sight due to the incredible amount of steam it releases.
Visitors can witness this magical experience during the special training days for operating staff which take plays a few times a year. But even on non-training days, it’s worth visiting the D.F. Wouda steam pumping station. Open nearly all-year round, it makes for a fun and unique day out for the entire family. Get to learn all about the history of local water management through the interactive exhibits and 3D cinema and get to understand a bit more about the long and complicated relationship between water and the people of the Netherlands.
3. Schokland and surroundings (Schokland en omgeving)
Schokland: UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Netherlands (Photo credit: Geert Heuvels / Flickr)
Nearly ending up studying Archaeology at University, I’m especially excited about the unique area of Schokland in Friesland. Thousands of years ago, this piece of land was an island in the wild Zuiderzee. Looking back even further to prehistoric times, this ‘island on dry land’ as it’s called today, was a tundra where prehistoric animals such as mammoths used to roam. For a country where deer are nowadays the largest wild animals, I find it incredible to think that it was once the home of such monumental creatures!
Mammoth and large bear skeletons aren’t the only artefacts archaeologists have dug up from the soil in Schokland. Since this area has been the longest continuously inhabited settlement in the Netherlands, it’s one huge ‘archaeological monument’. Holding an incredible amount of unique finds, it received its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. They found the oldest European footprints here for instance dating back to 4,000 years ago. But also the remains of hundreds of shipwrecks that didn’t survive the tempestuous Zuiderzee.
In the end, the island was evacuated in 1852 as it was under constant threat of flooding. But after the construction of the Afsluitdijk and consequently draining of the Noordoostpolder in 1942, the largest piece of land to be reclaimed from the sea at the time, it became part of mainland again. During this so-called ‘impoldering’, they came across over four hundred ancient shipwrecks which are still in the ground and are marked in the landscape with special red signs of ships.
Although archaeological excavations aren’t allowed anymore in this protected area, they’ve dug up thousands of astounding artefacts in the past. You can see a selection of these unique treasure troves in the Museum of Schokland, which tells the story of this quite literally, hidden gem of the Netherlands, and its people, dating back 10,000 years ago.
4. Beemster Polder (Droogmakerij de Beemster)
Beemster Polder (Photo credit: Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed / Wikimedia Commons, licence CC BY-SA 4.0)
Similar to the Noordoostpolder, the Beemster Polder is another great example of reclaimed land in the Netherlands. However, this 7,000-hectare area was created much longer ago, during the 17th century already to be exact.
Like the aforementioned World Heritage Sites in the Netherlands, De Beemster once again symbolises the country’s long battle against water. Being constantly under threat of flooding by a wild inland lake, De Beemster was reclaimed in favour of highly fertile agricultural land. Instead of modern devices such as pumping stations, they used windmills at the time to pump the water away.
The new landscape was designed in a orderly fashion using a rigid geometric template for the layout of its roads, canals and farmlands. Being such a unique example of creative planning, UNESCO regards this 17th-century polder as a true masterpiece, naming it a World Heritage Site in 1999.
Today, the Beemster Polder is one of the unique gems in the Netherlands. Offering many lovely outdoor activities such as cycling (can you think of anything more Dutch?), rambling and even golf. It’s also a great destination for a relaxing wellness experience in nature, offering numerous unique places to stay. Plan your visit to De Beemster Polder here.
5. Defence Line of Amsterdam (De Stelling van Amsterdam)
Fort near Krommeniedijk (Photo credit: Hanno Lans / Flickr)
Before Amsterdam got flooded by tourists, it had other ‘visitors’ to worry about. During the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870s, the Netherlands was preparing itself for a potential invasion. To protect its capital, they built a circular defence line around Amsterdam. This line, located in De Beemster, is 135 kilometres long and consists of 46 forts and batteries.
Using an ingenious system of locks, the defence line around Amsterdam could be flooded, creating an oversized moat around the city. As enemies would approach the city, struggling to make their way through the water, they made easy targets for the cannons.
Slightly further away from Amsterdam, they created the small island of Pampus to protect invaders arriving from the Zuiderzee. This sea fort housed giant cannons and was actually used as training grounds for Dutch soldiers in both WWI and WWII.
After all that work, the Defence Line was eventually never used in combat. Since its decommissioning in the 1960s, parts of it has been open to visitors, making it a unique tourist attraction in the Netherlands. Plan your visit to the Defence Line of Amsterdam here.
See five of the ten World Heritages in the Netherlands during a VIP guided tour. The 7-hour day trip departs from Amsterdam and calls at the following hidden gems: Wadden Sea, D.F. Wouda Steam Pumping Station, Schokland, De Beemster Polder and Defence Line of Amsterdam. Click here to see all up-to-date information and to directly book tickets for your unforgettable experience!
6. 17th-Century canal ring area of Amsterdam (Grachtengordel Amsterdam)
UNESCO World Heritage Sites the Netherlands: canal ring of Amsterdam (Photo credit: GVB-INTERNE beeldbank / Flickr)
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Amsterdam? (Besides weed and the Red Light District that is for most tourists unfortunately…) What else than its iconic canals! The world-famous canal ring of Amsterdam is one of the oldest world heritage sites in the Netherlands, yet only received its status in 2010. Before writing this article, I never thought of their construction and why the city had a need for them. Amsterdam’s most famous feature was created in the 17th century during the city’s Golden Age of great economic and cultural growth.
Attracting more people than it could physically house, the council drew up a plan to expand Amsterdam five time its size. The plan included 14 kilometres of canals and 80 bridges, lined by majestic town houses. But they also planted a great amount of trees in the canal area, making it a modern and unique green city. So remember, next time you casually walk along the canals of Amsterdam, most of the trees you see are around 400 years old!
7. Rietveld Schröder House (Rietveld Schröderhuis)
Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht (Photo credit: Husky / Wikimedia Commons, licence CC BY 3.0)
Located in his hometown of Utrecht, the Rietveld Schröder House is a unique building designed by pioneering architect and designer Gerrit Rietveld. Rietveld was one of the main figures of the Dutch abstract art movement De Stijl, using simple, straight lines and the bold primary colours combined with black, grey and white. Rietveld’s famous seat designs are a prime example of De Stijl, alongside Piet Mondrian’s paintings consisting of black line and solid blocks of primary colours. (Okay, hands up if you’ve ever looked at Mondrian paintings and thought ‘Is this art? I could’ve done this!’)
In 1924 Truus Schröder commissioned Rietveld to design his first house. Built at the end of a block of houses built just shortly before, the Rietveld Schröder House stood out from the rest thanks to its white cladded exterior and bright yellow and red features.
But the Rietveld Schröder House wasn’t named a World Heritage Site merely for its exceptional outside appearance. With its spacious open plan interior design, Rietveld broke away from traditional houses of the time and initiated a new architectural movement. His main goal was to create a light-flooded home that was practical for its inhabitants. By implementing experimental features such as mobile walls, Rietveld’s design was ahead of its time. This way, the residents were able to constantly transform the rooms and the house’s lay-out according to their wishes.
Truus Schröder remained to live in her unique home until her death in 1985. To this date, the visionary Rietveld Schröder House remains a source of inspiration for architects and designers. It is open to the public 6 days a week, but only through pre-booked guided tours. Find all the information to plan your own visit on the official Rietveld Schröder House website.
8. Van Nelle Factory (Van Nellefabriek)
Van Nelle Fabriek (Photo credit: Avalphen / Wikimedia Commons)
Built in the 1920s-1930s, the Van Nelle Factory is the youngest World Heritage Site in the Netherlands. It was included in this list for its radical factory design which prioritised the well-being of factory workers. Following the principles of Constructivist architecture, it combined advanced technology with engineering.
The Van Nelle Factory processed imported tobacco, coffee and tea. It’s located at the edge of Rotterdam, which is the main port in the Netherlands. In a very practical way, the building was designed in support to the manufacturing processes. Using innovative engineering, it was possible to build a strong foundation that could support a tall and narrow building consisting of glass and metal. It really was different from most factories of the time and one of the most iconic buildings in Rotterdam, a city that’s celebrated for its awe-inspiring modern architecture.
Unlike most factories, the Van Nellefabriek is characterised by the great amount of natural daylight that floods in through its tall windows. By making the spaces narrower, all workers on the factory floor were able to profit from this. It was even possible to open them, letting in fresh air. During their breaks, workers could go outside and eat their lunch in the specially landscaped gardens. And after work, it was even possible to play tennis in the on-site tennis grounds, followed by a shower on the premises! Witness this revolutionary architecture style with your own eyes and book a guided tour via the Chabot Museum website.
9. Mill Network at Kinderdijk-Elshout (Molencomplex Kinderdijk-Elshout)
Windmills at Kinderdijk (Photo credit: Thomas Bormans / Unsplash)
Windmills, the ultimate symbol of the Netherlands. Located at only a 30-minute drive from Rotterdam, Kinderdijk has the highest density of windmills in the world! The mill network at Kinderdijk-Elshout consists of nineteen windmills in total. The oldest seventeen of them were built in the 18th century. Like most of the World Heritage Sites in the Netherlands, the windmills are crucial for the local water management. Draining away excess water, the windmills still play a crucial role today. The mills are listed as national monuments and the whole area is a protected village view. Although I had never heard of this place before (I know, I feel ashamed) this picturesque sight is one of the most famous tourist attractions in the Netherlands! Curious to see the famous windmills of Kinderdijk from up close? Two of the windmills are open to the public. Book your tickets here.
10. Willemstad, Curaçao
Willemstad, Curaçao (Photo credit: Matthew T Rader / Unsplash)
Following the example of Spanish and Portuguese explorers, Dutch sailors ventured to faraway destinations from the 16th century. Colonising countries and islands such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, New York City, Suriname (where my family are from), the Dutch also arrived in the Caribbean. There they colonised the so-called ABC Islands consisting of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao.
Unfortunately, the colonial history isn’t particularly one to be proud of. It was a time of s.l.a.v.e.r.y, violence and inequality. You would almost forget about this black chapter in Dutch history, looking at the pastel-coloured historical houses in Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao.
The historical Inner City is a prime example of European colonial architecture in the Caribbean. Compromising over 700 listed monuments, Willemstad holds great historical significance. Unlike the other World Heritage Sites in the Netherlands, Willemstad is a living heritage site since people still live and work in the heritage houses, shops and warehouses.
The Dutch islands in the Caribbean are especially popular tourist destinations amongst Dutch people but also Americans since they’re located just above South America.