You’re finally thinking about a spring trip to Europe. A city with a historic center is a must. So are interesting museums that you can get lost in for hours. Canals would be nice. You could rent a bike and pedal over old stone bridges. Food is important, too. It’s usually the easiest way to get to know a proud local culture. It certainly sounds like you’re leaning toward Amsterdam. But Leeuwarden is another option if you want to leave the crowds behind.
Leeuwarden is the capital of Friesland, the northwest corner of the country. Though only a 90-minute drive from Amsterdam, the green, water-rich area is often overlooked. Leeuwarden developed as a trading town—particulary for the dairy industry—in the 11th century and ultimately became the economic hub of the region. During World War II, the city was occupied by German forces. The Royal Canadian Dragoons finally drove them out in 1945. Since then, it’s become a university town with a laid-back vibe and cafe-lined canals. This year, it’s one of the two European Capitals of Culture, as well.
The center of Leeuwarden is compact and surrounded by those defensive canals. Prinsentuin, once the private garden of a French prince, is a large park along the northwest corner. Live music, picnics, and passing sailboats make it a popular spot in which to hang out once the warm weather arrives. It’s near Oldehove, which was supposed to become the tallest church tower in the country. Instead, the unfinished church became Leeuwarden’s Leaning Tower of Pisa. You can see the neo-Gothic St. Boniface Church and Waag (the old weigh house) if you climb the narrow—and, yes, leaning—staircase.
Leeuwarden is full of museums, too. The Fries Museum is the most impressive. Its striking new (2013) building has a glass facade, a wood-and-steel roof, and three levels of galleries. It focuses on art, while the Fries Verzetsmuseum documents the impact of World War II on Friesland. The Princessehof Ceramics Museum houses the world’s largest collection of tiles in a 17th-century mansion. The Pier Pander Museum is dedicated to the works of the famous sculptor. Plus the Boomsma Museum is a traditional distillery that makes Boomsma Beerenburger, the famous Dutch liqueur.
Now all you need is some suikerbrood (Frisian bread), droge worst (dry sausage), and a selection of cheeses—be sure to ask for a Nagelkaas (a gouda-style cheese mixed with cloves and cumin) at the cheese shop. Then find a sunny spot along the canals and the blooming flowers. This is the way to welcome spring.