Leeuwarden is the hidden gem of the Netherlands / How to make the most of a trip to the Friesland capital
Leeuwarden, the provincial capital of Friesland in the north-east of the Netherlands, is having a moment. It’s a 2018 European Capital of Culture (2018.nl), and has a packed schedule of installations, exhibitions, performances and much more to celebration its year in the spotlight.
The city also has a laidback charm, offering many of the same features that draw tourists in their millions to Amsterdam – canals, brown bars and bicycles – without the overwhelming crowds or high prices. Here’s how to make the most of a visit.
Don’t be fooled by the name – the Fries Museum (friesmuseum.nl) has nothing to do with chipped potatoes. It translates into English as the Frisian Museum and tells the story of the province since prehistoric times, with a collection about the resistance movement of 1940 to 1945.
The state-of-the-art building opened in 2013 and two years ago held a major exhibition about the life and works of artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who was born in Dronrijp, a village close to Leeuwarden.
The current exhibition, Mata Hari: the Myth and the Maiden, examines the life of the Leeuwarden-born Margaretha Zelle and is on until 2 April. Open 11am-5pm daily except Mondays; €16 entry.
Locals take delight in explaining that Leeuwarden’s leaning tower, the Oldehove (oldehove.eu), tilts more than Pisa’s. Construction of the tower started in 1529, with the intention of building a 120m structure. An exhibition inside the tower describes efforts to shore up the subsidence that caused the project to be halted when the tower stood just 39m high. Open 1-5pm daily from April till the end of October; €3.50 entry.
The story of Leeuwarden’s long-established, family-run distillery is told in the Boomsma Museum (boomsma.frl). Visitors get the opportunity to sample the speciality spirit, Beerenburger, plus gin and its Dutch counterpart, jenever. Open 10am-5pm daily except Sundays; €1.50 entry.
Porcelain, including Delftware and contemporary designs, is exhibited in the 18th-century building that was once Princess Mary-Louise of Hesse-Kassel’s palace. The Princessehof National Museum of Ceramics (princessehof.nl) reopened in December 2017 following restorations to coincide with Leeuwarden becoming a European Capital of Culture. Open 11am-5pm daily except Mondays; entry €12.50.
Stop by the Blokhuispoort (blokhuispoort.frl), a former prison, to check the programme of events at the cultural hub that served as the headquarters for Leeuwarden-Friesland 2018 planning. Open 8am-1am daily.
The four-star Post-Plaza Hotel (post-plaza.nl) occupies the grand, centrally located building that originally housed Leeuwarden’s main post and telegraph office plus a neighbouring former bank. With a hip look and feel, the hotel has 82 guestrooms whose modern furnishings complement the building’s heritage. Spacious, loft-like rooms on the top floor feature exposed wooden beams. Doubles from €82, room only.
The Fletcher Hotel-Paleis Stadhouderlijk Hof (hotelstadhouderlijkhof.nl) is located opposite Leeuwarden’s town hall in a building that was once a royal palace. This four-star hotel has 28 bedrooms and a garden, while the wood-panelled walls of Us Heit, the hotel restaurant, are hung with oil paintings depicting scenes from the Netherlands’ Golden Age. Doubles from €89, room only.
The modern Stenden Hotel (stendenhotel.com) is another of Leeuwarden’s affordable four-star properties, about 15 minutes’ walk from the heart of the city. The perks of staying here include rooms with Nespresso machines and complimentary chocolate bars; the restaurant serves a selection of Dutch dishes. Doubles from €80, room only.
The Grand Café (post-plaza.nl) is a sumptuous all-day dining room in a Neo-Gothic hall with wooden beams that wouldn’t look out of place in a church. An island bar stands in the centre of the café, serving a range of sandwiches and soups at lunchtime. For pizza with a twist, try one of the flammkuchen. The café regularly hosts live music, too. Open 7am-10pm daily.
Located opposite the railway station, Grand Café Wouters(cafewouters.frl) is welcoming and handily placed for grabbing a bite throughout the day. For a light lunch, there’s a selection of toasted sandwiches and salads. Later in the afternoon, deep-fried bitterballen, a meaty Dutch snack traditionally served with mustard, prove a good accompaniment for beer. Open 10am until late daily except Sundays.
Restaurant Sems (semsleeuwarden.nl) occupies the building that once served as Leeuwarden’s governor’s residence. Part wine bar, part stylish, modern restaurant, it has an open kitchen where tapas-style dishes, including steak tartare and mushroom risotto, are prepared. Open 12pm until late daily except Mondays.
The Café de Ossekop (ossekopleeuwarden.nl) is a traditional Dutch “brown bar” that’s been in business since 1912. Locals come to sup beer and socialise in this cosy pub, whose claim to fame is that 19th-century painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema once lived at the premises. Open 5pm until late, Thursday to Saturday and Tuesdays.
Kelder 65 (kelder65.nl) is an atmospheric café-bar in a cellar with a vaulted brickwork ceiling. A brass pipe runs above the long bar, which serves a decent selection of beers and some unusual cocktails, including the gin-based Flora Dora, which is topped with ginger beer. Open 3pm-1am Monday to Wednesday, 11am-2am Thursday to Saturday and 11am-1am on Sundays.
Barrevoets (barrevoetsleeuwarden.com) is a café serving cakes and a broad selection of coffees that includes a Killer Cappuccino, flavoured with spices and chocolate. Looking for a comfy seat? Grab one of the leather armchairs or a spot on the sofa in the room at the back of the café. Open daily bar Mondays; opening times vary.
You’ll find typical high street shops in the Nieuwestad district. Alternatively, stroll along Kleine Kerkstraat to browse boutique stores on the street that has twice been voted the best in the Netherlands for shopping. At Zuivelhoeve (zuivelhoeve.nl), whose shelves are stacked with wheels of Dutch cheese, you can taste samples before you buy.
To peruse an impressive array of craft beer – including the outstanding locally brewed Tripel, Grutte Pier – head to the Drankenspeciaalzaak Jelle (drankenspeciaalzaakjelle.nl).
A market is held each Friday on the Wilhelminaplein, the square between the Fries Museum and Leeuwarden’s courthouse. Wares on sale range from items of clothing through fresh food to vacuum packed hunks of cheese. If you fancy a snack you can buy kibbeling – pieces of deep-fried battered fish served with sauce – and kebabs from street food trucks.
De Waag (stadswaag.nl), built as Leeuwarden’s weigh house in 1596, is a steep-roofed brick building that now houses a café.
Dutch and Frisian.
Yes, up to 10 per cent of the bill.
One hour ahead of the UK.
Flights to Groningen, 35 minutes from Leeuwarden by express train, take 80 minutes. Leeuwarden is also a 2hr 10min train ride from Amsterdam Schiphol.
Walking is the best way to get around the compact city centre.
The rooftop of the Oldehove, Leeuwarden’s leaning tower, offers a good vantage point for panoramic views of the city.
Don’t make the cultural faux pas of referring to Frisian as a dialect. Leeuwarden’s residents are proud that Frisian is recognised as one of the Netherland’s official languages.