Leeuwarden: Cultural capital, gateway city
TEXT: LIAM GREENWELL
Leeuwarden may not have the name recognition of Amsterdam or The Hague, but it offers plenty to draw in tourists seeking an under-the-radar experience in the Netherlands. It was named a European Capital of Culture in 2018 – and it hasn’t slowed down since, continuing to punch above its weight in food and art.
What sets the city apart is its status as the capital of the province of Friesland. Here, the Frisian language enjoys status alongside Dutch, and locals are proud of their unique heritage. English speakers should keep their ears open – Frisian is the most similar language to English surviving in the world, according to linguists.
After indulging in the city’s world-class shopping and food for every palate and budget, use Leeuwarden as a springboard to explore the enchanting region that surrounds it. You may feel like the only tourist in town, but that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to keep you busy.
A two-hour train ride from Amsterdam Central Station takes you northeast into Friesland, famous for its eleven cities that dot the grassy countryside. Spot dykes, cows and windmills before pulling into the modern provincial capital of Leeuwarden.
The first thing you may see is a Ferris wheel marking the edge of downtown, and that should be your first stop to get a birds-eye view. Leeuwarden is over a millennium old, having been founded back in the 9th century. These days, though, it’s a refreshing combination of old and new, far from the touristic bustle of the country’s largest cities.
In the Nieuwestad neighbourhood, start your visit with some Frisian specialties in one of the many restaurants that puts an emphasis on local ingredients. At Brasserie Spiegelaar, for instance, enjoy classic dishes while overlooking the canal; at Smakelijk, dig into more casual fare in a bright and cosy space.
To walk off your meal, there’s no better place than Leeuwarden’s Kleine Kleerkstraat. Voted the best shopping street in all of the Netherlands (beating out heavy-hitters in Amsterdam and Rotterdam) multiple times, the pedestrian-friendly avenue is home to local artisans, street food and boutique clothing stores. Clothes shopping in Leeuwarden is on par with much larger cities, with both local and international boutique brands. If you’re looking for a more alternative vibe, try the Voorstreek for vinyl records, skateboards and much more.
Leeuwarden has only improved as a centre of culture and art in the years since 2018 when it was named the EU capital – and it has the credits to prove it. There are over 800 Rijksmonumenten (National Heritage Sites) in the city, with one of the most iconic being the Oldehove, an unfinished tower built in the 16th century. No, you’re not in Pisa: Leeuwarden’s city symbol is indeed tilted. The construction was abandoned after attempts to straighten it failed, but the tower was never demolished. Instead, it still stands – albeit at an angle – and visitors to the top are treated to one of the best views in the city.
Another highlight of the city is the Fries Museum, which offers an introduction to both the origins of the region as well as the contemporary realities of the area. Explore the story of Grutte Pier, at turns celebrated as a folk hero or derided as a pirate, and marvel at his storied sword. Alternatively, see the exhibition that documents the brave efforts of locals to resist the Nazi occupation.
Transition from the old to the new with a street art walking tour. One must-see is the Love sculpture outside the train station, designed by noted installation artist Jaume Plensa. This sculpture of the heads of a boy and a girl plays with perspective and is a suitably trippy way to cap any visit.
Also, if you happen to see some miniature people figurines on ledges or windowsills across town, don’t be surprised. There are 67 different “scenes”, created by Michel Tilma, who left his subjects in their place to be found after he was done with his photos. Challenge yourself to find as many locations as possible around the old city!
But visitors should not limit themselves to the city itself, as Leeuwarden is a perfect jumping-off point to explore Friesland and its ten other historic cities. In Sneek, the former port capital of the region, seek out the monumental Waterpoort, a beautiful gate that used to provide protection to the city’s waterways from invaders. In Bolsward, alternatively, stop at the 13th-century Broerekerk church that still has a grandiose character, despite being gutted by a fire in 1980.
However, the real draw of the region lies off the coast. Like teardrops falling from the mainland, the Frisian (or Wadden) Islands are a bastion of Frisian culture and are as remote as you can get in this small country. Start on Texel, the largest of the islands, where you can wander enjoying white-sand beaches, cultural museums and picturesque lighthouses. If you want to go for a more isolated option, the island of Schiermonnikoog is mostly a National Park, and if you’re lucky, you may spot seals rolling in the sand. Known to have the darkest night skies in the country, the island is also a perfect place to unplug from the cultural immersion of Leeuwarden.
However you choose to structure your trip to Leeuwarden and Friesland, you’re sure to come away with an appreciation for the region’s unique culture – and a desire to return.
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