Welcome to Den Haag (The Hague)
The Hague ( Den Haag ), which means “village”, is famed for its international courts of law and for being the city that hosts the Dutch government. And yet on first emerging from Centraal Station, it seems no more distinguished than any ordinary modern town.
But close your eyes for a hundred yards - and you'll open them to find yourself in a charming town of narrow Dutch streets, cosy cafes and fascinating shops. Tinkling bike bells carry across the quiet, tree-lined avenues and noisy gulls drift from the nearby coast.
There's no sense of the frantic Whitehall warfare, or that the buildings conceal lawyers and business men dealing with issues of global importance. Visitors can walk through the open courtyard of the Parliament building and may even see the Prime Minister cycle past. It’s a city that is confident in itself, a restful yet inspiring place, full of colour and innovation.
Not only is it the greenest city in Holland, with over 460 public gardens, it's also seething with history. It's possible to stand in Plaats, in the centre of the The Hague, turn through 360* and view a kaleidoscope of Dutch architecture from the 13th Century up to the present day.
It's a city that can provide you with whatever you want; a different experience every day. Not only is the coast with its wide, sandy beaches just a 20 minute tram ride away from the centre, but you're spoilt for museums, galleries, shops, cafes and restaurants. And if you fancy sitting about in lush, green parks then that's fine too.
You may never have considered The Hague as a great place for a short break or even a full family holiday. But this surprising city is a hidden gem in plain sight, where behind its image of global power-games and dry treaties, an entirely different experience of fun, culture and history waits to be uncovered.
The Hague is a compact city and it's easy to walk around. The narrow streets of the Old Town are full of tempting cafes, bars and restaurants. At the Southern end of the centre is Chinatown, marked by the Chinese Arch at one end of the single street (Wagenstraat) of restaurants, supermarkets and shops.
It's also home to the delightful and eccentric British Tea Room, “Scally” owned by an Indonesian man. Don't let the name put you off - it's housed in a 200 year old building and serves breakfasts, teas, and afternoon teas with vintage china. Scones are made on the premises and the roast beef dinners are cherished within the city.
The main shopping street is Denneweg, where the shops have beautifully arranged windows. There are plenty of cafes along this street of which Lola, a bike cafe, is perhaps the most popular. The space is festooned with hanging bikes and the coffee is perfect.
The streets of Den Haag are a joy to wander. Glimpsed interiors of homes make one long to be invited for dinner. The Indonesian quarter, made up of large plantation style houses built by families that made their fortunes from rubber plantations before returning home is a particularly elegant district. The mansions have now been bought up by consulates and embassies.
Make sure you stroll through the courtyard of the Binnenhof, the collection of historic buildings that house the Dutch government. The contrast between the security of Whitehall in London and the Dutch parliament is extraordinary. There are a few police dotted about and the odd plain clothes security officer, just in case, but this is clearly a parliament for the people, Borgen-style.
The Hague has excellent museums. The Escher Museum, housed in a former Winter Palace provides a fascinating insight into the mind and work of M.C Escher, a brilliant graphic artist who created “impossible situations”. On the top floor of this very ornate building is a room set with distorted perspective for you to take pictures in and laugh at your friends. Another museum, excellent for children, is the Museum of Communication (http://www.muscom.nl/).
The most famous gallery in Den Haag is the Mauritshuis (www.mauritshuis.nl), a 17thC palace and home to Vermeer's “Girl With A Pearl Earring.” The house and gallery has undergone a major refurbishment and will re-open fully in June 2014.
Although it's not a museum it's worth popping into the the magnificent Hotel Des Indes which breathes history. The Tsar of Russia, Mata Hari, Eisenhower, the Roosevelts and Stravinsky all have stayed amongst its gilded glory (though not together). The Baron who originally lived there had door handles which allowed the insertion of feathers, to indicate whether he was entertaining a lady.
The coast is just 20 minutes away by tram from the centre at Sheveningen. Take the No1 tram and get off at the terminus for the beach. The journey takes you past the Peace Palace and through the suburbs. You could get off outside the famous old Steinberger Kurhaus Hotel, a grand old dame on the sea front.
It's biggest claim to fame is that the Rolling Stones played there in the 1960s, and there are black and white photographs throughout the lobby. The beautiful ballroom where they played is now a restaurant and there's a conservatory serving drinks and bar snacks that overlooks the sea.
Perhaps because there are so many international lawyers and diplomats in the city, there are plenty of excellent restaurants. A long-established favourite is Garoeda, an Indonesian restaurant set in a charming colonial building, lined with dark wooden Art Nouveau designs.
The Bistro De La Place, right opposite the Binnenhof, is another favourite of the city. It serves quality, down to earth French cooking in the Lyon style. It has a delightful, eclectic interior and is said to be the most authentic French restaurant in the Netherlands. There's music at the weekends and it gets busy, so it’s best to book.
Juni is a great place for an informal lunch. It's on Molenstraat in the old town. Everything is made with fresh, local ingredients. The goat cheese club sandwich, with apple, honey and nuts is delicious.
HIRE A GUIDE
There's so much fascinating history in The Hague that it's worth hiring a guide for a couple of hours. Not only will they tell you some amazing facts that will bring the city alive but they'll also show you hidden gardens and streets that you may not find yourself. Visit the tourist information site for more details. http://www.denhaag.nl/en/visitors/tours-and-activities.htm
CITY HALL ATRIUM
Visit tourist information purely to see the amazing city hall building. Built by famous American architect Richard Meier it's been nicknamed the Ice Palace by locals due to its minimalist design and the fact that it's entirely white. http://www.denhaag.nl/en/residents/to/Atrium-City-Hall.htm
Visit 9292 for up to date information and to plan your journey in Holland. It's an excellent site that gives information on tickets, trains, buses and trams throughout the Netherlands.
The Hague is compact and easy to walk around. However it also has an very good tram system which you can use to reach the coast or the railway stations.
You can pay in cash on the tram or take the cheaper option and buy a travel card (€6.50 per day ) from the Tourist Information Centre based in the town hall.
There are taxi ranks at stations and throughout the city, although you can also hail them. They are metered and safe.
A new taxi service has recently started, gCabs. They are part of the European green initiative and are fully electric and virtually silent. http://www.g-cab.nl/
Cycling is tremendously popular in Holland and it's so much safer than in the UK. It's a great way to see the the city and there are plenty of places to park your bikes. You can hire them from Centraal Station.(http://www.rijwielshopdenhaag.nl/)