Let’s play a quick-fire game of word association. When I say Netherlands you say… Amsterdam.

As Europe’s eighth most popular city, your response is not all that surprising. But because of this automatic association, flocks of tourists are inundating the capital at an exhaustible rate. The result? A perennially packed and increasingly un-Dutch city.

Still, for those in search of authentic local culture – and who have cushioned enough time to venture off the beaten path – in the north of Netherlands you’ll find Groningen. A predominantly student city, here you will discover locals eager to show you what the Netherlands is really about.

1. Explore Groningen’s café culture

Early morning is the best time to experience Groningen. As the bells ring from the Martini Tower, the city wakes up to the welcoming smell of roasting coffee beans wafts through the street. Seek out a cup at the P.S. Café just around the corner from the University of Groningen. For elevenses, sweet-toothed travellers should try Pure, famous for their doughnuts and frozen yogurt. When it’s gone midday, stop for a drink at a traditional Dutch pub aka a “brown café”. As the name suggests, they is decked-out in dark wood panelling and is one of best places to meet storied locals of the older generation. Café De Sigaar. Take a seat at one of the long, communal tables where it’s highly likely a few older people will sit next to you and read the newspaper.

2. Go vintage shopping along Folkingestraat

On the Herestraat and along the Vismarkt you’ll find modern stores like Zara and H&M, but if you’re looking for something more unique, Groningen has plenty of vintage and second-hand shopping. Folkingestraat in the city centre is lined with independent clothing stores and one-off boutiques. Step inside the unmarked Baroche and lose an afternoon browsing walls adorned with dresses, mostly made in Italy. Across from this, Simsalabim offers a unique selection of vintage-inspired clothing. Similarly, Onder de Linde has a vast array of designer and non-designer items.

For the less sartorially aligned, every Friday an outdoor market is held in the Vismarkt (fish market) in the enclaves of the Der Aa-Kerk. Vendors offer up an array of freshly baked bread, mountains of Dutch cheese, fruit and vegetables. Visit a fish truck selling Dutch herring and kibbeling – a peculiar and “unique” Dutch staple.

3. Ramble through tranquil parks and gardens

If the skies are blue you can bet you’ll find all the locals at Noorderplantsoen, a large public park just a few minutes walk from the city centre. In summer, it’s packed with students lying on the grass, playing soccer and barbecuing. Every August, the Noorderzon Festival takes place here, with music, art, dance and theatre performances in full flow. For an alternative view of the city, head to the Prinsentuin Gardens, just a two-minute walk from the Grote Markt (the main square) and gather a few moments of respite among the roses.

4. Traverse those famous Dutch canals

Amsterdam is famous for its canals but the capital isn’t the only city in the Netherlands with alluring waterways. Walk along the Groningen canals and take in the views from Vissebrug bridge. Typical Dutch houses line the water and the tower of the gothic-style Der Aa-Kerk church is visible in the distance. To satisfy your inner tourist, take a canal tour – Rondvaartbedrijf Kool gives one-hour boat tours through the canals in the centre year round.

5. Get lost at the Groninger Museum

The Groninger Museum, just across the street from the historical train station, is a must-visit while in the city. Even the building possess an air of artistry; built on top of the water, it’s island style structure stands proudly erect in modern colours. Home to a varied collection of artefacts and more modern works, visitors can swot up on the history of Groningen before moving on to seventeenth-century drawings in the far wings of the gallery.

6. Catch a classic film at the Groninger Forum

For something more relaxing, try the Groninger Forum, just a 2 minute walk from the Groninger Museum. This old-school movie theatre runs indie films and documentaries for those in need of recuperation before any more cycling or walking or further exploring can occur. A great hub for movie-lovers of all ages.

7. Proost with the locals

Considering that Groningen is a student city, it’s pretty clear that you won’t be short on parties and entertainment – especially at the weekend. For relaxing pubs, head to Zuiderdiep – Chaplin’s Pub is one of the best to sit down with an ice-cold Heineken. If you’re looking for more excitement, head to Poelestraat. The area is full of clubs and bars and is where most of the action happens on Saturday nights. We recommend &Zo or Twister, two of Groningen’s most popular clubs.

8. Explore the neighbouring town of Roden

If you have more than a couple of days in Groningen, it’s worthwhile heading to Roden, an idyllic town just a 15-minute drive outside the city. It’s Dutch authenticity at it’s peak; think kitsch shops, clog-wearing pedestrians and cosy cafés. In September the town holds Rodermarkt, a festival with horse racing, carnival games and a grand white tent that hosts late-night parties.

9. Meander through Drentsche Aa National Park

In Amsterdam you’re never far from the lingering smell of marijuana, but in Groningen there’s nothing but fresh air. Rent a bike and set off for the Drentsche Aa National Park to take in superb scenery in one of the few areas populated by hills and dunes in this otherwise flat hinterland.

10. Get those Gezelligheid vibes going

It’s likely you will hear the word “gezellig” at least once on your travels through Netherlands. Gezellig could be translated as “cosy”, though most Dutch people would tell you it can’t be translated at all. It’s similar to the popular Danish concept of “Hygge” (think of a room with lots of candles, a fire and maybe a cup of hot cocoa.) One big difference between gezellig and hygge, however, is that gezellig is about social connection. Those hoping to experience a gezellig atmosphere should head to Drie Gezusters, one of Groningen’s biggest and most popular bars. From the outside it looks like three different bars but upon entry you’ll discover the bar’s various tributaries, including sports bar Groote Griet. There’s also a jazz bar and tiki bar – prepare to settle in for the long-haul.


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