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Beer and Blossoms

Find an abundance of both in the Netherlands.

any of the common sights you see in the Netherlands lend the country a storybook quality: gabled townhouses lining serene canals, vast color-blocked fields of tulips, wooden windmills towering over flat landscapes and streets filled with bicycling commuters, all packed into a country a little smaller than the state of West Virginia.  

The word “Netherlands” actually means low-lying countries, and the description is accurate. About a quarter of the country lies below sea level, and most all of it is flat. Winds from the North Sea blow through unimpeded, powering the iconic windmills that have stood for centuries, many employed in pumping water out of the lowlands and over the dykes. Many of the windmills from the 1800s are still in use today.

That flat landscape has helped shape other essential aspects of Dutch life. It’s a boon to the cycling culture that pervades the country: There are twice as many bikes as cars, and 22,000 miles of cycling paths lace the country. The level ground is also ideal for farming, as is the temperate climate, bringing mild summers and winters and rainfall year round. About half of the country’s land is devoted to agriculture. 

Smell the Flowers

In certain regions much of that agricultural ground produces flowers, and when you see the rows and rows of colored blossoms stretching into the distance, you can easily believe that the Netherlands is responsible for around two-thirds of the world’s total flora sales. Tulips, the national flower, are omnipresent, but Dutch growers cultivate and export many other kinds of bulb flowers too, including daffodils, hyacinths and crocuses.

The country’s best known flower region lies in the northern region, behind the North Sea dunes, between the cities of Leiden and Den Helder. If you follow the 25-mile Flower Route — surely one of the world’s most colorful drives — which departs from Haarlem and ends in Leiden, in the spring, you’ll be treated to miles of dahlias, irises, narcissi and tulips in bold, vibrant colors. Throughout the region, local tourist offices can provide maps of routes around and through fields you can explore by foot, bike or car. 

World-famous Keukenhof is a must-see for even a casual flower fan. This historic park in Lisse — inside the country’s “bulb belt” — encompasses 80 acres bursting with bulb flowers of every description: tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, orchids and lilies. Keukenhof is said to

be the world’s largest flower park, and more than seven million flowers are planted there each year. There are more than 700 varieties of tulips alone. Acres of flowers blooming and assorted pavilions offering flower shows and exhibitions create an astonishing feast for the senses. For a truly authentic Dutch experience, book a room in a village near the park and rent a bicycle. You can immerse yourself in the unique local culture and scenery while riding to the park and spending a day pedaling through the flowery dreamscape. 

Back in Amsterdam, you’ll find tulips growing each spring throughout the city and all around popular attractions such as the Van Gogh Museum and Vondelpark, a large park that’s a hub of city life. A popular day trip is the Aalsmeer flower auction, where 20 million flowers are sold each day inside the largest commercial building in the world. High above, on a catwalk for spectators, you can watch the action: carts of flowers and plants being moved back and forth and employees riding bicycles around the giant warehouse. 

Make time for a stop at Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt, a flower market that floats on a canal. Rows of stalls on the permanent barges are filled each morning with fresh flowers; choose a bunch of fresh tulips to brighten your hotel room or bulbs to take home and create your own tulip field.

Raise a Glass

After a day of sightseeing among the blossoms, sitting down with a cold, foamy local beer might sound welcome — and it’s another very Dutch experience: bars are plentiful, and they are popular. The Dutch value socializing, friendship and camaraderie, and much of that happens around beer. It’s also serious business here: This small country is the world’s second biggest exporter of beer. 

Pull up a stool at a cozy, atmospheric “brown cafe,” which are a longtime, and much beloved, Dutch institution. With their wooden floors, furniture and walls all shades of brown, the atmosphere in a brown cafe is what locals call “gezellig” — homey and convivial. There may be a fireplace; there may be an outdoor terrace that is heated in the winter. The beer generally is served in a small glass with a big head of foam. A plate of bitterballen, potato-and-meat-filled croquettes, makes the perfect accompaniment. 

Beer giants Heineken and Amstel are perhaps the country’s most famous exports today, but beer has been brewed here for centuries. Gardens of hops first began appearing in the 14th century. The oldest continuously operating Dutch brewery, Brand, has been in operation since 1340. By the 15th century, Amsterdam was known as a major brewing center. 

More recently, the Dutch craft beer scene has been on the rise, and new small breweries continue to open. Lots of Dutch breweries, both small and large, release new beers every year, many of them seasonal brews. In the summer, light, fruity “witbier” (white beer) is popular, often served with an orange or lemon slice. In autumn, bock beer, a stronger lager, is often poured. 

If you’d like to go right to the source and see a Dutch brewery at work, try Brouwerij ‘t IJ, a favorite among both tourists and locals, where you can sip your brew next to Amsterdam’s largest wooden windmill. Take a tour of the brewery, which is located in an old municipal bathhouse and also houses a pub. Another popular choice is Brouwerij Troost de Pijp, a brewery inside a former monastery. Its cozy bar offers a dozen beers on tap, from the dark Smoked Porter (with hints of bacon) to the golden Honingblond — winner of a public choice award for best beer — and is the ideal place to while away the hours, planning the next day’s adventures.  

Plan your flowers and foam tour of the Netherlands today! Call your trusted AAA Travel Agent at 800-750-5386 for information about exclusive member benefits and exciting itineraries.