There’s much more to Holland than Amsterdam, as Steve Bustin discovered to his surprise when he spent a weekend in The Hague
For most gay and lesbian tourists, Holland doesn’t really exist beyond Amsterdam. The Netherlands (the correct name, by the way) may as well end at the Prinsengracht canal.
Yet less than an hour away is the country’s “other capital”, Den Haag or The Hague, a city of great elegance and variety that makes it perfect for a short break from the UK.
Admittedly, The Hague does have a bit of an image problem. Amsterdam is officially the capital but it’s in The Hague that you’ll find parliament, royalty and lots (and lots) of “official” bodies, in this self-styled “city of peace”, home to the Peace Palace and a number of international criminal courts. This gives it a reputation as a city of officials and expats, a city for diplomacy, not fun, yet it’s actually a lively, engaging, attractive place, offering more than enough to satisfy – and surprise – the weekender.
The Hague is relatively small (population 500,000) which makes it eminently walk-able or cycle-able – or tram-able, with trams running all over the city (get yourself an OV Chipkaart at Centraal Station for unlimited tram travel).
The best way to get oriented in the city is to take a tour and while there are all manner of horse-drawn carriages and tuk-tuks doing the rounds, we saw bits of the city even the locals don’t see with local tour guide Remco Dörr.
‘What do you want to see?’ is a great question to open a tour with and when we said we wanted to see a bit of everything but with a particular emphasis on architecture and “a bit of gay stuff”, Remco did us proud (see info box for details of how to book him).
The city, which largely survived wartime bombing raids unscathed, has a rich architectural heritage from traditional Dutch gables to art nouveau sitting side by side. Throw in a smattering of palaces, parliament buildings old and new and an extraordinary new skyline of skyscrapers, and it’s a really photogenic place.
One of the architectural treasures well worth seeking out is the city’s “hofjes” or courtyards. More than 100 hofjes are hidden behind doors, many built as almshouses around a garden, and most are accessible to the public even if they are hard to spot. Pick up a map to find the most picturesque ones.
One of the city’s most famous “residents” Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring is currently off on a world tour that would put Madonna to shame while her usual home, art gallery the Mauritshuis, undergoes renovation, but the arts and galleries are still pretty stellar, as befits a city that was home to many of the Dutch masters.
We checked out two galleries that are definitely worth a visit. The Escher Museum on Lange Voorhout (escherinhetpaleis.nl) is dedicated to the master of playful perspective and optical illusion, with his waterfalls flowing uphill and men climbing never-ending staircases. The building alone is worth a visit. It was a royal palace until the 1950s but its 18th century interior now has some of the most extraordinary chandeliers I’ve ever seen. Make sure you make it to the top floor, too, where you can interact with optical illusions that will play with your senses and leave you wondering whether you overdid it on those hash cookies in Amsterdam.
The other major arts attraction worth catching is the Panorama Mesdag (Zeestraat 65, panorama-mesdag.com). To call it a giant painting is to do it a disservice, as this is one of the largest panoramic paintings in the world, created by artist Hendrik Willem Mesdag in 1881. Stretched around the inside of a huge drum, 14 metres high and 100m in circumference, and depicting the nearby seaside resort of Scheveningen, this artwork too plays with your senses, but unlike Escher, Mesdag does this with such skilful use of light and perspective that it really does feel like you’re standing looking across the dunes to the beach.
Scheveningen, on the north-western side of the city, still has those beaches and dunes, and is now the most popular beach resort on North Sea coast. Famously, the name Scheveningen is so fiendish for non-natives to pronounce that suspected wartime spies were asked to say it aloud to prove they were Dutch. Saying “shaving him” while clearing your throat gives you a rough approximation.
Whether you can pronounce it or not, it’s a great place to kick back and relax, with a huge sandy beach lined with cafés where you can take a table round an outdoor fireplace or a huge day bed on the beach and spend the day watching the world go by and soaking up some rays (and checking out possibly the ugliest pier ever built). Every August the beach also plays host to an international fireworks festival that sees eight countries compete over four nights with some truly spectacular displays.
If you prefer your beaches a bit more au naturel then get on your bike and hit the F1, the major cycle route that hugs the North Sea coast. Just a few (flat) miles out into the dunes and you’ll find nudist beaches, a gay beach and plenty of space to spread out your towel.
Before leaving Scheveningen, however, try to catch Catch (Dr Lelykade 43, Scheveningen, catch-bysimonis.nl), the hottest new restaurant in town. Sitting right by the harbour, as the name suggests it specialises in seafood and serves up chic glamour as well as fabulous food.
The Hague itself is pretty well provided for in restaurants, too, but it’s worth getting away from the tourist areas in the city centre. Want to eat with the locals (and the many expats)? Head towards Anna Paulownaplein and try Room for food (Anna Paulownaplein 16 , roomdenhaag.com) or Wicked Wines for a drink (Bazarstraat 42, wickedwines.nl). We also spent time in the town centre hanging out in chic coffee bar Hometown on Buitenhof 4 (hometowncoffee.nl), opposite the old parliament, or try the croquettes for lunch at Bij Hem, a cool café down a side street (Molenstraat 21a, bijhem.eu).
Molenstraat is part of one of the most exciting areas of The Hague, the increasingly trendy Het Noordeinde district. Just off one of the main up-market shopping drags and right on the doorstep of the Noordeinde Palace, the royal family’s main residence, this area of narrow streets and alleys is being rapidly regenerated, but at the moment it’s still a local’s secret and hasn’t made it onto the tourist trail.
The area has got a feel of Shoreditch about it – hipsters are moving in and doing up the older buildings to bring them back to life with trendy boutiques and cafés springing up. For men’s clothes try über-stylish Common Kin (Paapestraat 22, commonkin.nl) or sharp shirts from The Art of Camouflage (Prinsestraat 74, theartofcamouflage.com). It’s also where you’ll find the stylish Park Hotel (Molenstraat 53, parkhoteldenhaag.nl) that’s got that magic combination of being incredibly central but incredibly quiet, with views over the palace gardens.
The Hague’s gay scene isn’t huge – with the LGBT mecca that is Amsterdam less than an hour away, it doesn’t need to be – but it’s certainly worth seeking out De Landman (Denneweg 48, cafedelandmann.nl), a gay “brown bar” or traditional Dutch bar, dating from 1762, making it one of the oldest café-bars in the city. Otherwise it’s the usual mix of a clutch of small bars, a couple of saunas and occasional club nights but, as you’d expect from the Dutch, there’s no such thing as a non-gay friendly bar or hotel.
The word that kept coming to mind as we wandered round The Hague was “surprise”. While the buildings, people and lifestyle all seem effortlessly elegant, it’s certainly not starchy or a “civic” city. It’s relaxed and easy to spend time in; stylish and even cool, and constantly confounding expectations. It’s a great starting place to get to know Holland beyond the tourist behemoth that is Amsterdam.