9 reasons to cruise the Dutch & Belgian waterways

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie

A river cruise through Holland and Belgium really does offer it all. Looking for an epic swathe of historical buildings imbued with rich stories or just seeking waterfront cafés to relax in and take in the views?

Tulips in Keukenhof Gardens, Amsterdam
Tulips in Keukenhof Gardens, Amsterdam © EWA Studio - Adobe Stock Image

Or maybe you prefer exploring postcard landscapes awash with tulips and windmills, perhaps shopping for souvenirs, including the world's most famous diamonds?

Well, the good news is that you will find that all and much more across these two historic countries, and that it all comes scenically draped around a necklace of canals and rivers.

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Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Dutch capital is like London and New York in that it feels like you know it even before you've been. Amsterdam a fairy-tale wonderland of canals and chocolate-box buildings, of cheese and clogs and countless other glorious clichés.

On a darker note it's also the city of Anne Frank and on a cerebral vein the best place in the world to take in the talents of the Dutch Masters in its elegant galleries and museums. In short, it's a world-class city that it is almost impossible not to like. Few visitors leave disappointed.

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Rotterdam, Netherlands

No longer content to play second fiddle to Amsterdam, this vibrant port city - home to Europe's busiest port, no less - has gone about reinventing itself as a tourist destination. Rotterdam's famously friendly citizens help as do the buzzing new industries and flourishing art scene.

A dramatic place to take it all in is from the heady heights of the Euromast Tower, Rotterdam's tallest building. As you survey the rapidly growing city it's hard to believe just how devastated it was by World War Two bombing, so impressive has its renaissance been.

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Utrecht, Netherlands

This seriously underrated inland Dutch city is a real charmer, a mini Amsterdam awash with its own canals and a sweep of striking buildings around its pretty pedestrianised old quarter.

Parts of Utrecht delve back as far as the 7th century. Gawp up at the looming 370ft tall Dom Tower before reclining in a canalside café enjoying the local sweet treats along with the city's bountiful student population.

Arnhem, Netherlands

Arnhem is cemented in the history books, famous for being a bridge too far for the Allied airborne forces during 1944's Operation Market Garden. Here, the Allies sought a quick end to the war in Europe although it was not to be as they were repelled with heavy losses.

Much of the city is modern thanks to World War Two damage, but enough of a sense of history still ripples through its welcoming streets to make it worth a visit. Its well-stocked art galleries and the Arnhem War Museum are particularly compelling.

Medemblik, Netherlands

Sleepy Medemblik is the perfect antidote to big city living. We are talking tulip-kissed parks and charming marinas, with a sprinkling of waterfront cafés and bars where you can take in the scene and recharge your travelling batteries.

If you can rouse yourself from your coffee and cake, delve further into the 17th-century town centre, a riot of charming grey and red brick buildings. The local museums tell the town's story and you can discover more history by walking to Radboud Castle, a 15th-century redoubt fashioned to help stave off pirate attacks.

Veere, Netherlands

The relatively unheralded Dutch town of Veere enjoys an appealing natural setting next to a lagoon on Walcheren Island. A medieval focal point is the Grote Kerk Veere church, which dates back to 1521.

The pretty seaside town of Veere on Walcheren Island
The pretty seaside town of Veere on Walcheren Island © Joe Ross - Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Veere is an oasis that Dutch people come to relax in and around with its myriad beaches, walks, marinas and watersports. Do visit the colossal Oosterscheldekering - a storm surge barrier that plays an essential role in protecting Holland from being flooded by the North Sea.

Afterwards, treat yourself at Oma's Snoepwinkel, or Grandma's Candy Shop, which boasts 100 varieties of old-style Dutch candy.

Nijmegen, Netherlands

Historic Nijmegen is a place where the Dutch like to enjoy a slice of La Dolce Vita. A positively Mediterranean vibe oozes from its cafés, bars and restaurants - after all, Nijmegen sports the highest density of al fresco terraces in the country!

Our pick are the ones that recline down by the banks of the Waal River. Look out, too, for Lange Hezelstraat, whose claim to fame is that it is the oldest shopping street in Holland, the ideal place to snare that pair of natty clogs you've been promising yourself.

Culture vultures can instead head to the Valkhof Museum and unearth the artefacts that reveal the city's Roman past.

Dordrecht, Netherlands

Dordrecht, the oldest city in Holland, tempts with its treasure trove of monuments and museums. Ancient warehouses and old merchant streets either retain a sense of the past or have been put to good use in the modern life of the city.

To kick off savour a proper coffee in a waterfront café by the old harbour. You can learn more about its long history at the Dordrechts Museum, which boasts a fine collection of Dutch art dating back to the 17th century.

If you love windmills book the excursion to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed windmills of Kinderdijk.

Antwerp, Belgium

The 'City of Diamonds' is a port city imbued with the serious glamour of being renowned as a world-famous centre for the diamond trade and it's the place to come if you just might be in the market for a sparkling rock. Walking the Diamond Square Mile is a must.

Antwerp's historic Grote Markt on a busy day
Antwerp's historic Grote Markt on a busy day - photo courtesy of Visit Antwerp

This deeply historic Belgian port has been a hub since the Middle Ages and it retains a rich tapestry of medieval buildings. Art lovers shouldn't miss the Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens's house, a 17th-century property full of period rooms that showcase some his finest work. Excursions to Bruges are popular from Antwerp, too.

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Ghent, Belgium

This criminally underrated Flemish city is one of Belgium's most beguiling cities. Historic highlights include the 12th-century Gravensteen Castle and the Graslei, a scenic row of pointed guildhalls down by the harbour.

Ghent sports a network of canals and a lively student population that helps propel a relaxed but lively café, bar and restaurant scene. It's also a foodie stronghold - here, you can sample the joys of Flemish cuisine, quaff oysters from street stalls and even help fashion your own customised ice cream.

Ready to set sail? Browse the latest deals on TUI River Cruises along both the Dutch and Belgian waterways in 2024/2025.

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie is a Scottish travel writer, author and broadcaster. He has visited over 100 countries and regularly writes about Scotland and the Canary Islands. As well as frequently contributing to Weather2Travel.com, Robin writes for publications including The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and Wanderlust, and has authored more than 30 guidebooks.

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