Holland might be a small country, but it boasts one of Europe's most memorable cities: Amsterdam. Around Amsterdam, the old and historic province of Holland, now divided into separate northern and southern provinces, is the economic powerhouse of the nation, and its most heavily populated region. Beyond these are three more or less natural divisions -- the northern, central, and southern Netherlands.
The national capital -- easygoing, prosperous, full of canals, bridges, and museums -- is the natural focus of a visit to Holland. Few skyscrapers mar the clarity of the sky, and locals mostly walk or ride bicycles from place to place. The historic center city recalls Amsterdam's 17th-century Golden Age, when it was the command post of a vast trading network and colonial empire, and wealthy merchants constructed gabled residences along neatly laid-out canals. A delicious irony is that some of the placid old structures now host brothels, smoke shops, and extravagant nightlife.
You can think of North Holland province as the environs of Amsterdam, because anywhere in the province is within easy reach of the capital. Haarlem is a graceful town of winding canals and medieval neighborhoods that hold several fine museums. A visit to the windmill-speckled, tradition-rich village of Zaanse Schans, on the banks of the Zaan River, makes a great short excursion. Among many other options, you can make day trips to brash Zandvoort, or a bunch of other resorts on the North Sea coast, and to traditional IJsselmeer lakeside towns and villages such as Volendam, Marken, Edam, and Hoorn. Farther out, hop a ferry from Den Helder across to Texel, the closest of the Wadden Islands.
South Holland province contains an awesome amount of interest for visitors. Starting with the seat of government, the Hague, a graceful city separated from the North Sea only by its seacoast resort of Scheveningen, is far more than politics. (Just as leading-edge Rotterdam, which sits on the delta where the Rhine, Maas, and Waal rivers meet the North Sea, is far more than a great port.) Delft is the town of the famous blue-and-white porcelain, the cradle of the Dutch Republic, the traditional burial place of the royal family, and the birthplace and inspiration of the 17th-century master of light and subtle emotion, painter Jan Vermeer. Famous for its associations with the Pilgrims who founded the Plymouth colony in present-day Massachusetts, Leiden was the birthplace of the Dutch tulip trade and of the painters Rembrandt and Jan Steen, and is home to the oldest university in the country. Gouda is renowned for its cheese.
Friesland, Groningen & Drenthe
Every one of the three sparsely populated northern provinces has a different character. With its own language, traditions, and national history, lake-filled Friesland is a vacation area par excellence, particularly on its string of sea islands. Groningen has its bustling university city of the same name, and Drenthe, Holland's "Green Province," is dotted with prehistoric monuments.
Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel & Flevoland
Stretching through the heartland, the four central provinces encompass a variety of scenery. The three Great Rivers -- the Rhine, Maas, and Waal -- flow through here, creating the country's greatest natural division. If it wasn't for the forests in Gelderland and Utrecht, most of Holland would consist of the flat green fields dotted with farmhouses so often depicted on the canvases of Dutch Masters. Overijssel is barely touched by tourism, and Flevoland, built on land reclaimed from the IJsselmeer lake (the former Zuiderzee), has only existed as a province since 1986.
Zeeland, Noord-Brabant & Limburg
These three provinces consider themselves the Burgundian part of the Netherlands, packed to their borders with southern charm. Coastal Zeeland, the part of Holland most threatened by the sea, is protected by the Delta Works. These massive dams and barriers also shelter many coast resorts (and seafood restaurants). Noord-Brabant has most of the marshy Biesbosch National Park on its territory, and the city of Eindoven, home base of the giant Philips electronics corporation. Maastricht, a city many Dutch consider the country's second liveliest (after Amsterdam), and the country's highest "mountain," a peak that ascends a whole 321m (1,053 ft.), are both in the southeast province of Limburg.
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