Amsterdam, the Netherlands' capital, is one of the world's best hangouts, a place where you can immerse yourself in history, in art, in the head of a beer or a self-rolled smokestack. The city is a canny-blend of old and new: radical squatter art installations hang off 17th-century eaves, BMWs give way to bicycles and triple strengthmonk-made beer is served in steel and glass 'grand cafés'. Amsterdam combines a huge case of big city exuberance with small-town manageability; it doesn't take much more than chaining your bike to abridge to feel like you've got a handle on the place.
Amsterdam is a cosmopolitan cauldron which has been enticing migrants and non-conformists for decades. Amsterdam seems to thrive on its funky mix and there's very little of the tourist-fatigue which can take the happy edge off other LOB (lots of backpacks) cities. Perhaps this is because Amsterdam's quintessential Dutchness shines through: the 17th and 18th century architecture, the fleets of bicycles, the tree-lined canals and scattered parks all contribute to the mood of the city. As do the pavement-logs-Dutchies love their pooches and this is one of the squish 'n' squirm capitals of the world.
The Randstad translates as 'Urban Agglomeration'. It's the Netherlands' most densely populated region spreading in a circle from Amsterdam, incorporating the Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, and smaller towns like Haarlem, Leiden and Delft. The area's most spectacular sight are the bulb fields which explode into color between March and May. Even from the window of a train they're intoxicating, but a back-roads bicycle trip is the best way to enjoy the sights and smells. The Keukenhof, south of Haarlem, is the world's largest garden. It attracts a staggering 800,000 people during its eight week season each year but its beauty is something of an enigma. Nature's talents are combined with Dutch precision to create a garden where millions of tulips and daffodils bloom every year, perfectly in place and exactly on time.
Other Randstad attractions include the stately mansions, palatial embassies and prestigious art galleries of The Hague, the country's seat of government; the distinctive blue-and-white pottery of Delft; the experimental post-war architecture of Rotterdam; and the vibrant and attractive city of Haarlem.
The Hoge Veluwe is the country's largest national park and home to the wonderful Kröller-Müller Museum. The park itself covers 5500 hectares and is a strange mix of forests and woods, shifting sands and heath moors that provide a sense of isolation (if not actual isolation) found nowhere else on the Dutch mainland. Red deer, wild boar and mouflon (a Mediterranean sheep) roam here. The Kröller-Müller Museum has 278 works by Van Gogh, as well as smaller collections of Picasso and Mondriaan. Out the back is Europe's largest sculpture garden with works by Rodin, Moore, Giacometti and many more.
Hoge Veluwe is accessible by bus from Arnhem which is one hour's train ride east of Amsterdam. White bicycles are available free of charge once you're inside the park.