Editor’s note: we are so lucky to have Hedy Maessen here at The Royal Tour. While over time she will share her world travels with us, her focus so far has been on her home: The Netherlands. That insider view is one that sets us apart! For more of Hedy’s writing, click here to visit her index page.
When in the Netherlands, most tourists visit Amsterdam and its surroundings. But I would like to take you to a place where Dutch people go for their own trips when they want to feel like they are on a vacation. I would like to welcome you to one of the most un-Dutch cities in the Netherlands. Welcome to my hometown, Maastricht.
First, a little geography. Maastricht is the capital of the southernmost province of Limburg. When you picture the Netherlands as an ankle-booty, Maastricht is in the bottom of the heel. It is adjacent to the Belgian border, with Brussels being about a one hour drive away. On the other side is the German border with Aachen being the closest city, only 30 minutes by car or train. From Amsterdam, you can be in Maastricht in about 2 hours by car or 2.5 hours by train. Maastricht is surrounded by the Limburg hills, but we lovingly call them mountains as they are by far the highest points in the Netherlands. Those mountains and the Belgian-German sandwich location are part of what makes Maastricht feel very un-Dutch to Dutch people, but to me those are not the main selling points.
The history of Maastricht is a long one, but I’ll try to keep it short without leaving out the important bits that formed the identity of this city. Long before it was a city, the area was already inhabited (going back to about 250,000 years ago). Around 2,000 years ago, the Romans came and placed a settlement along the river Maas (Muse) and a bridge to cross it. This settlement eventually formed the walled city Mosa Trajectum, which in the end became Maastricht. In the early middle-ages it became a trading centre because of the easy access via water, and all over Europe coins have been found that were made in Maastricht. Next, it became an early Christian centre with a bishop seated here and the building of not one but two basilicas. Maastricht blossomed during the late middle-ages and into early modern times. All this growth of the city was made easy by the insides of the Sint Pietersberg (Saint Peter’s Mountain) right outside the city limits. It was filled with limestone, which was generously mined and used to build the city walls and churches, and to replace unsafe wooden housing with stable stone housing. Starting from the 16th century, the history gets a bit rocky with lots of changes of who ruled the area going from the Duchy of Burgundy to the Spanish to the French, and finally becoming part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1814. There was a Belgian take-over of the surrounding area (1830-1939) but the city of Maastricht fought it off and remained Dutch. Because of the Belgian blockade it was difficult to import things so Maastricht started making much needed items itself and thus developed into the first industrial city in the Netherlands. The number of inhabitants grew exponentially because of that, with a housing-shortage as a result. This lasted until well after the Second World War when new residential areas were finally built, making Maastricht the large city it is nowadays.
So what does all this history have to do with what makes Maastricht such a special place to visit? They are building blocks of my favourite places to visit and favourite things to do. Maastricht is a city everyone should discover for themselves, so I won’t give a route to walk, but I will take you to my most beloved places in my hometown and then you can choose to either visit them or see some of the other highlights the city has to offer.
My favourite activity to take people to when first visiting Maastricht is a tour through the limestone caves (technically mines, but we call them caves), as it is a good introduction to the history of Maastricht packed in bite-sized visuals and stories. With all the centuries of mining, hundreds of kilometers of tunnels were created. Those tunnels can be accessed only with a guided tour, and you can choose from two entries, on either side of the Sint Pietersberg. Depending on the entry you choose, you will be taken into the caves and see some of the many highlights in the caves. I have two favourite stories that guides tell. My most favourite story about the caves is the one about the Mosasaurus. A long time ago, when it was still used as a limestone mine, some miners found a terrifying skull stuck in the stone. It was excavated and taken to a local doctor, who saw the scientific importance of the find. When French troops came to Maastricht, they thought it would make a great gift for Napoleon and took the skull to France. There a nature scientist concluded that the skull must have been from a sea lizard swimming in the Muse and thus called it the Mosasaurus (Mosa is Muse in Latin). Yes, that is correct, the Mosasaurus you see in Jurassic World: Doninion has its origins in Maastricht! The original skull still hasn’t been returned, but in the meantime more Mosasaurus skeletons have been found in the area and you can visit them in the local natural history museum. In the caves, there are multiple pictures of dinosaurs made in times when people knew a lot less about them and it is very funny how they thought the world looked in Jurassic times.
My other favourite story from the Maastricht caves is the drawing of Rembrandts’ Nightwatch in charcoal. The mines had been a tourist attraction for centuries already, and in the early 1900s a local artist remade the Nightwatch to attract even more visitors. And to this day it works, as it is a breathtaking piece of art which is definitely worth a visit. A little fun fact is that the real Nightwatch has also been in the Maastricht caves. It was here during the Second World War, when a safe-house was built in the caves to keep important paintings safe. You can take a special museum tour into the caves to see a lot of art-related attractions.
The caves are located a bit outside of the city centre and can be combined with a nice walk on the Sint Pietersberg and the cement quarry that has recently been turned into a nature area. You can even see some dug-out tunnels from the mines in the quarry. Or if you are more of a history buff, combine a tour of the caves (from the north entry) with a visit to the fortress on top of the mountain.
But let’s continue and go to the centre of Maastricht. As I mentioned, Maastricht was a religious centre for Christianity. This is still very much visible as you will find churches, monasteries, and basilicas all over the city centre. Not all of them still have a religious function, but many of them are worth a look or visit, beginning with the protestant Sint Janskerk (Saint John Church) next to the Catholic Sint Servaasbasiliek (Saint Servatius Basilica) at the Vrijthof in the city centre. You can see both churches from afar as they are both quite tall, and the limestone tower of the Sint Janskerk is painted red. It was painted to protect the porous limestone against the weather, and red was the colour of the church ministry at that time. For me, the churches themselves are nice to look at, but not so interesting.
Instead, I like to walk right in between those two churches, into the Vagevuur (Purgatory). Yes, that is not a joke (or maybe it is); they named the alley between the Protestant and Catholic churches Purgatory. I find that extremely funny, but that is not the only attraction to the little street. It is also a quiet place to take a breath from all the shopping and all the people enjoying the city. You can sit down on the stairs and bask in the sun and do some wonderful people watching without being in the way.
For me, as a proper bookworm, the best shopping is done in another church, just a few steps away from the Vrijthof. It is the Dominicanenkerk (Dominican Church), which lost its religious purpose and has been turned into a breathtaking bookshop. It graces many lists of the top ten most beautiful bookstores, and for good reason. They’ve kept the flooring, walls, and windows of the former church, but replaced the rest with rows and rows of bookshelves and even a black, steel, two story book-flat. The old priest’s choir in the back has been turned into a small café where you can enjoy your newly bought book(s) with a cup of coffee made from beans from Blanche Dael, the local Maastricht coffee roaster. Or walk up to the top of the book-flat and gaze at the church ceiling and watch all the visitors be amazed at what they just walked into.
But don’t worry, if you’re not into books (how?!), there is more than enough other shopping to do in Maastricht. You can find all the big brands on the main streets and lots of boutique shops on the narrow streets all across the centre on both sides of the Maas.
And after a day of enjoying the attractions and shops it is time for one last thing Maastricht is really good at: dining, and especially dining outside on the street. Summer or winter, many restaurants have an outside seating area for you to enjoy a meal. When it’s chilly (or even freezing) you will get a blanket and a terrace heater to stay warm whilst you enjoy your meal outside. In summer, small and narrow streets are filled with tiny tables and chairs and delicious smells of many different cuisines. Being taken over by multiple countries has left its mark on the local cuisine and you will find a lot of French and Mediterranean-inspired restaurants. Also, being so close to Belgium, the beer culture has found very welcoming arms in Maastricht, and lots of bars and resaurants have an impressive collection of beers on tap and in the bottle. Entire squares filled with people eating, drinking, and having a good time is what makes Maastricht magical. Nothing beats that feeling of eating an ice cream while walking the cobblestone streets with the sun shining and the atmosphere of total enjoyment all around you.
But this is also the downside of Maastricht being a popular tourist destination for Dutch people and foreigners alike. Everyone wants to experience the magic of Maastricht and that can make it very crowded at times. So if you don’t feel like squeezing yourself through crowds in narrow streets, it is better to avoid Maastricht in the midst of summer, and opt for a visit in either spring or early fall. I try to avoid Sundays as a lot of people from Belgium and Germany come over for shopping, as most shops here are open every day of the week. And my other tip is to do the tourist attractions as early as possible during the day, and after that leisurely stroll around the city centre so you don’t have to rush through town in the middle of the busiest time of the day. And when a certain street gets busy, just take a side street and find yourself discovering a hidden gem. I still discover new places every time I try to avoid the masses and it is a part of why I love this place so much.
So, whatever you look for in a place: an interesting history, art, good shopping, or even better food, Maastricht has it all. It has been a tourist favourite for centuries, so when in the Netherlands, join in and visit Maastricht. You won’t be disappointed.
How to eat (and drink) your way through Maastricht
There are so many places to eat and drink in Maastricht, which makes it very difficult to make a choice, but I have tried to list a selection of foods and locations that I think deserve a little extra attention because of their local impact.
Bisschopsmolen. This is a bakery located in the historical city centre in an old (still functioning) watermill. They work with local farmers and try to be as sustainable as possible with their products. They make the Limburg pastry called vlaai (pronounced as fly but with a v) in its simple, but very delicious, form. It’s a pie made of a simple yeast dough and filled with (locally grown) fruits. My personal favourite is the rhubarb-strawberry vlaai; it is sweet and tangy, but do try and taste as many of the flavours as you can, as they do sell them by the slice, half vlaai, and whole vlaai.
The last few years, Limburg has been growing as a wine region. For me, wine is the perfect souvenir. When drinking it at home, it brings back memories of that wonderful trip, and when its empty you have a good reason to go back for more. Goesting is a wine-shop in Maastricht with only local Limburg wines. And if you like to taste before you buy, they have a wine restaurant called Mes Amis two doors over with a fantastic fine dining concept. They choose the wine first and build the courses around those flavours. For an evening filled with fancy foods and good wines, be sure to make a reservation at this place.
And if you’re not into wine, go for a Maastricht beer. You can visit CityBrewery Maastricht, located next to the oldest bridge of the city on the Muse. Do as the locals do and go for a borrel. Basically, a borrel is drinks with some snacks, but incorporated into that is the social aspect of just being together and enjoying life (with the help of said drinks and snacks). You can borrel everywhere – at home, in the park, and of course in a bar. But the beers of CityBrewery are very much worth a visit. They are still expanding their range and regularly have limited editions, and luckily they do beer flights!
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