11 things to know if you plan a trip to the Netherlands

Are you planning a trip to the Netherlands in the new year? Here are some things you need to know if you’ve never been to the Netherlands before.

1. Most churches are still there

Most churches are still standing, whether they are from the medieval period or later. Not all of them will be open to the public. Some churches are only open on a Sunday. You can check the church website to inform about opportunities to visit the church when there is no service going on. Often, a sexton will have a key. If you arrive at a closed church, you can also just ask around if somebody has a key. Often, it will be at a neighbor’s house.

Most church records aren’t kept at the churches anymore, though. The churches were required to turn over their baptismal, marriage and burial records in 1811 to the government, which are now kept in archives. Many churches have also turned over more recent records to the archives for preservation and making them available to the public. Current church records may still be at the church, but are usually not available because of privacy reasons.

2. There may not be any graves

Because we need the land for the living, graves are routinely cleared in the Netherlands after a couple of decades. Unless your ancestors were rich enough to own their own graves or be buried in a church, chances of finding a grave for ancestors who died before say 1900 are slim.

3. Ask permission to photograph a house or farm

If you are lucky enough to find the exact address where your ancestor lived, it is a good idea to ring the door bell to ask permission to take photographs. You do not need permission to take photographs of houses that are visible from the street, but it is the polite thing to do and keeps people from wondering if their house is being scouted by burglars. If you’re lucky, you might get invited in to see the house or farm and have a cup of coffee, especially in rural areas.

4. The language

Most people in the Netherlands will speak English. In tourist locations, English menus will be available. Many people speak German as well, especially in the eastern part of the country.

5. Tulip time is in Spring

Do you want to visit the bulb fields and the Keukenhof to see the tulips? The best time is around April. In 2015, the Keukenhof is open from 20 March until 17 May.


6. Traffic is just a little bit different

If this is your first time driving in the Netherlands, watch out for these things:

  • Bicycles and scooters are everywhere. They’ll zip past you in your blind spot. Before turning right, make sure to check in your rear view mirror, in your right side mirror and over your shoulder beside your car (in that order). They might be right beside your car, or on a parallel bike path that could have a green light at the same time you do.
  • Many crossings are ‘equal crossings,’ meaning there is no one road that has the right of way. The rules are: yield to traffic coming from the right (this includes bicyclists) and yield if you cut across someone’s path. And yes, this can lead to a stalemate if four cars or bikes arrive at the same crossing from different directions. When in doubt, yield.
  • Roundabouts are insane and all seem to have different designs. Many have a special ring for bikes going around the outside. In some cases, bikes will have the right of way, in others, cars have the right of way. I haven’t found any rules about that, sometimes three successive roundabouts on the same street will have three different designs and yield rules. Check the asphalt for yield signs (painted triangles called “shark’s teeth” to show who has the right of way).
  • These are the standard maximum speeds, in kilometers per hour: 50 (inside town), 80 (outside town), 100 (on motorways), 130 (on highways). Be prepared for lots of exceptions, in some parts of the country there are hardly any highways where you may actually drive 130 kph.
  • If you rent a car, the default will have a manual transmission (stick shift). Cars with automatic transmission may be available on request but will probably cost more.
  • Rush hour is pretty intense. Especially in the western part of the country, whole cities and highway networks grind to a halt between 7 and 9 AM and 5 and 7 PM. Plan to need twice as much time. Or just plan around it. Wednesdays and Fridays are usually better since many people have their part-time day then. (Most of us only work 3 or 4 days per week. Now you know why we’re so relaxed!)
  • Gas is really expensive. Expect to pay € 1.60-1.80 per liter ($7-$9 per gallon US). On the other hand, you can drive from one side of the country to the other and back on a single tank, twice if you get a very economical car, so you probably won’t need that much.
Example of a roundabout with separate bike lanes where bikes have the right of way

Example of a roundabout with separate bike lanes where bikes have the right of way. Image credits: Michiel (Flickr.com, CC-BY)

7. Restaurant etiquette

In restaurants, it helps to know these things:

  • Many Dutch people only eat in restaurants on special occasions and don’t like to be rushed. If you are in a hurry, please inform your waiter otherwise you might be there for a lot longer than you wish.
  • As long as you have your menu open, the waiter may think you’re still deciding. If you want quick service, make sure everybody at the table closes their menus.
  • If you’re done with your food, put your knife and fork on the right side of your plate, parallel to each other, handles facing out. That indicates to your waiter that you’re done. Plates will usually only be cleared after everybody at the table is done.
  • Wait staff get a decent salary and service is included in the menu prices, so you don’t have to tip 15 or 20%. The usual Dutch thing to do is round off to the nearest number. For example, if you just enjoyed a € 18.75 lunch, paying € 20 and letting them keep the change is perfectly acceptable.
  • Because their pay doesn’t depend on tips, waiters are a lot more relaxed and tend to leave you in peace. To foreigners, this can come across as inattentive. You can signal them if you need anything.
  • Restaurants can be expensive. Good and affordable meals can often be found in cafes. Ask for the daily special [dagmenu] for the best value for money.
  • It is not customary to share meals or ask for a doggy bag. As a tourist, you can get away with it though, people expect you to be a little odd 🙂
  • All restaurants and other public buildings are non-smoking. If you want to smoke, sit outside on the patio. (Or just quit. Please.)

8. Drinks

  • Soft drinks will often be served without ice. Just ask for ice if you want some.
  • “Diet” drinks are called “Light” drinks in the Netherlands. If people don’t understand you when you ask for a Diet Coke, ask for a Light Coke instead.
  • The drinking water is perfectly safe. It can taste different than what you’re used to.
  • The standard beer that is on tap will differ from one region to another. Asking for a Heineken in a Grolsch area (like Groenlo, the place where Grolsch began), is a brave thing to do.
  • A coffeeshop is not known for its coffee but for selling weed (the smoking of which is condoned in the Netherlands). A tea room on the other hand, actually serves tea.

9. Culinary things to try

  • Zoute haring [salt herring], eaten raw, purchased at the local market. Just grab it by the tail and drop it into your mouth. To be eaten with chopped raw onions.
  • Kroket [Croquette]. Ground meat and herb stew in a bread crumb crust and then deep-fried, usually eaten with mustard. Can be eaten on bread or with fries, usually as a lunch snack. Also available in round balls called bitterballen, which can be ordered as a savory snack.
  • Broodje Gezond [Healthy bread]. A baguette with cheese, ham, tomato, cucumber, lettuce and boiled eggs, typically eaten for lunch.
  • Snert/Erwtensoep [Pea soup]. Traditionally served with a very dark rye bread, which is definitely an acquired taste.
  • Stroopwafels [syrup waffels]. A type of cookie that can be purchased at any supermarket but best eaten warm from a market stall.
  • Drop [licorice]. Candy! Try both the zoete [sweet] and zoute [salty] to find out which is your favorite.
  • Poffertjes [miniature pancakes]. A whole plate full of one-inch-pancakes, what’s not to like?
  • Stamppot [Meshed pot]. A potato and vegetable mash, to be had as dinner with a rookworst [smoked sausage], bacon or some stew. Stamppot can be made with different vegetables such as  boerenkool [kale], zuurkool [sauerkraut], wortelen [carrots, then called Hutspot] or appelen [apples, then called Hete Bliksem]. Typically served in the winter in rustic venues or cafes.
Men eating herring by holding a tail

Customers eating herring in the traditional Dutch way. Rotterdam, 1937. Credits: Spaarnestad Photo

10. Lodgings

There are plenty of B&Bs in urban and rural locations. Hotels can be found in most larger towns and cities.

When you’re booking a room, keep these tips in mind:

  • A typical Dutch breakfast is just a few slices of bread with a slice of cheese, meat or some jam and a cup of coffee. Most larger hotels offer cooked breakfasts too.
  • B&Bs and hotels often rent out bikes. This is a great way to explore the surroundings.
  • B&Bs and hotels will sometimes offer to pick you up from the train station. This is particularly useful if you intend to get around by bike.

11. The people

Most Dutch people love meeting new people and are very friendly. We can be curious and to-the-point, which can come across as insensitive. For example, if you’ve got some green bits stuck between your teeth after lunch, we will happily point that out to you and save you the embarrassment of walking around with it all day. We are not easily offended, most things are just shrugged off.

Don’t hesitate to ask people you meet for advice. Locals would be happy to give you some tips about the local sites to be seen or how to go from A to B.

Need help?

Do you need help preparing for your trip? Dutch Genealogy Services can do research for you to find out where your ancestors lived. We can create an itinerary for you or show all your ancestral locations on a custom-made Google Map. Contact us for more information or post any questions you may have in the comments.

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, CG®, QG™ is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She holds the Certified Genealogist credential from the Board for Certification of Genealogists and has a post-graduate diploma in Family and Local History from the University of Dundee. She has been doing genealogy for over 30 years and helps people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. I have been wanting to return to the Netherlands ever since my one and only visit almost 25 years ago. While I had developed some interest in genealogy at the time, I hadn’t really started doing it yet. Now I wish I had known then what I know now, especially since I now now I was within several hundred meters of some sites that are of importance in my family history, including the spot in which my surname comes from. I would also love to go over there for some of the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands – there are several different tours being organized here in Canada. Unfortunately, other matters and things of much greater importance always seem to come up and take precedence. What I’d really like to do is go over some time with my father, which would be really special, so that is a goal I am working towards.

    • Hi Sean,
      It would be wonderful if you and your father could come. There’s nothing like standing in the place where your ancestors lived, especially for family history enthusiasts like us!

      • The one thing I was lucky enough to do was visit the houses that my father and grandfather were born in. My grandfather’s older brother still lived in the house that he and my grandfather were born in. When we were visiting my great uncle, one of his sons took us down to the other end of the road to see the house where my father was born. Luckily, my cousin knew the owner and – much like you describe – we were invited in for coffee!

  2. Luann Hughes-DeVries says

    Yvette- Very nice article with many helpful tips and ideas. I will be sharing your page with friends and clients of my own. Thank You.

    Your ‘old genealogy’ friend.

  3. I’ve been very fortunate to avail myself of Yvette’s services, both genealogical and for a trip – and I can say, without reservation, it was truly the trip of a lifetime. Without Yvette, and without the proper prep work, it wouldn’t have been nearly as productive, or fun. We saw where my ancestors lived, worked, worshiped and were buried, even if the graves aren’t there now. I can’t recommend Yvette’s services highly enough.

    • What a wonderful testimonial. I’ve added it to my “testimonials” section on my hire page.
      Helping you find your Frisian ancestors, when you thought that line was hopeless, has been so much fun and it was such a pleasure and a privilege to show you, Jim and Cheryl around.

  4. Great article! One of my father’s favorite dishes is something he calls “Dutch Lettuce” which must be a direct descendant of stamppot. I never cared for it, but whenever he goes back to New York, he seeks it out there.

  5. william VanNatta says

    I too can’t wait to visit the Netherlands, particularly Amsterdam again and Etten Leur, The latter because of the significance of its where my family line came from from. The first time i visited was about 15 years ago before i learned of my family’s history. When i did visit no one had ever heard of Van Natta, of course not because I did not know that it originally was Van Etten back in the early 1700’s before it became anglicized. It will be real home coming this time for sure

  6. You forgot…..Limburgse vlaai, Limburgs zuurvlees and much more nice and beautiful things from Limburg (the mist Southern and therefor warmest 🙂 province of the Netherlands)

  7. Robert Baruch says

    What? No mention of how figuring out how to flush in the WC is a puzzle? Or has that changed since I last visited?

    • I didn’t think to include it. I haven’t found a strategy that always works myself, as the solutions range from auto-flush at the airport to pulling a string to activate the overhead plunger in an old hotel.

  8. Thanks for the great advice!!! I can’t wait for my trip and you’ve already made it more enjoyable.

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