Amsterdam's always been a favourite for a weekend break - but Den Haag also has plenty to offer
On one of the coldest winter weekends in history I arrived at Den Haag Central to visit my Dutch friend, Astrid, who promised to show me the highlights of the city on bicycle. Very conveniently, Astrid owned two of what any self-respecting Dutch person should have in their garden shed - traditional large wheeled bikes - so the next morning we set off on a whistle-stop cycle tour of Den Haag.
As the political centre and also the seat of the Dutch government, Den Haag is affectionately known as the Royal City by the Sea. With charismatic trams trundling down elegant wide avenues, stately houses, cobbled courtyards, and houses with bright, sunny, floor-to-ceiling windows, Den Haag is a well organised city threaded together by a series of cycle lanes. Rich in history and culture, with museums, galleries, great architecture and two splendid beaches, it’s a top place for arts and culture enthusiasts, beach lovers and city slickers.
Being out on a bicycle in the crisp air and bright sunshine was completely exhilarating. After cycling for over an hour we arrived in downtown Den Haag, fresh faced, sore-bottomed, and almost freezing - so I was relieved when Astrid suggested a coffee break. We headed to the Boterwaag Café, which is the de rigueur place for upwardly mobile types. The cafe is located in the old butter-weighing hall, which is a magnificent high-ceilinged building. Bespectacled students at the bar were in deep discussion over a beer, young professionals were eating fusion food, and parents were multi-tasking - trying to control noisy children over a relaxing drink. I revelled in the warm ambience and Astrid explained that the café was a perfect example of gezelligheid - an informal, warm hospitality that the Dutch are so famous for and which originated in Amsterdam's famous brown cafés, so named for their brown wood interiors and smoky, convivial atmosphere.
Our pit stop at Boterwaag Café left us suitably warmed to spend the afternoon trawling the shops, wandering the cobbled streets and having lunch. Then we set off on the next leg of our cycle tour, to meet some of Astrid’s friends for dinner at one of the city's most revered and worthy vegetarian restaurants.
Water en Brood café is located in a fairly derelict area close to The Hague's most popular beach, Scheveningen, and is famous for serving indecently cheap biologically-dynamic veggie meals. Previously located in the centre of Den Haag, it was opened by a couple of budding entrepreneurs who grabbed the opportunity to make use of a disused property then had to relocate when the building was reclaimed by the council. All the meals exclude dairy, wheat and sugar, so the cafe is a food-intolerant's delight. We dined on hearty minestrone soup and soda bread with a type of garlic mayonnaise, followed by a main course of tasty vegetables (cauliflower in an Indian spicy sauce, humus with salad and falafel, a mashed potato combination with spinach and apples), followed by a chocolate soya and grape mousse dessert. And it wasn't half good. All three courses were delicious and nutritious, and perfectly fortifying for a hard-seated cycle home in the icy wind.
The following morning I woke up with aching limbs and very sore gluts so we left the bikes at base and opted for a relaxing stroll through Landgoed meer en bos park to Kijkduin beach. The beach front at Kijkduin is reminiscent of an English seaside resort - minus the candy floss, cheap souvenir shops and tacky tunes. In fact, Kijkduin was swarming with well-to-do Dutch families and had a very royal feel to it. The sandy beach and rolling dunes were offset by a string of welcoming cafés and restaurants nestled along the promenade, but the outdoor chairs and tables sat empty and devoid of custom on this drizzly March day, as sea-strollers opted instead for potato fries with a dollop of mayonnaise to warm them up as they promenaded in the wind. We followed suit, then it was time to collect my bags and return to Amsterdam - but not without a final touch of Dutch gezelligheid.
I had an hour to kill before my flight from Schiphol, so we located a cafe in the trendy Jordaan area of Amsterdam. It was warm, cosy and filled with friendly locals swigging beers and drinking coffee. It was the perfect finalé to my Dutch weekend, especially when the guy sitting next to me offered me one of his stroopwaffeles (a delicious round waffle-styled biscuit filled with syrup or honey) to dip into my hot chocolate. I could definitely get used to this Dutch gezelligheid.
British Airways flies from London Gatwick to Amsterdam from £69 inclusive.
Regular trains from Amsterdam to Den Haag Central take about 30 minutes.