Here are 16 interesting and fun facts about the Netherlands and its people that’ll (hopefully) make you chuckle, raise your eyebrows, and possibly even crave some delicious snacks. I intend to give a light-hearted look at Dutch culture and traditions.
While, of course, I understand in real life, things are never as black and white, and there will be exceptions, I do believe by reading up on these “facts”, it will be much easier to interact with locals in general and have a better experience because of it.
The Netherlands are famous for many things. For example, it’s the land where almost half of the country is below sea level, where 60% of the total population of the Netherlands lives. (Mainly in the Randstad – Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, and The Hague).
It’s the land of tulips (did you know the Netherlands is the world’s biggest exporter of flowers)? PS Tulips can best be seen at the end of April. Canals, and did you know there are over 1,000 Dutch windmills in the Netherlands? And the land where Dutch men are the tallest people in the world with the highest average height. And with more than 17 million on a tiny plot of land, the Netherlands is one of the most populated countries in the world. It’s where the official language is Dutch, not German.
The highest point in the Netherlands is 322 meters (or about 1,000 feet), on pretty much the only hill we have in the far south of the country (Vaalserberg). Note “berg.” We call it a mountain 😅. It’s the three-country point under Maastricht, where the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany meet.
PS: Did you know the Kingdom of the Netherlands is more than the tiny European country you’re about to visit? It also encompasses the Caribbean Netherlands (the islands of Aruba, Bonaire (Best Bonaire resorts), Curacao, and Sint Maarten (well, half of it).
And to clear any confusion. The country’s official name is the Netherlands (The Netherlands means the Low Lands). Visitors often call it Holland, which is acceptable, but officially Holland only encompasses the provinces of North and South Holland. And color Orange is related to the founder of the country, William of Orange (then an area in France).
Here are some other cool facts about the country:
Table of Contents
1. Bicycles – A Two-Wheeled Invasion Like No Other
When you visit Amsterdam or anywhere else in this country, it seems it is under a two-wheeled invasion! With more bicycles than people, we have turned cycling into art. Cycling itself might not be so unique, but if you see the rusty barrels the Dutch use and what they transport on them (2 kids and some IKEA furniture, no problem), you get the art part.
If you are a visitor, the most important message I have for you is to ensure you don’t get run over by a swarm of cyclists!
To achieve this (once you arrive in Amsterdam, you realize I’m not joking), your first point of business is never to set foot on a bicycle lane (you recognize them by the red/pink color). The next most important thing is never to exercise your rights against a cyclist. Do you have a green light or the right of way? Don’t trust it. The bikes might (read most likely) still run you over.
Follow my grandmother’s advice and that of every other local person. Look left, right, and left again, just to be sure. And then cross with the utmost care, and most importantly, be quick.
PS Don’t be fooled by age. The younger generation might prefer close to circus acts going about their daily lives. The other older generation is almost more dangerous with their e-bikes not realizing their speed.
The Netherlands has over 37.000 kilometers, a whopping 23.000 miles, of separate bicycle lanes in the country, which are used by almost 23 million bicycles (with a population of 17 million). The Dutch cycle an average distance of about 2 miles per day (3km), and use it for about 25% of their trips.
2. King’s Day – Orange is the New Black
On April 27th, the Dutch go all-out for King’s Day (Koningsdag), a national holiday celebrating King Willem-Alexander’s birthday and the biggest celebration in the Netherlands.
I was born in 1980 when it was still Queensday, on April 30th (my actual birthday). So I grew up knowing the nation would turn orange like a carrot just for me, and its citizens were so kind to hang flags for me everywhere, and they made sure that it was a day off for me and everybody else.
It took me a while to realize it was not actually for me. Needless to say when the date changed to April 27, it was (is) a difficult transition 😅. But it is April 27 nowadays.
The entire country turns into an orange frenzy. And the Dutch, who generally put a lot of value on behaving normally, go completely loose this one day.
It’s quite an experience to visit Amsterdam on Kings Day, where more than one million residents and over a million visitors (also from other parts of the country) come to celebrate together. If crowds are not your thing, mark April 27 as the day not to visit Amsterdam or any other city, and head to the Keukenhof instead and avoid the frenzy. But you should experience it once.
PS wondering what all these kids do on a cloth on the street selling things? As it might look like child labor, it’s pretty voluntary. We can sell our stuff for one day tax-free. And as a business-minded nation that has always been looking for a bargain for centuries (we started trading around the globe in the 17th century, also called the Dutch Golden Age), it comes naturally to even the smallest among us (of course, under parental supervision).
You’ll have the opportunity to see the Dutch Royal Family in person since the Dutch King publicly celebrates his birthday with his family in one of the provinces. See Dutch Important dates where I publish the city once it’s known.
3. Three Kisses – Cheeky Dutch Greetings
When it comes to greetings, the Dutch don’t hold back. Friends, family, and even co-workers exchange three kisses on alternating cheeks.
What to make of this, and how to navigate this tricky custom, right?
If you are in any Dutch social situation, prepare for some cheek-to-cheek action. However, if you’re visiting, you might be only a spectator to this peculiar custom.
Just to be sure, here are the rules:
- It’s three kisses – right – left – right. Remember that going in the opposite direction will ensure an embarrassing situation.
- You kiss relatives and friends only. Straight men don’t kiss their male friends but often greet their relatives with a kiss.
- You only greet with a kiss on birthdays and if you haven’t seen each other for a while. You don’t do it every day.
- Coworkers cheek kiss only on birthdays and new year—Female-female, female-male, but not male-male.
- Try not to have your lips touch the other person’s face.
4. The Weather – A Never-Ending Topic of Conversation
The Dutch have a love-hate relationship with the weather, and they never seem to run out of things to say about it.
Did you know it rains 215 days out of the 365 days a year? It’s the 4th wettest city in Europe, so the Dutch learned to live with this and took it to the next level. They have rain covers that can cover the handles of their bicycle steering wheels. And rain trousers are essential attire.
If you’re ever stuck for conversation topics, all you need to do is bring up the weather, and you’re instantly socially accepted.
PS: another excellent conversation starter with a native is to talk about their weekend (plans). These two topics will surely always steer you clear of awkward silences.
PS II Did you know locals even have an app called “Buienradar” on their phones? The Dutch live and plan their day around it. “Hurry, we need to go. It will start raining in 20 minutes”. It’s a good idea to install this app yourself when you come and visit so you can follow these pesky clouds by the minute as well.
5. Dutch Directness – Sugarcoating Is Not Included
We are known for our directness. We don’t mince our words. While it might seem blunt or rude to many foreigners, it signifies honesty and openness. So, if someone says they don’t like your new haircut, don’t be offended—appreciate their candor!
You might wonder why we are so offensive to each other and other strangers. You must understand that locals don’t see this as rude behavior. They value honesty, sincerity, and efficiency.
We honestly don’t understand why you’d lose all this time navigating feelings with all these workarounds. We really do like to be able to take things literally. And most people here perceive someone who tries to spare their feelings as insincere.
Don’t say to a person from the Netherlands: “Oh, that’s interesting.” At least not if I don’t want more of that. Because we will take this as an encouragement, we interpret it as: “Oh, they like it. They think it’s interesting.” Not that you’re politely telling them you don’t like it.
So tell them when you’re on a tour with a local guide and have no interest in something they’re talking about. They’ll appreciate the feedback and try to pivot and tailor the tour to your interests instead. Don’t politely sit it out. It would be a wasted opportunity for you both.
The benefit of this “direct” behavior is that you always know where you stand. An invitation is an actual invitation, and they’re not just being polite to you. If you receive a compliment, it is a genuine heartfelt compliment. You never have to wonder what someone thinks.
6. Jokes about Germans and Belgians
We have a long-standing tradition of poking fun at our German and Belgian neighbors. It’s primarily good-natured humor, of course. And our neighbors do precisely the same.
However, it is interesting to note that jokes at Belgians are just light-hearted and meant to be funny. Jokes at Germans can have a more serious undertone. Belgium jokes mostly center around language and intelligence, but with German jokes, wishing physical harm can be involved. Why is this?
World War II was a long time ago, but many of our parents and grandparents still witnessed the war and its fallout directly. And they’re not at all fussy and warm towards the Germans. This is becoming less and less with time, of course. But as a visitor to the Netherlands, knowing this sensitivity is important.
This is a list of absolute DO NOTS when interacting with the Dutch:
- Don’t make a German joke as a visitor/tourist
- Don’t underestimate the dislike for German superiority
- Don’t speak German here (the most common mistake)
- Don’t say Germany and The Netherlands are similar
- Never confuse the Nationalities (the most common mistake)
There is no quicker way to offend a local than trying your best German with them. Or ask if we’re German. Even mentioning you speak German does not help build a relationship with a Dutch person. We are perfectly happy to speak English.
This sensitivity by those who carry being direct proudly on their sleeves and swear to each other with deadly diseases might baffle you. But would you like to be compared to a former occupier? That’s still how it feels, even after all these years. When in doubt, avoid the topic, and you’re all good.
7. Doe Normaal – The Dutch Mantra
“Doe normaal” translates to “just be normal” and is a common phrase in our culture. It’s a reminder not to take oneself too seriously and to keep things straightforward.
It’s the locals’ way of saying, “Don’t brag.” But it’s also an unmistakable mark that you’re crossing an invisible cultural boundary at that point.
You can hear it in different settings. Someone can mumble it under their breath in any situation. Whatever you were doing, you can be sure you’re not supposed to do that.
It can also be shouted out as a “joke” but with an undertone. We don’t like bragging. While in North America, you might receive admiration for achieving things, in the Netherlands it’s quite the opposite.
We have different sayings about that. “Hoge bomen vangen veel wind” – High trees catch lots of wind is one of them. Meaning if you stick out, you will get opposition. Another one that speaks for itself: “The tallest tulip will get its head chopped off.”
The phrase you hear most often being said is: “Doe normaal, dan doe je al gek genoeg”. Or act normally, that’s crazy enough.
Why is this?
People here have been raised with Calvinism, and even more importantly, they have been taught to cooperate and work together. In those circumstances, it’s most helpful when you don’t want to take everything for yourself but ensure the group is ok. If the group is good, you’re good.
8. Lekker – The Dutch Word that goes far beyond its meaning
We have a word that can make everyone feel great: “Lekker”. This versatile term can describe anything from food to weather and even people. So, if someone calls you “lekker”, take it as the ultimate compliment!
Lekker means tasty. So it makes sense with food, right? But when the sun is shining, we will say: “Oh lekker weertje”, or nice weather. When we have some days off, we’ll say: “Oh lekker even vrij” or Wonderful, finally some time off. And yes, if we see an attractive person, the word “Lekker” is used too. Male or female.
9. Gezellig – The Untranslatable Dutch Magic Word
“Gezellig” is a Dutch word with no direct translation in English, but it’s an essential part of our culture.
It describes a feeling of warmth, coziness, and togetherness, which the Dutch strive for in social situations. If you ever find yourself in a room full of locals, aim for “gezellig”, and you’ll be a hit!
Often people say Gezellig is the same as cozy. It often is. But being in a loud cafe and into an animated conversation can still be gezellig, but is not exactly cozy.
10. Dutch Names That Can Sound Ridiculous in English
Dutch names can be peculiar for visitors. A typical first name, “Joke” Jo-ke, with a pause in the middle, but in English, well, I don’t have to explain. What about Freek? Who did you call a freak?
Or what Floor, Harm, Vaart, or Kok? None of them sound very well to an English speaker.
And it’s not just names that get lost in translation. Niemandsvriend, Naaktgeboren, and Zonderkop are all real names. And they mean Nobody’s Friend, Born Naked, and Without a Head.
The explanation for these weird choices was to make fun of Napoleon when he introduced last names. Thinking it will go away when he goes away. But it stuck, and some people are not so lucky nowadays.
Mine is also quite weird when you think of it. I have one of the most common names: Van den Berg (from the mountain). I’m from the lowlands (Netherlands).
11. Hagelslag – Maybe the weirdest food Habit
Hagelslag, the Dutch’s favorite bread topping. It is essentially chocolate sprinkles on buttered bread. Yes, you read that right—chocolate sprinkles for breakfast or lunch, not sprinkled lightly decorating a cake, but a thick layer on a slice of bread!
Oh, and it’s not just for kids. It’s perfectly normal for adults to cover their bread with a thick layer of chocolate sprinkles and call it a proper lunch.
Did you know we consume over 30 million pounds of chocolate in various flavors in the form of Hagelslag? The Dutch eat 2.5 lbs each. Isn’t that an interesting fact?
12. Stroopwafels – The Ultimate Snack-ccident
Legend has it that stroopwafels, the delicious Dutch syrup waffle cookies, were accidentally created when a baker combined leftover crumbs with syrup.
If this is true, it’s undoubtedly one of the most scrumptious accidents in history! No trip to the Netherlands is complete without indulging in this heavenly treat.
Today stroopwafels are available worldwide, making them a little bit more ordinary, but not all Stroopwafels are created equal.
Often the cheaper versions and imports are made with margarine instead of butter and won’t taste as creamy because of it. Most definitely go for the real butter version for an instant upgrade. If you buy them in the Netherlands, the label should read: “Roomboter.”
The best of the best are bought at the outdoor food markets in every town in the Netherlands once or more a week. The smell will greet you from miles away—delicious freshly baked waffles with warm syrup in between. If you have a chance to try one of them, do. Make sure to buy the fresh single ones that are still warm, not the pre-packaged version. They’re the same as in the supermarket.
PS: Did you know that the best way to eat a supermarket-bought Stroopwafel is to place your waffle on top of a steaming cup of coffee or tea and let one half warm and get soft while the other half stays nice and crisp? It’s the best way to enjoy your stroopwafel.
13. Herring – A Fishy Dutch Delicacy
The Dutch love their herring. To say that is a significant understatement. Herring is a small, oily fish usually served raw in this country. In Amsterdam and its surroundings, it’s often served with onions and pickles. In other parts of the country, the onions and pickles must be requested. It’s good either way.
The traditional way to eat it in most parts of the country is by holding the fish by its tail, tilting your head back, and lowering the herring into your mouth. I’m not kidding. In Amsterdam (or when you request it elsewhere), they will cut it up for you in sliced, and you’re handed a fork.
It’s a fishy adventure that’s not for the faint-hearted. The taste is an acquired one. But it is very yummy. I love raw herring. It’s soft and creamy. It just melts in your mouth. It is a must-try for foodies seeking an authentic Dutch experience. Do you dare?
PS: If this is a bridge too far, try Kibbeling. It’s fried white fish pieces that just everybody loves. It’s sold at every fish stand anywhere in the country. It is a much saver bet than herring. Still, Herring is the most Dutch of things to go for.
14. Friet and Mayo – A Match Made in Dutch Heaven
Forget ketchup—the Dutch like their fries (or “friet”) with a hearty dollop of mayonnaise. It might sound strange to some, but once you’ve tasted this creamy, savory combination, you’ll never want to return to plain old ketchup again.
The looks I received in the USA requesting mayo at Mcdonald’s for my French fries were hilarious. Completely confused. Sir, why do you need that? You mean the spread we put on our sandwiches. That’s precisely what I mean. I eat it with my fries… With an incredulous look, it was handed over to me.
Some places will offer Fritessaus instead of mayo, which is still good. And much better than ketchup. But Mayo is the better option if you have a choice.
Another typical and perfect combination of sauces for fries is mayo and peanut sauce. It’s called “Patatje Oorlog” (War Fries). Just peanut sauce is excellent, too (Patatje Satesaus). Locals will also often go for a Patatje Speciaal, which consists of Mayo and Curry (spicier ketchup).
So there you have it, more topping options than you might have ever thought possible for the humble fry.
Which combination will you go for?
15. Drop (Licorice) – The Dutch’s Not-So-Secret Addiction
We have a serious love affair with Drop, a type of licorice that comes in various shapes, flavors, and levels of saltiness.
You might think it’s no big deal and you have licorice too. What’s the fuss? Well, we’re pretty sure unless you’re from Scandinavia, you’ve never had the salty version or the even stronger, double-salty version called Salmiak.
Some ex-pat blogs have described the latter as the pinnacle of foul-tasting licorice. I feel so insulted since there is hardly a better candy to find 💁♂️.
It’s not uncommon to find the Dutch carrying a stash of “Drop” in their bags, ready to share with friends—or to enjoy as a solo treat! Because once you’ve crossed the border, it will be difficult to resist them. You better have some at hand.
The Dutch consume over 4 pounds a year of these delicious candies and love forcing foreigners to taste them. Honestly, not because we expect them to love it, but because we love to see the distorted faces of unsuspected faces. I’m sorry, I’m just direct 👿.
We’re friendly people, I promise you. We are, but we do love the sight of that face.
All jokes aside, why not try it? We have over 80 kinds of “Drop” that we consider the basics. Salty licorice is our favorite, but you can find sweet varieties, too, hard, soft, rectangular, or round.
In case you wonder, I LOVE Salmiak drop ❤️. I honestly do.
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16. Celebrating Sinterklaas
December is an exciting month for Dutch children, not only for Christmas but also for Sinterklaas. This holiday, tracing back to the 16th century, originates from the feast day for Saint Nicholas from Turkey.
Today’s main celebration is December 5th, with the season kicking off mid-November when Sinterklaas arrives from Spain by steamboat. I think it’s fair to say the holiday changed over time and don’t ask me why this part was included. It’s a mystery. As a kid, you accept it as the truth, and it’s fun. Children eagerly put their shoes out for gifts and anticipate the main event.
If you’re lucky, Sinterklaas visits your house with his helpers to bring candy and gifts. If you’ve not been good, you’ll be taken to Spain in the bag, so you better behave during the year! When I misbehaved, I often heard: do you want a present with Sinterklaas? Or go in the bag 😇?
However, the tradition of “Zwarte Piet” or ‘Black Pete,’ Sinterklaas’s helper, has sparked controversy due to its racially insensitive origins. In response, many communities are adopting more inclusive versions of the character. Thus, while children relish double gift-giving in December, Sinterklaas also reflects how traditions adapt over time. The holiday Sinterklaas has changed many times since its origin, and I’m sure it will be able to adapt once more to align with our current values.
TIP: as a visitor, it’s wise not to engage in this discussion. The two sides feel very strongly about the topic, and the debate can quickly turn ugly, just like discussing politics in the US. Instead, enjoy the incredible decorations in shopping areas and the special candies available only during the season at local bakeries and shops.
And there you have it—16 fun facts about the Netherlands and its people, from their quirky love for bicycles to their unusual food preferences. I hope I have taught you something new about the country’s customs.
Of course, there are so many other facts to mention, like the Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage or that the Dutch invented the Microscope, Gin, the Stock Market, and Shares. CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays were all invented in the Netherlands. Or that the Netherlands has the highest concentration of museums in the world. And did you know that the Dutch flag is red, white, and blue today, but the red was once orange? Or that the Dutch national anthem is the oldest in the world. Utterly useless information, but it can come in handy for your next Trivia game.
So, the next time you visit the Netherlands and encounter its culture, remember these tips and immerse yourself in the fascinating world of local traditions! You’ll have an even better travel experience when you visit.
PS: Before you angrily dive into the comment section to tell me that not everyone is the same and one or more of the above does not apply to you, I know. I fully understand there is a level of generalization involved in this article; nothing is as black and white as stated in real life. You might say I’m local, but I still hate “Drop,” it happens… It does.
I fully understand the above might not apply to all people. However, there is still a lot of truth in it, which is part of our culture and makes us different, mainly in a good way!
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