The Netherlands’ most northerly province, Friesland, is full of epic cultural sites and natural wonder, that are considerably less well-known than similar locations in the south of the country. These awesome attractions include two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, several stunning pieces of modern architecture, and one of the smallest ‘cities’ in the world.
This white-washed, stone lighthouse towers above Harlingen’s docklands and was built according to Art Deco principles in the early 20th century. The lighthouse stands on the foundations of several much older towers. It illuminated the west Frisian coastline for almost 80 years, before it was decommissioned in 1998. The lighthouse has since been converted into a single suite hotel that features a luxury bedroom, bathroom and panoramic observation platform.
Harlingen Lighthouse, Havenweg 1, Harlingen 0517 414 410
From 1927 to 1932 the Dutch government constructed an enormous causeway between North Holland and Friesland called the Afsluitdijk to control water levels in the Netherlands and improve the country’s infrastructure. In order to increase the nation’s military defences, a series of forts were built along this causeway and then equipped with a heavy, modern arsenal. Several of these forts were converted into a war museum called Kazemattenmuseum in the late 20th century, which retraces the Afsluitdijk military history and its strategic role during World War II. The museum lies around three kilometres away from Friesland’s natural coastline, on an artificial mound that it shares with a tiny settlement called Kornwerderzand.
Kazemattenmuseum, Afsluitdijk 5, Kornwerderzand 0517 579 453
Amid the many Medieval and Renaissance buildings in the city, there are several modern architectural masterpieces located in Leeuwarden such as the Central Apotheek. This stunning pharmacy was built during the height of Art Nouveau in the early 20th century and features several elements that are clearly inspired by the movement’s tenets, including a highly stylised, almost symmetrical portrait of Hygena, the Greek Goddess of medicine. The pharmacy still welcomes customers and keeps its doors open between 08.30 t0 18.00 every week day.
Centraal Apotheek, Voorstreek 58, Leeuwarden 058 213 5255
Like many other settlements in Friesland, the village of Wierum developed around an elevated church that was built on top of an artificial hill. The church in question was completed around 1200 and originally stood in the centre of Weirum, but eventually became part of its shoreline after several floods swept away the northern side of the village. The church ranks among the oldest in the Netherlands and is protected as a national monument due to its vast age and cultural significance.
Due to historical laws regarding city rights, there are a handful of ‘cities’ in the Netherlands that possess less than 1000 inhabitants. For instance, even though Sloten received city rights in 1426, and has barely grown beyond the size of a small village, it is still recognised as a city. While it is certainly worth visiting Sloten just to experience this unusual, historical convention, there are also several historical sights around the ‘city’ including an 18th century windmill and a well-preserved canal belt.
The mummies of Wiuwert
In 1765, carpenters accidentally discovered 11 mummified corpses buried beneath Wieuwert’s parish church. It is still uncertain what happened to these bodies to preserve them, but most sources suggest that they were mummified naturally, possibly due to unusual environmental conditions beneath the church. Although there were originally 11 mummies, seven were either stolen or lost over the years, leaving the church with four bodies, which it displays in glass-topped coffins.
Several strongholds and gaols have been built on Blokhuispoort’s foundations over the centuries, due to its strategic location on the southern side of Leeuwarden’s city centre. The current complex dates back to the late 19th century and served as a prison for around 130 years before it was converted into an expansive cultural hub in 2017. Although most of its cells currently house creative businesses, including cafés and a prison-themed hostel, it is still possible to experience the building’s punitive history by joining guided tours that are led by Blokhuispoort’s former wardens.
Blokhuispoort, Blokhuisplein 40, Leeuwarden 06 11172362
The Wadden Sea
Friesland’s northern coast trails onto a series of tidal mudflats and wetlands that are collectively known as the Wadden Sea. This diverse intertidal zone was inscribed onto UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 2009 due to its ‘unparalleled scale and diversity’. Over the years an unusual sport developed on the Wadden Sea called ‘wadlopen’ and it involves hiking over the area’s mudflats during low tide. Several certified organisations arrange wadlopen excursions at locations throughout Friesland (and usually welcome newcomers). Another good way to experience the area’s stunning vistas is to travel to one of the four inhabited islands off the Friesian coast, each of which features stunning dune landscapes that edge onto to the Wadden Sea.
Eise Eisinga Planetarium
Although its Medieval era university has long since disbanded, there are still traces of Franeker’s academic history dotted around the city. For instance, the Franeker contains the oldest working orrery in the world and is mounted onto the ceiling of a building in its city centre. This incredible piece of machinery replicates the solar system’s celestial movement on a scale of one millimetre: one million kilometres, and was constructed between 1774 to 1781 by an amateur astronomer from Friesland called Eise Eisinga. The planetarium is recognised among the most important historical monuments in the Netherlands and almost made it onto UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 2011.
Ir. D.F. Woudagemaal
This industrialised pumping facility was built to protect the Netherlands from floods and control the country’s notoriously turbulent water levels. The station was completed in 1920 and has continued to keep Friesland’s southern waters at manageable levels ever since. At the time, it was the largest and most advanced structure of its kind in the world and represented the pinnacle of Dutch engineering. UNESCO recognised Ir. D.F. Woudagemaal’s cultural, technological and historical importance in 1998 and currently protects the station as a World Heritage Site. A modern visitor centre now stands next to the station and it is possible to join guided tours around its historic facilities.
Ir. D.F. Woudagemaal, Gemaalweg 1a, Lemmer 0514 561 814