Only 90 minutes by train from Amsterdam, Maastricht – the southernmost city in the Netherlands – is barnacled with churches, mansions and museums that’ll more than fill a long weekend and it’s abuzz with students from around the globe. The unique location of the city – at the border between Germany and Belgium, provides a specific influence on its culture and cuisine. Start planning your itinerary with Culture Trip’s tips for the most fantastic sites to see in this beautiful and unusual town in the Netherlands.
Close to the Old Town, this light and airy, contemporary culture centre, clad in aluminum, glass and wood, belies the more traditional materials on show within, right down to the permanent display of pottery that tells tales of the city’s past; Maastricht was the first Dutch city to join the Industrial Revolution. Should you begin to glaze over, borrow a book from the library housed in the centre and bury your nose in it while sipping a cappuccino in the light-filled Reading Café.
This 6km (3.7mi) sweep of gently sloping woodland, close to the city, is a remarkable national nature reserve in South Limburg, between Maastricht and Rijckholt. The pretty forest comprise all kinds of tree varieties, including sycamore, maple and horse-chestnut. Nosing their way among them are badgers, stoats and polecats. Edging it all are bat-haunted caves, vestiges of prehistoric flint mines and orchards – when ripened, the autumnal apples are yours for the plucking.
A popular sightseeing meander in Maastricht is the compact area of narrow, cafe-filled streets on both sides of the pedestrianised 13th-century Sint Servaasbrug bridge. (Notice how the arches appear to leap across the Meuse with the curves of dolphins in the sea.) Hot coffee in hand, cross the bridge, letting it lead you from the old city to the revamped Wyck District, lined with quaint little streets, cool hotels and independent shops that demand you browse them idly.
Fotomuseum at the Vrijthof
Presided over by stately churches in its cafe-edged square, this fine museum lures you in with its lipstick-red frontage – it is housed in the 16th-century Spanish government building where Charles V stayed during his visits to Maastricht. The exhibitions it lays on have enterprising themes, including pop culture and contemporary art. As with all good museums, there’s a cafe in the covered courtyard where you can sit back with a hot coffee and a slice of Limburg pie.
Fort St Pieter
This bricky fortress is an impressive hexagonal hunk encircled by an empty moat, high above the Meuse River on the south side of the city. The best way to take it in is to walk the footpaths that surround it. Built in the 18th century to defend the strategically important city, it has its solid walls to thank for keeping it standing strong when the French attacked in 1794. Inside, an intricate network of tunnels connect with the famous marl (sandstone and limestone) caves that run beneath the city. Following restoration in 2011, guided tours circle the fort, dispensing stories, anecdotes and, of course, oodles of facts.
Home to the city’s two main churches, the Vrijthof is one of the most important squares in Maastricht. The city’s major events are hosted here – note: Maastricht is known for its carnival celebration, which takes place once a year before Lent. Expect a spectacular party, for which the whole city dresses up, dances and drinks all week long. On other occasions, the square is a lovely place to sit down for a cup of coffee and delicious stroopwafel (a Dutch waffle-biscuit with a gooey, caramel centre).
Ready to explore what’s left of one of the oldest castles in the Netherlands? The Lichtenberg Castle foundations date back to the 1100s, while other parts were built between the 12th and 15th centuries. The walls are impressive beasts, made of marl (sandstone and limestone) and sourced locally. Open between May and November, the awesome spectacle stands on the eastern side of the St. Pietersberg hill – and from here you get a spectacular view of the river Meuse as well as the valley.
Part of the original city wall, dating back to the early 13th century, Hell’s Gate was one of the entry points into Maastricht. It was rendered obsolete when the city expanded southwards in the late 15th century, but it continued to serve as a meeting place, an armoury and even a residence for a while. Open between Easter and late autumn, today it is the only remaining city gate in Maastricht – and, notably, the oldest in the Netherlands.
The Bonnefantenmuseum is an art space dedicated to old masters as well as contemporary artists hailing from the Limburg area. Come and spend a while absorbing yourself in the genius of 16th- and 17th-century big names including Rubens, Jacob Jordaens and Anthony van Dyck. The contemporary art collection includes the occasional surprise from international artists, such as American conceptual painter Sol LeWitt.
One of Maastricht’s most fascinating and atmospheric attractions is its rich subterranean legacy. Explore the tunnels and bunkers of the Casemates military fortress in the west of the city. Created between 1575 and 1825 – when the city was under siege – the practice was to emerge abruptly from below, surprising the attacking forces. Sign up for the guided tour and visit the vaulted chambers, bomb shelters and powder rooms. Tours are usually conducted in Dutch but you can ask about English options, too.
Dominating one of Maastricht’s main squares, Sint Janskerk church numbers among the city’s most popular landmarks. It’s distinguished by its tall, red-coloured tower and striking gothic features, dating from the 15th century. Among these are its magnificent stained-glass windows. Step outside and in the middle of the square are colourful statues that beg to be photographed.
Demand for the marl soil, excavated around Maastricht to construct the city’s defences, created a series of surrounding caves. The area is known today as Maastricht Underground. The name covers the North Caves, Zonneberg Caves, Casemates, Fort St. Piet and the ENCI quarry. It’s quite a place – allow yourself plenty of time to explore, as there are more than 20,000 passageways.
Jasmina Kanuric contributed additional reporting to this article.
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