Despite its small size, The Netherlands has a long and rich cultural history. Located in north-western continental Europe, there are 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Netherlands. There’s quite a large variation in these World Heritage Sites, ranging from historic towns, to innovative agriculture, modern architecture, important nature preserves, and much more besides. So without further ado, let’s have a look at the 10 Netherlands World Heritage Sites!
- 1. 17th-Century Canal Ring Area of Amsterdam (Grachtengordel)
- 2. Defence Line of Amsterdam (De Stelling van Amsterdam)
- 3. Mill Network of Kinderdijk/Elshout
- 4. Van Nelle Factory (Van Nellefabriek)
- 5. Rietveld-Schröder House
- 6. Beemster Polder
- 7. Schokland and Surroundings
- 8. D.F. Wouda Steam Pumping Station (Ir. D.F. Woudagemaal)
- 9. Wadden Sea
- 10. Historic Area of Willemstad, Curacao
- Tours from Amsterdam to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites
- Selected tours to see the canals of Amasterdam
- Final words
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Tip: Click on the button under each section to go to the page dedicated to the World Heritage Site. There you will find detailed information about the place, as well as practical tips about how to visit the attraction.
1. 17th-Century Canal Ring Area of Amsterdam (Grachtengordel)
As you’d expect, the first Netherlands World Heritage Site is located in the capital, Amsterdam. However, it’s not quite what you might think! Although the medieval core of old Amsterdam is both famous and commonly-visited, thanks to its beautiful monuments, cobbled streets and gorgeous gabled houses, the World Heritage Site here is actually something slightly different.
In the 17th century, Amsterdam had become a bustling trade metropolis and one of the most important commerce centres in Europe. The old medieval town was bursting at the seams, and new development was required for the city to grow. So the city planners and architects came up with an ingenious solution: the city’s existing defence moat was converted into a canal, and a series of further concentric canals were dug (roughly in a crescent moon shape), with other canals crossing at regular intervals.
This new canal district, centred around the canals of Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht allowed for both improved city defence and flood management – a key concern when your city is both on the coast and below sea level! Today, the canals are Amsterdam’s most iconic tourist attraction, and have led to the city’s nickname, “Venice of the North”.
The best way to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site is from the water with one of the famous canal cruises.
2. Defence Line of Amsterdam (De Stelling van Amsterdam)
As the name suggests, the second Netherlands World Heritage Site is also located near Amsterdam. The Stelling, as it’s known in Dutch, is a ring of forts around the capital designed to protect it from invading armies. It was developed in the 1880s and constructed over the next 40 years. Historically-speaking, fortifications and other defences were quite common sights around important cities, but Amsterdam’s defence system is unique: it’s based entirely around water.
The basic principle was quite simple: if the city was threatened, a system of sluices, dams and levees would open, flooding an enormous area around Amsterdam with water 50 centimetres deep, out to a distance of around 15 kilometres from the city. The water would be too shallow for warships to navigate, but too deep for soldiers to easily cross, while defenders could sit comfortably in watertight forts and deal with the invaders (or wait out the storm).
Unfortunately, the project was a total failure. It wasn’t completed until 1920, by which time the development of tanks and aircraft rendered the system completely useless. Although several forts remained active into the 1960s, the Defence Line was never used in combat.
There are 42 forts with the most famous ones being Fort Muiden, Fort Pampus, and Fort Kommeniedijk. So you will need to choose which one to visit or you can make a road trip and visit all 42 of them.
3. Mill Network of Kinderdijk/Elshout
Windmills are an icon of the Netherlands, so it’s not surprising that the next UNESCO site in the Netherlands is based entirely around these incredible buildings. This site covers a group of 19 stone windmills around the village of Kinderdijk, about 15 kilometres east of Rotterdam. The windmills were constructed in the 1740s, and were designed to control water levels in the nearby fields (known as polders).
Interestingly, although the windmills served a practical purpose, they were also used as family homes. Many of the windmills at Kinderdijk remain open for visitors, where the cramped living conditions are on full display. There’s also a museum on site, explaining how the windmills worked and why they were so important to the development of the Dutch economy and society.
If you are staying in Amsterdam, the best way to visit Kinderdijk will be with an organized tour. An entry ticket to Kinderdijk costs 15,50 EUR.
4. Van Nelle Factory (Van Nellefabriek)
The next World Heritage Site in the Netherlands is located in Rotterdam, the country’s second-largest city. Situated on the western outskirts of the city, this World Heritage Site is a factory built in the 1920s. A typical factory is dirty, ugly, and the last place you’d expect to find a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the Van Nelle Factory (or Van Nellefabriek in Dutch) is an eye-catching spectacle of steel and glass.
It’s designed largely in a modernist style, with influences from both Internationalism and Constructivism. One of the key features of the Van Nelle Factory is its use of the “curtain wall”. Under the curtain wall technique, the building’s roof is supported by internal columns, which in turn allows the exterior walls to be built of lightweight materials like glass. It’s a very common technique these days (almost every modern skyscraper does this!), but in the 1920s it was revolutionary.
The factory was initially used to process a range of goods for the Van Nelle company, particularly coffee, tea, tobacco, and chewing gum. The factory was eventually closed in 1996, and has since been converted into an office building. These days, it’s home to several industrial design and architecture firms.
You can visit the factory with a ticket to Chabot Museum in Rotterdam. There’s organized transportation from the museum to the factory.
5. Rietveld-Schröder House
Interestingly, the Van Nelle Factory isn’t the only modern architecture World Heritage Site in the Netherlands. The Rietveld-Schröder House, located in the city of Utrecht, is another example. It was designed and built in the 1920s by architect Gerrit Rietveld for a wealthy local pharmacist and socialite named Mrs Truus Schröder-Schräder. The house is considered to be the finest example of De Stijl (“The Style”), a Dutch art and architecture movement from the early 20th century.
The house itself is extremely unusual, as it contains almost no fixed internal walls. Instead, both the upper and lower floors have a series of sliding panels which can be moved around to create and remove separate rooms. At its most open, the entire upper floor is a large living area, similar to a modern open-plan living room. However, with a few pushes and pulls, the space can be divided into three bedrooms and a small living area. The only fixed walls are, naturally, the external walls, and of course the bathroom walls.
Interestingly, Mrs Schröder lived in the house until her death in 1985, and it’s since been converted into a museum.
Tickets for the museum cost 18 EUR. You can reach the museum by bus from the city centre of Utrecht.
6. Beemster Polder
Successful water management has always been key to Dutch prosperity, and that’s what the next Netherlands World Heritage Site is about. Beemster Polder is located just north of Amsterdam, and is a fantastically well-preserved example of a polder. Essentially, polders are areas of reclaimed land created by damming an area of a shallow lake or sea, then pumping the water out.
Beemster Polder (known in Dutch as Droogmakerij de Beemster) was created between around 1609 and 1612, and is believed to be the earliest polder drained from a lake, rather than the sea. It covers a surprisingly large area of over 7000 hectares, and the land is covered largely in farms, though there’s several small villages in the polder as well.
As entirely new land, Beemster Polder was laid out according to Renaissance principles of town planning, so the streets and canals are all extremely straight, while the plots of farmland are carefully organised and measured to maximise space and investment return. In the 17th century, it was also seen as a stylish area, so several wealthy merchants from Amsterdam built country estates in the polder.
You can visit one of the lovely villages in De Beemster Polder: De Rijp, Middenbeemster, Westbeemster, Noordbeemster.
7. Schokland and Surroundings
The eternal struggle of the Dutch against water again features heavily in the next Netherlands World Heritage Site, Schokland and Surroundings. Located in the area of Flevoland, about 90 kilometres north-east of Amsterdam, Schokland is a fascinating oddity in the otherwise extremely flat Netherlands. It’s an elevated strip of land, with a history of human habitation going back thousands of years. By around 1000 AD it was a long, narrow peninsula, home to a thriving community of fishermen.
But by the 19th century, rising sea levels threatened the community and eventually the peninsula was cut off from the mainland, turning into an island. The population dwindled, floods damaged the town, and by 1859 the remaining residents were relocated as the sea slowly overran the land.
But in the 1940s, the surrounding Noordoostpolder was pumped dry, leaving Schokland as a small elevated strip of land in the midst of polder fields. However, it still remains uninhabited, and several archaeological digs are exploring the prehistory of the area.
To learn everything about this former island you can visit the Schokland Museum. The entry fee is 8 EUR.
8. D.F. Wouda Steam Pumping Station (Ir. D.F. Woudagemaal)
Next up on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Netherlands is the D.F. Wouda Steam Pumping Station, known in Dutch as the Ir. D.F. Woudagemaal. Located in the northern province of Friesland, the D.F. Wouda Steam Pumping Station is the largest steam-powered water pumping station ever built. It was first opened in 1920, and was designed to pump excess water out of the Friesland area. Amazingly, it’s still operational despite its age, though these days it’s limited to just overflow pumping capacity a few days each year.
Named for Ir. D.F. Wouda, the lead designer and engineer, the pumping station has four enormous steam engines which each generate 500 horsepower. These engines are connected to eight water pumps, for a total pumping capacity of around 4 million litres of water every minute! Although the steam engines were originally powered by coal, they’ve since been converted to work on heavy fuel oil.
The pumping station is often considered to be the pinnacle of achievement in Dutch water management, finally solving the perennial issue of flooding throughout the Netherlands.
The pumping station in Lemmer is open for visiting and there’s an entry fee.
9. Wadden Sea
The last mainland World Heritage Site in the Netherlands is also the country’s only natural UNESCO World Heritage: the Wadden Sea. A shared World Heritage Site with neighbouring Germany and Denmark, the Wadden Sea is the world’s largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats. Covering an enormous 1.15 million hectares (approx 11,500 square kilometres), the Wadden Sea is an important coastal and marine environment.
Although most of the area is wetlands, there’s a surprising amount of variety here: mud flats, estuaries, salt marshes, beaches, mussel beds, sandbars, dunes, tidal channels, and sea-grass meadows too. The Wadden Sea is home to several animals as well, such as harbour seals, grey seals, and harbour porpoises. It’s estimated that up to six million birds live in the Wadden Sea area, and around 10-12 million migrate through the region each year.
The region is largely undisturbed from its natural state, and provides a fascinating insight into what much of the Netherlands was like prior to its drainage and settlement.
You can visit one of the Dutch Friesian islands (Texel, Schiermonnikoog, Vlieland, Ameland, Terschelling). There are also dedicated visitor centres on the islands and on the mainland.
10. Historic Area of Willemstad, Curacao
The final Netherlands UNESCO site is quite unusual, as it’s located on the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean. Situated in the southern Caribbean, Curaçao is still officially part of the Netherlands, and the central area of its capital city, Willemstad, is a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site. Willemstad is an excellent example of a colonial trading settlement, where you can clearly see the various influences on its development over the centuries.
The outpost was founded by the Dutch West India Company in 1634, and has always been one of the most important Dutch settlements in the Caribbean. There’s four main historic districts in Willemstad. Punda is the oldest part of the city and is located around the city’s original defence position, Fort Amsterdam. Nearby is the Pietermaai district, a rich area with larger and more extravagant houses. Across the river is the Otrobanda area, which was constructed outside the garrison and thus is home to spacious, detached houses. And finally, Scharloo district is a residential area that was home to the city’s Jewish merchant population.
The city itself has a really interesting mix of European, Caribbean, Iberian and Afro-American cultures and styles. One of the most distinguishing features are the colourful buildings, dating from the early 19th century. There’s a mixture of green, red, yellow and blue buildings, with very few of the original white buildings remaining!
Tours from Amsterdam to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites
If you want to maximise on your stay in the Netherlands, the best option to see as many UNESCO sites, as possible will be to book a tour. Most tours from Amsterdam include one or more world heritage sites, which you can visit in one day.
- Beemster Polder
- Defense Line of Amsterdam
- Wadden Sea
- Wouda Steam Pumping Station
- Beemster Polder
- Defense Line of Amsterdam
- Wadden Sea
- Wouda Steam Pumping Station
Selected tours to see the canals of Amasterdam
Overall, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites Netherlands are a fascinating mix of old and new, urban and rural. As you’d expect, careful management of water features heavily in the Dutch UNESCO sites, just as it’s featured heavily in Dutch life for centuries.