The 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Netherlands

Despite its small size, The Netherlands has a long and rich cultural history. Located in north-western continental Europe, there are 13 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 13 Netherlands World Heritage Sites!

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Which are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Netherlands?

As of September 2023 there are 13 UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Netherlands, when the Eisinga Planetarium in Franeker has been added. Earlier in 2021 the Colonies of Benevolence and the Frontiers of the Roman Empire – The Lower German Limes have been added. This is the complete list of all Dutch World Heritage Sites:

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.

canal with rounded bridges and houses with bell gables - Amsterdam

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”.

Practical info:
The best way to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site is from the water with one of the famous canal cruises.

2. Dutch Water Defence Lines former ‘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.

In July 2021 UNESCO added the New Dutch Waterline to the existing Defence Line of Amsterdam. Now the new name of the site is ‘Dutch Water Defence Lines’. It extends now to the South, all the way to De Biesbosch.
The description in this post will be updated asap.

a large fort with roof covered with moss and grass, surrounded by water and green polder-type of fields, and a stormy sky above, Fort Kommeniedijk, the Netherlands

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.

Practical info:
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).

five wind mills alongside a canal with green grass and blue sky, Kinderdijk in the Netherlands

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.

Practical info:
If you are staying in Amsterdam, the best way to visit Kinderdijk will be with an organized tour. An entry ticket to Kinderdijk costs 19 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.

a large white factory surrounded by green grass and reflecting in a pond; Van Nelle Factory

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.

Practical info:
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.

a modern house with large white squares and yellow, red and blue details, UNESCO Rietveld-Schröder House in Utrecht, Netherlands

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.

Practical info:
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.

small green trees along an invisible road, canal with water and a few farmhouses, UNESCO Beemster polder in the Netherlands

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.

Practical info:
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.

a former harbour now surrounded by fields on the former island of Schokland in the Netherlands

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.

Practical info:
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 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.

a large industrial type of a building with red bricks on the water, UNESCO Wouda pumping Station, Netherlands

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.

Practical info:
The pumping station in Lemmer is open for visiting and there’s an entry fee.

9. Colonies of Benevolence

The newest World Heritage Site in the Netherlands is the so-called Colonies of Benevolence. it has been added to the UNESCO List in July 2021. The nomination is shared between the Netherlands with 3 sites and Belgium with 1. The Dutch sites include the colonies in Frederiksoord and Wilhelminaoord, and the ‘unfree’ colony in Veenhuizen.

a small white church and a large mansion next to it among lots of green; the Colony church at Wilhelminaoord, the Netherlands
The Colony Church at Wilhelminaoord

The Colonies were a kind of a social experiment that was geared towards fighting the impoverishment. The first colony in Frederiksoord was established in 1818. Those in need could go to the colonies located in remote rural areas and work and live there. There was also established a social insurance fund. The Colonies are considered as the predecessor of the social welfare system as we know it today.

There were also “unfree” colonies, where they would relocated orphans, beggars and vagrants to live and work there. Those who were stationed there, were sleeping in large dormitories and were surveilled 24/7.

Practical info:
There are two visitors centers that you can visit: The Trial Colony Museum in Frederiksoord and National Prison Museum in Veenhuizen. You can book a tour from Amsterdam to Veenhuizen and the National Prison Museum.

10. Frontiers of the Roman Empire – The Lower German Limes

The last site in the Netherlands that was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List in late July 2021 the the Lower German Limes. This site is located both in Germany and the Netherlands and stretches some 400 km from Rhenish Massif in Germany to the North Sea coast in the Netherlands and consists of 102 individual sites.

ruins of a settlement from the Roman Empire in todays Netherlands near Arnhem, part of UNESCO world heritage site
Fort Meinerswijk Arnhem; photo by Nederlandse Limes Samenwerking

Actually this is the northern frontier of the Roman Empire that marked the edge of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany) from the 1st to 5th centuries AD. These are mostly ruins and archeological sites of fortresses, towers, camps, roads, harbours, aqueducts, towns, and alike. There are 39 sites in total in the Netherlands.

You can visit the ruins of a few fortresses and settlements, like Castellum Meinerswijk near Arnhem, Castellum Mannaricium near Maurik, Archeological park Matilo near Leiden and Castellum Fectio near Bunnik.

11. Eisinga Planetarium in Franker

The Eisinga Planetarium is a historic planetarium built in the late 18th century by Eise Eisinga, a Dutch amateur astronomer and mathematician. The planetarium is located in the very house where Eise Eisinga lived in Franeker (Friesland).

Golden-like spheres hanging from a blue ceiling which depict the solar system with the planets and the Moon; UNESCO World Heritage Site - Eisinga Planetarium in Franeker
The Royal Eise Eisinga Planetarium © Royal Eise Eisinga Planetarium Author: Hildebrand P.G. de Boer

The planetarium is unique because it is a working model of the solar system, with intricate mechanical movements that accurately depict the positions and movements of celestial bodies, including the planets and the Moon. It’s considered one of the oldest functioning planetariums in the world and is now a museum open to the public, offering a fascinating glimpse into the history of astronomy and scientific innovation.

12. 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.

a view from a lighthouse to a white-sand beach and blue sea, view from the Texel lighthouse

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.

Practical info:
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.

13. Historic Area of Willemstad, Curacao

The last Dutch heritage 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.

a colorful city at the waterfront and blue sky with white clouds, Willemstad on Curacao

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 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.

Selected tours to see Kinderdijk

Selected tours to see the Canals of Amsterdam

Final words

Overall, the Netherlands’ UNESCO World Heritage Sites 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.

About Daniela

Daniela has been living and travelling in the Netherlands since 2009. She has actually been to all the places she writes about. A linguist by education and a writer by profession, Daniela is on a mission to help you plan the perfect trip to her home country - the Netherlands.