Why go now?
The southernmost city in the Netherlands is full of surprises, from a handsome old church-turned-bookshop to a labyrinth of ancient tunnels. From today until 30 December, it is looking its sparkling best as the venue for one of Europe's top Christmas markets (magicalmaastricht.nl). So sign up for a Maastricht treat.
The only flights from the UK are with Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Southend. Maastricht's small and efficient airport is five miles north of the centre. At the information desk buy a €4 ticket for the 20-minute journey into town on bus 59. It runs half-hourly on weekdays, every hour at weekends, to the railway station (1).
The station (1) is also the arrival point for the surface transport options, such as Eurostar (03432 186 186; eurostar.com) from London St Pancras via Brussels and Liège, or Stena's Rail & Sail Dutchflyer, which costs £45 one-way from London or any East Anglia station via Harwich (0844 770 7070; stenaline.co.uk).
Before you leave the station, admire the Art Deco flourishes of the terminus – as well as the Christmas decorations.
Get your bearings
The river Maas (known in France as the Meuse) bisects the city. The west bank is busiest. Markt is the "commercial" square, with the imposing 17th-century City Hall (2) in the middle. Vrijthof is even larger. The twin churches of St Servaas basilica (3) and St Janskerk (4) back on to the west side, facing a barrage of restaurants to the east flank. For the next month it is full of life as the hub of the Christmas market.
St Servaasbrug (5), said to be the oldest bridge in Holland, leads to the east bank. The Wyck district is historic, well-to-do and hip, while the modern district of Ceramique lies to the south.
The tourist office (6), known as the VVV, is located at Kleine Staat 1 (00 31 43 325 2121; vvvmaastricht.nl; 10am-5pm Saturdays, 11am-5pm Sundays, 10am-6pm weekdays.
The Derlon (7) at Onze Lieve Vrouweplein 6 (00 31 43 321 6770; derlon.com) is a 19th-century restaurant sleekly re-invented as one of the city's finest hotels. It also has a secret in the basement. Descend to the Museumzaal to discover a part of a third-century Roman street and well. (Officially it is open to the public from noon to 4pm on Sundays, but you may be allowed to peek in at other times.) Deluxe double rooms typically cost €157, excluding breakfast.
On the other side of the river, the four-star Designhotel Maastricht (8) at Stationsstraat 40 (00 31 43 328 2525; hampshire-hotels.com) has big, bright bedrooms and is handy for the station. Weekends are busy in December, but there is still some availability at €142 for a double, room only.
The best bargain in the city is the Stayokay hostel (9), beside the river at Maasboulevard 101 (00 31 43 750 17 90; stayokay.com/maastricht). A dorm bed costs €23, including breakfast and Wi-Fi. These rates include city tax of €1.50 to €4 per person per night.
Take a hike
Maastricht's compactness makes it eminently walkable. Start at St Servaasbrug (5), from where you can appreciate the skyline on both sides of the city. On the west bank, turn left down Stokstraat. the main artery of the oldest part of the city, flanked with handsome mansions. Continue to the Helpoort (10) – the oldest surviving city gate in the Netherlands, dating from 1229. Follow the Jeker stream a short way west, turn right on to Begijnenstraat, then thread through characterful streets to Kapoenstraat – which slices through a jumble of university buildings.
On Vrijthof, have coffee in the café of the Museum aan het Vrijthof (11), a slab of 16th-century Spanish colonial architecture from the days when Madrid ruled the Low Countries. Cross the square, through the Christmas market, to the handsome theatre (12) on the far side, then head into Markt to appreciate the 17th-century city hall (2).
Guided walks (90 minutes, €5.95) take place at noon at weekends throughout the year, and at other times/days during warmer seasons, starting at the tourist office (6).
Lunch on the run
Reitz (13) at Markt 75 (00 31 43 321 5706; reitz.nl) has been serving Holland's finest French fries since 1909. A "small" helping, more than enough for lunch, costs €3.50, with an extra 50 cents for mayonnaise for the full-fat Dutch experience. Open 11am-6.30pm daily except Monday.
Take a ride
River cruises depart at weekends throughout the year from the quay (14) on the west bank close to Wilhelminabrug. Rederij Stiphout (00 31 43 351 5300; stiphout.nl) offers a basic 50-minute trip, departing on the hour between noon and 4pm at weekends, for €8.95.
Buy Christmas cards at a temple to the written word, the beautiful Boekhandel Dominicanen (15) (00 31 43 410 0010; boekhandeldominicanen.nl), which fills a 700-year-old Gothic church just north of Grote Staat. Shelves spill into every alcove and an industrial steel structure fills the nave with two more floors of fiction.
Across in Wyck, Rechstraat (16) is lined with smart boutiques. Close by, Maastricht's regular flea market (17) spreads out along Stationstraat on Saturdays, offering a range of antiques (and tat) from 10am to 4pm.
Shops generally open 10am-6pm from Tuesday to Saturday, noon-5pm on Sunday and 1-6pm Mondays.
The city offers few options for sitting, drinking and watching the river flow. One possibility is the Stayokay hostel (9), which has an appealing riverside terrace open to non-residents.
In the centre, Cafe Local (18) at Markt 38 (00 31 43 326 3855; cafelocal.nl) has a convivial terrace, and an arty interior if the evening is too cold. The barman will talk you through the five varieties of Brand beers on draught, which tend to be more bitter in Maastricht than more familiar Dutch pils. You could also stay on for a tasty, thick and warming soup (€4.70) and dine on the local speciality kroketten (spicy croquettes, €7.50).
Dining with the locals
Maastricht is the self-styled "gastronomic capital of the Netherlands," which might be disputed by one or two in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Yet, even by Dutch standards, Maastricht has a vast range of places to eat and drink.
Tucked away on a quiet square in the Jekerkwartier, Stads cafe Lure (19) at Grote Looiersstraat 7 (00 31 43 321 1775; cafelure.nl) is an excellent place to try the local speciality, Mestreechs zoer vleis – a hearty stew of marinated meat with potatoes. If that does not appeal, French and Italian options are also available.
Sunday morning: go to church
Around the year 950, a church (3) was built above the grave of St Servatius, a fourth-century martyr. Today, it is a vast, austere location with architecture ranging from 10th to 15th centuries. The crypt contains the relics of the martyr. South-east from here, and across the sectarian divide, the Catholic Onze Lieve Vrouwe (20) (00 31 43 321 3854; sterre-der-zee.nl) has millennium-old foundations, an elaborate interior and Latin Mass is celebrated at 10am each Sunday.
Out to brunch
Take elevenses in historic surroundings at Bisschopsmolen (21), a working seventh-century flour mill and bakery with café at Scenebrug 1 (00 31 43 327 0613; bisschopsmolen.com; 11am-5pm Sundays, 9.30am-6pm Tuesday to Saturday). While you wait for apple-and-nut tart and coffee (€4.95), explore the bakery and original mill.
A walk in the park
Stadspark, by the river, merges with Nolenspark, which shadows the remains of the medieval walls. It is punctuated by sculptures and spectacular early 20th-century villas and mansions on the south side, such as the elaborate Heylerhof (22).
Take a view
A brisk 15-minute walk south takes you to a viewpoint from which you can gaze at the most varied scenery in the Netherlands – and delve into two millennia of history below ground. The pentagonal St Peter's Fort (23) was built on the plateau south of the city to defend against invaders from the south. Beneath the hill is a network of tunnels created while mining for marl (soft limestone). Tours to both are run by a tourist office offshoot, Underground Maastricht (00 31 43 325 2121; maastrichtunderground.nl). In winter a weekend-only tour runs at 12.30pm, price €9.95.
After the tour, make for the Natural History Museum (24) (00 31 43 350 5490; nhmmaastricht.nl; 1-5pm weekends, 11am-5pm Tuesday-Friday; €12), full of fossils such as parts of the skull of a prehistoric Mosasaur (named after the river).Then cross the river to the Bonnefantenmuseum (25), Maastricht's main art museum, where a mixture of medieval and contemporary art is housed in an intriguing building designed by Aldo Rossi (00 31 43 329 0190; bonnefanten.nl; 11am-5pm, daily except Monday; €9).
Icing on the cake
Visit the toilet on the second floor of the Bonnefantenmuseum (25) by 11 January: the mirror is held by a pair of hands belonging to a person hidden behind the wall.
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