48 Hours In: The Hague
This Dutch city is easy to reach and, with its artistic heart beating once again, it's more rewarding than ever, as Simon Calder discovers
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 21 June 2014
Why go now?
Johannes Vermeer's 17th-century masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring, is home. Next Friday, the Dutch king Willem-Alexander reopens the Mauritshuis (1), where she has pride of place.
Summer visitors to the seat of the Dutch government can complement culture with coastline, as The Hague has the seaside resort of Scheveningen on its doorstep.
To reach The Hague by public transport from here, take bus No 50 for eight minutes to Meijersplein station, then Metro line E (26 minutes) to Den Haag Centraal station (2), known as CS. For this you will need an OV-Chipkaart (Dutch public transport card), which you can buy at the Ako newsagent at the airport (€7.50) and load with credit – like London's Oyster.
Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, served by flights from across the UK, is more distant, but has its own station. Slow trains run to Centraal station (2) while expresses serve Hollands Spoor station (3), known as HS – a fine 19th-century structure just outside the centre. One-way fare: €8.50.
By rail and sea, Abellio Greater Anglia and Stena Line (0844 770 70 70; stenaline.co.uk) connect from London Liverpool Street or East Anglian stations via Harwich to Hook of Holland, from where The Hague is a quick hop by train. The one-way fare is £39, or £69 at night.
Get your bearings
The square at the centre of things is Plein (4). On its north-west corner stands the Mauritshuis (1) with, just beyond it, the complex of former parliamentary buildings known as Binnenhof (5) (Inner Court). Even though Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, political and diplomatic business is conducted in The Hague. To the east, spectacular new structures have arisen around the Centraal station area. Just to the south-west of Plein (4), the steel-and-glass Stadhuis (6) (City Hall) presents the imaginative face of municipal architecture. It is also the location for the tourist office – inside the public library on the side facing Spui, the main north-south street (10am-5pm Saturday, noon-5pm Sunday, noon-8pm on Monday, 10am-8pm other days; 00 31 70 361 8860; denhaag.nl).
Rippling out to the north are streets lined with handsome mansions, many of them embassies. You could walk to the seaside suburb of Scheveningen in about 40 minutes, or hop on tram Nos 1 or 9 with your OV-Chipkaart.
Because The Hague is a business city, good weekend rates are available. The top place to stay is the 1881 Hotel des Indes (7), grandly located at the north-eastern curve of Lange Voorhout at No 54 (00 31 70 361 2345; hoteldesindes.nl). The name, and interior, evoke the Dutch Golden Age, when the nation grew rich from the East and West Indies. A weekend special rate of €145, without breakfast, is on offer.
More central is the new Holiday Inn Express (8) at Lange Houtstraat 5 (00 31 70 820 9980; bit.ly/HexHague), just 100 metres from the Mauritshuis (1). It typically has weekend rooms with breakfast for €90.
The Stayokay (9) hostel, close to HS station at Scheepmakersstraat 27 (00 31 70 315 7888; bit.ly/OKHague), is clean, friendly and good value. Twins for €59, including breakfast.
Take a hike
Wander through the city centre from old to new. Start at the massive 15th-century Grote Kerk (10), no longer a place of worship but a private events venue. From 16 July to 20 August it exceptionally opens 11am-5pm daily except Monday/Tuesday.
Just east, the Oude Stadhuis (11) (Old City Hall) is a handsome Golden Age building. Pass the watchful eye of the statue of The Observer (12) and wander into the Passage (13) – a 19th-century arcade of art and exotica.
Under the glass dome in the centre, fork left in the gallery and emerge on Hofweg opposite the Binnenhof (5). Bear right along the street, which is a river of cherry-red-and-cream trams.
On a fine day, buy ingredients for a picnic at Marqt (14), a Dutch echo of Whole Foods. Cross to the Stadhuis (6) and follow Kalvermarkt to the Muzentoren (15), a tower with muscular statue outside.
Look out: 'The Observer' statue Lunch on the run
Newly-opened Ekxi (16) on Turfmarkt 224 is the sole Dutch café operated by a Belgian chain specialising in "bio-fastfood". The tasty lunch special, price €7.90, includes soup or sandwich, salad and iced tea.
In a city full of high-end fashion stores and galleries, Noordeinde (17) is one of the most elegant retail streets – with the added interest of the Royal Palace.
The cultural core of The Hague is best viewed from the north side of the Hofvijver, the Court Pond. You look across to the site of the fortress founded in 1248 by William II. Today, it is occupied by the Binnenhof (5). You can walk through it; the high security is because the Prime Minister's office is still here: the round tower across a canal from the 1637 mansion known as the Mauritshuis (1).
Two years of reconstruction have opened up the museum impressively. Appreciate the handsome sand-and-silver façade, then descend into a subterranean atrium containing the ticket desk (10am-6pm daily, to 8pm on Thursdays, €14) and shop. Climb the stairs to the ground floor of the mansion and marvel at the collection of Golden Age paintings hung in the home of a merchant who made his money in Brazil.
Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp is back from loan; Carel Fabritius's Goldfinch has had its perch moved to a more prominent position befitting of Rembrandt's pupil. Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring is the star of the show.
In addition, the building opposite, an Art Deco former gentleman's club, has been taken over for temporary exhibitions and a new brasserie.
Plein is full of bars, but for the most alluring interiors head across to Grote Markt (18), where the historic Boterwaag and Zwarte Ruiter glare at each other across a crowded square.
Dining with the locals
The Hague seems to have more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in Holland, but with a wealthy weekday clientele they can prove expensive.
Dudok (19) at Hofweg 1a (00 31 70 890 0100; dudok.nl) is a well-priced, industrial-chic brasserie offering carpaccio of beef (€9.50) followed by cod en papillotte (€15.50).
Sight lines: trams run from the city to the sea Day Two
Sunday morning: take a ride …
… to the seaside on tram 1. Stay on to the end at Scheveningen Noorderstrand, then walk south along the broad promenade.
Out to brunch
The seafront is dominated by the Steigenburger Kurhaus Hotel (00 31 70 416 2636; kurhaus.nl), a sturdy late 19th-century building with a smart restaurant, the Kurzaal. The most economical way to appreciate it is breakfast; well worth the steep €27, but start early (7-10.30am at weekends) to get your money's worth.
Wander through the structure then continue your seaside walk south until you reach the statue of a mother looking out to sea; go down the slope past the Oude Kerk to Keizerstraat, Scheveningen's short, amiable main street. Then hop on tram 1, or walk south to Scheveningse Bosjes, a remarkably wild patch of urban woodland.
Take a view
On your way back into the centre you have a choice of views. Madurodam at George Maduroplein 1 (00 31 70 416 2400; madurodam.nl; 9am-9pm in July and August; €15.50, €2 off if you book online) is a miniature tribute to "Holland's Highlights and Heritage". It contains 1:25-scale models of the Netherlands' most notable buildings.
For perspectives on conflict, the soaring Peace Palace (20) has a visitor centre (00 31 70 302 4242; vredespaleis.nl; 10am-5pm daily except Mondays) explaining how The Hague became a global peacemaker.
The Panorama Mesdag (21) at Zeestraat 65 (00 31 70 310 6665; panorama-mesdag.nl) is Holland's largest painting: a 14m-high cylindrical view of Scheveningen from 1881 (open noon-5pm Sunday; €10 – or €20.50 if combined with Madurodam).
Icing on the cake
In place until 31 August, Grandeur is the title of a fascinating outdoor sculpture exhibition on the central strip of the broad avenue of Lange Voorhout (22).
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