Visitors to this Dutch city get the best of two worlds: when satiated with art and architecture, they can jump on to a tram and go in search of sea, sand and herrings, says David Orkin

WHY GO NOW?

On Saturday, "Vlaggetjesdag" (flag day) is celebrated at the harbour of Scheveningen, The Hague's seaside-resort "suburb". The event, also known as "New Herring Festival", has been a tradition since the 16th century. It features a "herring race" involving six elderly ships bedecked in flags. A fleet of other sailing vessels will also be moored and some will be open to the public. There will be fish stalls, herring-eating competitions, music and dancing. Scheveningen is less than 15 minutes by tram from the centre of The Hague, a beautiful city that is the seat of the Dutch government, and is largely undiscovered by the British. For more information, call 0906 871 7777 ( www.holland.com/uk).

DOWN PAYMENT

The nearest international airport is Rotterdam, which has flights from London City and Manchester on VLM (020-7476 6677; www.vlm-airlines.com) and from Heathrow on KLM (08705 074 074; www.klmuk.com). You can take a bus from the airport to Rotterdam CS station, from where the 15-mile train ride to The Hague takes 15 minutes. But Amsterdam's Schiphol airport has many more flights from all over the UK, and a 25-minute rail link to The Hague that costs €11.20 (£8) return. Departing this Friday on Basiq Air (00 31 20 206 8490; www.basiqair.com) from Stansted, returning on Sunday, costs a total of £114. From Liverpool, easyJet (0870 600 0000; www.easyJet.com) has a fare of £123. KLM has the widest range of flights; from Bristol, you would pay £88 this weekend.

The Hague has two major railway stations; most trains serve Hollands Spoor (slightly further out), but there is a shuttle service to Central.

INSTANT BRIEFING

The name "The Hague" (Den Haag in Dutch) derives from the city's medieval name, 's-Gravenhage, the Count's Hedge. The city was founded by William II in 1248. It enjoyed a golden period in the 17th century when many of the finest structures still standing were built. With a population of 450,000, it is the Netherlands' third largest city, and the official residence of the royal family of Orange. While it isn't the party capital of the world, there is much for lovers of art, history, food, and shopping. The Hague is also a good place for walking, whether down tree-lined avenues of elegant townhouses or around lovely green areas such as Scheveningse Bosjes or Paleis Park.

The hub of activity is the Old Centre, a quarter bordered on one side by royal palaces and parliament buildings. The narrow streets are packed with boutiques, bistros and art galleries.

Ultra-modern architecture dominates the New Centre: stand in the square simply called Plein, and the 1848 statue of a bemused William of Orange is pointing to three of The Hague's newest and wildest buildings: De Hoftoren, Castalia and the Zurichtoren. On Hofplaats, four old brick houses are tucked up next to the modern steel and glass of the Lower House building.

The tourist office is next to Central Station at Koningin Julianaplein 30, (00 31 70 361 8888; www.denhaag.com). It opens Monday 10am-6pm, Tuesday-Friday 9am-6pm, Saturday 10am-5pm. There is another branch near the Holland Spoor station at Wagenstraat 193 (Tuesday-Saturday 11am-5pm). City maps cost €2 (£1.40), but most hotels offer simpler maps for free.

Though much of the city can be covered on foot, Scheveningen, the Netherlands' busiest beach resort, is a tram ride away. Individual tickets for a short journey have two strips and cost €1.60 (£1.15). The Hague to Scheveningen promenade (Trams 1 and 1K travel to and from Central Station) is a two-zone journey needing a three-strip ticket at €2.40 (£1.70). Tickets can be bought from bus or tram drivers.

REST ASSURED

In Scheveningen, the 1885 Steigenburger Kurhaus Hotel, Gevers Deynootplein 30 (00 31 70 416 2636; www.kurhaus.nl) has been restored to its former splendour. There's a magnificent seafront façade and a huge central hall with a stunning ceiling and glass dome. Even if you're not staying, go up to the first-floor gallery for the view. All rooms are sea- or town-facing, and most have balconies. Less than five minutes' walk away, in a lovely late-19th-century building on a side street, is 't Sonnehuys at Renbaanstraat 2 (00 31 70 354 6170; www.sonnehuys.nl) where a double room is €79 (£50) including breakfast.

In The Hague itself, the Carlton Ambassador at Sophialaan 2 (00 31 70 363 0363; www.carlton.nl/ambassador) is an elegant option on a quiet tree-lined street between the Old Centre and the Peace Palace. You can get a two-night weekend special through www.expedia.co.uk for £216. For a modern option, try the Delta Hotel at Anna Paulownastraat 10 (00 31 70 362 4999). No lifts, so you'll have to negotiate steel spiral stairs to reach the 11 rooms of this sparsely decorated hotel. Doubles from €89 (£63) per night including breakfast.

MUST SEE

Start by being startled. In Scheveningen, the Panorama Mesdag at Zeestraat 65 (00 31 70 310 6665; www.panorama-mesdag.nl) is unique. The gloomy hallway and dark staircase give no clue to what awaits. You emerge in the centre of a huge - 14m high by 120m circumference - cylindrical painting of Scheveningen in the 19th century. Apart from the lack of sea breeze, the effect is surprisingly convincing. It opens 10am-5pm Monday-Saturday, Sunday noon-5pm, admission €4 (£2.85). Also in Scheveningen, to escape herring-guzzling holidaymakers, head for Beelden Aan Zee, Harteveltstraat 1 (00 31 70 358 5857; www.beeldenaanzee.nl), where modern sculptures predominantly of human figures are displayed both indoors and out in this bright airy museum built round a 175-year-old pavilion. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11am-5pm, entry €5 (£3.60).

In The Hague, the Mauritshuis at Korte Vijverberg 8 (00 31 70 303 3435; www.mauritshuis.nl) was built in 1637, and has been a gallery since 1820. It is home to works by Vermeer, Van Dyke, Rubens, Rembrandt and Mondrian. Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 11am-5pm, entry €7 (£5).

Madurodam, at George Maduroplein 1 (00 31 70 416 2400; www.madurodam.nl), between The Hague and Scheveningen, is a park containing 1:25-scale models of all the Netherlands' most famous buildings. Miniature sightseeing boats cruise canals less than 20cm wide. Open 9am-8pm daily, to 10pm in July and August, €11 (£7.85)

MUST BUY

Shops are concentrated in the Old Centre. Noordeinde is the smartest shopping street, while Haagsche Bluf is a new arcade. Worth checking out is the Passage (it runs between Spuistraat, Buitenhof and Hofweg), three elegant arcades that meet under a glass dome. Market-lovers are in luck: a books and antiques market is held every Thursday and Sunday from May to September on Lange Voorhout. At De Haagse Markt, south-west of the centre at Herman Costerstraat on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 8.30am-5pm, you can find everything, from electrical goods to flowers.

Don't assume that shops will be open on Sundays or Monday mornings.

MUST EAT

Any Dutchman worth his clogs will tip his head back and slip a herring down his throat, and you, too, must sample raw herring served with thick slices of onion. For more conventional seafood, Seinpost, Zeekant 60 (00 31 70 355 5250) overlooks the seafront in Scheveningen. Set menus are €48-€58 (£34-£41); open Monday-Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday only for dinner. In The Hague, there's good French/ Mediterranean cuisine at Koesveld, Maziestraat 10 (00 31 70 360 2723); or go for fusion at Wox, Buitenhof 36 (00 31 70 365 3754); Wednesday-Friday noon-3pm, Tuesday-Saturday 6pm-9.30pm. Dinneweg, parallel to canalside Hooikade, and the lanes in between are packed with restaurants.

Best bet for a lunchtime sandwich is Juni at Molenstraat 63, open daily 11am-5pm. For filling, tasty, reasonably priced Indonesian food, try Toko Frederik, Frederikstraat 231 (00 31 70 360 3125), open every evening.

INTO THE NIGHT

Have Brand beer or jenever (Dutch gin - try the lemon flavour) among old wooden barrels at Tapperij Le Duc, Noordeinde 137 (00 31 70 364 2394). Or visit Scheveningen's Holland Casino, Kurhausweg 1 (00 31 70 306 7777; www.hollandcasino.nl), 1.30pm-3am daily, admission €3.50 (£2.50).

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