We now conclude our Dutch journey with a train ride to the southern border city of Maastricht. If you love nature, history, city life, shopping, music, eating, drinking or parties, Maastricht will be perfect for you. They’ve got it all here!
Maastricht is the southernmost city of the Netherlands, so it is a bit different than the north and the west of the country. There are no canals running through town, for example. A little branch of the river forms a stream, but no canals. With a slightly hilly terrain, it is not the flat lowlands that you find in most of the Netherlands.
Like many European cities, Maastricht has a large pedestrian zone filled with old historic buildings, modern shops, sidewalk cafés, smooth cobblestone paving, and lots of people out walking.
But this pedestrian zone is better than most because all the lanes connect forming a continuous web for walking. The ambiance of these many blocks is just ideal and with pretty green parklands around it.
Within this center are various themed areas–elegant shops here, flea market over there, lanes for shopping, others lined with outdoor restaurants, sit-down gourmet or fast food take away, large open plazas, intimate corners, a modern mall, endless boutiques, many historic buildings, and people walking everywhere, well-dressed to casual. It is like an outdoor living room with mostly locals, often stopping to greet friends and chat while standing in the middle of a lane.
Unlike many Dutch cities in the north that do not have extensive parks inside the city, Maastricht has abundant green spaces. You won’t get lost because the center is compact and filled with shops, making it quite easy to navigate, especially if following our suggested map path. With this concentration of attractive walkways, something like a maze, any place you turn will be of interest. In that regard you don’t really need a specific map route to tell you where to go—everywhere is good. I am supplying suggested directions anyway, but feel free to ignore them and just wander as you choose.
Central Maastricht is a small area, about 800 meters by 800 meters, and the streets are in somewhat of a grid, making it easy for the aimless wander. It is fun to be spontaneous, turning this way or that depending on what looks good to you. Everything is joined in one contiguous collection.
Café culture is alive and well in this city, where people relish the chance to sit outside enjoying conversation and a beverage.These quiet lanes are quite special because they are all connected without any interruption by automobile traffic, and there are shops and restaurants along almost their entire length.
There is a vibrant international feeling in the city, so close to its European neighbors. You might have heard of Maastricht because of the treaty that was drafted here creating the European Union back in 1991. There are many more interesting things about this city that you will discover with our in-depth visit when we take you on a walking tour through the historic center.
The Markt, or market place, is a convenient place to begin our visit.
Outdoor markets are held at the Markt with 200 stalls every Wednesday, and 300 on Fridays. Both days feature a mix of clothing, food, household items and people-watching. It is a popular place for the locals to come out and meet their neighbors, lending a small-town atmosphere to this city with a population of 130,000 people, of which 20,000 are college students.
Dutch love their flowers, many of which are grown in the country and form a major export. You will also find that other great Dutch product, cheese, cut to order and with very reasonable pricing, fruits and vegetables, of course, all sorts of handmade items and clothing accessories.
Naturally, the large building overlooking Market Square is City Hall, built in the 17th century and open to the public. There are lovely cafés and restaurants all around it.
The Markt is one of the largest market squares in the country. Typically, it’s got the old and new, including a shopping mall in the northeast corner called Mosae Forum, with two dozen shops, a supermarket, restaurants and underground parking.
This market square is the kind of place that you’ll come back to several times during the visit, perhaps even stay at the Hotel Dela Bourse in one of its 28 rooms. You can’t get more central. You’ll want to come back again later when the market is gone and things are more normal.
Into the pedestrian zone
Leaving behind those tempting café tables, take a short walk into the shopping zone. If you walk out on Munstraat you will reach the Tourist Information Office (called VVV) in two blocks. The main office of Tourist Information is in the middle of the pedestrian zone. This is a good place to learn some helpful tips about hotels, restaurants and entertainment, get free maps, and buy guidebooks.
You can speak to the agent here and get some tips about where to walk, what to see and do, or join a tour. They might even personalize your free map by making notes on it, answering your questions about where to go.
The office is located at the juncture of Munstraat and Grote Staat, the busiest of all pedestrian shopping streets in the city. You might see a few helpful-looking older men in red jackets standing out front, but they are cops, volunteer community police rather than guides. We will come back here later, but now we are walking south from the VVV along Kleine Staat a few blocks into a lovely network of pedestrian lanes.
Maastrichter Smedenstraat is lined with arches that form a pleasant shopping arcade. It looks like the Italian Renaissance or something really old, but these arches are a modern creation of a developer who wanted a beautiful space here.
At this intersection the streets widen a little bit, forming a small plaza called Kersenmarkt, which was a market for cherries, founded in the year 1243. By the mid-1970s this street and those around it became a pedestrian area.
Kleine Staat continues as a main pedestrian shopping street, now called Wolfstraat. This is the oldest section of town, originally founded by the ancient Romans 2000 years ago when they built their city, and has been continuously occupied ever since. Because of that, Maastricht claims to be the oldest city in the Netherlands. In the old days the street was a place for craftsmen who actually made things, such as silversmiths and tailors, but by the late 19th century it became a shopping street.
This leads us into an important plaza in town, the Onze Lieve Vrouweplein, with a terrace restaurant that is not very busy at midmorning, but comes to life for lunch and into the evening.
The main feature of this plaza is the namesake church, the Onze Lieve Vrou (Basilica of Our Lady), looking something like a fortress on the outside. It’s a Romanesque church built during the 11th and 12th centuries, so the windows are quite small, making it dark on the inside.
This neighborhood is a few blocks away from the busy pedestrian shopping district which makes it a delightful place for a leisurely stroll. You’ll pass some nice cafés and a few shops on Koestraat as we approach an unusual historic landmark, a curiosity of the city.
It’s a waterwheel used for grinding flour that still functions. It is called the Bishops Mill (Bisschopsmolen) with origins way back in the 11th century, and the building is even older. It’s the country’s oldest working watermill, renovated in 2004.
The attached Bishops Mill Bakery serves traditional bread and pies using a kitchen that’s been thoroughly modernized, brought up to Dutch standards. Their flour is ground by a different water wheel in nearby Mechelen, which makes the baked goods taste great. This bread is made exclusively with spelt, an ancient variety of wheat, renowned for health benefits with high protein, low gluten and nutty flavor.
While walking on Lang Grachtje you’ll see a couple of sections of the old medieval wall around the city, built in the year 1229 as the city’s first wall. We are going further south for a few blocks into another lovely neighborhood, and then we will see the park and the river.
The charming tree-lined plaza and cafe at the end of Grote Looiersstraat used to be something altogether different—a very smelly place where leather was made. Polluted water ran down the middle from a branch of the Jeker stream used in the tanning process.
Leather production continued from the late Middle Ages through the 19th century when tanners were finally removed. Now it’s a peaceful, odor-free neighborhood with a lovely terrace restaurant and some University facilities around it. Most buildings here are from the 17th and 18th centuries, and a natural history museum is in an old brick building nearby.
Parks and fortress
Another block south along Stadsmuur Nieuwenhofstraat, we come upon the second defensive wall that was built to protect the expanding city in the middle of the 14th century. This Nieuwenhofwal is a national monument. There’s a staircase going up and you can walk along the ramparts, or pass through the gateway and walk across the little wooden bridge over the Jeker River.
Here you’ve entered what seems to be a rustic parkland, a big contrast with the city itself, yet we are only 900 meters away from the Market Square on the other side of town.
Called the Hertenpark, it’s another world, with ducks in the stream and they even have a small zoo with deer and young goats, especially for the kids. Volunteers take care of these animals which also include donkeys, sheep, geese, turkeys, pigs and chickens. You could take a one-hour city tour on the electric bus passing by here that is powered by solar panels on its roof, quiet and nonpolluting.
If you walk another kilometer south you’ll come upon the magnificent ruins of the Saint Peter’s Fortress (Fort Sint Pieter). Here is proof there are some hills in the Netherlands, down south in this province of Limburg. The round-trip walk up and back down to the park is about 3 kilometers, making this optional, only for those interested in old forts. The fort was built in the 18th century to protect the city against attacks by the French.
The café terrace here has a lovely view. The fort is open to the public as a museum and is among the city’s famous popular sights. Another attraction lies underneath this fort inside the hill is a series of caves carved out of the limestone, open to the public on guided tours. The underground caves are a labyrinth of 8,000 passages and a guide takes you through some of them, explaining that these caves are not natural caves, but that they were underground mines carved by people hundreds of years ago. What is truly breathtaking and unexpected is that art is still found in the St. Pietersberg caves, with many paintings and graffiti visible on the limestone walls. The caves are magical and brought to life by friendly, informative guides.
Ancient Romans were the first to discover limestone here as a building material when they determined that the rock is soft, but when left to dry becomes a perfect building material that hardens with age. Many houses and the inner fortification of Maastricht were built using limestone from these caves. If you wish to venture further into the countryside by hiking beyond the old caves and past the Juliana quarry, you’ll discover stunning natural beauty around Maastricht.
Walking back down the hill, you soon get another view of the Basilica of Our Lady, seen earlier, then continue to the City Park, one of the most popular places to relax.
This large park on the southeast edge of the center is resplendent with paths, a pond and ancient ruins. The fortifications are an extension of the tall wall built to defend against attacks by the French, with the river forming part of a defensive moat.
There are several walking paths in the park that go along the edge of the water and wind among the trees as if you’re going through a natural forest.
Passing through a relatively recent neo-Gothic gate in the wall brings us to Helpoort, the oldest fortified gate in the Netherlands, constructed in the mid-1200s as part of that first defensive ring of walls. Walk through the gate and continue north several blocks back into the heart of the pedestrian shopping district.
This leads to Stokstraat, perhaps the most elegant of all streets in town, with upscale shopping at its best along a row of beautifully preserved historic buildings. Notice how this block, like many others, is in human scale. The buildings are a few stories high, with cobblestones underfoot and no automobiles, creating a delightful ambiance that puts people in the mood to linger or perhaps splurge in the shops.
We are back in the oldest neighborhood of the city, occupied for 2000 years, starting with the ancient Romans, and since then it has had a roller-coaster history of the good, bad and ugly.
In the Middle Ages Stokstaat had a dubious reputation of brothels and bathhouses, crime and disease. Later there was a revival with merchants moving in and it became well-established for a while.
With arrival of the Industrial Revolution, immigrants came to work in factories and it became densely crowded. It was such a slum they considered demolishing all of the buildings and starting over. But after World War II as the country rebuilt, they decided to preserve and enhance the historic character, creating a beautiful street.
Even if you don’t feel like spending a lot of money in these expensive boutiques, it’s still fun to just walk along and do a little window shopping. It costs nothing to enjoy all the work they put into creating these beautiful window displays while appreciating the historic architecture restored in the original character.
Return to Plankstraat which takes you back again to the lively restaurant plaza Onze Lieve Vrouweplein. The street then continues for 200 meters as Bredestraat, a less attractive, wide street with cars, which brings you to Vrijthof Square, a major gathering place, equal in size to the Markt.
That row of restaurants along the east side of the Vrijthof is an excellent place for a lovely outdoor meal, or maybe drop by in the early evening for casual drinks or just some ice cream. These restaurants are busy well into the evening and they get some of the student crowd, with hundreds of outdoor seats and many tempting foods on offer.
The Vrijthof is a popular place for special events, like outdoor concerts, and sometimes hosts a television talk show when you can watch the production crew at work. There is also an indoor theater on the plaza that opened in 1990 used for concerts and theatrical performances.
Even if you’ve come to visit the Vrijthof during the daytime, you want to make a point to come back at night. In fact, this whole pedestrian zone remains lively right into the evening. André Rieu traditionally brings his Johann Strauss Orchestra to Vrijthof Square in this city of his birth, for a dozen outdoor performances every July.
If you walk out the northeast corner of Vrijthof along Helmstraat you will notice what looks like an old church, but there is a surprise inside. The church was built in the 13th century as a monastery for the Dominicans, but now it’s something altogether different. It’s been converted into the most unusual bookshop in the country, Book Store Dominicanen. Some claim it’s the world’s most beautiful bookstore, and I believe them.
The original stained glass and ceiling frescoes are beautifully preserved and with two levels of shelving, it contains over 50,000 books. They have a popular café and they also host special events here with authors signing books and giving talks. They get 70,000 visitors a year. The plaza out front, quite naturally, has another café.
Next door is a popular little shopping mall, Entre Deux, with a modern design that does not clash with the historic structures along the street, because it has a modest-size facade and extends through the middle of the block. It has three levels with 18 stores, mostly trendy clothing, as usual.
The mall is located next to Spilstraat, another one of those lovely pedestrian lanes, just over 100 meters long. With shops all the way, it connects two major destinations, Market Square and Grote Staat, the widest and busiest pedestrian street.
Grote Staat is the most important street in town and goes right through the heart of Maastricht. It is for pedestrians, bicycles, skateboards, dog walkers and people out shopping. This is the most popular place for locals, so people-watching is another bonus—never a dull moment. Evening twilight is a lovely time to be here. On Thursday, shops are open until nine, otherwise generally closing at 6 p.m.
We are now back in the center of the pedestrian zone, which goes for dozens of blocks connected by these lovely pedestrian lanes. At this point the walk route has taken you about 3 kilometers, not counting the extra hike uphill to that fortress, which adds another 3 kilometers for that round-trip.
Naturally most of the shops are clothing stores but there are various other kinds, art galleries, sundries, cafés, bakeries, and the bar on the corner. By now you will have noticed there are no vacant shops to speak of here. The economy seems to be doing quite well.
Platielstraat has that magical element of restaurant tables lining a curved street. As you walk along you’re not quite sure how far it’s going to go, and the restaurants look popular, so this would be another good place to eat.
It’s a fascinating neighborhood to explore, especially for the first time when you come around the bend to discover a little plaza with some café tables, such as Sint Amorsplein. This charming triangular space has tables in the middle enclosed by three streets coming together, Platielstraat, Achter het Vleeshuis, and Sporenstraat, each worth a thorough stroll.
That serendipity of the aimless wander can’t go wrong in this neighborhood because it’s just one charming lane after another, with more of these little plazas and dozens of outdoor restaurants.
A series of final loops up and down, around and back up more quaint lanes will wrap up this walk, covering a mouthful of street names: Sporenstraat, Grote Staat, Vijfharingenstraat, Heggenstraat, Minckelersstraat and Nieuwstraat. Each of them is lined with stores and are pleasant to explore. Clothing shoppers could easily go broke in this town.
That does complete our shopping lane meander through the heart of Maastricht. Now we are returning towards the Markt to take a look at the residential neighborhood just north of it, and then we have a few more places to show you across the river.
Some interesting residential side streets extend north of the Markt, providing a glimpse of everyday life. This is an optional activity for those who enjoy a simple walk in a typical residential neighborhood. There are quite a few of the older preserved buildings along Kleine Gracht, then turn left on Coxstraat into a more modern housing complex. It’s quite interesting how they’ve created this series of new buildings with low-rise apartments, yet built in somewhat of a traditional style using brick and steep roofs covered in tiles.
These apartments are located a few blocks from the center but not in it, so there’s no conflict with the historic character. Automobile traffic is limited and there is no parking on the street. It seems a fine example of low-rise medium density dwellings in a livable neighborhood.
We are now finished with the west side of Maastricht, sometimes called the Left Bank, and for art lovers, we head across the Maas River to have a look at the Bonnefantenmuseum and the section of town along the river.
The Bonnefantenmuseum is a large art museum with a vast collection stretching from the medieval through the Renaissance and Baroque up to contemporary. It was founded in 1884 and moved into its current building in 1995. Some of the highlights include woodcarvings from medieval altars and paintings by Bruegel and Rubens.
There are several bridges across the river including Sint Servaasbrug from Wycker Brugstraat and Stationstraat to the town center, and Wilhelmina bridge (Wilhelminabrug) that leads to the market square.
Notice there are some excursion boats tied up along the riverbanks. You could take a one-hour trip on the Maas River, or a dinner cruise, or a boat ride to Belgium, departing at 10 a.m., with 2.5 hours free time in Liège, returning at 5:30 p.m. Another bridge across the Maas River is strictly for bicycles and pedestrians called the Tall Bridge because the top of the arch is 26 meters over the water.
This leads us into a modern neighborhood along the river with no old historic buildings, but instead there are hotels, apartments and restaurants constructed in what had been an industrial zone.
It was a ceramics factory area now called the Ceramics District. Modern architecture is encouraged in these neighborhoods beyond the historic zone. The Crowne Plaza at river’s edge would make a lovely place to stay. For a longer term, one could rent an apartment in this modern district, just a few minutes’ walk from the historic center.
Walk back towards the train station along what becomes Station Street, passing a couple of tempting shops—how about some french fries, or wine? And that completes our visit to Maastricht, a great city in the south of the Netherlands.
Map of Maastricht highlights: