While most travelers have heard of Amsterdam, the large, canal-filled capital city* of the Netherlands, fewer people are familiar with Maastricht. Located a little under 3 hours south of Amsterdam, Maastricht spills over both banks of the Maas (or Meuse) River, one of the oldest rivers on Earth, and was my home for more than three years when I was growing up.
At just under 26,000 square miles, the Netherlands is a relatively small nation, about the size of West Virginia. Yet there are surprising differences in geography, culture, and cuisine between Amsterdam in the province of North Holland and Maastricht in the province of Limburg. Unlike the flatlands up north, Maastricht is surprisingly hilly. And it has a predominantly Catholic population -- one of the reasons why Carnaval, celebrated at the start of Lent, is a beloved annual tradition here. And you haven’t lived until you’ve given stinky Limburger cheese a try!
With its rolling green hills, the flowing Maas River, and its medieval architecture, Maastricht is one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in the Netherlands. Here’s how to spend a day in Maastricht.
If you’re fortunate enough to visit Maastricht during the pre-Lenten period of Carnaval, there’s no better place to celebrate. Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the season comes to a frenzied head the weekend before Ash Wednesday. Daily life grinds to a stop, and the people of Maastricht and all the neighboring towns fill their streets with elaborate costumes, marching bands, drumlines, and festive parades.
Explore Fort Sint Pieter
Dating back to the 1700s, Fort Sint Pieter sits above the Maas River on the south side of Maastricht. Designed to protect residents from French invaders, the imposing hexagonal stone structure is known as the tallest “mountain” in the region and offers sweeping views of the modern city.
Mosey Along The Maas River
Built in the 13th century, the arched stone Sint-Servaasbrug (Saint Servatius Bridge) is the oldest bridge in the Netherlands. Take in the lush landscape, narrow brick row houses, and centuries of history by walking across the bridge and along the Maas River to Helpoort. A 10-minute stroll south along the river, Helpoort is one of the last remnants of the medieval city walls that once surrounded Maastricht.
Pro Tip: If the Dutch weather cooperates, take a daytime or dinner cruise on the Maas River. Many cruises travel 20 miles south to Liege, Belgium, before returning to Maastricht.
Check Out The Churches
There are several beautiful churches in Maastricht.
In Vrijthof Square, the Protestant Sint Janskerk stands next to the Catholic Basilica of Saint Servatius. Although the relationship between the distinctly different Christian faiths hasn’t always been harmonious, today the two houses of worship are often called the Twins of the Vrijthof.
Named after Saint John the Baptist and dating to the Middle Ages, Sint Janskerk is easily identified by its tall, deep-red Gothic tower. In contrast, the Romanesque Basilica of Saint Servatius is more subdued.
Boekhandel Dominicanen is a much different experience. A phenomenal bookstore is housed inside the beautifully restored 13th-century medieval church.
Admire The Art At The Bonnefanten Museum
Housed inside a four-story E-shaped building designed by Italian architect Aldo Rossi, the Bonnefanten Museum features a wide range of art, including tapestries, sculptures, paintings, and more from the medieval period to modern times.
Explore The Natural History Museum Of Maastricht
Located in a former monastery in the heart of Maastricht, this natural history museum showcases the natural world, from fossils to the animal kingdom to the human body.
Pay Your Respects At The Netherlands American Cemetery
Adjacent to Maastricht is the village of Margraten. Home to just over 13,000 residents, this small Dutch town is also the final resting place of nearly 10,000 World War II veterans who perished trying to liberate the Netherlands.
Eating And Drinking In Maastricht
If you’re a fan of French fries, you’ll never taste any as delicious as the frites in this part of the world. After all, French fries were invented in the Maas River Valley. Typically served in a paper cone with a small wooden fork, Dutch frites are traditionally topped with a healthy dollop of fritessaus. Similar to mayonnaise, fritessaus is lower in fat and slightly sweeter, and you can’t knock it until you’ve tried it!
Filled with fresh fruits like apricots, cherries, or plums and topped with an intricately woven lattice crust, vlaai is a type of fruit pie found throughout the Southern Netherlands. Just as Americans enjoy cake for birthdays and other celebrations, the Dutch mark life’s milestones with vlaai.
Quite unlike a vlaai fruit tart, Limburger cheese has an aroma that is often compared to that of stinky feet. Needless to say, it’s an acquired taste. Repulsed by the smell, I’ve never been able to successfully try Limburger cheese myself, but I hear that the taste isn’t as intense as the smell. (And I’m good not knowing for sure!)
As is the case in the northern part of the Netherlands, you’ll want to try the local beer when you visit Maastricht. You’ll find several microbreweries and brewpubs, or brouwerijen, throughout the city. There are also great local drafts on tap and in bottles at restaurants and cafes across town.
Shopping In Maastricht
Maastricht’s main square for nearly two centuries, Vrijthof is a great place to explore, eat, and shop. It's surrounded by historic buildings and offers many delightful sidewalk cafes and eateries. The eastern edge of the square is full of shops and boutiques.
Continuing east toward the Maas River, Market Square and the Mosae Forum are just a short walk from Vrijthof Square. Maastricht’s city hall stands imposingly in the center of Market Square, surrounded by many places to sit and people-watch, enjoy a meal, or browse boutiques.
Unique Souvenirs From Maastricht
In addition to the typical souvenirs that travelers often bring home from the Netherlands -- Delft pottery, wooden shoes, kissing couples, and windmills -- the city of Maastricht provides a unique gift opportunity. Even if you’re visiting Maastricht outside of the Carnaval season, you’ll find year-round costume shops full of makeup, costumes, accessories, and other goodies, allowing you to take home a piece of the festivities.
Where To Stay In Maastricht
For the best proximity to all that you might want to see and do in Maastricht, I recommend staying in Vrijthof Square or Market Square or in an adjacent neighborhood. You’ll find a wide selection of hotels, vacation rentals, bed and breakfasts, and other accommodations in this part of town.
What To Know Before You Go
- As in other parts of the Netherlands, the weather in Maastricht is often overcast. And, while it typically gets only 2 to 3 inches of rain per month, the light drizzle can make it feel like it’s always raining. Summers in Maastricht are quite mild, with highs rarely breaching 75 degrees and lows dropping to 50 degrees, so be sure to pack layers.
- While cobblestone streets are extremely charming, they can be a bit treacherous to navigate if you’re not used to walking on them. Wear sensible shoes -- like flats, tennis shoes, or sandals with straps -- rather than flip-flops. Be sure your shoes have adequate treads, since cobblestones are often slippery when wet.
- Throughout the Netherlands, coffee shops sell cannabis, not coffee. If it’s a latte you’re after, ask for a koffiehuis instead.
- As in other regions of Europe, in the Netherlands, some meat dishes are made with horse meat. In the Limburg region of the Netherlands (where Maastricht is located), zuurvlees is a dish commonly made with horse meat, although it can also be prepared with beef or rabbit.
*The Netherlands actually has two capital cities: Amsterdam and The Hague (known locally as Den Haag). Amsterdam has been the nation’s capital city per the Dutch Constitution since 1814, but The Hague is home to the nation’s government and court.