A founding member of the European Union, the Netherlands adopted the euro in 2002. The 24-hour GWK Bank at Centraal Station in Amsterdam may be your best bet for currency exchange at low commission rates. ATMs are also widely available, dispensing bills up to 50 euros. Many small shops and markets will not accept larger denominations. Cash, debit cards and internet banking are more popular than credit cards with Dutch credit cards having chip and pin. The Dutch tip modestly, topping restaurant and taxi bills with 5 to 10 per cent. If you are visiting from the US, note the Dutch flipflop decimal point and comma use, so €1.000 is a thousand euros and €5,00 is 5 euros.
Dutch is the official language, but you'll find that many people speak at least one other language, often English, German or French. Arabic and Turkish may be useful in some of Muslim neighborhoods, particularly in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. In the north, an ancient language called Friesian is preserved.
Historically the Netherlands and neighboring Belgium have been known as the "Low Countries" ("Les Pays-Bas" in French) because their low lying coastal regions are close to or below sea level, much reclaimed from the North Sea. About half of the Netherlands is less than a meter above sea level and nearly a quarter is below sea level, kept dry by an ambitious system of windmills, dikes, dunes, seawalls and levees. Except for some modest hills in the southeast, the country is pretty much flat, making it ideal for cycling. It is often called "Holland," the name of the coastal region where you find all the tulips and windmills.
The Dutch have long been a sea-going people, establishing the powerful East and West Indian Companies in Indonesia and the Caribbean respectively. The country is a leader in art and culture with world-class museums like Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and Escher in the Palace in The Hague. For centuries it played a pivotal role in international politics. The UN Charter established the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 1945.
There's a two-month window for viewing millions of tulips at the famed Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse, about 30 minutes from Amsterdam. Open only from mid-March to mid-May, the 32-hectare (80 acres) garden attracts around 800,000 visitors each year. You can rent a bike at the main entrance and have a choice of four routes through the flower fields. Travel by bus from the center of Amsterdam or the Schiphol Plaza on a Combi-ticket (transportation and park entrance) to save time and money.
Like their Nordic neighbors, the Dutch relish a bracing day at the beach, sometimes hunkering down between dunes for sheltered sunning. Women go topless on most beaches while full nudity is allowed only in sections marked "naturistenstrand" or "naaktstrand." Zandvoort, where Amsterdam's LGBTQ scene decamps during the summer, has a stretch of sand set aside for nude recreation. It's a hike south from the train station, but check out the Havana Beach Club along the way. Near The Hague, the nudist beach for guys is in the Zwarte Pad dunes area at the popular Scheveningen seaside resort, which offers a pier, casino, sculpture garden, shopping and water sports.
A well-developed passenger rail network connects most major towns and cities with frequent service and two-thirds of the lines running on electricity. Stoptreinen or local trains, also known as Sprinters, stop at all stations, while intercities provide faster long-distance travel. The Thalys high-speed train, traveling at speeds of 300 km/hr, puts Amsterdam only a little over three hours from Paris.
The Dutch highway system will seem familiar to anyone who has driven elsewhere in Europe or in the US, but here the bicycle rules and has the right away over both cars and pedestrians. Many gas stations are entirely automated, so be sure you have a chip and PIN credit card. Given the parking challenges, you may want to opt for bicycles, which are easy to rent and have their own narrow highways in the countryside. To park a car in a big city, you'll have to pick up a blue parking disk from an automobile club, police department or tobacco shop, which entitles you to park wherever you see a blue line on the curb. Warning: Dutch tolerance doesn't include drunk driving. Penalties are severe.
The Netherlands has an extensive city and regional bus system. Paper tickets are long a thing of the past, but the OV-chipkaart swipe card is good travel on bus, tram and metro everywhere in the country. Buses generally run from 6 am to midnight, later on Sundays and holidays. Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague have tram service. Amsterdam and Rotterdam offer metro, ferry and water taxi options.
Schiphol International, one of Europe's largest airports, is the country's main airport and only 15-20 minutes by train from Amsterdam's Central Train Station. About 7-8 trains depart each hour except between 1 am and 5 am when service is limited to one an hour. Around 100 airlines operate out of Schiphol, but some low budget carriers like Ryanair, Transavia and Wizz Air fly out of the much smaller Eindhoven Airport, about two hours by train/bus from Amsterdam.