Maastricht is the charming capital of the province of Limburg, right in the south of Netherlands, a finger of land between Belgium and Germany. It has narrow picturesque streets, small squares and lovely old houses, many from the 16th and 17th centuries. You also see remains of Roman ruins, medieval fortifications and old city walls, testament to its strategic importance at a European crossroads on the Meuse (Maas) River and to the fact that it withstood 21 sieges over the centuries.
Because of this history, Maastricht is the Netherlands’ most “European” city, a place where north and south meet at the crossroads of three EU countries that make up the Euregio Meuse-Rhine; a place where it’s hard to believe you’re still on Dutch soil. The people even speak a dialect of Dutch, which is accepted as the fourth language here in this economic triangle—the others are Dutch, French and German. We asked a waitress from Maastricht what the local people consider themselves as, and she replied that they’re “Limburgers” and are a little bit different to the Dutch. In fact, they call the people from the north “Hollanders,” she laughed.
Once it was the place where Roman and Germanic cultures collided, but today it’s a meeting place of all the various cultures of the different groups that tried to conquer it. For example, most people are Catholic (not Protestant) and Carnival is hugely popular. Church bells ring out happily, with spirited folk tunes, not solemn dirges.
Architectural and Other Diversity
There is also a greater architectural diversity throughout the city, from Roman remains to medieval walls and fortifications, to Romanesque, to French Gothic, to Baroque. You will also see onion-domed towers, imported from the East, and helm roofs much like those in the German Rhineland.
It’s a mix of old and new, with historic buildings next to trendy designer boutiques and bold modern statues, majestic churches and underground caves and casemates, stately squares and narrow streets, lovely café terraces and lively festivals. It even has pretty extensive vineyards nearby.
Several varieties of wine grapes, including Pinot Noir, Riesling and Müller-Thurgau, do well on the sunny slopes of the Jeker River Valley. Every year, Maastricht wine growers produce delicious, award-wining wines. In Netherlands?
Maastricht boasts some squares, small and large, with cafés and outdoor terraces in the sun, as it’s a little warmer here than in Amsterdam, for example, and the ambience is sometimes more Mediterranean. It’s also a city of fashion and shopping, along with wonderful arts and crafts. It’s said that Germans come to visit art exhibitions, buy ceramics and enjoy the French-Dutch cuisine; Belgian students love the nightlife here; and the northern Dutch come for the hilly countryside and a chance to release their Calvinistic inhibitions.
One place you can forget you’re in the Netherlands is on the huge Vrijthof Square, roughly in the center of the old city. When you stand in the middle of it and look around, it doesn’t appear or feel like other Dutch squares. It’s the cultural heart of the city, with a theater, museums, and spectacular churches. It’s usually wide and open, but also hosts jam-packed events: from Carnival to becoming the beautiful backdrop for concerts by local favorite André Rieu to the Preuvenemint, the Netherlands’ largest food festival.
The whole of the Maastricht city center has been declared a protected national monument. The highlights are all within walking distance, and it’s hard to lose your way on the charming, mostly car-free streets. The VVV (the Visitors’ Bureau, housed in the historic building Het Dinghuis) provides a great walking map, but you can always ask a local who’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.
The most beautiful, must-see spots in this historic city should include the following:
—Het Dinghuis. The name comes from the Dutch ‘dingen,’ which means ‘to administer judgement’. Until about 1650, it was the courthouse of Maastricht.
—Onze Lieve Vrouwe Basilika and its square. The towering Basilica of Our Lady, which looks almost like a castle, dates from before 1000 AD. The interior is dimly-lit but beautiful. The square in front of it has many trees that shelter a number of very good cafés.
—the city ramparts (the first dating to the early 1200s) and Helpoort, the oldest city gate in the Netherlands. It once served as a vital defense work, but today it houses an exhibition on the history of Maastricht as a fortified city. You can also walk on the walls.
—the city park, just outside the old walls. It’s lovely for walks and picnics and also has a small zoo.
—the Jeker Quarter is between the city center and the city park, bisected by the old city walls and the small Jeker River and mill streams. It has a history of crafts and trades, especially tanneries, and is now also home to the University of Maastricht.
—the City Hall, which was built from 1659-1664 by architect Pieter Post. The tower (1684) has a carillon with 49 bells that is still played regularly. The extensive outdoor market on the square takes place every Wednesday and Friday morning.
—the Vrijthof Square, with the historic red-towered St. John’s Church (Sint Janskerk), the massive St. Servatius Basilica (Servaasbasiliek), and the Museum aan het Vrijthof. Vrijthof is the unexpectedly huge square in the center of the old city, fringed with many outdoor cafés. The Museum is in the Spanish Government Building, where Charles V, King of Spain and Duke of Brabant, once stayed. Construction on the Basilica of St. Servaas started in 950 AD, with additions until the 15th century. Fairly austere outside, it’s very ornate inside and has a unique decorated portal, the Bergportaal. The Gothic St. John’s Church is now used by the Dutch Reformed Church and is fairly plain inside.
If you have more time, you can visit the casemates, take a river cruise, and explore the Wyck Quarter. Of course, you can always stop at one of the many lovely outdoor cafés and watch people passing by.