Suitcase Magazine: Groningen: Amsterdam of the North

Click here to view this article: 10 Reasons to Visit Groningen

About this article: I’ve been living in Groningen, Netherlands for over 2 years now. I have fallen in love with the city and it’s culture, and feel that it never gets the recognition it deserves. Since the website I wrote the article for put up a shorter and quite different version of what I felt comfortable with, I have put the original, longer version below.

When most people think of Netherlands, they automatically think of Amsterdam. Because of this, the city is visited by millions of tourists every year, and no longer represents real Dutch culture.

Groningen is a predominantly student city all the way in the north of Netherlands. Here, you will find real Dutch people, eager to show you the country for what it really is: kind people, lots of bicycles, and surprisingly good food (without those pesky tourists everywhere.)

1. Cafe Culture
Early in the morning is the best time to experience Groningen at its most peaceful. Passersby speak in hushed tones amid the sounds of bike wheels turning on pavement. The bells ring from the Martini Tower as the city begins to wake up. It’s the perfect time to seek out a cup of the really good kind of hot chocolate, with whipped cream and sprinkles of cinnamon on top.

While there are many cafes in Amsterdam, it’s hard to find that one perfect space where only the locals go and the whole place makes you feel as if you have stepped into a winter spice scented candle. Well, Groningen will give you just that.

P.S. Cafe, just around the corner from the University of Groningen is the go-to location for a warm drink and a sweet tooth fix. The smell of coffee and cinnamon greets customers as they walk in the door. The counter is lined with a variety of cakes and sweet treats. A big slice of carrot cake is absolutely recommended. This delectable dessert could inspire romantic fiction that would make you cry harder than a Nicholas Sparks novel.

If your sweet tooth is even bigger than usual, head over to Pure. They’re famous for their scrumptious donuts and frozen yogurt, but you can also get croissants, and what may become your personal achilles heel, red velvet cake. The interior has those old brick walls throughout; the kind that make you feel like Ernest Hemingway while you you write in your leather-bound notebook.

For a really authentic experience, stop in for a drink at a Dutch “brown cafe.” These cafes are exactly as described, with walls and tables completely covered in brown wood. The best place to find a few locals (especially some of the older generation) is Cafe De Sigaar. Take a seat at one of the long, communal tables. It’s highly likely a few older people will sit next to you and read the newspaper (if you’ve practiced some Dutch, strike up a conversation!)


2. Unique Shopping
While Amsterdam has tons of shopping, a city like Groningen takes it to a whole new level. Along Folkingestraat, an alley-way like street right in the center, you will find lesser-known clothing stores and boutiques (which means you don’t have to worry about seeing another girl in that cute new sweater you just bought.)

One of these unique shops is Baroche, a shop so mysterious there isn’t even a sign on the front. Step inside and you will find hard wood floors and brick walls adorned with dresses to die for, mostly made in Italy.

Across from this, you will find another clothing store, Simsalabim. They offer a unique selection of vintage inspired clothing, and dresses that will make you daydream of becoming a housewife in the 1950’s.

On the Herestraat and along the Vismarkt you can find all the modern stores you’ve heard of like Zara, and H&M. But, if you’re looking for something more unique, Groningen has a huge variety of vintage shopping and second-hand shopping.

Onder de Linde for example, has a vast array of designer and non-designer items for every taste. If you’re looking for a dress or a fancy outfit for a night out, go to April which is full of special occasion pieces (though they can be pricey compared to other second-hand shops.)

Mijn Tafel, a concept brought over from Finland, is full of shelves that people can rent and sell whatever they want. Here, you can find clothing, kitchenware, furniture, handmade art, and everything in between.

Every Friday an outdoor market is held in the Vismarkt (that means “fish market” in Dutch), under the watchful eye of the Der Aa-Kerk. Take a stroll around, and check out the items on sale from various vendors. Here, you can find freshly baked bread, mountains of Dutch cheese, fruit and vegetables. If you’re feeling brave you can visit a fish truck selling Dutch herring and kibbeling.

3. Tranquil Parks and Gardens
Vondelpark in Amsterdam is on every tourist’s to do list, which is why you will find it completely crowded with people everyday in summer.

If the skies are blue above Groningen, you will find all the locals at Noorderplantsoen, a big public park just a few minutes walk from the center. A substantial pond is situated in the middle, where in summer students lay on the grass, having barbecues and playing soccer. Every August, the Noorderzon Festival takes place here, where music, art, dance and theater performances take place and tons of street food is sold.

On that rare sunny day in Groningen, you should also head to the Prinsentuin Gardens, just a two minute walk from the Grote Markt (the main square.) The only thing separating this secret location from the big city surrounding it is a tall, brick wall. However, the second you walk in here, the madness of the world is left behind and you’re transported to an oasis. Sit on a bench and enjoy the view of rose gardens and the maze of hedges.

4. Those Famous Dutch Canals
Amsterdam is famous for all the canals, but did you know they aren’t the only city in Netherlands with these alluring waterways?

Take a walk along the Groningen canals, and treat yourself to a view from the Vissebrug bridge. Typical Dutch houses line the water and the tower of the gothic style Der Aa-Kerk church is visible in the distance.
If you still want a little tourist flavor, you can take a canal tour. Rondvaartbedrijf Kool gives 1 hour boat tours through the canals in the center all year long.

5. Museums
Amsterdam is famous for their museums that could take days to get through, but you could also spend whole days waiting in line to get into them. Groningen has a popular museum just across the street from the historical train station, the Groninger Museum.

Just the building itself looks artistic; built on top of the water as a type of island, with bright, modern colors. The museum has various collections including the history of Groningen, seventeenth-century drawings, and modern art.

6. Theaters

For something more relaxing, try the Groninger Forum, just a 2 minute walk from the museum. This movie theater takes a more old-school approach compared to the typical bigger theaters that show Hollywood Blockbusters. Here, you can watch artistic films, indie films, and documentaries. This theater even streams live shows. For example, they are currently streaming opera and ballet performances from the Royal Opera House in London.

7. Pubs and Bars
Amsterdam is famous as a party destination, but if you’re looking for an entertaining experience away from all the Bachelor parties and prostitutes, Groningen is a fantastic place to go out. It’s a student city, which means you won’t be short on parties and entertainment, especially on weekends.

For relaxing pubs where you can sit and relax, head to Zuiderdiep. Here, you will find Chaplin’s Pub, the perfect spot to sip a Heineken. Do a little people watching on this busy street, or converse with some of the many students who come here.

If you’re looking for more crowds and excitement, especially from Thursday to Saturday, head to Poelestraat. This area is full of clubs/bars, and is where most of the excitement happens in the city on Saturday nights.

Grand Cafe Time Out, is the perfect place if you’re looking to sit down or have a few pre-party drinks. From here, you can go across the street to either &Zo or Twister, two of Groningen’s most popular clubs.

8. Authentic Dutch Towns Nearby
If you’re lucky enough to have more than a couple of days in Groningen, head to the delightful town of Roden, just 15 minutes drive outside the city (buses are also easily available.) There is no place more authentically Dutch than a small town in the north of Netherlands. You might even spot a couple of people wearing wood clogs. This town has lots of little shops, and cafes to entertain you for a couple of hours.

If you’re here at the end of September, you will get to experience the Rodermarkt. This is a huge festival that covers the entire town, and includes a parade, horse racing/horse market, carnival, and a grand white tent that hosts a party every night for a week.

9. Nature and Real Fresh Air
In Amsterdam you will frequently be accosted by the smell of lingering marijuana, but in the surrounding areas of Groningen you will find nothing but fresh air.

Rent a bike, and set off for the Drentsche Aa National Park. The scenery here is superb, and with the Netherlands being as flat as it is, this is one of the few areas to see a few hills and sand dunes. Looking out at the view, you would be forgiven for thinking you were on a different planet, or at least in a different country. The air is crisp, and after a walk and cycle through the forest, your body will feel completely invigorated.

10. Gezelligheid
It’s likely you will hear the word “gezellig” at least once on your travels through Netherlands. Gezellig could be translated as “cozy,” though most Dutch people would tell you it can’t be translated at all.

It’s similar to the popular Danish concept of “Hygge” (think of a room with lots of candles, a fire, and maybe a cup of hot cocoa.) One big differerence between gezellig and hygge, however, is that gezellig is more about social connection.

If you can create a cozy atmosphere, you will need to find some friends or a lover to make it gezellig. The Dutch are experts at gezelligheid and if you learn how to say it you might be able to convince someone you speak a little Dutch.

If you want to experience a gezellig atmosphere, head to Drie Gezusters, one of Groningen’s biggest and most popular bars. From the outside it looks like 3 different bars, all with the most Dutch looking facades.
There are various rooms throughout, for example Groote Griet, a sports bar. You will also find a jazzbar, tikibar, jazzbar, pub and more (so, basically, you don’t even need to leave the entire night.)

The first mention of Groningen was in a letter dating back all the way to 1040. This is a city that feels utterly youthful with students biking around and bars completely full on Saturday nights, yet it still retains its historical past. Skip all the crowds and visit a city that is still in touch with its authentic, Dutch roots.

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