Groningen isn’t the first destination in The Netherlands of which one might think. It’s invariably Amsterdam that gets that accolade, and a very fine city it is. But Groningen, in the north of this, one of my favourite countries in Europe, is like an accessible snapshot of all things Dutch. Groningen might be a distance from Amsterdam but it couldn’t be easier to get to. There are direct flights from the new Southend Airport, and travel from that portal is an uncrowded joy at the moment.
The first major settlement in Groningen has been traced back to the third century AD. It became the regional centre of power of the northern Netherlands, a semi-independent city-state and member of the German Hanseatic League. This was, as I am sure you will remember from your history books, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns, that controlled trade along the coast of Northern Europe. The most influential period of the city was the end of the 15th century, when the nearby province of Friesland was administered from Groningen.
This vibrant and beautiful town is the main municipality as well as the capital city of the eponymous province in the Netherlands. Yes, that’s a mouthful but the stats are, simply, with a population of 190,000 it is the largest city in the north of Holland. These days Groningen is more known for education than trade. It’s a university town with 1 in every 5 inhabitants being a student. It houses the University of Groningen and the Hanze University of Applied Sciences.
The imposing Martinitoren (Martini Tower) was built in the 15th century and it still dominates the city at around 100 metres tall. It was the highest building in Europe at the time. The city’s independence came to an end when it chose to join forces with the Spanish during the Eighty Years’ War in 1594. It later re-joined the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.
The city did not escape the devastation of World War II in which The Netherlands suffered so much. The main square, Grote Markt, was largely destroyed in April 1945, during the Battle of Groningen. However, the Martinitoren, its church the Goudkantoor, and the city hall remained undamaged. The Germans agreed not to use Martinitoren and the advancing Canadian troops agreed not to shell it, although there was a little collateral damage.
The Tower contains a brick spiral staircase of 260 steps, and the carillon at the top of the tower contains 62 bells. It’s considered to be one of the main tourist attractions of Groningen with a view over the city and surrounding area if you can manage all those steps.
Groningen has been described as the “World Cycling City” because nearly 60% of journeys within the city are made by bicycle. As with most Dutch cities, Groningen is well equipped to accommodate all those cyclists. There is the usual large network of cycle paths to enable visitor and local alike to reach the most interesting spots around town. There is a good public transport service and a large pedestrianised precinct in the city centre.
The city centre offers great retail therapy opportunities. This is a university city so along with designer labels one can find more ‘eclectic’ fashion in markets as well as boutiques. The market square is fringed with bars and restaurants which offer everything from fine dining to fast food. Yes, The Netherlands does have food and it’s very good. Don’t think just cheese but consider succulent seafood. More here than pancakes so try some local specialities like the Mustard Soup. And then there is fladderak. This is a drink which is named after a tax collector from Groningen. The liqueur is distilled using a secret recipe of the Hooghoudt family, developed at the end of the nineteenth century and it’s flavoured with cloves. ‘Groninger koek’ is the local spiced cake – delicious with a cup of coffee and a nice sit down.
Groningen has a celebrated nightlife as one would expect with such a huge student population. Bars in the centre of town are allowed to stay open 24 hours a day so it’s amazing any exams are ever passed. But there is also culture aplenty. The Groningen Museum is considered one of the most striking museums in the Netherlands. It sits on a canal, in fact part of it is actually under water level. It’s contemporary and reflects splendidly the arts held within. This is a museum for those who think they don’t like museums.
OK, so the kids might take some persuading that a museum will be good for their souls so there is a new and striking 3D experience at the futuristic and equally noteworthy new Infoversum building in Groningen. They will be offering visual events on dates throughout the year so visit https://www.infoversum.nl to learn more. The cinema facilities here are outstanding.
Groningen is a delightful introduction to Holland. It’s a gentle city with plenty to do for visitors of all ages. For those who enjoy an active break there are walks and bike rides. It’s a town with a young population so those who are the hardest to please in the group, with perpetual designer-bored expressions, will be distracted by edgy fashion, trendy (is that still a word) shopping and vibrant neighbourhoods. There is lots of more traditional culture for the rest of us.
Groningen Airport Eelde
Machlaan 14a, 9761 KT Eelde
PO box 50,
9765 ZH Paterswolde
Phone: +31 (0)50-309 70 70 (Monday – Friday)
Find out more about flights to Groningen here
London Southend Airport Company Limited
Southend on Sea
Tel: +44 (0) 1702 538500
Fax: +44 (0) 1702 538501
Car Park Enquiries
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018