Maastricht

This southern Dutch jewel may well be Europe’s smallest cosmopolitan city. Home to a mere 125,000 inhabitants, the Netherlands’ oldest city was founded by the Romans, conquered by the Spanish and French, and nowadays situated on the border with Belgium and Germany. What you experience today is a city that feels more European than simply Dutch. Moreover, with more historic monuments than any other Dutch city apart from Amsterdam, an incredible choice of high quality restaurants, cafes and bars and surrounded by rolling hills and beautiful castles, Maastricht really is punching above its weight.

Yes, I might be just a tiny little bit biased since this is the city I was born and raised in, but trust me, not falling in love with this charming place is almost impossible. Over the past 2,000 years Maastricht was consecutively a Roman settlement, a medieval town, a fortified military bastion, an industrial city and a sleepy provincial capital, before it became a vibrant international student city. The fascinating thing is that elements of all these periods can still be found across the city, often right next to each other. Keen to experience it all? Here’s my list of essential to-do’s when in Maastricht:

  1. Wander through cobblestone streets and admire some of Maastricht’s 1677 national monuments
  2. Wyck and Ceramique: village vibes and avant-garde architecture
  3. Time for coffee and cake (or in this case: ‘vlaai’)
  4. Experience local student life
  5. Maastricht: Queen of Repurposing
  6. Industrial not-so-chic
  7. Get a taste of Maastricht’s joie de vivre
  8. Follow the footsteps of the Three Musketeers
  9. Try the regional cuisine (the Netherlands does have tasty food after all!)
  10. Hills and castles at a bike ride away

+ Maastricht’s Best… (IMHO)

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Wander through cobblestone streets and admire some of Maastricht’s 1677 national monuments

With no fewer than 1677 national heritage buildings, Maastricht has the second highest number of national monuments the Netherlands, after Amsterdam. But don’t expect any canals with narrow waterfront houses here. Conquered numerous times over the course of its long history, Maastricht is a city with a mix of architectural styles and a distinct European feel. It’s no coincidence that this is the birthplace of the EU!

Life in this city revolves around its many squares, which are connected by a network of small cobblestone streets. The most famous (and according to many the country’s most beautiful) square is the Vrijthof, which is flanked by cafes and terraces on one side and two stunning churches on the other: The Roman Catholic St. Servatius basilica (the city’s most important religious site) and the Protestant St. John’s church. Legend has it that the latter got its red colour from cow’s blood, which was used as a protective layer of coating. Ewww…

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Het Vrijthof: the most beautiful square in Maastricht (and perhaps even the whole country…)

Maastricht is a devout city, which becomes even clearer when heading to the nearby, more intimate Onze Lieve Vrouweplein, or Square of Our Lady (what’s in a name). Look through the sea of terraces and you’ll find the thousand year old Basilica of Our Lady and the adjacent Star of the Sea chapel. Its golden altar contrasts beautifully with the chapel’s blackened ceiling. I might not be religious myself, but even I light up a candle in this serene place whenever I’m in the area.

On the other end of the historic city centre is Market square, with at its heart the 17th century City Hall. Every Wednesday and Friday between 200 and 400 food and clothing vendors open up shop at the square, attracting large crowds from across the region, including many Belgians and Germans. On Saturdays the square is the scene of a big antiques market.

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Market Square at the end of the Friday fish market

Wyck and Céramique: village vibes and avant-garde architecture

When crossing the ancient St. Servatius Bridge from the historic city centre you’ll get to Wyck, a neighbourhood characterised by quaint streets with antique shops, independent boutiques and cozy restaurants. For brilliantly tasty chocolates visit Friandises – they even sold their famous praline chocolates to U.S. President Reagan (and never get tired of advertising it). You’ll find great coffee and lunch spots in the Wyckerbrugstraat (scroll down a bit further to find out about my favourite spots) and the Rechtstraat has some fabulous restaurants, such as seafood restaurant “O”, and bars, like speakeasy cocktail bar Mr. Smith (ring the doorbell at nr. 55 to get in).

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Are we in Paris? No, it’s Wyck, Maastricht’s rive droite!

Walk a bit further and Wyck’s little streets turn into elegant leafy avenues and – quite abruptly – old classic houses make way for modern building blocks. This is Céramique, a former ceramics industrial site that has been transformed into a modern district filled with contemporary architecture. The area’s two most prominent buildings are the futuristic Bonnefanten Museum (I’m still not sure if it looks more like a rocket or a tampon) and Centre Céramique, a library and exhibition space. Sit down for a drink at Café Zuid, which has one of the city’s most relaxing terraces with views over the new neighbourhood and the river.

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Café Zuid in the contemporary Céramique district

Time for coffee and cake (or in this case: ‘vlaai’)

All that sightseeing makes hungry – time for a coffee break, with cake of course. Since this is Maastricht, your drink won’t come with just any cake though. This is the home of the renowned vlaai: a pie filled with fruits traditionally grown in the region, such as cherries, strawberries, apricots and plums. But fillings of rice and custard or crumbled butter and sugar are also common. Vlaai is one of my favourite things in the world and in fact, I think you can’t leave Maastricht without having tried a slice of this deliciousness.

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OMG vlaaaaai!!!

There’s no bakery in the city that does not sell vlaai and you can get a slice of it at almost any café. However, one of the best AND most beautiful places to try it is the Bishop’s Mill (Bisschopsmolen), a seventh century water mill come bakery at the heart of the city. Their spelt vlaai is simply delicious. In Wyck, Patisserie Royale has been making some of the most delicious vlaai since 1929. Looking through their window it’s hard to withstand the temptation. They have a few seats inside so there’s no reason no to enter this finger-licking-ly good bakery. A bit more off the beaten track is Matthieu Hermans bakery, a favourite among locals many of whom say this bakery makes the best vlaai in town!

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Patisserie Royale in Wyck has been making vlaai since 1929

If it’s good coffee you’re after then there are plenty of places to choose from as well. Check out my favourite 10 coffee places in Maastricht.

Experience local student life

Home to university faculties as well as the drama academy and the conservatory, the Jekerkwartier is Maastricht’s student quarter. Although Maastricht University itself is young many of its faculties are based in beautiful old buildings, often former monasteries and government buildings. Visit the Student Services Centre for a coffee (from Coffeelovers, naturally) and take a look around this once Jesuit monastery.

Meandering through the neighbourhood is the tiny Jeker river. The constant sound of its streaming water, together with the music coming out of the windows of the conservatory building, contributes to the relaxed atmosphere here (which is one of the reasons why this is SUCH an enjoyable place to study!).

From here it’s a short walk to the country’s oldest remaining city gate: Hell’s Gate, which dates back to 1230. The gate is part of a longer stretch of city walls and towers, which continues all the way through the lush and leafy City Park.

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Hell’s Gate – who dares to pass?

At night, most students gather for a drink and a dance in the Platielstraat and the intimate Amorsplein, just off Vrijthof square. Personally, though, I prefer the slightly quieter (and cooler) Take Five bar, around the corner.

If its electronic music you’re after, then end your night at Complex. This new riverside night club was recently proclaimed one the country’s best and is a favourite among students.

Maastricht: Queen of Repurposing

Long before repurposing became a buzz word among the hipster communities in London and New York, Maastricht was already successfully finding new destinations for old, abandoned monuments that had lost their original purpose.

The university has played a major role when it comes to converting old buildings in the city. However, the most famous example of repurposing can be found in Boekhandel Dominicanen a bookshop and coffee shop inside a former gothic Dominican church. After losing its function as a church during Napoleonic times, the building was used as a warehouse, bicycle shed and events venue before being turned into a stunning bookshop. The British newspaper The Guardian even named it the most beautiful bookshop in the world. This place is indeed heaven for book (and Coffee)lovers.

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Boekhandel Dominicanen, inside a former Dominican church

And for those who can’t get enough of converted churches and monasteries there’s even the option to stay the night in one! The Kruisherenhotel is a design hotel located inside a 15th century former monastery and arguably the most beautiful place to spend the night in Maastricht. If that’s a bit above your budget, just walk in to admire the breath-taking lobby in the gothic chapel. You’ll be in awe!

Industrial not-so-chic

Speaking of repurposing… Something very exciting is happening in and around the former factories of ceramics producer Sphinx, just north of Market square. After more than 170 years, production ended in 2008 and many of the historic factory buildings were left empty and desolated. But now things are changing. The move of arthouse cinema Lumière to the factories’ former electric power station was a catalyst for further regeneration of what has become the Sphinx Quarter.

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The iconic former factories of Sphinx are being given a new life

The area’s most iconic structure, the 180 meter long white Eiffel Building has just been renovated and reopened as a Student Hotel, bar (The Commons) and co-working space. The adjacent industrial buildings are currently being turned into an interior design department store and a coffee roaster.

In the meantime, pop concert hall De Muziekgieterij and exhibition space Bureau Europa have also set up shop in the area and a nearby former fire station has reopened as a super-duper cool café and lunch spot called De Brandweerkantine.

Lumière itself has a wonderful restaurant and a terrace with views of the inner-city harbour ‘t Bassin and the place has quickly become a new favourite among locals (myself included!).

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Arthouse cinema Lumiere is based inside a former power station in the young and innovative Sphinx Quarter

Get a taste of Maastricht’s joie de vivre

One thing that locals in Maastricht LOVE doing – weather permitting – is heading out to one of the gazillion terraces in town for a cup or glass of something and observe city life. People here know how to enjoy life and there are few other places in the Netherlands with such a strong sense of joie de vivre.

Apart from Vrijthof square, which is lined with terraces, a popular spot to enjoy a drink in the sun (if it’s there) is the more intimate Onze Lieve Vrouweplein, which is turned into one big open air terrace as soon as spring arrives. Prefer something less crowded? Then check out the cozy terraces around the Koestraat or the beautiful, leafy terraces of Café Sjiek and Café Lure in the Jekerkwartier. Near Market Square, cultural centre Marres has a Mediterranean-style restaurant with a gorgeous garden. CINQ in Wyck has a stunning new terrace on the river bank overlooking the Meuse and the old city. And did I already mention Café Zuid…? You can find more Maastricht terrace tips here!

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As soon as the sun comes out the Onze Lieve Vrouweplein is turned into one big terrace

This lust for life is also expressed during the city’s yearly Carnival celebrations. OK, this might not be Rio de Janeiro, but I’ve witnessed Carnival in quite a few places and no one does it quite like the Mestreechteneeren do it. A week long, shops, schools, offices and public institutions are closed while thousands of people put on their craziest costume and gather in cafes and on the squares and streets of the city for one of the biggest street parties in Europe. So, if you’re in the mood for a proper celebration, take yourself and your wackiest outfit to Maastricht in February or March – this is where it’s at!

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Follow the footsteps of the Three Musketeers

If you’ve read the Three Musketeers or seen one of its film adaptations you will know the story of d’Artagnan, the famous captain of the Musketeers of the Guard, who joins three other prominent members of the French elite corps in their quest to defend king and country. What you might not know is that d’Artagnan really existed and that he died in battle in Maastricht in 1673, as part of an attempt of the French king to conquer the city.

At the time, Maastricht was a heavily defended garrison city, complete with fortifications and tunnels, much of which has been preserved. Just west of the city centre lies a network of underground defence tunnels, or casemates, that were used to secretly approach the enemy. It is here that d’Artagnan was killed (a large nearby statue of him commemorates the event). A guided tour of the casemates, which were in use up until the 80s as a shelter in case of war, is a fascinating experience.

For more fortified fun, head to Fortress St. Peter just outside the city, which was built on the hilltop from which d’Artagnan and his comrades attacked Maastricht. Even if you’re not into history, the views from here are to die for!

Try the regional cuisine (the Netherlands does have tasty food after all!)

When you think of the Netherlands you may not necessarily think of amazing local food. And let’s face it, Dutch food is not that great, unless you love bread and mashed potatoes. In the south, however, things are a little different. Due to its proximity to the border, Maastricht not only has some great Belgian and French restaurants, the regional cuisine also has a bit of added international flavour.

The most famous regional dish is zoervleis. This sweat-sour meat stew made of marinated horse or beef meat is typical of the Maastricht region, but it’s also eaten across the border in Belgium and Germany. You can grab it as a to-go snack with French fries and mayonnaise at Friture Reitz at Market Square (if you don’t mind queuing), but most locals agree the best zoervleis is served at Café Sjiek (who also have a gorgeous private terrace btw).

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Zoervleis is a local classic you have to try when in Maastricht

Other local classics include knien in ‘t zoer, a sweet-sour rabbit dish, and bloedworst, Maastricht’s version of black pudding.

Fancy tasting any of the above? Apart from Café Sjiek, other lovely regional restaurants are Pieke Potloed and De Compleminte!

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The St. Servatius Bridge, the oldest bridge in the Netherlands

Hills, caves and castles at a bike ride away

Unlike much of the rest of the country, Maastricht is situated above sea level and is surrounded by what the Dutch sometimes like to refer to as mountains but what are in fact just gentle hills. The highest point of the Netherlands (300 meters, whoop!) is located not far from Maastricht and just outside the city centre you’ll find the Sint Pietersberg, or Mount Saint Peter, which offers stunning views both above and below ground. Above ground because the hill provides a beautiful panorama of the city and surroundings and below ground because Mount Saint Peter is the site of 80 kilometres of tunnels and caves, which were dug over the centuries to win limestone and were used as a shelter during times of war. Nowadays, the tunnels and caves – which include beautiful mural paintings – are open to visitors, though always go with a guide because you don’t want to get lost in this underground labyrinth!

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The river Jeker meandering through the hilly countryside just outside Maastricht

Cycling or hiking through the hilly countryside on the flanks of Mount Saint Peter you’d almost think you’re in France, especially when passing the vinyards of De Apostelhoeve or the magnificent Château Neercanne, a 17th century baroque terrace castle, which has a Michelin star restaurant and a café with wonderful views of the valley. Bring on that cheese platter and glass of something… Yes, life is good in the south!

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Château Neercanne

(Oh, and if you want to carry on exploring, beautiful Aachen (Germany) and lovely Liège (Belgium) are just across the border and are defo worth a visit too!)

Maastricht’s best… (IMHO):

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