If your knowledge of the small European country the Netherlands, also known as Holland, does not extend beyond the capital Amsterdam, listen closely. The Netherlands has much more to offer than just an array of blinding red lights and infamous smoke trails. Students who study in the Netherlands will find themselves surrounded by picturesque cobbled streets, perfect uniformed bike paths, historic university buildings and a country which is as modern and structured as it is historic and relaxed.
Geography & Demographics
One of the world’s most densely populated countries, the Netherlands has a population of approximately 16.8 million people, so 16,000 people per square mile. It’s a small country but doesn’t feel crowded the way New York or Boston does. Because of, or perhaps despite of, its small size, the Dutch really know how to make the best use of the space they have. Each apartment or house will be perfectly decorated to fit its tiny layout. A scrap of grass out front will be transformed into a slice of garden paradise.
Travelling around the country is no problem. The longest train ride from the northernmost city to the southernmost city will take just three hours. The Netherlands is nestled between Germany, Belgium, and the North Sea in Western Europe. Twenty percent of the land is located below sea level and 50 percent of the land is less than three feet above it. Nearly all the areas below sea level are man made and the country has many canals, seaways, and elaborate drainage systems to preserve the country from sinking into the sea.
The Netherlands is a gateway to the rest of Europe and includes easy access to the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, Denmark, and Italy. Schiphol Airport (less than 30 minutes from Amsterdam) serves flights daily to all of Europe, as well as America, Asia, Africa, and Australia. With an excellent high speed train system also serving the country and beyond, exploring other European countries during or after your studies is just one more incentive to choose Holland.
The Netherlands has a temperate climate, with mild summers and cool winters. During fall, whatever is left of the summer heat is swiftly replaced with drastic temperature drops and cool evenings. Temperatures average between 44 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit.
During winter, darkness swiftly falls by 5 p.m. On average, snow can fall from November to March and freezing temperatures occur from mid November to early March. Temperatures average 19 to 33 degrees Fahrenheit.
In spring, the Dutch emerge from their homes and completely embrace the handful of bright days that consume the cold. The best time to be there is over summer, with sunshine and temperatures ranging from low 60s to mid 90s.
Food & Culture
The official language is Dutch but don’t be surprised when the majority of natives effortlessly switch to perfect English. Another official language is Frisian which is spoken in the northern province of Friesland. The Netherlands has a big immigration community so you may hear Turkish, Arabic, Indonesian, and French being spoken. In January 2002 the Netherlands converted from their currency from the Dutch Guilder to the euro joining other euro-using countries such as Germany, France, and Spain.
Due to its colonial past and multicultural future, food is an interesting fusion of hot and cold treats, sweets, spices, and treats. Indonesian food is a big part of Dutch cooking, as the country was a colony of the Netherlands up until World War II.
Be adventurous and try foods such as gado gado (vegetables with peanut sauce) or bami goreng (noodles with spicy sauce and meat). A Dutch delicacy is raw herring, which the Dutch purchase from side stalls and eat raw with onions. Stroopwafels are for people with a penchant for sweets and consist of two super thin waffles with gooey caramel sauce in between.
Dutch culture is playful and noticeably contradictory. Some rules are followed explicitly while others seem unimportant. For example, always bring your own bags to the supermarket and firmly follow the biking rules. But, they won’t mind if you walk your dog and don’t pick up the droppings, and it is encouraged to dress in the craziest outfit possible and parade through the streets. The simple rule of Dutch culture is this – you can do whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t bother anyone else directly.
The Netherlands is renowned for being an open, direct, and inviting culture. This country was the first in the world to legalise gay marriage; sexism and homophobia is generally not tolerated within the big cities. Smoking marijuana (there are rules on quantity and locations) is legal, as is prostitution. The Dutch are an extremely social culture. They can be found drinking and milling in the cafes and bars which crowd the pavement any day of the week.
The Dutch’s biggest activity and national public holiday is Queen’s Day (King’s Day from 2014). It falls on April 30 and commemorates the king or queen who resides above parliament. This year the Queen abdicated and handed her throne to her son, hence the holiday name change. This is a special day to experience real Dutch culture as everyone dresses up in orange (the national color), drinks all day, crowds on boats throughout every canal, and celebrates well throughout the night and next morning.
Studying in the Netherlands
Holland's largest cities are Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht. Utrecht University is ranked as the number one university in the Netherlands and is in the top 50 best universities throughout the world. Popular areas of study include Humanities (with classes taken in beautiful historic buildings scattered around the city center) and Law and Environmental Studies (taken at the Uithof Campus, which is 15 minutes out of the city center). Fifty percent of all classes are taught in English which gives international students many options.
The majority of students live in on campus student accommodations in these cities. Accommodations vary from two bedroom apartments to seven person apartments and prices go from mid range to expensive. Another option is to organize your own accommodation from home or after arriving in the country. Most universities and program providers will help you with this. For example, Utrecht University’s official web page has a full list of websites to look at if considering this option. Living with Dutch roommates in or around the city is a great way to immerse yourself in the culture and have a unique study experience.