In spring, I was invited to explore two under-the-radar Dutch cities for cool kids: Breda and Nijmegen (that’s ‘bread-ah’ and ‘nigh-meg-an’ by the way). Most people I told of my upcoming Dutch adventure assumed I would be going to Amsterdam. “Where are these two cities? What are you going there for?” I was asked several times in the run-up. To discover two cool, forward-thinking Dutch city-break alternatives to Amsterdam rich in culture and history, with an emphasis on quality of life and caring for the environment, I replied.
Because let’s be honest, it’s hard not to feel guilty these days travelling by planet-unfriendly plane to places drowning in tourists. What’s more, Breda and Nijmegen are easily accessible by Eurostar – just three hours to Rotterdam from London – and offer lots of options to explore on foot or bike and for eating, drinking and shopping with a conscience. Are they worth the visit? The answer is a resounding, yes! Let me show you around!
Nijmegen -where to go, eat and sleep
Nijmegen is a clean, compact city – the oldest city in the Netherlands – set on the River Waal close to the German border in southern Holland. It has a beautiful old market square dating back to the 1500s filled with enticing cafes for your morning coffee stop. Its pretty cobbled streets are lined with townhouses and independent shops, and the vibe is young, thanks to its buzzy student population.
It’s also the country’s European Green Capital. Its historic centre is car-free, it boasts a staggering 60km of cycling ‘superhighways’, buses run on green fuel and initiatives are in place that encourages car-sharing. Not to mention a veggie and vegan dining scene and independent shopping options to rival any major city. It’s not surprising that Condé Nast Traveller named it one of the 10 best European destinations in 2022.
Things to do
Hang out by the River Waal. Locals have a love-hate relationship with the River Waal, dating back to the 1990s when it flooded the entire city and most residents had to be relocated. Today, it’s been regenerated to protect against flooding, which triggered a massive urban renewal project of the riverfront to include lots of outdoor space where life outside the city centre plays out, especially during spring and summer. The project also included the development of a new bridge over the Waal to solve mobility and accessibility issues.
Wander Lange Hezelstreet. This beautiful, cobbled street lined with typical Dutch townhouses is the oldest street in the Netherlands. What’s special about it is that despite its slap bag city centre location, it’s home to all kinds of small, quirky independent shops, rather than chain stores, including plenty selling vintage stuff like Bob and Bill above.
Ride on the Sun Train. Nijmegen is a walkable city but for a fun, novel way to get around and get to know Nijmegen, book a city tour on the Zonnetrein. This quiet and clean vehicle runs on solar power and has been specially developed to host tourist trips. Sit back and enjoy the ride while your guide tells you everything they know about Nijmegen. Alternatively, it can also be used for shuttle services or rides to a specific location or event.
Where to shop
Het Duurzame Waren Huis a sustainable department store that opened in 2014. It’s the largest of its kind in The Netherlands. They stock a carefully curated selection of stylish ethical products for a sustainable lifestyle from flasks and bird boxes to clothes and shoes. They’ve also started designing and selling their own women’s clothing line.
512 Nijmegen is a bright, modern boutique stocking clothes and jewellery all made by local designers. It’s also the only shop in the world – perhaps – that stocks second-hand plants! If you’re moving house and have too many, 512 will find them a new home. You can even leave a message with your plant for the new owner.
Where to eat
Restaurant De Nieuwe Winkel is great for a memorable splurge dinner. It has two Michelin stars – one of them green – for its surprising, experimental multi-course vegetarian tasting menus. Dishes are made of seemingly inedible herbs, roots, flowers, nuts and plants sourced from Ketelbroek, the first food forest in the Netherlands, a few miles from the restaurant. Think: acorns are turned into surprisingly moist seitan kebabs, green sunflower seeds become delicate risotto with wild garlic, tulip bulbs are used in miso with green asparagus, pine needles flavour dainty sweets, and chestnuts become fudge.
Cali is a small, buzzy veggie and vegan place open from 5pm each day. It feels more like a bar than a restaurant and specialises in beautifully presented (Instagrammable) vegan or vegetarian sharing board. Each one is packed with exciting little heaps of things to try like salads, bread, stuffed vine leaves, falafels, courgette-feta fritters, and loaded fries to enjoy with a margarita perhaps or a cool glass of local wine. It’s a good option for a fun date night or dinner with friends.
Bhalu is an all-in-one casual vegan café slash workspace slash serene basement yoga studio. With its hanging plants and low lighting, walking inside you feel the stress melt off straight away. It has a calming atmosphere and as well as yoga, people are invited into to sit quietly and do some work, catch-up with a friend over some healthy comfort food.
Where to stay
Guesthouse Vertoef. This simple boutique hotel is a short walk from the city centre. It’s one of the greenest hotels going: there are solar panels and heat pipes on the roof, bicycles are made with used frames and new parts, local products, organic coffee beans, and bamboo plates, but they’re always looking for new ways to be greener.
Breda – where to go, eat and sleep
Beautiful Breda is a small, walkable city in southern Holland just 10km from the city of Antwerp in Belgium. It has a rich cultural history and like Nijmegen, a youthful glow thanks to its small student population. It has pavement cafes, cool restaurants, craft shops, galleries, museuems and creative communities to explore.
Sustainability-wise, it’s doing lots of work to make the city a nicer place to live for residents, which includes reducing CO2 emissions and planting more trees. It’s also working towards being a zero-waste zone, doing away with plastic and encouraging a culture of upcycling and circular economies.
Take a ride on the water. Hire an electric boat or head out on an electric tour barge to get a feel for this green-focused refuge. The canals are put to good use to move residents around, while dozens of bikes silently glide over your head on the many bridges you’ll slip under. The banks are full of insects, greenery and are beautiful to look at, so slow down to Breda’s pace. Another place to access by electric boat is Belcrum Beach is situated on the riverbank. With a sandy spot for kids and decking for grown-ups, they serve locally sourced food and drinks.
Explore the riverside creative community STEK. This alternative business park community of upcycled studios, shops, restaurants and workshops is home to individual entrepreneurs who operate sustainable businesses. There’s a business that turns old bikes into new ones, recycles CDs into 3D printed lamps, a zero waste shop, a wine shop, a barbers made of upcycled windows and doors, Miss Meliz offering Tarot readings in her vintage caravan, counselling sessions on offer in a straw house and a cafe and bar. It also becomes the setting for a giant market where sustainable businesses gather to sell their products.
WHERE TO SHOP
Saunter over to the beautiful cobbled street Sint Annastraat where you’ll find a heavenly little shop selling houseplants called The Green Submarine, Saar Barbaars for handmade leather bags and J’Adore for vintage fashion.
Where to eat
BANK15 is a stylish creative collaborative space with the community at heart. You can come here to eat, join in a workshop or hear some live music. Food-wise, the menu changes because they welcome entrepreneurs to use their kitchen to try new concepts. They also offer people work experience so they can progress their careers in hospitality. If you’re looking for a fancy fun evening, head to Holy Moly, a cabaret and comedy club come fine dining vegan restaurant for one of their creative vegetarian tasting menus.
Where to stay
The Hotel Nassau Breda is set within a former Franciscan convent on the oldest street in Breda which was restored and reimagined into a luxurious hotel complex that opened in 2016. It comes complete with the original confessional booth in case you have any planet-unfriendly sins you need to get off your mind…
So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed your twin-city break to the hip, forward-thinking Dutch cities of Breda and Nijmegen!