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The Hague Travel Guide

Binnenhof & Hofvijver, The Hague

The Hague ('s-Gravenhage in Dutch, shortened as Den Haag, La Haye in French ; pop. 475,000, with suburbs 600,000) is the third-largest city in the Netherlands. It is the former capital of the country, and is still the seat of the monarchy, government and judicial institutions (although Amsterdam has been the official capital since 1806). All foreign embassies and many lobbying organisations are located in the city.

The Hague is also the capital of the province of South Holland. It is in the middle of the Randstad metropolitan area comprising the urban area of coastal Holland (e.g. Amsterdam, Leiden, Rotterdam and Utrecht). With a total population of 6,660,000 inhabitants, the Ranstad is the 4th largest metropolitan area in the EU, after London, Paris and the Rhine-Ruhr region.


The Hague is the seat of over 150 international (legal) organisations. This includes the European Patent Office (EPO), the European Police Office (Europol), the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

Several large and international companies have their headquarters in The Hague, notably Royal Dutch-Shell, KPN and AEGON.

History

Dutch Parliament, The Hague (© jan kranendonk | iStockphoto.com)
Historic prison in the city centre, The Hague (© Clicks | iStockphoto.com)

The territory of The Hague was purchased in 1229 by Count Floris IV of Holland. His successor, William II, Count of Holland and King of Germany, who was supposed to become Holy Roman Emperor, constructed a castle there in 1248. He intended to live there after his coronation, but died in battle before he could be crowned. His castle was not finished, but parts of it survived and are now called the Ridderzaal (Knights' Hall). It is still in use for political events, such as the annual speech by the monarch on Prinsjesdag ("day of the princelings").

The city's full Dutch name, Des Graven Hage, literally means "The Count's domain", as a reference to William II's clearance in the forest to build his castle.

The later counts of Holland established their court there and transformed the small village into their administrative centre. The Staten-Generaal (the Dutch parliament) opened in 1446, and The Hague became the country's official capital in 1584. This explains why the city is still the seat of the Dutch monarchy, heir of the counts of Holland, nowadays.

Ironically, The Hague did not receive its first charter of city rights until 1806, during the French occupation. This makes it one of the youngest cities in the country, by official standard. It is probably the only place in Europe to have become a national capital before being recognised as a city.

Parts of the city sustained heavy damage during World War II. The Atlantic Wall was built through part of the city, causing whole neighbourhoods to be torn down by the German occupiers. On March 3, 1945, the Royal Air Force mistakenly bombed the Bezuidenhout district. The target was an installation of V-2 rockets in a nearby park. Due to navigational errors, the bombs fell on a heavily populated and historic part of the city. Over 500 people died and the scars in the city can still be seen today.

After the war The Hague was at one point the largest building site in Europe. The city expanded massively to the southwest. The destroyed areas were also quickly rebuilt. The population peaked at 600,000 inhabitants around 1965.


Attractions

Tramway station, The Hague (© jan kranendonk | iStockphoto.com)
Modern high-rise buildings at dusk, The Hague (© Jason Janetzky | iStockphoto.com)

Because of its peculiar history, The Hague does not have a substantial historical city centre like other cities in Holland. The sights are mostly limited to the area around the old castle, known as the Binnenhof ("inner court", housing the Dutch Parliament) and its wide moat, named Hofvijver ("court's pond").

Part of the Binnenhof compound, the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis is the most famous art museum in The Hague. Collections include paintings by famous Dutch painters such as Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Steen, Paulus Potter and Frans Hals and works of the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger. The original painting of the Girl with a Pearl Earring (after which the 2003 movie was named) is one of the most famous work in exhibit.

The Peace Palace (Vredespaleis) houses the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Hague Academy of International Law, and the extensive Peace Palace Library. It was constructed between 1907 and 1913 in Neo-Renaissance style. Guided tours are available in English, French, German and Dutch.

Suburbs

Kurhaus in Scheveningen (© Olivier Lantzendörffer | iStockphoto.com)
Pier in Schevening at night (© Bas Rabeling | iStockphoto.com)

The main beach resort Scheveningen, in the northwestern part of the city, is a popular destination for tourists and young people. With 10 million visitors a year it is the most popular beach town in the Benelux. The name 'Scheveningen' is reputedly one of the most difficult to pronounce for non-Dutch speakers, so that it was even used as a password by Dutch resistance fighters during WWII.

The high concentration of civil servants, expatriates and diplomats in The Hague has made it one of the best places to dine out in the Netherlands. The relatively small city boasts no less than 6 Michelin-starred restaurants (though all but one of them are in the upper-middle class suburbs of Rijswijk and Vorburg, or in Scheveningen).


How to get there

The Hague is located 25km north-west of Rotterdam, on the E19 motorway (Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris). The nearest airport is Rotterdam Airport, but daily flights are limited to London and Hamburg. The other flights are mostly holiday destinations in the Alps or the Mediterranean. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, the main international airport in the Netherlands is only 45 km away (about 30 min by train).

The Hague train station is served by the Thalys bullet train to Brussels (2h) and Paris (3h30min). There are frequent regular trains to Amsterdam (45min to 1h), Leiden (15min), Delft (15min), Gouda (20min), Rotterdam (25min), Utrecht (40min), and so on.

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