Dordrecht (pop. 120,000) is the southernmost city of South Holland and of the Ranstad metropolitan area. It has the particularity of being surrounded by water, sitting on an island in between the Old Meuse (Oude Maas), New Merwede (Nieuwe Merwede), the Lower Merwede (Beneden Merwede), the Dordtsche Kil and the Noord.
The main attraction is the old town, with its surprisingly tilting fašades. It is a shame that half of the historic centre has been scared by ugly, modern social lodging.
Despite its easy access half-way on the railway between Amsterdam and Brussels, Dordrecht remains pretty much off the beaten tourist tracks. Streets here are less clean than in Delft or Haarlem, while restaurants and hotels are more sparse too. The city has a lower-class feel caused mostly by the large immigrant population.
During carnaval, Dordrecht is nicknamed the Ooi- en Ramsgat (Ewe's and Ram's hole), and its inhabitants are the Schapenkoppen (Sheepheads).
The origin of those names comes from an old folk story about two men trying to escape the local tax on imported livestock. It is said that sometimes in the 17th century, two men dressed up a sheep they had bought outside the city, attempting to disguise it as a man. When the threesome passed through the city gate, the sheep bleated and was uncovered. That is why nowadays, tourists can buy sheep-related souvenirs in Dordrecht.
The name Dordrecht comes from Thyre, the name of the river, and Middle Dutch drecht (channel), meaning "Thure river crossing".
First mentioned in 1049, Dordrecht obtained city rights in 1220. In 1253 a Latin school was founded, which still exists today as the Johan de Witt Gymnasium - the oldest gymnasium in the Netherlands.
On 17th April 1421, the Saint Elisabeth's flood drowned large parts of southern Holland, causing Dordrecht to become an island. Over 100,000 people died in the flood.
In 1572, representatives from all cities from Holland and Zeeland gathered in Dordrecht. They held their first free assembly in Het Hof ("the court", off the Groenmarkt) to declare their independence from Spain and appoint William I of Orange as the ruler of the fledgling Dutch state.
In 1618/1619, an important church meeting took place, called the synod of Dordrecht, settling a theological dispute between the orthodox Calvinists (founded by the French Jean Calvin) and the liberal Arminians (founded by the Dutch Jacobus Arminius) that had brought the country on the brink of civil war. The Arminians were defeated, resulting in the formulation of the Dordrecht Confession of Faith, on 21 April 1632.
From 1780 to 1787, Dordrecht was home to the Patriots faction which intended to remove the hereditary Stadtholder position held by the House of Orange-Nassau. The Netherlands was after all a republic de jure. Soon after, more cities followed and William V fled from Holland. But his brother-in-law, King Frederick William II of Prussia, came to the aid of William V and on 18 september 1787, Dordrecht capitulated to Prussian troops. The Patriots were defeated and Willem V was restored in his position as Stadtholder. Eight years later, the French revolutionary troops entered the country, helped depose the House of Orange-Nassau and proclaimed the Batavian Republic.
Dordrecht traded primarily in wine, wood, and cereals. However, from the 18th century, trade started to diminish to the profit of Rotterdam. Nowadays, the economy of Dordrecht is based on the wood industry, the steel industry, and ship building.
Dordrecht has a relatively well preserved historical centre, with many houses dating back to the 17th century. Apart from the white neoclassical Stadhuis (town hall), Het Hof, and the usual churches, there aren't really specific buildings that need to be mentioned. The best way to visit the city is to stroll through its narrow streets looking at the handsome merchant houses along the canals (and ignore the modern eye-sores in some streets). The Grote Markt (town square) was completely destroyed and replaced by soulless social housing, making it the least attractive town square in the whole Low Countries.
The main museum in town is the Dordrechts Museum, which holds works by local artists, such as Albert Cuyp (1620-1691) and Jan van Goyen (1596-1656). The Simon van Gijn Museum, the home of a wealthy banker and collector, is also interesting.
How to get there
Dordrecht is about halfway between Breda and Rotterdam. Trains take only 15 min from either city.
If you are coming by car, Dordrecht is at the junction between the E19 (Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris) and the E31 (from Nijmegen).
Ask your travel questions on the Benelux Travel Forum