Whenever I want to get away from it all, I grab a good book and catch a train to an as-far-away-as-possible location. What’s better than a long train ride, than staring out of the train window to landscapes and towns passing by, than reading a book while in motion. One of my favorite destinations for such an escape is the city of Groningen in the north of the Netherlands. Read on to find out why you should visit Groningen!
If you are visiting the Netherlands as a tourist you may also want to escape the crowds, enjoy a long ride through the Dutch countryside and visit an off the beaten track destination. In that case, Groningen is perfect. You can visit Groningen as a (long) day trip or use it as a base to explore the northern provinces of the Netherlands. Read on to find out more about this northern town!
Groningen is a lively university town with lots of historical highlights and interesting museums to visit. However, (some of) these things could also be said about some other Dutch towns that are a lot closer to Amsterdam or Rotterdam. For example about Amersfoort, Zwolle, Utrecht or Leiden.
So why choose Groningen anyway? Firstly: Groningen is the most off the beaten track destination of this list. And secondly: Groningen is the perfect base from which to explore the northern part of the Netherlands. Specifically the provinces of Groningen and Drenthe.
Underneath I’ll expand a bit on these 4 aspects:
- Groningen as a lively university town
- Groningen as a historical city
- The museums of Groningen
- Using Groningen as a base to explore the north of the Netherlands.
(1) Groningen is a lively university & student town
Groningen has had a university since 1614 which makes it into the second oldest university in the Netherlands, after Leiden University. The city has 28.000 students on a total population of 230.000 people, so has a relatively young population. This explains why there are so many bars, café’s and nicely priced restaurants.
Visiting the university of Groningen
In case you’re interested, university buildings are spread all over Groningen. You’ll come across them when you explore downtown Groningen. The most impressive building to me is the Academy building in the center of town. Another option to learn more is to visit the University Museum, (address: Oude Kijk in ‘t Jatstraat 7a) that is opened Tuesdays to Sundays from 12.00 to 17.00.
Bars, brewpubs and nightlife in Groningen
Groningen is a cool place to enjoy the pleasures of life. Compared to similar sized towns such as Tilburg and Eindhoven it has a huge amount of bars and restaurants, especially in the area around Grote Markt. If you want to discover Groningen nightlife check out this website as I am not a nightlife kind of person myself :-). However, I recently wrote a blog about the hotspots for craft beer in Groningen, check it out if you enjoy drinking local beers.
(2) Groningen is a historical city
The oldest documents relating to Groningen date from the 11th century. Unfortunately this doesn’t mean that you’ll find many medieval buildings in this city. Most buildings were built of wood in those days and have by now disappeared. The oldest stone buildings still standing date from the late Middle Ages. For example the Martinikerk (the main church) with its high tower and the Der Aa-church, though both have more recent additions to them. The oldest residential buildings date back to the 15th century and now house the Naval museum.
You’ll spot many monuments from the 16th and 17th centuries in Groningen, next to 20th century architecture. Groningen was heavily damaged during the liberation in 1945, as you will see during your visit. It’s a mixture of older and newer buildings here.
A view of Groningen from above
Why not start your tour in Groningen with a view from above? The traditional place to do this would be on top of the Martini-tower, the highest tower in town. If you are a little more lazy and if you don’t want to pay an entrance fee, go to the Forum building instead. This new library/cinema/museum/bar has a huge rooftop terrace from which you can see the entire city of Groningen. Just take the escalators and enjoy the view, free of charge.
The Groningen tourist information office is on the ground floor of the Forum building. Pay them a visit for a map or suggestions for city hikes, museums, restaurants and other things to see and do.
Visit the historical city center of Groningen
In my opinion, the best way to explore a new city is to stroll around. The city center of Groningen is small and easily explored on foot. Go to the tourist information for guided tours or for maps of hiking trails through town. Or download your GPS tracks from a hiking website, for example:
- City hike along the edges of the city center of Groningen, 9 km
- Shopping tour in Groningen, 6 km
- 7 km hiking tour through the city of Groningen
During your hike you will pass by many of the places that I mention in this blog, such as the Martinikerk and its high tower, the Der Aa-church, the oldest residential buildings, the railway station, the Groninger museum and the Academy building. Other interesting places are the Prinsentuin, a romantic stonewalled garden with an 18th century sundial and some hidden historical courtyards, such as the Peltergasthuis or the Saint Anthony Gasthuys.
Groningen center is surrounded by canals filled with older and newer boats, some of them houseboats. Don’t forget to take a look at the canals, the boats and the warehouses or to enjoy the view from one of the terraces along the canals.
(3)The museums of Groningen
You’ll spot it immediately when you leave the Groningen railway station: the Groninger Museum. Opinions about the colorful building differ: one may call it a birthday cake gone horribly wrong, the other admires its postmodern design, which is actually the work of several architects and designers. One thing is sure: you won’t walk by this building without noticing it.
The Groninger Museum is several things at the same time:
- Its exhibitions usually focus on modern art. That could be paintings, but also furniture, fashion, ceramics or glass objects.
- At the same time this museum houses the historical collection of the city of Groningen that includes objects from the Stone age as well as portraits of famous citizens.
- And last but not least the Groninger Museum collects art from 20th century local artists such as printer H.N. Werkman and the 1920’s local modern art movement De Ploeg that portrayed the local countryside.
The building itself is also worth your attention. It’s a bit of a labyrinth with stairways and underground or underwater passages that will take you to the different pavilions of the museum.
With so many different things to see there is always something interesting going on for everyone I guess, provided you enjoy art and architecture. Check out their English website to be sure.
Address: Museumeiland 1, Groningen
closed on Mondays and some holidays
Website Groninger Museum (English)
Graphic Museum GRID
A second museum worth your time is GRID, at least, if you’re interested in the art of printing. Groningen has always been an important graphic city. Around 1900 the printing companies in the city were even its largest economic engine. In recent decades, the graphic profession has changed enormously due to the development of photographic and digital techniques.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of printing in Groningen, see old printing presses and letter boxes, go to GRID! They’re housed in central Groningen in the beautiful former city archive. They have volunteers who can explain and show how the presses work.
Address: Sint Jansstraat 2, Groningen
closed on Mondays
Website GRID (only in Dutch)
(4) Using Groningen as a base to visit the northern provinces
Groningen is the transport hub for the province of Groningen. There are local trains and buses to the villages of Groningen province from Groningen (city) railway station. It also has good connections to Assen, that in its turn is the transport hub for Drenthe province.
Think for example of visiting one or more of these places:
- The typical villages of North Groningen such as Bedum, Stedum and Loppersum.
- The seal center in Pieterburen
- Lauwersmeer National Park, for birds and the darkest nights in the Netherlands
- The wadden island Schiermonnikoog (take a bus to Lauwersoog to catch the ferry)
- The fortifications at Bourtange (still quite a trip from Groningen, I admit!)
- The hunebedden in Drenthe, Stone Age graves built with huge rocks
- Kamp Westerbork in Drenthe, a transit camp for Jewish people in World War II
- Prison Museum Drenthe
How to get to Groningen by public transport
There are direct trains to Groningen from Rotterdam, The Hague, Amsterdam (railway station Amsterdam Zuid!), Utrecht, Amersfoort, Zwolle and Leeuwarden. Count on 2,5 hours from Rotterdam and The Hague and 2 hours from Amsterdam Zuid. As the connections are good it is possible to visit Groningen as a long day trip from say Amsterdam.
Don’t forget to check out the Groningen railway station itself! It was built in the late 19th century and was designed by Isaac Gosschalk who also designed the Westergasfabriek buildings in Amsterdam. The ceiling of the central hall of this railway station is also worth a short detour.