Discover the foundations of Vincent van Gogh’s famed paintings by heading to where it all began in North Brabant, the Netherlands. Experience the salt-of-the-earth locals, rural landscapes and rolling heathlands that were so dear to this virtuoso painter.
When thinking of Vincent van Gogh, the first thing that springs to (my mind) mind are bright yellow sunflowers, vibrant blue starry landscapes, and an abundant use of color. It turns out this is but part of the painter’s work. His earlier compositions could not be more different: darker, moodier, and a lot more visceral.
I was curious to learn more about Vincent van Gogh and what inspired these early works. So I headed to the Netherlands, more specifically to the province of North Brabant, where the famous post-impressionist was born and spent the first part of his life.
Read on to explore North Brabant in the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh. Learn about the various villages he lived in, the plethora of museums covering parts of his life, and the Vincent van Gogh National Park.
North Brabant Quick Guide
WHERE TO STAY
OFFICIAL TOURISM WEBSITE: Van Gogh Brabant Tourism Website
HOW TO GET AROUND: We decided to take the car and make it a road trip.
INSPIRATION: Read more articles on The Netherlands
Discovering Van Gogh’s Birthplace: Zundert
Historical Background of Vincent van Gogh in Zundert
The unassuming town of Zundert lies a stone’s throw from the Belgian border. It would be easy to skip a visit to the bolthole as, though quaint, it misses the “wow”-factor of its more famous canal-lined neighbors. Yet it is in this very place that the story of Vincent van Gogh starts.
Born on March 30, 18,53 in the house that is now the Van Gogh House museum. Vincent would go on to spend his first 11 years in Zundert. Born into a deeply religious family (his father was the local minister of the Dutch Reformed Church), it was decided Vincent would be homeschooled while in Zundert.
The shy and introverted Vincent sought refuge in the surrounding farmlands and it was reported he would go on long walks into the countryside. This would be a lifelong habit as he continuously sought inspiration from nature. The landscapes of North Brabant form an important theme in van Gogh’s early works.
What to See and Do in Zundert
1. THE VAN GOGH HOUSE
Truth be told the Van Gogh House itself pales in comparison to the Van Gogh Village Museum in Nuenen. That is, unless you are lucky enough to visit the museum with a knowledgeable guide. We got extraordinarily lucky on this front. If you can, ask for Jacques van Tichelt as your guide.
The museum itself is partially built within the remnants of the house van Gogh was n in. Inside you will find information about his early years and specifically the van Gogh family dynamic. A rotating temporary exhibition and a cozy café overlooking a small garden with a water well used by the van Gogh family are also part of the museum.
Walk to the side of the museum to see the beautiful statue of Vincent and his brother Theo by Ossip Zadkine. To the left, a red-bricked church where van Gogh’s father once preached. Available to visit upon request, with a guide.
What sets this museum apart though is its Artist in Residence program. Each year one lucky artist is chosen from hundreds of applicants to live in the artist’s studio near the Van Gogh house, working on their craft. In doing so, a little bit of Vincent’s legacy gets passed through to the next generation.
For those travelers handy with Google Earth, try zooming in on the Van Gogh house and you are in for a surprise. At the front of the museum, a larger-than-life mosaic was laid forming the image of …van Gogh! Sadly it requires either a drone or Google Earth to actually see it.
TIP | Every year Zundert throws the magnificent flower parade. Larger-than-life floats adorned with a kaladeiscope of flowers parade through the streets.
Delve Into Van Gogh’s Early Life: Nuenen
Historical Background of Vincent van Gogh in Nuenen
Van Gogh lived in Nuenen from 1883 to 1885. The town Nuenen, was not only Van Gogh’s home but also a place where he found a deep connection to the local community and the rural way of life. It is here that he painted the famous “The Potato Eaters” in 1885.
His time in Nuenen marked a transition in his artistic style, as he started portraying rural life, hard labor, and the everyday life of the common people. His tradition of long walks in nature continued during his time in Nuenen. The van Gogh walk in Nuenen (see below) takes you through a few local landscapes that were immortalized by van Gogh during his stay in Nuenen.
DID YOU KNOW | Van Gogh painted a quarter of his entire artistic works during the two years he lived right here in Nuenen?
What to See and Do in Nuenen North Brabant
1. VAN GOGH VILLAGE MUSEUM
This is probably the most comprehensive museum on van Gogh in Brabant. The museum features a variety of Van Gogh’s paintings, sketches, and personal artifacts, allowing you to witness the evolution of his style and his deep appreciation for the rural landscapes and the local community.
It also gives you a glimpse into his love life (abysmal) and a few art students he tutored (beautiful work) in exchange for oils, allowing him to continue painting despite his dire financial situation. My favorite part however was the exhibition on the use of color and light at the very end of the museum.
2. VAN GOGH WALK
Dotted around Nuenen are 18 informational panels, indicated by a red block adorned with a specific number. A leisurely 10 km walk allows you to find all of the panels (download the route here) taking you past some of the buildings & panoramas that inspired van Gogh’s earlier work.
FOODIE TIP | The nearby Watermill of Opwetten was immortalised by van Gogh in 1885. The watermill itself is now a very cozy restaurant and well worth a stop!
See Van Gogh’s Early Works: Den Bosch
Historical Background of Vincent van Gogh in Den Bosch
Den Bosch, also known as ‘s-Hertogenbosch, is the only place in the southern Netherlands where you can see actual paintings of Van Gogh. Therefore it stands to reason this city is an absolute must on the Vincent van Gogh in the Netherlands itinerary.
What to Do and See Gogh in Den Bosch
We had very little time in Den Bosch and chose to focus on visiting het Noordbrabants Museum which showcases an impressive collection of art, including works by local artists who inspired Van Gogh as well as an exhibition containing a select few original van Gogh paintings from his days in North Brabant.
If you do find yourself with more time on your hands make sure to visit the St. John’s Cathedral, hop on a boat tour on the Binnendieze (yep this city has picturesque canals!), or head to the lively Korte Putstraat to grab a drink or a bite to eat.
FOODIE TIP | Make sure to try the famous Bossche Bol, giant profiteroles filled with whipped cream and covered in chocolate. A true local specialty!
Explore the Vincent Van Gogh National Park
To read: Van Gogh cycling and hiking routes
Established in 2022, this national park encompasses diverse natural landscapes and heritage sites. It spans a whopping 1,200 square kilometers (463 square miles).
Visitors can explore the picturesque landscapes, including rolling heathlands, wetlands, and woodlands that served as inspiration for many of Van Gogh’s paintings. It offers a range of outdoor activities, such as hiking and cycling trails.
We ended up focusing on hiking as the weather was too dreary for cycling. I do wonder if van Gogh’s more subdued use of color during his time in North Brabant reflects the, at times, lackluster weather of the region. Growing up in Belgium, I can attest to the frequent gray skies and low light conditions, especially in autumn and winter.
Hiking the Van Gogh National Park
The Vincent van Gogh National Park has five official “Van Gogh walking routes”, ranging from 8 km (5 mi) to 16 km (10 mi). The hikes are well sign-posted and gloriously flat i.e. easy-peasy unlike some of the other hikes I did this year (here is looking at you Spain)! You will need a pair of sturdy shoes however as the underfooting is often soft and can get muddy.
The Nuenen hike was my least favorite of the three. It takes you in and around the village of Nuenen where signposts explain the relevance of various locations to Vincent van Gogh. To be fair, many of the locations have undergone significant change and it requires a fair amount of imagination to see them as they would have been at the end of the 19th century
If you are short on time, head to the Van Gogh Village Museum before grabbing a bite to eat in De Watermolen van Opwetten, which in fact has remained almost exactly the same as when van Gogh painted it.
This is probably the most varied hike we did. Sadly we were not able to complete it as it was raining cats and dogs! So we ended up hiking half and jumping in the car to catch a glimpse of some of the viewpoints along the way.
The hike starts and ends in the Saint Nicholas church in Helvoirt, the church itself was built at the beginning of the 20th century and is well worth popping into. It is worth mentioning the opening hours are a little fickle, at best. Grab your camera to take a snap of the red-bricked Zwijnsbergen Castle along the route.
LUNCH TIP | After your hike grab lunch at Lots in Helvoirt itself.
3. ETTEN LEUR
This hike starts and ends in the Menmoerhoeve, a former dairy farm that now helps troubled youth and mentally disabled children. They have a little café onsite which offers a variety of dishes made with their own homegrown fruits & veggies. The perfect place to grab a spot of lunch after your hike.
We managed to get lost trying to find the very first number. And it seems like we were not the only ones, if you get turned around ask inside the restaurant and they can point you in the right direction!
I thoroughly enjoyed this hike, it took us through some beautiful wetlands and some picture-perfect willow tunnels, right out of a van Gogh painting!
3-Day Sample Itinerary
HOW TO GET AROUND: We stayed in North Brabant for three days and ended up taking the car to travel between the various locations. The good news is there are plenty of chargers dotted around for electric cars, so going electric is a breeze here!
WHERE TO STAY: For accommodations we opted to stay in Zundert and Den Bosch, however, you could just as easily use either Breda or Eindhoven as a base to visit the area.
DAY ONE: Nuenen; ’s-Hertogenbosch
DAY TWO: Helvoirt; Zundert
DAY THREE: Etten Leur, Breda
Best Time to Visit North Brabant
This part of the world tends to have gloriously bearable summer weather e.g. average temperatures of 23°C (73°F) therefore, late spring or summer is the very best time to visit.
SPRING: Spring can go either way weather-wise, this tends to be the season where North Brabant gets a fair amount of rain. May is your sweet spot with average temperatures hovering around 18°C (64°F) and a low amount of tourists.
SUMMER: Much akin to my home country Belgium, July and August usually have one very wet month and the other very dry. Averaged out July and August are the wettest months of the entire year. If you are planning on coming, bring a raincoat.
AUTUMN: The foliage starts to turn deep hues of orange, and the weather gets a bit more moody transporting you right into a van Gogh painting. September usually has less rain and mild temperatures (average of 19°C or 66.5°F).
WINTER: Winters are often synonymous with gray skies, chilly weather, and overall a time period to avoid northern Europe. Unless you are looking at mainly indoor activities! Prices drop significantly in the winter season.
How to Minimise Your Impact When Visiting North Brabant
HEAD OUT INTO NATURE: Heading out on one of the hikes or cycling in the Vincent van Gogh National Park? Make sure to download the map electronically before you go. Leave no trace behind in nature.
CHOOSE LOW CARBON TRANSPORT: Breda and Eindhoven are well connected to both Amsterdam and Brussels via train. While some of the villages we visited are a bit harder to visit with public transportation, they do have an impressive coverage of electric charging outlets for EVs.
STAY LOCAL: Tourism is a great way to support the local economy, provided you choose local suppliers. Stay in a locally run BnB or alternatively browse the recent “sustainable stay” option on booking.com. Not all accommodations are locally run here so double check before you book.
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR VISITING NETHERLANDS
Amsterdam: 17 Weekend trips from Amsterdam
Amsterdam: Day trips from Amsterdam by train
Amsterdam: Cycling trips around Amsterdam
Amsterdam: Day trip from Amsterdam to Brussels
Haarlem: One day in Haarlem
Netherlands: 16 Most beautiful castles in the Netherlands
Leiden: The perfect weekend in Leiden