Perched at the very top of the Netherlands lies a province that has its own language, culture, and history dating back many centuries. It is surrounded by a host of little islands, some of which can be reached from the shore by wading through the sand. Find out everything there is to do in Friesland and how to walk to the West Frisian Islands!
The province of Friesland is unlike any of the other 11 provinces in the Netherlands. Over the years Friesland has enjoyed relative autonomy, resulting in a strong cultural identity, and in recent years a renewed drive to preserve the Frisian language and Folklore. Frisian is recognized as an official language of the Netherlands and kids are taught in Frisian at school.
Friesland is blessed with plenty of waterways and canals, in fact, the province faces an ongoing struggle against flooding. In winter, however, this provides for ideal conditions to organize the famous eleven cities ice skating tour, a 200-kilometer (124 miles) loop through 11 Frisian cities.
Time to delve into the many things to see both on mainland Friesland and out on the West Frisian Islands dotted around the North Sea.
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Where is Friesland & the West Frisian Islands?
At the very top of the Netherlands lies the province of Friesland. Known for Frisian horses, Fierljeppen (ditch-vaulting), the world’s oldest planetarium, and the place Mata Hari was once born. Sounds exotic right? Wait until you see what there is to do, you will be rushing to book tickets.
The Frisian Islands (Waddeneilanden) are an archipelago of islands dotted between northwestern Netherlands, Germany, and even the west of Denmark. The groups of islands are split between West Frisian Islands (14 islands pertaining to the Royal Kingdom of the Netherlands), East Frisian Islands (12 islands pertaining to Germany), and North Frisian Islands (13 islands pertaining to Germany and Denmark).
This guide will be focussing on the West Frisian Islands, that is the islands that are part of the territory of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The region can be perfectly explored as a weekend trip from Amsterdam as Leeuwarden is a mere 140 kilometers (89 miles) north of Amsterdam.
How to get to Friesland & the Frisian Islands?
The fastest way to get to Friesland (either air or public transportation) is through Amsterdam. From Amsterdam, there are a variety of options to get to Leeuwarden (the capital of Friesland).
How to get to the province of Friesland
Multiple trains run daily between Amsterdam Centraal and Leeuwarden. The train route is a comfortable 2 hours and will set you back €28/$30 (one way). Consult schedule and book tickets online
Rent a car
Alternatively, you can look into renting a car. If you are planning on only visiting Leeuwarden, is not worth investing in a car rental as the drive time is 90 minutes. If however, you are considering adding on a visit to the West Frisian Islands having your own transportation will be a lot easier. Rental cars can be picked up at the airport or at car rental agencies in town.
Save your pennies: Compare rates before you rent to get the cheapest option.
How to get to the West Frisian Islands
Getting to the West Frisian Islands can be done by means of a ferry (or on foot, but more on that later on). Ferries for the various islands run for different parts of Friesland, they will always have large parking available to park your car or alternatively you can opt to board the car on the ferry to be mobile on the islands (unless the island you decide to visit is car-free)
How to get to Texel
Getting to Texel is a breeze, the ferry leaves from the crossing at Den Helder and takes around 20 minutes. Tickets can be booked online via the website of the Teso Ferry Company or alternatively at the ticket office right by the ferry crossing. The ticket price per person (without a car) is €5 ($5.5), taking the car across will cost €50 ($54) on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and €74 ($80) on the other days (prices are for return tickets)
How to get to Ameland
Take the ferry directly to Ameland from Holwerd, sit back and relax on this 50-minute scenic ferry ride or take the high-speed ferry which takes 20 minutes. Tickets can be booked online via de website of the Wagenborg Ferry Company. Price for the crossing is €17,5 ($19) a person (fast ferry surcharge is an additional €7.5/$8), taking the car across will set you back €110 ($120).
How to get to Schiermonnikoog – Car-free Frisian Island
To get to Schiermonnikoog take the direct ferry from the Port of Lauwersoog. There is the option for the scenic ferry ride (45 min) or the express ferry (20 min). This ferry is also operated by the Wagenborg Ferry Company.
Tickets can be booked online. As the West Frisian Island of Schiermonnikoog is carfree, the car will need to be parked on the large parking right a the port. Ticket prices are similar to the crossing to Ameland, €17.5 ($19) for the slower ferry and a surcharge of €7.5 ($8) or the faster ferry (to be paid on top of the €17.5/$19)
How to get to Vlieland – Car-free Frisian Island
Getting to Vlieland happens via a 90-minute (scenic) or 45-min (express) ferry ride departing in the harbor town of Harlingen. Tickets can be bought online via the website of the ferry company Rederij Doeksen. Tickets for the slower ferry cost €35 ($38) while the faster ferry will set you back on average €55 ($60).
How to get to Terschelling
There are two options to get to Terschelling, either via a ferry from Vlieland or from the mainland harbor town of Harlingen.
From Harlingen two types of ferry rides are available, the scenic ride (2 hours) or the considerably faster ferry ride (50 min). Tickets can be bought online via the website of the Ferry Company: Rederij Doeksen. Tickets for the fast ferry cost around €50 ($54) while the slow ferry ticket prices are priced at €32 ($35). It is possible to take the car over, however, this is subject to a hefty surcharge (€100/$109).
Four unmissable things to do in Friesland and the West Frisian Islands
1. Visit the capital Leeuwarden
Known as ‘Ljouwert’ to locals, the capital city of Leeuwarden is famed for its quaint shopping streets, ancient canals, and impressive architectural history that dates to Roman times. Located right by the Middelzee River, this vibrant city has been a trading hub since the 15th century.
Although Leeuwarden’s heritage may now be eclipsed by artisan shops and a bustling café and restaurant scene (it was the 2018 ‘European Capital of Culture’ after all!), you’ll still find remnants of the city’s history at the museums in Leeuwarden and its medieval center. Visiting Leeuwaarden is truly one of the best things to do in Friesland.
Making the most of Friesland culture means flitting between sprawling urban centers and the untouched Frisian islands. So, grab your hiking boots, and a fistful of Euros, and prepare to be enthralled by everything Leeuwarden has to offer!
What to do in Leeuwarden
The capital of Friesland has a lot to offer visitors. Plan to spend at least two days, one to visit the various museums and historical sights and the second the enjoy the historical center and indulge in some delicious Frisian Food before setting off on an expedition to the West Frisian Islands.
Take a private walking tour of Leeuwarden with a local guide
Although Leeuwarden is small, it packs a lot of history! I loved getting to know the city through the eyes of a local: Mixing history with personal anecdotes and making sure to point us to all the local bars & restaurants where we could savor some typical Frisian food.
It happened to rain heavily on our tour, so we did get to see plenty of those local bars while we were waiting out the rain. Our guide graciously adapted the itinerary to accommodate for the weather. It was the perfect start to our 2-days in Leeuwarden!
What’s next: Find your local tour guide, check prices and book online
Clamber up De Oldhove
Start your journey in Leeuwarden at De Oldhove. Considered one of the most impressive religious buildings left standing, this 16th-century tower offers panoramic views across Leeuwaarden’s center. Don’t be put off by the uneven architecture as you make your way to the top – this ecclesiastical masterpiece is simply competing with Pisa for Europe’s most iconic tilt.
Opening hours: Monday to Sunday 13.00 PM to 17.00 PM
Entrance Fee: €3.5 ($4) bought at the desk on the ground floor
Pop into the Saint Boniface Church
Then, continue your cultural education by visiting Saint Boniface Church to marvel at its neo-gothic exterior. If you’re looking to increase your step count, allocate some time to exploring the church’s interior. Boasting large stained-glass windows and an impressive, old-fashioned organ, you’ll want to have your camera at the ready!
Opening hours: Wednesday and Saturday 14.00 PM – 17.00 PM
Location: Bonifatiusplein 20, 8921 JT Leeuwarden, Netherlands
Get cultured at one of the many museums in Leeuwarden
When you’ve had your fill of the city’s architectural wonders, head to the museums in Leeuwarden for a deep dive into Frisian history. If you’re short on time, the Fries Museum is expansive and beautifully covers the area’s culture and history. However, the World War II-focused Fries Verzetmuseum, Keramiekmuseum Princess Hoff (a former royal palace), and Mata Hari’s Birth House are also premium attractions that shouldn’t be missed.
As these museums are located within a few kilometers of each other, perfect for an afternoon walk.
WHERE TO STAY
Recommended: I stayed in the Post Plaza Hotel, the renovated historic post office.
B&B: For a quaint B&B look into Bed in Binnenstad or City Appartment Monsieur Philippe
Sustainable: Stay at a rustic Frisian Farmhouse or a wooden cabin in the woods.
2. Go island-hopping on the West Frisian Islands or Wadden Islands
They may not be the first things that come to mind when you think of the Netherlands, but the islands of the Netherlands are among the area’s main selling points. The Frisian Islands also known as the Wadden Islands, are a mere couple of hours out of Leeuwarden, making the capital an ideal base for island hopping.
Depending on how long you plan to spend in the Netherlands, you may not be able to cover the entire province of Friesland. One of the top things to do in Friesland – one simply cannot leave without experiencing it – is experiencing the sweeping landscapes on the Frisian Islands.
Read More: An in-depth guide to the outdoor sports on the Frisian islands.
Boasting long sandy beaches, impressive hillside dunes, and a towering lighthouse, Texel is one of the finest municipalities in the northern Netherlands. A mere 65km from Leeuwaarden, Texel is the largest of the Wadden Islands.
Without a doubt, the highlight of Texel is the breathtaking Eierland Lighthouse. Perched on top of a 20-meter dune, this bright red beacon is over 150 years old. The winding staircase to the top is manageable for most (it’s 118 steps – so, make the call based on your current fitness level!), and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the North Sea and Vlieland from the designated viewing platform.
For a closer look at the inhabitants of the North Sea, head to Ecomare for a riveting education on the island’s delicate ecosystems before heading to the natural area of De Slufter to witness the impact of the North Sea’s powerful storms. Don’t miss the stunning blooms of purple lavender and the wild orchids of De Muy while strolling through the lagoon area!
Not enough natural beauty for you? Round things off by checking out the Dunes of Texel National Park for coastal bluffs, hiking trails, and wildlife spotting.
WHERE TO STAY: Find a sustainable hotel on Texel
Ameland – My number one Frisian Island to visit
If you’re looking for unique places to visit in Friesland, then the picturesque island of Ameland should be at the top of your list. With only 3500 inhabitants found here during a typical off-season, this small (but mighty!) island offers everything from pristine beaches to fantastic regional food.
The best way to explore Ameland is by bike. Not only will this mode of transport enable you to be a more sustainable traveler, but it gives you easy access to the villages of Ameland. Start in Nes for charming local shops and a bite to eat before heading to Hollum to visit the impressive lighthouse and ‘De Verwachting’ mustard mill.
This wonderful island is a mecca for outdoorsy folk thanks to its many signposted trails. Most Ameland hikes are considered easy to moderate difficulty-wise, but a few trails may be excessive for inexperienced trekkers thanks to their 6km+ distances.
If you’re partial to a drink or two, don’t leave Ameland without sampling Nobeltje. Native to Ameland, this Frisian herbal liquor has an alcohol percentage of 32% and isn’t for the faint of heart!
WHERE TO STAY: I stayed in Van Heekeren hotel and loved it. There are of course plenty of other options on the island. Browse and find your perfect hotel in Ameland.
Known for its luscious greenery and fascinating landmarks, Schiermonnikoog island is packed with interesting things to do. To make the most of your time in Schiermonnikoog, I recommend starting your journey on the Westerplas. Home to unique birds (look out for the common snipe, osprey, and hen harrier!) and plant life, exploring the trails along this freshwater lake, and see if you can spot any seals.
The lighthouses on the island are another major selling point. The Zuidertorten is no longer functional, but the Noordertorten still guides boats safely in from the shore.
Despite being a relatively small area, Schiermonnikoog has a turbulent wartime history that’s worth exploring in detail at the many island museums. The Bunker Wassermann once acted as the lookout and radar antenna for the island. To further pad your wartime itinerary, visit the Vredenhof Military Cemetery to honor those lost in battle.
To end your Schiermonnikoog adventure on a lighter note, visit the giant Whale Jaw of Schiermonnikoog. Jaw-droppingly large (pardon the pun!), the bones of this 104-foot-long whale pay tribute to the area’s whaling history.
WHERE TO STAY: Find a locally run hotel on Schiermonnikoog
For cozy village vibes, scenic hiking opportunities, and specialty museums, you can’t beat Vlieland. This beautiful Dutch island moves at a slower pace than some of the surrounding Frisian Islands, making it an ideal pitstop for lovers of slow travel.
The village of Oost-Vlieland is the star of the show here; home to quaint side streets and old-fashioned buildings, it will feel as though you’re stepping back in time as soon as you disembark from your boat. Without a doubt, the most impressive attraction in the central village is the historical Tromps Huys. Constructed in 1896, this museum houses photographs, paintings, and important documents relating to the area’s history.
The beaches of Vlieland are surprisingly large and span approximately 12km of coastline. With fishing, swimming, surfing, and horse-riding opportunities on offer, you may be unsurprised to learn that the beach is typically packed with sunseekers.
WHERE TO STAY: Find a cozy hotel in Vlieland
The island of Terschelling is one of the oldest settlements in Friesland and dates to 850. Split into two municipalities in 1612, the area has a distinctive history of separation and reunification that’s reflected in its unique architecture and cultural values.
Biking and walking are the preferred travel methods in these parts, making it an ideal base for the sustainable traveler. If you don’t have a bike with you, it’s super easy to rent one at most hotels and the tourist office in Terschelling!
The two must-visit attractions on the island are the Formerum Windmill and the Museum ‘t Behouden Huys. The windmill was constructed back in 1838 and is the only mill on the island still in operation. If you choose to visit, set aside an hour or so to enjoy a delicious brew in the coffee shop!
After visiting the mill, head to the museum for an eye-opening glimpse into the island’s history. Perfect for rainy days, the museum hosts both permanent and temporary exhibits that delve into the lives of the island’s whaling commanders. For an even deeper dive, invest in an audio tour!
WHERE TO STAY: Find the picture perfect hotel in Terschelling
3. Walk to the Frisian Islands from the mainland
One of the top things to do in Friesland is without a doubt to go on an expedition through the North Sea, all the way to the Islands – without getting wet! The technical term is Mud Flat Walking, I know its sounds a heck of a lot less sexy doesn’t it? Aside from the risk of having a boot stuck in the mud (it happened to me and was thoroughly unsexy), it is very fun and absolutely safe, with a guide.
We learned all about the various sea creatures that borough in the mud, the forces of nature that make mudflat walking possible and of course got in a proper workout (spoiler alert, traipsing through mud will set your glutes on fire!).
Your turn: Learn all Mud Flat Walking and where to undertake this adventurous activity.
4. Visit some of the most unknown tulip fields in the Netherlands
For those of you looking to spot traditional Dutch tulips on your Netherlands adventure, why not head to West Friesland? Tulip fields in the Netherlands are reasonably common, but you must know where to look for the best blooms!
One of the best ways to do this is via a tulip tour. It may sound bizarre, but it’s one of the most effective ways to see the unknown tulip fields in the Netherlands up close. The steam tram from Hoorn to Medemblik is an excellent way to snap photographs of the fields in their entirety, and costs just €21.50 for adults and €16.00 ($23.4 or $17.4) for little ones between 4 and 12. The train runs directly alongside several tulip fields and is a cost-effective way to see as many blooms as possible during your trip.
Should you want to strike out on your own, you can access many of the tulip fields by bike or public transport. The towns of Appelscha and Wateren are famed for their tulips, but the town of Holwerd is a hidden gem that doesn’t see as many visitors during a typical season. What’s more, it’s just a short ferry ride from Ameland Island!
5. Try some typical Frisian food
Visiting Friesland without trying a plate of typical Frisian food is akin to blasphemy in my book. Frisian food utilizes the best ingredients from both the sand and the sea, so you can expect fresh fish, hearty potato-based dishes, and glorious roasted meats.
Although many of the most popular Frisian meals are meat or fish-based (Sea bass and herring being the fish of choice), you’ll be able to pick up veggie alternatives all over Friesland. There is a strong sustainable mindset in this part of the Netherlands that combined with the close ties with nature ensures a good vegetarian meal is never far away.
- KROKET: Coated in breadcrumbs, fried and filled with delicious cheese (double-check the content before purchasing as it is often filled with meat).
- STAMPPOT & HUTSEPOT: Mashed potato with vegetables
- ROLMOPS: Pickled herring rolmops
- CHEESE & MILK: Friesland has a rich cheese-making tradition
- PANCAKES: Usually lathered in syrop (delicious) or filled with cheese (& bacon)
Map of best places to visit in Friesland
Find all the things to do in Friesland in this interactive Google Map, the red pins indicate the various Frisian Islands, the purple pins are dedicated to Leeuwarden and the yellow pins are for the tulip fields in Friesland covered in this guide.
Things to do in Friesland & Frisian Islands Conclusion
There is plenty of adventure to be had in Friesland and even more so on the rustic West Frisian Islands, an island group in Europe that has flown wonderfully under the radar. From mudflat walking to jumping over rivers with poles, never a dull moment in Friesland.
The less adventurous souls might leave the pole jumping for what it is and instead opt to cruise around the islands on a bicycle, hunt down lighthouses or take a picturesque steam train to go and see the most unknown tulip fields in the Netherlands. In short, plenty of reasons to head up to the North of the Netherlands for a visit.
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR VISITING EUROPE
Netherlands: Weekend trips from Amsterdam reachable by train
Netherlands: A relaxing guide to a weekend in Leiden
Netherlands: Places around Amsterdam to explore by train
Belgium: 16 enchanting castle hotels in Belgium
Belgium: Bucketlist places in Belgium you just cannot miss
France: Unknown France: The Jura Region
Germany: A trip to Karlsruhe Germany and its many castles