My trip to Groningen was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I had a couple of days to spare in Amsterdam – as if there was such a thing – and decided to explore the country. As my sister and friend had been exchange students in Groningen and they both loved it, I was curious to visit this city. The first thing I did was ask my Dutch friend if Groningen was far away from Amsterdam. She replied: “Yes, very far away, about two hours by bus.” After living in Australia, I assessed her response in order to discern whether it was a sarcastic remark or not. It wasn’t. Given that Holland is such a small country, a two-hour drive is indeed a long journey.
Luckily for me, however, a two-hour trip is short and convenient. Therefore, I downloaded the Flixbus app and purchased my ticket for less than 10 euros. Despite the air conditioner being broken, time flew by as the bus provided internet connection. I made it to Groningen by 7pm but due to summertime, it was still bright outside so I checked in at the hostel and took a stroll through the city to get my bearings.
The next day, which was a Saturday, I headed straight to the Tourist Office because as a source of information for visitors, they only come second to blogs… Subtle? The first thing I asked was the nearest place to rent a bike, so she wrote on the map “Fietsverda” which was less than 5 minutes away from the Tourist Office, conveniently located in the heart of the Grote Markt, right in the city centre.
Fietsverda Bike Rental Shop
For only 10 euros, I rented a bike until the next day. Since The Netherlands started investing in cycling infrastructure back in the 1970s, getting around by bike in Groningen is a piece of cake. Besides, cycling is the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to travel in Groningen as it takes a maximum of 20 minutes by bike to get from any place in the city to the centre.
Boasting a symbiosis of Gothic, Neo-classical and Modern architecture framed by an impressive ring of scenic canals, there’s no place like Groningen to explore by bike. As you cycle around the city, you can admire the influence of Italian architecture all over Groningen – known as the Italian city over the Alps.
While the sun was shining down on the city streets, I rode through the Grote Markt past the City Hall and the Martini Tower, then over the canals, past gabled houses and cafes that line a main street, which leads to the Groningen Museum – a modern building which is a work of art in itself – and the Railway Station. From there I admired the view of the city which evokes a 17th-century painting.
The Grote Markt (The Great Market)
Surrounded by the City Hall and the Martini Tower, the Grote Markt is the town square of Groningen and encompasses the historic centre of the city. Touristic area by day, morphed into a huge bar complex by night, Grote Markt is the beating heart of the city and hosts a wide variety of markets. Most days of the week, the square is filled with stands of veggies, fruit, cheese, fish, flower and other goods.
After securely parking my bike, I took a walk through the market and found some interesting stalls, but my favourite one was a stand offering mouthwatering types of cheese, which you could taste for free. Backpacker alert.
I ended my stroll by purchasing a take-away cup of latte from the Coffee-Bike stall. Don’t let the name fool you, though. It doesn’t mean you should drink your coffee while cycling, unless you have a spare t-shirt, which I didn’t.
From contemporary art to comic strips, from shipping to graphic art and from costumes to interesting discoveries, Groningen is scattered with museums to suit every taste. Despite the city’s eclectic offer, I only had time to visit one museum which was The Netherlands Stripmuseum. No, this is not an exhibition of people taking their clothes off, but of Dutch comic books. If you are interested in seeing nearly naked people, however, there’s always the Red Light District.
Whether you are an expert, an enthusiast or a just a tourist at heart, this museum won’t disappoint. Here you’ll have the chance not only to admire the work of the best Dutch comic heroes, but also to put your artistic skills to the test at the comic strip drawing workshops scattered all over the museum.
Although I didn’t have time to visit the Groningen Museum, I would highly recommend you to do so. Showcasing modern and contemporary art of local, national and international artists, the Groningen Museum has succeeded in appealing to large crowds ever since its opening back in 1874. If you don’t feel like paying that 13€ admission fee or spending your day from one gallery to another, you can always admire the museum from outside. Surrounded by water, this colourful oddly shaped modernist structure echoes a sea-going vessel.
When I told my sister I was visiting Groningen, she recommended me to visit a southern park that is home to a beautiful lake and a windmill. At the time I thought sarcastically: “Well, that description sure is helpful. I wonder how many parks like that are all over the city.” Expecting the lady at the Tourist Office to give me a look while thinking “stupid tourists” when I asked her, I was surprised when she immediately replied with a smile: “That’s Hoornsemeer!” She explained how to get there but my sense of direction is a cruel joke of life so I had to ask locals time after time. The only issue was that I couldn’t remember the name of the park either so I had to give locals the same description of the park over and over again until I did what every other rational person would have done: I gave my phone to a stranger so he could type the name of the park into Google maps.
The ride to the park was much easier than expected. The vast green space was crowded with people lying on the grass sunbathing. That was the first sight I had of the park. Beyond the sun-seekers, there was a beautiful deep blue lake embellished by sailboats. As I cycled deep into the park, I was met by a strange sight. Did I accidentally step into a portal back to Spain? The grass ends where the sand begins, which is lined by beach volleyball courts along the lake.
What seemed most striking was the large number of people wearing bathing suits all over the area. Apparently the whole province flocked to the park to enjoy the sun. While I always believed The Netherlands to be a gray, cold and rainy country, the scene reminded me of Down Under.
With its beautiful lake and lush greenery, the park was not only ideal for sunbathing and water sports, but also for cycling. Through winding paths and filtered sunlight, I explored the vast expanse of the park, awash with trees.
Right at the entrance of the park, there’s a supermarket – Albert Heijn – which offers pre-made meals that are perfect for a picnic. Every time I ask if it’s legal to drink outdoors in The Netherlands, I get an ambiguous answer but based on empirical evidence – I saw some people drinking in the park – I’d suggest you might want to buy some beers or wine from the fun section of the supermarket and have it with your picnic food by the lake.
Located slightly north of the city centre, Noorderplantsoen is an English-style park endowed with a big pond, winding paths and sculptures. Even though Noorderplantsoen is smaller than Hoornsemeer and its name is even harder to pronounce, it is conveniently close to the historic centre and what it lacks in size, it makes up for in beauty. I delighted myself by cycling all over the park and stopping for a cup of coffee at the café located in the centre of it.
Given that Groningen is a student city, the nightlife offer is extensive, varied and caters to all budgets. With a large collection of nightclubs, cafes, and bars scattered across the historic centre, you have endless ways to start and finish your night – or dawn. We don’t judge.
Despite the city’s varied and bustling nightlife, the place to be is De Drie Gezusters – also known as The Three Sisters in English, which might come in handy when you ask for directions and you don’t speak Dutch. Located in the heart of the Grote Markt, The Three Sisters is Europe’s largest pub.
I went there with two of my Dutch friends. This is not a plot twist when you suddenly realise that I’ve been accompanied all along and the post seemed devised for a solo traveller. I was indeed on my own the whole day since my friends are not from the area and they had a prior engagement that day. In the end, it all worked out well as drinking by myself might lead people to believe that I have some issues and, honestly, I’d rather keep my alcoholism hidden from the world.
The popularity of The Three Sisters is such that the waiter told us they were hosting 9 bachelor’s parties that night. Naturally, I was increasingly surprised to find out that that breed of people still exist – those who get married.
The Martini Tower
Before returning my bike the next day, I cycled around the city one last time and spent some time exploring the Noorderplantsoen on two wheels. After I returned my bike at noon, I still had a few extra hours before my bus departed, so I went back to the Tourist Office and purchased a ticket to visit the Martini Tower. For only 3 euros you get to climb to the top of this building which has towered over the city for over 500 years.
By the late Middle Ages, Groningen enjoyed a boom as an independent city-state and key trading centre. The Martini Tower is one of the remnants of the Golden Age that survived the destruction of the World War II.
Upon climbing 370 steps, which amounts to 90 metres, I was rewarded with a panoramic view of the city and its surroundings. The way to the top is filled with interesting historical artifacts, including a large assortment of bells.
Named after its patron Saint Martin – not the cocktail – the tower’s windvane is shaped as a horse rather than a rooster as a salute to the saint. Indeed, the windvane and its octagonal wood crown give the iconic tower its special appearance.