Insights on Holland – View from an Outsider’s Perspective (Series)

This is part 1 of a 7-part travel series on Holland, including how to travel to Holland, the Dutch culture, dutch lifestyle, Dutch environment and essential things to know about the country.

Schiphol International Airport in Holland
At Schiphol Airport, which is also Netherlands’ main international airport (at Amsterdam)

Welcome to Holland, Amsterdam
Welcome to Amsterdam, capital of Holland! One of the first things you see when you exit Schiphol airport (in Holland, Amsterdam)

Hi everyone! :D So I’m here in Holland now (Amsterdam, to be exact), and it’s been over a week. Very eventful week too – it feels as if I’ve been here for a long time, because I’ve been exposed to so many new experiences every day.

My first week in Holland

For the past week I’ve been immersing myself in as many new experiences as possible – including moving in/out of 3 different accommodations in 3 different cities! Part of the reason is because I wanted to cover quick breadth within my first week, and I’m glad to say this has been achieved.

I was in a seaside hotel in touristy town of Noordwijk in Days 1-3 (where my speaking engagement was held); after which I moved in with a friend in the homely Hoofddorp from Days 3-5; and finally moving into the busy town of Amsterdam from Day 6, where I’m at now (Day 10). I might move to another spot in Amsterdam (Central), and possibly Den Hague, before I set off to Germany next month.

This week I opted to wind down and catch up things, such as emails and updating the blog. And I’ve been feeling under the weather because of the erratic weather in the past week (which I’ve been told by the Dutch residents that it’s abnormal, even by their standards). I’ve also been caught in the rain several times, unfortunately. So having bad throat, cough, fever and a bout of flu right now. Hopefully it gets better this week so I can continue my travel plans.

Holland, Amsterdam
View from outside my current residence in Holland, Amsterdam South

A take of how life is like in Holland

I thought I’d write a post to share some of the insights and observations I’ve of Holland after 2 weeks. It’s by no means exhaustive and neither is it meant to be, but I suppose it’s a good start for those who are thinking of visiting Holland (or planning to one day), or those who just have an interest to read about life in a different country! I definitely know I could have benefited from such an article before I came here. So hopefully writing this will help cut down your learning curve and facilitate your travel plans. :D

Also I’ll be using this as a starting point to jot down my thoughts on Holland. Like other posts in PE, I’ll add on over time as I come across new things, so be sure to bookmark this for future use. ;)

Of course, this article is based on my subjective experience in this country. I’m sure it’s going to be different for everyone else. So don’t take this as the biblical truth, but as a reference point – a guide. Readers from Holland or those who have come into contact with the dutch culture before, feel free to share your take! I’ll be opening up blog comments in this series, so feel free to post your comment below.

Bear in mind that Holland is a large country, and within Holland there are many different towns/cities, each with its own individual set of culture. (Much the same as in China, India, Russia, America, etc). What I share here is a generalization, with a slant toward culture in Amsterdam, as this is where I’m staying for the main part of my Holland trip. There will always differences across individuals and groups, so take this as a directional guide.

I’ll start off with an overall review, then I’ll break it down by section.

Overall Thoughts

I love Holland ♥. The trip has been a great joy so far. If you’re on my Facebook page, you would have seen pictures of my trip which I’ve been uploading religiously every day, along with my early thoughts of the place. Overall, the country is great fun, the people are great and I can easily see myself living here for a good part of my life.

Street in Hoofddorp
Me along a quiet street in Hoofddorp (a homely town in Holland)

I think the most fun part about the trip so far is the immersive aspect. Rather than visit the place like a tourist, stay at hostels/inns and visit tourist attractions, I’ve instead opted for a cultural immersion – staying with dutch residents/citizens at their homes, connecting with their friends, and participating in their day-to-day activities where possible. I’m grateful to those who have kindly and very graciously opened up their homes to me – I’ll never forget your kind hospitality. ♥

In the past week, I’ve vicariously experienced the life of a single dutch mom (with a 3-year old kid) who has been living in Holland for the past 8 years and have well integrated with the society, an expat who is now a dutch resident, dutch citizens who are also business owners, dutch working as corporate employees in an MNC, among others. It has been exciting to witness (in some cases hear about) life in Holland from their perspective.

A Dutch Car
Unlike Singapore, people in Holland drive on the right side of the road, with the left-hand drive configuration (i.e. steering wheel is on the left side of the car).

That’s not to say that I don’t love my home country (Singapore) or the other places I’ve been to. For what it’s worth, I absolutely love Singapore, and I also enjoy a lot of the countries which I’ve been to, such as Taipei, Hong Kong, Thailand, Jakarta and Sydney. I can see myself living in all those places for a good period (maybe not Thailand/Jakarta, because of the hot/humid weather, safety reasons and the language barrier).

In the end, every place has its own pros and cons, and it’s more a matter of picking the country that aligns with your individual needs in life.

Traveling without Expectations

Some people have asked me if Holland met my expectations. My reply is the question is irrelevant because I didn’t come with any expectations. I came with an open curiosity and eagerness to discover the country for what it represents and embrace what it has to offer (all of which I love so far!).

From the Schiphol Airport
From the Schiphol Airport, heading to Noordwijk (a town in Holland) as my first stop, as I was invited for a speaking engagement there

I think that’s what make traveling truly fun – to visit without preconceived notions, and to soak in everything in an unbiased manner. It’s the same with everything else in life – be it entering a new job, making new friends, getting into a relationship, and so on.

To be honest, I’m actually very thankful to be invited for the speaking engagement here – else, I doubt I’d have gotten the chance to experience this wonderful country, since Holland was not exactly tops on my to-visit list. As I mentioned in my Europe trip announcement, I was originally planning to go to New York for 3-6 months, and changed my travel plans after I got the invitation to speak at de Baak in Holland. So thank you to Harry and Wouter! :)

Holland 101: Some Basic Background

For the benefit of others who know nothing about Holland nor Europe, Netherlands is a country in the western Europe (see pink area on the right). Holland is the western region of Netherlands (highlighted in orange). Even though Holland technically covers the orange area, it’s often used to refer to the entire Netherlands. In this series, both terms are used interchangeably.

Holland Map
Map of Holland and its location in Europe

Netherlands is made up of many cities and towns. The top 10 cities, in descending order of population, are: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Den Haag, Utrecht, Eindhoven, Tilburg, Almere, Groningen, Breda and Nijmegen. Amsterdam is the largest city and the capital of Netherlands. (where I’m at now)

Population Density

According to Wiki, The Netherlands is the 2fifth most densely populated country in the world, and the most densely populated country in Europe with a population over 16 million.

At Amsterdam Central Station
At Amsterdam Central Station, on a regular weekday. Amsterdam is also the most populous city in Netherlands.

Houses at Hoofddorp, a town in Holland
In comparison, there are the quiet towns like Hoofddorp, which have a high land area to people ratio

This is just an average though – there are towns in Holland that are very, very spacious (for example, Noordwijk, Hoofddorp), and cities which are highly populated (Amsterdam). Even in the most populated area like Amsterdam, it still doesn’t compare to Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Jakarta, which are some of the most populated areas in the world. Hence, it feels incredibly spacious here.

Time Zone: Central European Time

Holland is in Central European Time, or GMT +1 (includes Amsterdam, Berlin, Bern, Rome, Stockholm, Vienna) – that’s 7 hours behind Singapore (GMT +8). At the moment there’s daylight savings , so it’s 6 hours behind. DST ends on Oct 30 ’11, after which the clock will go back by an hour.

Flat Land

Majority of land in Holland is flat – even lower than sea level. Hence, the government has erected a series of flood control measures, such as dikes, dams and floodgates to prevent the country from getting flooded during rain and monsoon seasons.

A dike in Holland
Example of a dike in Holland (took this shot while I was traveling from Noordwijk to Hoofddorp, another town). The dike is used as a water catchment area (during rain, for example), after which the water is drained out of the land – probably into the sea.

Because of the flat land, it’s easy for people to cycle too. Hence, cycling is a primary mode of transport in Holland. Almost everyone here has a bicycle – in fact, it’s said that there are more bicycles here than people! More on that later in the series!

Continue on to part-2 – Traveling to Holland: Visa Preparation and Climate

This is part 1 of a 7-part travel series on Holland, including how to travel to Holland, the Dutch culture, dutch lifestyle, Dutch environment and essential things to know about the country.

  1. Introduction & Basic Information about Holland
  2. Traveling to Holland: Visa Preparation and Climate
  3. The Dutch Culture, Part 1
  4. The Dutch Culture, Part 2
  5. Living in Holland: Cost of Living and Hobbies
  6. Traveling in Holland: Land of Bicycles, Public Transport and Going to Other EU Countries
  7. 23 Random Facts About Holland
  • Clint Cora

    Thanks for this post Celes. Although I’ve been to Holland, it’s always so interesting to hear what others have to say when they visit a new country for the very first time. I’m sure that one of the big differences that you will notice between Holland and Singapore, is that the Dutch are much more liberal in their lifestyle and culture. When I was there in Amsterdam many years ago, I was quite surprised to smell all the marijuana fumes as soon as I walked into their local Hard Rock Cafe. And of course, their infamous red light district.

    That’s just the way things are there. But another thing I’m sure you will catch that is similar to Singapore is when you see their wonderful tulips out in the countryside. Just like when I was in Singapore too, I was very impressed with the floral work.

    Keep well over there and I look forward to your next report.

    • Celes

      Hey Clint, yes – they are indeed quite liberal when it comes to drugs and sex! But I’ve come to discover that the finer, softer aspects of their culture is quite similar to Asia, which I’ll talk about more in parts 3 and 4 of the series.

  • Niek de Groot

    ‘Bear in mind that Holland is a large country’

    That made me smile :)

    Good to see you are having a good time. Its interesting to see how foreigners enjoy my country and I love the way that you throw yourself into it. I think it’s quite easy to stay in the Netherlands for a longer period of time without ever talking to Dutch people, especially Amsterdam.


    • Celes

      Thanks Niek! :D You’re right – it’s quite easy to stay in NL or any foreign country for that matter, without acquainting with the culture. I think it’s a lot more fun to do it the immersive way though – you get experiences that are a lot richer.

  • Arne

    Nice article! Always interesting to read about what foreigners think about my country!
    I am a student living in Delft. If you want to experience some Dutch student lifestyle please contact me.

    • Celes

      Thanks Arne! :) I’m glad you enjoy the article!

  • Danielle

    Hello Celestine!

    so nice to see you’ve come to our small but beautiful Holland!
    Be sure to take a walk in some of our beautiful woods, we’ve got various parcs like the Utrechtse Heuvelrug or the BieschBosch. It’s what I love most about Holland, or any country for that matter: the beautiful nature.


    • Celes

      Thanks Danielle! :) My friends brought me to Bunnik in Utrecht today – the forest is beautiful! And we went to Theehuis Rhijnauwen (a famous pancake house), which is absolutely lovely. It’s beside the river and the sight is beautiful (you might have been there before!).

  • Marcel

    I’m truely sorry to say, Celestine, but you mixed up a canal and a dyke. And as a dutchman, i can’t let that go.
    The water on the picture you claim to be a dyke, is a canal or ditch . But you are correct in the statement that it is used to buffer the rainwater, so it is stored there to naturally moisten the soil, (the water will creep in the ground if it is rather dry) if it is really to dry, and the dry-ness is affecting the growt of the crops, the farmers wil spray-pump it over the land with artificial raining machines. In case of to much water the ditch is used to channel it away, so in can be let or pumped out to the sea, (on low tides it is at places possible to just let it flow out.)

    A dyke, as you will know, is a long man made ridge, designed to keep water out in extreme (weather) conditions. So in normal conditions you’ll probably only recodnize the ridge, and possibly not even notice that the waterlevel on one side is higer than on the other side. At the seaside, you’ll posibly smell the sea so the conclusion is the obvious. And then again, the dutch have a legacy in dykes, there are lots of old ones that have no function left, but have not, en wil not be removed. Very old ones are sometimes only a few feet higher than the surrounding land.


    • Celes

      Hi Marcel, I was told by a dutch that was a typical dike/dyke, hence the reference in the picture. Technically the meaning of a dike *is* a ditch, so I don’t suppose he was wrong in the reference:

  • Marcel

    Ok, i’ll agree with you, and refrase:

    “it seams to me you mixed up a canal and a dyke. And as a dutchman, i can’t let that go.
    I would not call the water on the picture a dyke, but a canal or ditch.”

    You may have also been traveling on the dike itself, i can’t see a difference in elevation in the picture, but that doesn’t meen there isn’t any.
    And if there is also a reasonably wide ditch, or even a lake, on the other side of the road (on this side of the road the water seams quite wide, i’t estimate about 10 meters) then i would also call the road a dyke. Technically meaning: a road build on top of the dyke.

    and according to the dictionary you linked, a dike can also mean a ditch, which i was totally unaware of.


  • Andrew Olson

    Celes, I just wanted to tell you how GREAT this series is so far… well written, beautiful photos, and great information. However, I must admit, I’m a little jealous. Travel is one of my passions and I was actually planning a trip to Amsterdam earlier this year but it kind of fell through :( but I do plan on going sometime soon, and this is a great resource. Thanks for taking the time to put this together!

    • Celes

      Hey Andrew, thanks for your kind words! I really appreciate it. :D And don’t be jealous too – I’m very sure you’re going to go there very soon, before you even know it! You never know when things happen. I’m glad that this series will/can serve as a resource for your travel. :)

  • Ireti Paul

    Celes you don’t know how much you’re touching lives out there. You’re doing amazing things and a source of inspiration to many. Have really not travelled that far but have visited some african countries. I want to visit Las Vegas next year to go see Tony (Zappos CEO). I want to go and experience the Zappos 10 Core Values that i read about in his book: Delivering Happiness. I’m working toward making the trip a success and i believe your holand series will open me up a bit.

    Keep it up Celes. I enjoy reading your blog. Cheers!!

    • Celes

      Aw thank you Ireti! :) I hope to bring the world closer to everyone by blogging about my travels and sharing about the diversity of cultures I experience. Cheers to you too!

  • Diggy

    Hey Celes,
    Loving this whole series you did about Holland, it’s so in depth! What made you decide to go there? Just holidays?

    It’s my hometown, was born there (but I moved to South Africa when I was 6) and I’ve been going back on holidays almost every year.

    Seeing all the pictures you posted and your experience really makes me want to go back there:)
    Hopefully I’ll be going in August or September.

    Have you been learning any Dutch?

    Kind regards

    • Celes

      Hey Diggy! I went there to give a talk, and now I’m staying on for travel. :) I talked about it in the original announcement post:

      I didn’t know you were from Holland! That’s so interesting! Do you have any friends/family living here? Which part of Holland do you return to?

      I’ve been learning a few words here and there, but far from knowing the language.

  • Kaitlin

    Hey Celes,
    I have been reading your blog for a while and have always valued your insights. I was so excited that you visited and wrote about the country I will be moving to in October! I will be moving to Utrecht, I can’t wait and if possible, your posts have made me even more excited and ready to go! I just started blogging about my own preparation

  • Arvid

    Love all your posts on your travel but I just have to add here that it is the Netherlands, not Holland. An explanation can be found here:

    • Celes

      I already referenced it under the section “Holland 101: Some Basic Background” regarding the terms. Initially I was careful about the terminology, then I checked with my Dutch friends who told me it doesn’t matter and all of them use Holland/Netherlands interchangeably, so I did that for the series too.

      • Arvid

        Let me guess, those friends do live in the province Noord/Zuid-Holland? :) As all people outside those provinces generally don’t refer to the Netherlands as Holland.

        • Celes

          They come from both inside and outside Holland (within Netherlands) actually. I have a Dutch acquaintance who lives outside of the Holland region and while I was initially careful about the usage of the terms, he said it means the same thing to everyone and it doesn’t matter. That said, I’m sure the usage is probably not widespread outside Holland region like you mentioned!