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The Netherlands is a 'big' small monarchy in the Northwest of Europe, between the North Sea, Belgium and Germany, and is known for much more than cheese, windmills, and tulips.
Its recorded history starts with the Roman invasion halfway through the first century A.D. but it had its heyday in the 17th century when it disputed hegemony of the Seven Seas with the English and the Spanish empires. In that period New York, parts of India, a series of forts along the African Coast and the Colonies in Indonesia formed part of the vast Dutch Empire.
Though most historic town centers in the Netherlands date back to the Dark Ages, most building was done in the era of oversea expansion and in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution started. In Amsterdam, Leiden or Utrecht you can see the big 17th century mansions once owned by the commanders of the Dutch fleet and those of the rich merchants who financed the wars with their overseas gains. They were the Dutch elite. They preferred small items of great value stashed away in their mansions over baroque palaces. Though the Dutch never were really extravagant and did not have a real court like there was in Germany, France and Spain, they were very proud of themselves. This can still be seen in the countless portrait paintings they commissioned. Many of the world's famous painters are Dutch, such as Rembrandt, van Gogh, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer.
Apart from the glory days of the 17th century there is much in the Netherlands to attract the present-day visitor. Visitors will find a very open, relaxed and international atmosphere, and some great museums with both modern art and historical chef d'oeuvres. Due to the bombardment that levelled the city and the renovations that followed, Rotterdam is the only real modern town of the Netherlands (not to mention, the largest seaport in the world), not counting boring suburbs like Lelystad or Almere. Especially compared to megacities like New York, London, Paris or even Cologne, the Dutch cities are very hip and relaxed. Places like Den Bosch ('s Hertogenbosch) and Arnhem and Zwolle are also certainly worth a visit, with the latter being close to the national park 'Hoge Veluwe'.
Maastricht is the most important city of the South. The atmosphere is quite different from the North. The town is pretty and is a good base for exploring the countryside as well as making daytrips to Aachen and Liege.
Because of its size and flatness the Netherlands is a great country to explore by bicycle. Public transport is another good option because parking is problematic in most town centers. Trains and buses provide excellent transport in the entire country.
Finally, the young mainly visit the Netherlands for two characteristics: the permissive attitude towards erotic activity (prostitution is legal) and drugs (possession of small quantities of soft drugs for personal use is legal, and marijuana - in small quantities for personal use - is for sale legally in 'coffee shops' throughout the country). This, however, does not mean hard drugs are tolerated - nor is illegal prostitution. Both examples of leniency were instituted to better control these problems. The result is less crime and better working conditions for legal prositutes - a recipe slowly being picked up by the rest of the world. The Dutch seem always one step ahead, and for several years now gay couples have been allowed to marry legally and properly, like any couple.
The Netherlands is the 'big' small country you have to visit at least once in your life to ride a bike, see all the fantastic paintings by the Dutch painters such as van Gogh and Rembrandt and see how liberal law works in daily life.