The first adjective that comes to mind when I think of Maastricht is charming. Cobblestoned streets, Baroque, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, large market squares, cafes and a riverfront.
STEEPED IN HISTORY
One thing that the locals are quite proud of is that the EU was officially formed and ratified as a result of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. A pretty big development in European history.
“But Maastricht was not the end of history. It was a first step towards a Europe of growth, of employment, a social Europe.
That was the vision of Francois Mitterrand.”
Maastricht also claims to be the oldest city in the Netherlands. The town of Nijmegen also makes that claim, but either way, Maastricht was the site of archeological relics dating between 8,000 to 25,000 years old!
The name Maastricht is derived from Latin and means “crossing at the Meuse.” The crossing being an ancient Roman bridge built in the 1st century AD over the River Maas. Unfortunately, the ancient bridge is gone, but this delightful town still straddles the Maas river and boasts of being walking distance to Belgium, cycling distance to Germany and a quick drive to France. A true international crossroad.
And international it is. It is not uncommon to hear Dutch, German, French, and English on the streets and in the many cafes. Maastricht’s proximity to 3 other countries together with the international student population of Maastricht University has birthed a vibrant, multi-cultural population bustling with the palpable energy that comes with youth and diversity.
THE MARKET SQUARE AND HET VRIJTHOF
At the heart of the city lie 2 distinct squares. The largest square, called Het Vrijthof, is a large space surrounded by restaurants and cafés with outdoor seating, a pavilion, and public art. It is one of the larger public squares I have seen in Europe. It is home to the Sint-Jan and Sint-Servaas churches, and the Generaalshuis. Het Vrijthof is also home to most of the public events happening in Maastricht – summer concerts, and the annual Christmas market.
About a 6-7 minute walk from Het Vrijhof, is Maastricht’s Market Square or Markt, home to the city’s weekly food markets, flea market and the city hall – a large white building that evokes a wedding cake.
Both squares lie in the heart of the city and either is a good place to begin your tour. If you are anything like my family, the first thing we typically do is taste the local cuisine. And Maastricht does not disappoint.
FIRST ON THE AGENDA, GO EAT!
As mentioned previously, the rich and diverse culture in Maastricht means a rich and diverse selection of food. Known as the culinary capital of The Netherlands, one can find restaurants and food shops with Dutch, French, German, Belgian, and Portuguese influences. Surrounding Het Vrijthof, one finds a plethora of cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating perfect to sip a coffee, people watch, and have a fantastic bite to eat.
While Maastricht offers many amazing restaurants and varied cuisines, it is also home to some incredible delicatessens. If the weather is cooperating, a really pleasant way to enjoy your lunch is to visit one of the many specialty food stores and take a picnic in the Stadspark Maastricht.
Saveurs is a one-stop gourmet heaven. Saveurs offers specialty food, catering, take-out meal prep, and a food truck. Food is prepared daily and they are famous for their meatloaf. Yes, meatloaf made by combining minced Limousin beef and Duroc pork, then hand wrapping the meatoaf in bread paneer from the bakery Bisschopsmolen. It is like a Meatloaf Wellington.
Caravela Delicatessen is another incredible food store specializing in products from Portugal – Portuguese wines and Port, olive oil, piri piri, cheese and my favorite Portuguese treat, pastel de nata. Since I love everything about Portugal, we opted to get our picnic here. And it did not disappoint.
A SHOPPER’S DELIGHT
Once you have finished your meal, you can easily walk it off. The town is an architectural delight and walking around is a treat for the eyes. And, there is ample shopping on both sides of the river with lots of interesting, independent boutiques. No matter where you wander, you will be a stone’s throw from shopping heaven. There were so many stores and boutiques on every street that we lost count.
VISIT THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOKSTORE
If you are shopping on the western side of the river, be sure to stop by the Dominicanen bookstore. This glorious bookstore is housed in a repurposed,
700 year old church. Over the years the building was utilized for a variety of functions, finally settling on an identity as a bookstore, coffee bar, and event center for lectures, debates, and exhibitions.
Even if you are not looking for a book, it is worth a visit. The combination of books and cathedral features are stunning. CNN Travel named this bookstore one of the coolest bookstores in the world.
REST YOUR BARKING DOGS
If your dogs are barking (an American idiom meaning your feet are tired) rest them while you cruise the Maas River on one of the many boat tours. One can cruise in groups, rent an individual boat, or go on pre-arranged cruises. Prices vary according to the theme and the length of the trip. You can tour the locks, have brunch, a pancake breakfast, a historical tour or an evening cocktail tour. There are options to suit just about every interest and some of the evening options have a different theme each month. Maastrict clearly embraces the river as part of its culture.
Unfortunately, we did not have time to actually take a boat cruise, thus, while I cannot make a recommendation, I can provide you with some basic information on the available tours. The 2 main tour companies are GetMyBoat and Stiphout Tours.
OTHER WAYS TO EXPLORE
GO TO HELL
While there is nothing hellish about Maastricht, one can also literally go to Hell’s Gate. Hells Gate or Helpoort is one of the last standing remnants of the medieval city walls constructed in the 1200’s. The gate served as the southern entrance to the city and was so named due to the fact that prisoners were actually locked away in the tower of the gate. Thus, it was the Gate to Hell for the prisoners.
Inside one finds a museum detailing the history of Maastricht with insights into the city’s history as well as its prominence in the region.
One of the most interesting things about Maastricht to me, was the 80 km of tunnels and caves under the city.
This labyrinth of caves and tunnels have served many important functions vital to the city since their inception. These man-made tunnels were the result of the underground quarrying of stone. The St. Pietersberg caves and tunnels were formed as stones were harvested and used to literally build the city of Maastrict on its shoulders.
The caves and tunnels have also shouldered some heavy historical responsibilities. During WWII, the caves housed Jewish people hiding from the Nazis. Hidden deep inside the damp, dark tunnels, fighting to survive each day, the Jewish inhabitants somehow managed to create a water supply, a bakery and a temple inside the tunnels. Despite the horrors of war, the human spirit survived and made life in the cold dark tunnels as comfortable as they possibly could. While not an ideal living situation, the tunnels saved the lives of many.
The caves and tunnels also saved the most famous Dutch art from man’s folly. On the tour of the tunnels, one can see National Storage Location Number 9 also known as The Kluis. The Kluis, was built at the beginning of WWII to hide the most important Dutch art from destruction and theft. An estimated 800 works of art were housed in the Kluis for over 3 years. Some of the works that were saved include Rembrandt’s Night Watch, Potter’s The Young Bull, and Vermeer’s Little Street. Fascinating stuff.
GRAB A COFFEE
After all the eating, shopping and touring, it is time for one last coffee. Given this is a university town, there are a plethora of coffee shops to chose from.
The locals will all tell you that a visit to Maastricht must include a coffee at Blache Dael. The oldest coffee house in the province of Limburg, Blache Dael opened in 1878. Their claim to fame is that every day they have a different freshly roasted coffee.
I would say that the second most talked about coffee shop is Alley Cat & Bikes. Alley Cat Bikes & Coffee is a coffee bar, a social hub, a creative workspace, and a bicycle repair shop. An important stop for the large student community. They also serve fresh food made from local suppliers.
If you get a chance to visit Maastricht, I hope that you enjoy it as much as we did. Maastricht truly is a food, history, shopping, and architectural paradise.