The quintessentially Dutch province of Noord-Holland (North Holland) wraps around Amsterdam like a crown. Less than 20km west of Amsterdam, but entirely its own city, elegant Haarlem is the region's capital and a charming example of 17th-century grandeur. Canals wend through its centre, while wide, sandy beaches fringe its western edge.
Things are different below the rivers. Product of their embattled histories – the Rhine formed the Romans' northern border – the provinces of Noord Brabant and Limburg have a distinctly southern character: more Catholic, more relaxed, and in the case of Limburg, hillier.
The 'forgotten' provinces of the Central Netherlands, Overijssel and Gelderland, combine historic trade centres of abundant cultural wealth with natural beauty. Hoge Veluwe National Park, containing the Kröller-Müller Museum (with the world's finest Van Gogh collection), should star in any Dutch itinerary.
At first, Friesland seems typically Dutch: it's flat, it's green and there are plenty of cows (the namesake black-and-white variety). But explore a bit and you'll find its differences. For one, the province has its own language, as you'll see on road signs. Even by Dutch standards, Frieslanders are a very self-reliant bunch.
The Netherlands' third-largest city, Den Haag, is a stately, regal place filled with embassies and mansions, green boulevards and parks, a refined culinary scene, a clutch of fine museums and a sybaritic cafe culture. Conversely, its seaside suburb of Scheveningen has a loud and lively kitsch and a long stretch of beach.
Don't underrate the petite province of Utrecht. Its famous namesake city – with its throngs of students, tree-lined canals and medieval quarter – deserves the limelight. No set piece, it has a plethora of hip, fun bars and cafes. Those with calmer tastes can visit more than a dozen museums big and small. Wandering the back streets, revel in reminders of the 17th century.
Utrecht is one of the Netherlands' oldest cities, with a compact medieval centre set out around canals unique to the Netherlands: there's a lower level where warehouses were located in the 13th century, giving the canals a split-level character and meaning that diners and drinkers can nip off the street and enjoy a snack or a drink down at water level.
From the Randstad perspective, this is the land 'beyond the IJssel', the river forming much of its western border. The province is hilly in the east near Germany and flat and soggy in the west along the former coastline, now landlocked by Flevoland's Noordoostpolder. You might like to anchor yourself in Deventer to explore Overijssel, though Zwolle also has its charms.