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 edgy, fun bars and cafes. Those with calmer tastes can visit more than a dozen museums big and small.
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.
The town of Breukelen is 10km northwest of Utrecht. Although the town in itself is unremarkable, it was actually the namesake for the New York district of Brooklyn. Breukelen is also the gateway to the Loosdrechtse Plassen, a large series of lakes formed from the flooded digs of peat harvesters.
Along the slow-moving Vecht river southeast of Amsterdam lies Het Gooi, a shady woodland speckled with lakes and heath. In the 17th century this 'Garden of Amsterdam' was a popular retreat for wealthy merchants, and nature-hungry urbanites still flock to its leafy trails to hike and cycle today.