The Netherlands is one of Europe's most upbeat, innovative and socially engaged countries. Start-ups proliferate throughout the country – one of the world's leading enterprise hubs. Designers, inventors and scientists are forever dreaming up smart, eco-minded, tech-enabled initiatives, and urban architecture has unparalleled green credentials. On the world stage, Prime Minister Mark Rutte is a key European player to watch, while Amsterdammers are loving their city's first female mayor.

Holland or the Netherlands?

'Holland' is a popular synonym for the Netherlands, yet it only refers to the combined provinces of Noord-Holland (North Holland) and Zuid-Holland (South Holland). The rest of the country is not Holland, even if the Dutch themselves often make the mistake.

Liberal Prime Ministers & Free-Thinking Mayors

In light of Brexit and the unexpected rise of the far right in Europe, all eyes were on the Netherlands in March 2017. With Prime Minister Mark Rutte's centre-right government successfully completing its four-year term in office – the first time a Dutch government had managed to do so since 2002 – the country went to the polls to elect a new House of Representatives. Despite a drop of seats, from 41 to 33 in the 150-seat parliament, for Rutte's People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the elections nonetheless ushered in a decisive victory for the incumbent prime minister (21.3% of votes). His defeat of far-right opponent, Geert Wilders and his anti-EU, anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) – which clocked in second with 20 seats (13.1% of votes) – was a clear blow to right-wing populism.

With the traditional Labour Party effectively in smithereens post-election (winning just 5.7% of votes, to lose 29 of its 38 seats), it took Rutte a record 225 days to form his four-party government. A moderately liberal 'man of the people' world leader who unusually cycles to work and mops up his own spilled coffee (the video, featuring Rutte cleaning up inside the Ministry of Health in Den Haag in June 2018, went instantly viral on social media), Rutte has emerged as one of Europe's most serious, longest-serving world leaders (since 2010). He is the top contender to replace Donald Tusk as president of the European Council in 2019.

In Amsterdam meanwhile, urbanites are celebrating the appointment of the city's first-ever female mayor: Haarlem-born Femke Halsema (b 1966), an Amsterdam-based documentary maker (covering topics such as terrorism, and women in the Islamic world), mother-of-twins and former parliamentary leader of left-wing green party GroenLinks. The six-year term began in July 2018. Her starting point: vrijzinnig (free-thinking).

Innovative Living

In 2018 the Netherlands was ranked second in the Global Innovation Index (GII), which, quite frankly, comes as no surprise given the country's inherently innovative spirit. Be it in the field of arts, architecture, environment or two-wheel transport, the Dutch continue to push forward with ground-breaking new ideas and technologies. In Rotterdam, urban planners are reinventing the museum wheel with the planned 2019 opening of Art Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen. This project will revolutionise the way art lovers admire world-class masterpieces: inside an eye-popping, purpose-built building, visitors will be able to wander freely along the renowned art museum's entire depot of 70,000 artworks, only a fraction of which are traditionally displayed for public viewing.

In architecture new milestones are being reached with the planned development, in Eindhoven, of the world's first habitable hamlet of 3D-printed concrete homes. The prototype futuristic, Hobbit-style house – printed in concrete, layer by layer – will be finished by 2019 and could well become a footprint for low-cost, affordable housing (an essential in a densely populated country whose population is expected to increase to 18 million by 2031 as a result of migration and increasing longevity). In Amsterdam floating houses have been successfully trialled and are selling like hot cakes in IJburg, a new archipelago of 10 artificial islands in the IJmeer lake that some 45,000 residents will call home by 2025. With space acutely thin on the ground in the booming city of Rotterdam, new vertical 'cities' are mushrooming.

Environmental protection and sustainability remain of key concern and inspire innovation. Rotterdam-based Daan Roosegarde is pioneering the way in pollution-absorbing creations with his Smog-Free Tower (a tower that sucks in dirty air and purifies it) and a Smog-Free Bicycle (which absorbs polluted air, purifies it, then releases clean air around the cyclist). To make things even more fun, the removed carbon is then compressed and embedded inside fashionable, limited-edition smog-free rings (as in jewellery). Each ring effectively contains 1000 cu metres of polluted air and is sold to raise awareness and contribute on a very practical level to a cleaner world. On a national level, in mid-2018 the government pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 49% by 2020 and by 95% in 2050. Simultaneously, electricity production will become carbon-neutral by 2050.

Coffeeshops

In April 2018 Den Haag became the first Dutch city to ban smoking cannabis in its city centre, confirming once and for all that the liberal Dutch are tightening up their traditionally tolerant, soft-drug culture. This comes hot on the heels of several coffeeshop closures in Amsterdam after a law was passed in 2014 outlawing coffeeshops to operate within 250m of a primary school and 350m of any secondary school in the city. Amsterdam's oldest address, the Mellow Yellow Cafe, in business since 1967, closed with much reluctance (and many tears among loyal, decades-long regulars) in January 2017.

Under Dutch law, coffeeshops selling up to 5g of cannabis per customer per day are perfectly legal, but individual municipalities are allowed to decide and impose their own rules. Most blatantly ignore the 'toleration rule' introduced by the government in 2013 restricting the use of coffeeshops to Dutch residents only.

One-third of the country's 570-odd coffeeshops are in Amsterdam; the rest operate in 103 of the country's 380 municipalities, including Rotterdam, Maastricht and Utrecht.

Two-Wheel Talk

Only the Dutch could come up with a silky smooth, solar-panelled bike path that converts energy for the electricity grid. The initial 70m-long strip in the small town of Krommenie near Amsterdam has proved so successful – generating 9800kWh of green electricity, equivalent to the annual average consumption of three Dutch households, in one year – that the solar road has quickly been adopted by other Dutch towns.

Forever green, the Dutch government has pledged to invest €250 million in new cycling paths and bike parks between 2018 and 2022, with the aim to persuade 200,000 motorists to ditch their cars and bump up the country's total annual bike travel from 15 billion to 18 billion kilometres by 2027. National cycling routes are being rethought to make them more appealing to an international market. Utrecht's sparkling new, subterranean multistorey bike park (all the rage in the Netherlands right now) beneath its central train station will be enlarged still further to become the world's largest, with space for a mind-boggling 12,500 bicycles, by the end of 2018.