There's a lot more to Den Haag than immediately meets the eye. The popular perception of the Netherlands' third-largest city is of a stately, regal place populated with bureaucrats and businesspeople. While this is true to some extent, there is so much more: the city's cultural scene – anchored by the presence of the world-renowned Mauritshuis museum and Nederlands Dans Theater (and about to be boosted by the opening of the Spuiplein cultural precinct) – is one of the most exciting in the country; its culinary scene is replete with contemporary restaurants expertly experimenting with modern European cuisine; and its entertainment scene has moved far past the embassy cocktail parties that once predominated, making the party precinct of Grote Markt and the much-loved Paard live-music venue essential stops for every visitor. Easy to explore on foot or by tram, this is a city that amply rewards those who stay for a few days.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Den Haag.
Offering a wonderful introduction to Dutch and Flemish art, this splendid museum is set in a 17th-century mansion built for wealthy sugar trader Johan Maurits. It became a museum housing the Royal Picture Collection in 1822, and acquired a swish modern wing in 2012–14. The 800-strong collection of paintings focuses on works created between the 15th and 18th centuries. It includes masterpieces such as Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (c1665) and Rembrandt's intriguing The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632).
Once home to members of the Dutch royal family, the 18th-century Lange Voorhout Palace now houses a collection of the work of Dutch graphic artist MC Escher (1898–1972). The permanent exhibition features notes, letters, photos and plenty of woodcuts and lithographs from various points of his career, including everything from the early realism to the later phantasmagoria. All are fascinating exercises in the blending of different perspectives, and the conjunction of mathematical rules and artistic subject matter.
Home to the Panorama (1881), an immense, 14m-high, 360-degree painting of the sea, dunes and fishing village of Scheveningen, this museum is one of Den Haag's most unusual cultural attractions. The work, which is 120m in circumference, was created by Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831–1915), a member of the Impressionist-influenced Hague School of painters. Viewed from an upper platform, it gives the illusion that the viewer is high on a dune looking at the scene.
Home to the UN's Permanent Court of Arbitration and International Court of Justice, the Peace Palace is housed in a grand 1913 building donated by American steelmaker Andrew Carnegie. Its visitor centre has multimedia exhibits detailing the history of both the building and the organisations within; these are enjoyed in a free 30-minute audioguide tour. Hour-long guided afternoon tours of the palace in Dutch and English are offered on weekends; these should be booked ahead on the website.
Home to both houses of the Dutch government, this complex of buildings next to the Hofvijver is arranged around a central courtyard that was once used for executions. Its splendid ceremonial Ridderzaal dates back to the 13th century. The 17th-century North Wing is still home to the Upper House, but the Lower House meets in a chamber in the modern eastern part of the complex. Visitor organisation ProDemos conducts guided tours.
Known predominantly for its De Stijl exhibit, this museum is housed in an unusual art deco building designed by HP Berlage. It opened in 1935. The De Stijl exhibit suffers from an overemphasis on unremarkable pre–De Stijl paintings by Piet Mondrian, but the major drawcard, his unfinished Victory Boogie Woogie (1942–44), is an undoubted masterpiece. Upstairs, the 'Discover the Modern' exhibit includes Egon Schiele's exquisite Portrait of Edith (1915) among early-20th-century works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Kandinsky and others.
Sharing an entrance with the Gevangenpoort, this was the first public museum in the Netherlands when it opened in 1774 as a showcase of William V's art collection. It closed after many of its works were 'acquired' by the occupying French in 1794 and didn't reopen in the same location until 2010. Today, the fully restored gallery houses 150 old masters from the Mauritshuis collection (Steen, Rubens, Potter et al) hung cheek-by-jowl in the style of the late 18th century.
A miniaturised Netherlands, this theme park sports 1:25 scale versions of Schiphol, Amsterdam, windmills and tulips, Rotterdam harbour, the Delta dykes and more. It's an enlightening example of the Dutch tendency to put their world under a microscope. Kids love it. Museumkaarts are not accepted. You'll save €2 on entry by prepurchasing tickets online, or at least €5.50 if you purchase the combination Madurodam/Escher in Het Paleis Museum ticket. Parking costs €8.50.
Adjoining the Gemeentemuseum and sharing a building with GEM, Den Haag's excellent photography museum mounts several major exhibitions a year. The ground-floor cafe overlooks the ornamental lake in front of the Gemeentemuseum and is a popular meeting spot in this part of town.