Our first bit of travel, as the pandemic seemed to subside here in the Netherlands, was a simple weekend away in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, generally referred to as Den Bosch. It’s only a few hours from home, and I had to be near there for a couple of days to lead a workshop anyway. My husband and I booked two nights in a hotel in the center of the city for the weekend after my gig, so we would have one full day to explore.
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An app tour
Since walking tours and canal boat tours still hadn’t started up again, I downloaded a walking tour online. The app, called Walk the City, is free to download, and each tour costs €1.09 within the app. (What the purpose of that extra 9 cents is, I don’t know!) For that price, I figured I could try it out and then abandon it if it wasn’t worth continuing. The Den Bosch tour is only available in Dutch, but some of their other tours of other cities (in and outside of the Netherlands) are available in English as well.
This particular tour of Den Bosch is more or less circular, and the app allows you to choose the nearest of three different starting points: the train station, the central market square, or a particular parking garage. We chose the train station.
The tour took us by all the main things to do in Den Bosch, plus pointed out lots of details – historical, architectural and artistic – we would have otherwise missed. However, it missed some sights, and made some mistakes because it clearly hasn’t been updated in a while.
What we learned about Den Bosch
- Den Bosch used to be a fortress town, and a few remnants of the fortifications remain.
- Den Bosch was a thriving market town through the Middle Ages and beyond. It was a center for the production of wool cloth and cloth dyeing.
- The Aa and Dommel rivers merge in Den Bosch to become De Dieze river, which eventually feeds into the Maas. A network of small streams called De Binnendieze lace through the city. In the old days, residents got their water from it, but also used it for washing and fishing and garbage and sewage disposal. Fortunately, De Binnendieze is protected now and doesn’t stink the way it must have in the past. The presence of the Binnendieze hasn’t stopped construction over the centuries: houses and other buildings straddle the streams as needed.
- Den Bosch has lots of green spaces and tree-lined streets.
- It suffered some serious damage during World War II, but enough of the original buildings survived the war for it to retain its character.
- The artist Hieronymus (locally called Jheronimus or Jeroen) Bosch lived in Den Bosch.
- The local delicacy, a Bossche bol, is a must.
- Here’s a fun factoid: In the 17th century, Den Bosch had 51 breweries.
What we saw on the walking tour
The circular path winds through all of the old city center. It is 5 kilometers long, but we walked closer to eight kilometers that day, what with walking just a bit further to get a better picture, and straying from the route to explore whatever else caught our interest.
We didn’t go into any of the museums we passed, but the route took us by many of the main Den Bosch museums:
- The Noordbrabants Museum: Art from 1500-1800 and also the history of Brabant (the province) inside a former palace from 1615. Website. Get skip-the-line tickets here.
- Design Museum Den Bosch: Modern art, ceramics and jewelry. This is a very modern block of a building, connected by a long hallway to the Noordbrabants Museum. Website.
- Jheronimus Bosch Art Center: This museum focuses on Hieronymus Bosch’s life and work, though the works on display are copies and imitations dating mostly to the 16th and 17th centuries. Website.
- Oeteldonks Gemintemuzejum: A museum about Brabant’s famous Carnaval, including costumes, films and music. Website (in Dutch).
- Bastionder: Housed in the last-built part of the original fortifications, this museum looks at the military history of the city of Den Bosch. Website (in Dutch).
- Zwanenbroedershuis: A museum about a “confraternity” called Lieve Vrouwe Broederschap, which dates to 1318 and still meets in this building. Hieronymus Bosch was a member. Besides the neo-Gothic architecture of the building (1847), the collection holds various objects (many of them religious) belonging to the group. Website.
- Museum Slager: This art museum includes works from three generations (eight artists) of the family Slager. The sign above the entrance is from the building’s former occupants: a fire insurance company. Website.
- Sint-Jansmuseum: This museum focuses on the construction Sint Jans Cathedral and displays sculptures from the exterior and interior and well as archeological finds, many dating to the Middle Ages. Website (in Dutch).
Since the streams, all referred to as Binnendieze, are a whole network, we kept discovering lovely little bridges over bits of the stream, often with views of tunnels under nearby buildings.
We also walked along a bank of the Dommel River. Across the way, we could see some remaining fortifications called the Citadel, and dating to 1640. This was during the 80 Years War, when the Dutch were trying to resist Spanish rule. Prins Frederik Hendrik van Oranje built it not so much to keep anyone out as to make sure the Catholic residents of Den Bosch didn’t support the Catholic Spanish king. (Some remnants of earlier medieval walls are visible from the little park called Casinotuin.)
We walked along the harbor (Haven), which looks like a canal, but had a long career as a busy port until it was damaged during World War II. Along both the Dommel and Haven, pleasure boats moor picturesquely nowadays. Former warehouses and homes dating from the 17th century line the banks of Haven.
Shopping streets and cafes
Den Bosch has a central shopping district of narrow streets lined with shops or sidewalk cafes. Korte Putstraat, Lange Putstraat and Korenbrugstraat offer lots of restaurants and cafes to choose from. In good weather, these picturesque narrow streets are exceedingly gezellig (a Dutch term that means cozy and pleasant), but not the best place for social distancing.
We saw a lot of these, ranging from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. I like the red brick houses best: the ones that show their age in the lean of the walls or the metal bars placed to hold the walls together. Some of these date from the 1300s, with alterations and renovations over the ensuing centuries.
Many of the prettiest examples of houses in Den Bosch date from the 1600s, a prosperous time in the history of the Netherlands. (Called the “Golden Age,” it was a time of enormous wealth, but wasn’t golden for everyone. It was built on international trade in slaves and the products of their labor from plantations in South America and other parts of the world.)
You can find several of these 17th century buildings on the Orthenstraat, in particular. Also check out the narrow and charming Uilenburg, a slum until it was saved from demolition in the 1970s.
The central Markt, a big plaza, doesn’t seem to have suffered too much damage in the war. Notice the Stadhuis (city hall), made from what was originally three separate houses, built in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Added in the 17th century, a new façade made them look like one building.
Some big stores on the Markt (one next to the Stadhuis and one across from it) occupy Expressionistic/Deco buildings.
Also notice the brick building called De Moriaan with a circular turret on its corner. According to the app, it is one of the oldest brick residences remaining in the Netherlands, dating to 1185.
The statue in the middle of the Markt depicts Hieronymus Bosch, and the bright green row house nearby was his home. If you like his art work, make sure to visit the museum dedicated to him, and also the Jeroen Bosch garden, with its references to his work.
Here and there the tour points out later architectural styles: art nouveau, for example, and art deco. The 1950s-era train station has a certain charm all its own.
This is a broad category, since the “street art” could go back to the Middle Ages, or it could be very recent. We saw a lot of small statuary on buildings: religious images in niches, or signs of various sorts mounted high on their walls.
Along the streams, down below street level, are quite a few works of art, mostly more recent, and sometimes out-and-out odd. A pig dressed as a nun?
Houses of worship
The most striking historical building is the St Jan Cathedral: a Gothic confection that looms over the old center. Begun in 1220, it was enlarged in Gothic style in 1380 and two stories were added to the west tower in about 1500. In the mania of the Reformation in 1566, much of the Cathedral and its rich statuary was destroyed. Then the middle tower got hit by lightning in 1584. Apparently the church leadership was undeterred because an extensive restoration started that same year, and another extensive restoration happened in the mid-19th century.
The exterior is richly decorated, and of course the gargoyles were my favorite.
Inside is as ornate as outside: Gothic arches in a cross-shaped layout, statues of saints everywhere, frescos on the ceiling, gravestones paving the floor. The tour informed us that the statues inside, despite their Gothic appearance, date only from the 19th century restoration.
It was closed during our visit, but normally you can climb up 43 meters of the 73-meter West Tower to see the view.
The tour also includes the Evangelical Lutheran church on the Verwersstraat, in a neo-Gothic style building from 1847.
Speaking of religion, when the Reformation was in full swing and it could be dangerous to be Catholic, many Catholics continued to practice their faith in secret. (I wrote about a hidden church in Amsterdam once, which you can read about here.) At one point on the tour we were admiring a pretty little brick building on a side street – it had some attractive old carvings on it – when a car passing slowed down and stopped next to us. The driver leaned out to me and explained that the building we were admiring used to be a secret Catholic Church. I loved that he did that, on his own initiative, just out of friendliness and, I assume, pride in the history of his hometown.
What was missing
The tour is clearly due for an update. We had trouble finding one of the buildings, and realized, eventually, that we had found it, but that it had significantly changed since the photo in the tour was taken. Several others had changed as well in one way or another: they’d been repainted or the business the tour describes doesn’t exist anymore.
While the app points out some street art, one example was gone, and it doesn’t mention any of the ones we saw that are based on Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastical creatures. I only know what they’re about because I looked it up after I got home. Presumably they appeared after the tour’s publication.
What bothered us, though, was the two houses of worship that the tour overlooks entirely. An old synagogue is right on the route, across the street from the very modern Design Museum (still called by its old name, the Stedelijk Museum, in the app). The tour passes it by, heading for a memorial to Anne Frank nearby. The old synagogue has three memorial signs on its wall, listing all 293 Jews from Den Bosch who were killed in the Holocaust, along with their ages and where and when they were killed. Yet the tour steered us right past them without a mention.
Anne Frank is not the only one who died in the Holocaust. I understand why people connect to her story, but it is important to remind people of the sheer numbers of Jews who died. I also would have liked to know a bit about the pre-war Jewish community in Den Bosch. How many were there at its height? When was this synagogue built? Were there other synagogues? I looked it up later and found out that the synagogue is now a concert hall, the Willem Twee Toonzaal.
If you’re looking to get away from the tourist hordes in Amsterdam, here are some other articles to give you some ideas:
- Things to do in Drenthe province
- Things to do in Groningen province
- A self-guided Rotterdam walking tour: Architecture and art
- Bourtange: A living fortress
On the other hand, if you are determined to spend time in Amsterdam despite the crowds, take a look at this series of articles about small museums in Amsterdam.
At one point we spotted an odd round roof behind a row of houses. We realized it must be a church because of the cross on the peak of the dome. We went to investigate and found a Catholic Byzantine Church, an eastern branch of the Catholic church that uses Greek in its rituals. It had some decorative details that suggested the building was from the early 1900s, but the tour doesn’t mention it. I would have liked to know more about it too and about the people who worship there.
So the tour only took us to St Jan Cathedral and the Evangelical Lutheran Church and ignores the other two. While I understand that the designer of a walking tour has to make choices, both of these places were right on or near the route and should have been included.
We passed a ridiculous number of restaurants to choose from on the route of the tour. One specific place it points out is Jan de Groot Bakery at Stationsweg 24, home of the Bossche bol. We passed there, near the train station, but didn’t stop because of the line waiting to go in to buy their famous sweets. If you can, get one, but you can order one at a café, as we did, rather than waiting in that line.
Bossche bol is a thin round puffed pastry with sweet cream of some sort inside. In other words, the pastry is pretty minimal: just enough to hold the cream. Then dark chocolate is poured over it and hardens. Essentially a very large profiterole, it’s delicious. Your best bet is to ask for a knife and share it between two of you. It is very filling!
My advice for what to do in Den Bosch
If you prefer an app tour, by all means take this one. It gives a lot of information and includes a lot of stops. Just be aware that here and there it isn’t quite up to date.
You might prefer a group tour, if one’s available. You can inquire at the visitor’s information office in De Moriaan, the old brick building with a round turret at Markt 77. No tours were operating when we were there because it was mid-pandemic, but normally they do.
What several people have recommended to me is to take a boat tour through the Binnendieze. The boat passes under buildings and, I’m told, gives a lot of background and history in a very picturesque way. Boat tours are offered by a number of different companies and in various forms. Ask at the visitor’s information office at Markt 77 or book a boat tour here.
The one that several people recommended to me is operated by the Kring Vrienden van ‘s-Hertogenbosch, a volunteer association devoted to the culture and history of Den Bosch. They run both walking tours and boat trips. Website.
If you’re not so interested in the history, just stroll the streets and keep an eye out for street art. Look up above the ground floor on the pre-war buildings for small sculptures as well as at street level. Make sure to look below street level too, whenever you pass or cross over a piece of the Binnendieze. Have a drink in a sidewalk café and a bossche bol and watch the people go by.
- You might also want to explore the nature preserve, Het Bossche Broek, right next to the city. Website (in Dutch).
- Further outside the city is Camp Vught National Memorial, a concentration camp during World War II.
Where to stay
We stayed at a small hotel called Hotel Haverkist, right in the center of town. Cafes lined the streets doing a roaring business in the good weather despite the pandemic. Nevertheless, we were very impressed with the soundproofing and how comfortable, clean and fresh-looking the room was. The staff went out of their way to make us feel at home. When my husband was stuck in the mother of all traffic jams, at a complete standstill for more than two hours, the man at the desk said he’d stay around to let him into the parking lot no matter how late he finally arrived. (And just in case you’re wondering, I paid a normal price for the room, and they didn’t know I’m a blogger.)
If that hotel doesn’t appeal to you, use this link to see other hotels that are available in Den Bosch.