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What to do in Den Bosch, a.k.a. ’s-Hertogenbosch

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.

A small, straight canal down the middle of the photo disappears under and archway with a small brick building spanning the archway. A plain brick wall on the right, a tree top showing over it and dangling down its side. On the left, also a brick wall, but this one is the back side of a row of houses, with a single row of windows down the row, and gabled windows, again a single row, on the upper story.
The Binnendieze is a network of small streams in Den Bosch. Often buildings extend across the streams.

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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.

Seen looking upwards from below two cafe umbrellas, which frame the picture, a figure of a small naked child, like a cherub, but only one wing is visible on the left, and it looks like the child is holding it in his hand.
There’s lots of street art – old and new – in Den Bosch. Make sure to look up above street level and you’ll find all sorts of interesting artwork.

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.

Standing on a pillar is a strange creature. It is blue and wears short dark boots on its two feet, but also seems to have two tails, which are brown with white polka dots. Instead of a head, its neck curls and takes the shape of a horn. Its arms hold the horn extending it out from its shoulder. Its hands hold the horn as if it's about to play it like a trumpet.
Artwork spotted below street level, near one of the tour boat starting points. It is one of a series based on figures from Hieronymus Bosch’s art. This one appears in the painting The Last Judgment.

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.
Another canal-like stream flowing under an archway with a brick bulding on top of the arch. This building is two stories tall. On the left is a brick wall with treetops visible beyond it. On the right is a walkway with a railing along the stream. Further to the right at the edge of the picture is a road, and two people walk down the road.
Another Binnendieze picture.
  • 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.
Another strange figure on a pedestal. This one is a bird, with a long beak. IT wears an inverted white funnel on its head and a red robe. It has ears or hair - brown with white polka dots - hanging down on both sides of its head. It stands on ice skates.
Another figure near the boat starting point. It is based on a figure from a Hieronymus Bosch painting called the The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

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.

Pinnable image: Text: A weekend in Den Bosch, the Netherlands: Things to see and do (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo) Images: Top: a shot of the Binnendieze flowing into an archway under a house. Bottom: an artwork in which a naked man sits on a bird's back.
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Museums

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.
Looking down a narrow road. On the right is the museum: a green, windowless, massive wall above the ground floor, which is glass-sided. On the right, a brick building (the back of the synagogue). Ahead, a brick tower.
The Design Museum on the right.
  • 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.
The building has a yellowish plaster with lots of decorative detail. It is two stories tall, with a door in the middle on the ground floor, flanked by one window on either side. On the upper story are three windows in gothic arch shape. The plaster work continues the gothic arch patterning above the windows. Four human figures (saints, maybe?) flank the three windows on the upper story. The roof has a small triangular point above the center window. A decorative medalion is in the center of the triangle and on its top point is a sculpture of a swan.
Zwanenbroedershuis. Zwaan means “swan,” and an annual feast of the confraternity involved swan as a main dish. Notice the swan on the peak of the gable.
  • 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).
A simple plaque, rectangular. In the top left is "17" and the top right says "43". In the middle is what looks like a bucket filled with something that I presume is sugar. On either side of the bucket is a conical shape, which I think is the shape that sugar was sold in back then. The left-hand sugar cone says "K" and the right-hand one says "R". At the bottom it reads "Gekroond Kandy Pot"
A plaque on a building across from our hotel. It must have been a sugar merchant.

Waterways

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.)

A large, plain brick wall, that appears to be a retaining wall, judging by the earth covered with grass at the top. In front of it, on a grassy strip of land, a group of 5 people stand with their dogs on leashes. In the foreground, water (the river).
Locals walking their dogs along the river next to the Citadel.

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.

Along the wall of the canal are a row of pleasure boats of various sorts. A row of trees on the bank of the canal above them, with a row of houses behind them.
Haven in Den Bosch

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.

Groups of people sit outside on the sidwalk on chairs around small tables where drinks stand. I don't know if these are family groups, but even if they are, the tables are too close together for safe distancing.
I took this picture by sticking my phone out of our hotel room window, pointing down.

Historical buildings

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.)

A tall, narrow red-brick building with a step gable. It is three stories tall. On the ground floor, a doorway in the middle and a window on either side of it. Three windows on the story above that. On the top story is one central rectangular window (like the others but smaller) flanked by two round windows.
A house on Orthenstraat.

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.

The building is quite large: it looks like it is 4 stories tall. The entry is exactly in the middle and has a red door up a flight of stairs on left and right. Four windows on either side of the entry. The story above that has 9 windoes across, so does the story above that, only they are smaller. The roof is above that and shows two dormer windows. The facade looks like it is some sort of stone and has flat pillar-like verticals around the central 6 windows and the door below. On top of the building is a tall narrow tower with a clock and, above that, a bell tower.
Stadhuis, Den Bosch

Some big stores on the Markt (one next to the Stadhuis and one across from it) occupy Expressionistic/Deco buildings.

Along the bottom of the picture is the name of the store: Hudson's Bay. Above the lettering are two robed human figures (saints?). Three vertical windows between them and two on each side each have stained glass in their upper panes.
A detail from the 1931 department store building next to the Stadhuis. Notice that the windows have stained glass as well.

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 building is red-brick with a stepped gable and otherwise a very simple front. On its corner is a round turret with a pointed roof. The photo was taken at an angle so the turret is pointing to the right top corner of the photo.
De Moriaan

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.

The person in the sculpture is a naked young man sitting on top of a bird's back. The man sits with his feet dangling; he leans forward so his elbows are on his knees and his hands are by his ears. The bird is brown with a red head, a black tail with white polka dots and a a brown beak.
Statue in Jeroen Bosch garden, based on a figure from Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. The person is life-sized, to give you a sense of the scale.

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.

The building has a glass front and the words 's-Hertogenbosch in large letters above the front. To the right-hand side of the buiding is a large metallic cylindrical tower with a large clock on it.
Den Bosch train station

Street art

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.

A bust of a man wearing a tie, glasses and a hat at an angle on his head. On his shoulder, a frog sits, its legs hanging down the man's shoulder and one foot/hand? waving in the air.
I spotted this man with a frog up high on a building. I have no idea what it means.

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?

A pig sits up human style, with its front feet pointing forward. It has a nun's veil on its head, black with a white edge. Otherwise, it is naked.
Also a copy from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. We delighted at coming upon all of these strange images.

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.

A gothic building: gothic arches with decorative crosses above them, a taller tower section with huge gothic arches and lots of turrets.
A side view of Sint Jan Cathedral in Den Bosch.

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.

A very high-ceilings space with gothic arches all around it and stained glass between the arches. The ceiling is painted and every pillar betwen the arches has a sculpture of a saint on it.
One part of the Sint Jan Cathedral interior.

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 gargoyle has a human face but an animals body and pointed ears. A devil? Its mouth is wide open.
One of many gargoyles on the outside of Sint Jan Cathedral.

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.

The brick building has a large archway that accommodates a double door. The door is wooden and plain, except for the vertical element down the middle, which is ornately carved. the archway is edged with stone, and the middle one above the door has a simple flower carved int oit.
The carved door that had caught our attention, where we were told of its past life as a secret Catholic Church.

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:

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.

A plain front with a single statue in a niche in the middle above the arched doorway. Above that, a triangular peak with a blue clock set into it. On either side of the plain front are two round or sextagonal turrets. Behind, the dome is partly visible, with a little turret at its peak.
The Catholic Byzantine church in Den Bosch.

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.

Food

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!

Since it's half eaten, it looks quite donut-like. Dark chocolate on the outside, a light yellow cream inside.
I forgot I needed to photograph it before I’d already eaten half!

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.

Boat tours

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.

A canal-like stream down the middle going under an archway at the back of the view. Brick walls on both sides. The right side has a house above the wall, with windows on the wall. The left side has a walkway behind the wall. The archway at the back has a house on it, but only quite small from the looks of it: just one window above the stream.
Another Binnendieze photo.

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.

A painting of a fish with two figures sitting on it. Nearer the fish's head a man straddles it like a horse. He has long hair like a pony tail (or is it a woman?). He has a pole leaning on his shoulder and extending back to the tail of the fish. Behind him sits a woman in a long pink dress that trails behind. She sits sidesaddle. She also has a veil around her head.
Street art on one of the side streets off the Markt. What do you suppose it’s about? It is taken from Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, The Temptation of Saint Anthony.
  • 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.

Pinnable image Text: Things to do and see in a weekend in Den Bosch The Netherlands (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo) Images: top left: people in a cafe, seen from above. Top right: a street art figure of a bird wearing ice skates. Bottom right: the Den Bosch train station. Bottom left: statue of a pig wearing a nun's veil.
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