The Dutch sometimes call South Limburg (Dutch: Zuid-Limburg) a "piece of abroad in the Netherlands". Starting with Sittard in the north and covering the southern tip of the country from there, South Limburg sets itself apart through its un-Dutch hilly landscapes, embracing local culture and dialects. It's a popular holiday destination for Dutch and foreign tourists alike and generally considered one of the most beautiful parts of the Netherlands.
Bustling middle-point is of course the famous city of Maastricht, with its charming, Burgundian atmosphere and European allure. Nevertheless, the region has numerous other picturesque villages and historic towns worth a visit. Although it is of course a German town, the historic city of Aachen just across the border is widely considered part of the region's draws and strongly embedded in the tourist trail.
- 1 Maastricht — a historic and cobblestoned city centre with a rich cultural heritage that includes old houses and cathedrals but also a tradition of fine dining.
- 2 Geleen — with some of the oldest prehistoric farm remains, Geleen's history goes way back.
- 3 Heerlen — a modern and bustling city with plenty of cultural events and shopping opportunities; for those willing to dig in deeper, there are some interesting historic heritage sites.
- 4 Kerkrade — it were the monks of Rolduc, the biggest monastery complex in the Netherlands today, that started the mining tradition here; now known for its music festivals.
- 5 Sittard — one of the oldest cities in the region, with a large variety of historic buildings and museums; the terraces on the bustling market square are a great place to sit back and enjoy.
- 1 Epen — lovely scenery and lots of timber framed houses, a popular hikers destination
- 2 Gulpen — right in the heart of the Heuvelland, a friendly town that boosts some of the best landscapes, castles and a lovely town centre
- 3 Hoensbroek — although otherwise unexciting, Hoensbroek's large castle and annual sand sculpture festival are major attractions in the region
- 4 Landgraaf — many of the world's most famous artists come here to perform at the annual Pinkpop festival and you'll also find Europe's largest indoor ski resort here
- 5 Lemiers — a small village and adjoining hamlet worth a quick stopover or good as a hiking destination
- 6 Margraten — the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial, where 8701 American soldiers have found their final resting place, will leave a lasting impression on any visitor
- 7 Partij-Wittem — home to an interesting castle and a compact but pretty castle that received popes and famous lords throughout the ages
- 8 Simpelveld — called the Gateway to the Mergelland, its train station serves as headquarters for the heritage steam train called Miljoenenlijn
- 9 Vaals — the Dutch, German and Belgian borders come together at the tripoint here; the surrounding area holds some of the best scenic routes in the country with wide views and typical black and white timber framed houses all around
- 10 Valkenburg aan de Geul — a popular tourist destination for decades; Marlstone quarrying left the town with a series of underground caves and you can visit the ruins of its old city wall and castle
- 11 Vijlen — charming little hill-top village surrounded by forests, hamlets and wonderful landscapes
- 12 Wijlre — a tiny town but a proud one, famous in the Netherlands for its beer
The gently rolling landscape that characterizes this region is caused by its location on the outskirts of the Belgian Ardennes and the German Eifel. With the 322.7 meters Vaalserberg being the highest point, the South Limburg hills aren't nearly as high as those low mountain ranges just across the borders. Nonetheless, it provides lovely scenic views and a strong contrast to the strikingly flat lands that define the rest of the Netherlands.The river Meuse runs through the region, from south to north. It is called Maas in Dutch and several towns, including the Limburgian capital Maastricht, are named after it. The Meuse depositions account for a large part of the South Limburg surface.
However, the touristic appeal of the region doesn't lie in its landscape alone. The South-Limburg countryside is dotted with charming villages, farms, ancient churches and a good number of castles. In many villages and most of the cities, old buildings in the historic centre remain. As it has been a relatively popular destination for many decades, tourism has become a main source of income for the region. Not only hotels and restaurants are plentiful, but attractions and events looking to entertain the many visitors are all around as well. In summer, small towns come to life and not a weekend goes by without another festival, fancy fair or cultural event happening somewhere.
- VVV Tourist Information Zuid-Limburg. Major cities like Maastricht have a specified tourist information office but even in small villages you will usually find a VVV information point with maps and leaflets, e.g. in a local supermarket. There's a specialized VVV website for the whole South Limburg Region, where you can also find information on the local offices.
The earliest evidence of human life in the Netherlands was found in the South-Limburg region, in the form of Neanderthaler camp remains near Maastricht. The oldest traces of farming in the Netherlands were also discovered in this region, where the fertile loess grounds led to farming initiatives long before the rest of the Netherlands. In Roman times the region was Romanized throughout. The Romans laid the foundations for Maastricht and Heerlen, now two of the main cities in South Limburg. Christianity was introduced in 384 by Servatius and would play a major role in the further history of the region. This later canonized bishop became the patron saint of the city Maastricht and his grave became a popular pilgrimage destination.
The mostly Catholic population of South Limburg, like the rest of Dutch and Belgian Limburg, strongly opposed its absorption by the Reformist Northern provinces and fought alongside the Spanish. Still today almost 75% of its population is Catholic, although ever fewer people actually practice their faith.
Throughout its history, South Limburg was a mostly rich and flourishing area. It was constantly disputed between regional duchies, the French, the Prussians, the Dutch and the Spanish. From around 1900 to the 1960s, the economy blossomed as coal mining activities developed. The closure of the mines in the mid-1960s led to severe unemployment, as up to 15% of the population had been working for pr in the mines. The South Limburg administration has invested heavily to change and renew the local economy. Beside the fast development of tourism, the region has also tried to established itself as a European cooperation hub, especially focusing on its central position in the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion.
A large part of the South-Limburg population speaks a form of Limburgish, a dialect that shares many characteristics with both Dutch and German. People from different villages all speak their own specific variety of the dialect, but are still well able to communicate amongst each other. In villages and small towns you'll find that Limburgisch is the main colloquial language used by locals in every day life. This often extends to interaction with locals just across the German and Belgian border, as they too speak versions of Limburgish.
In the Netherlands, Limburgish has been recognised as an official regional language and it therefor enjoys a certain level of protection under chapter 2 of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. However, the validity of that status is an ongoing subject of debate among linguists.
Of course, Dutch remains the official language. You'll find that everyone speaks it, although many people do so with an accent. Virtually all written information (including menus and signs) is in Dutch. As in the rest of the Netherlands, the command of English is fairly good and many Limburgish people also speak German rather well. In the main tourist destinations and especially in those close to the border, it's not uncommon to find menus and other information in German.
Getting in is easy as there are many road and public transport connections to the rest of the Netherlands, as well as to Germany and Belgium. If you're flying in, several small and large airports are within reasonable travel distance.
Maastricht-Aachen Airport MST IATA is the only airport in the region. It is about 9 km south-west of Maastricht in the town of Beek. It's mainly a cargo hub but also serves some (partly seasonal) international flights, operated by discount carriers and mostly headed to southern Europe. Summer time destinations include Antalya, Tenerife South, Alicante, Girona-Barcelona, Milan Malpensa, Faro, and Porto.
Locals often turn to other airports in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium to get in and out of the region. Some options (including travel times) are:
- Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, 2½ hr by direct train to Maastricht
- Eindhoven Airport, 1½ hr by train and bus to Maastricht (change once in Eindhoven)
- Brussels National Airport, 1 hr 45 min by train to Maastricht (change once in Brussels)
- Düsseldorf International Airport, 2 hr by train and bus to Vaals (change once in Aachen)
If you're coming from the north, direct Dutch intercity trains lead to South Limburg from the direction of Amsterdam, Utrecht, 's Hertogenbosch and Eindhoven. Within the South Limburg region, fast intercity trains stop in Sittard, Maastricht and Heerlen. Regional trains and buses can take you further to several smaller towns. These regional trains are operated by Veolia, as are the buses.
From Brussel take an intercity train to Liège and change there for the regional trans border train to Maastricht. Furthermore, there's a regional train connection between Aachen (Germany) and Heerlen.
Local roads make border crossing from Belgium or Germany straightforward. The main highway connections are listed below.
- The E14/A76 is an important thoroughfare from Belgium to Germany and vice versa and passes through the South Limburg cities of Geleen and Heerlen. On the other sides of the border, it connects to Aachen (Germany) and Maasmechelen (Belgium).
- The E25/A2 connects Maastricht directly to Weert and Amsterdam in the north, and to Liège and Luxembourg in the south.
Maastricht is a stop on the Eurolines routes, allowing for bus travel to and from many parts of Europe. Their stop is at terminal H on the main bus station of Maastricht, which is right next to the train station. South Limburg is served by an extensive network of regional bus lines, reaching into every village and even many hamlets. As trains are not quite as widely available, buses will be useful to get in to a smaller destination, but to first arrive to the region from anywhere in the Netherlands, trains are usually more convenient. Head into Sittard, Maastricht or Heerlen, and take a bus from there.
There are plenty of options to make your way around. Biking and hiking are a popular way to see the best of the region, but if your time is limited you might consider renting a car. Bus and local train connections are a useful alternative as well.
Public bus transport is operated by Arriva. You can buy an OV-chipkaart on all major bus and train stations. You can also purchase a ticket from the driver. While that is more expensive for single journeys, it's a good option for day trips. After 09:00, "dagkaarten" or day tickets are available for €6.50, and with a €2.50 surcharge, it allows travel on the regional trains as well. The Euregioticket is a €16/day ticket, valid on all buses and on the regional Arriva Heuvelland train line (between Maastricht and Kerkrade). In weekends and holidays, this same ticket is valid for up to 2 adults and 3 children.
The bus network is extensive and will take you to almost every village in the region. Use the national online 9292 journey planner to plan your trip. Some of the smaller hamlets are served by minibuses, but they leave from the regular platforms at e.g. Valkenburg and Gulpen station.
You can rent a bike at tourist offices in larger towns but many hotels and campings offer bike rental as well. The tourist information offices have a full list of rental places, can assist you when renting and also have a range of routes and maps including trails for mountain bikers, through hamlets and towns, around asparagus fields and more. Take into account that the region is not as flat as the rest of the Netherlands and some stamina is required when using a traditional bicycle. For that reason, electrically supported bikes are an increasingly popular way to get around, allowing for all the benefits of biking, but making it a lot easier to climb the hills. Countless establishments on the road have installed charging points, allowing you to recharge your battery if needed, while you enjoy you lunch or coffee. Ask for an up to date list of these places at your rental company or tourist information office. Rates are typically around €25 per day and many smaller hotels can arrange for one to be delivered to you if you make arrangements in advance.
If you still don't feel up for biking, consider renting a vespa for the day in Maastricht. All tourist information points sell maps and routes. Also make sure to ask them about the good number of (free) marked routes available.
- Timber framed houses, or vakwerkhuizen in Dutch, are built after an old construction technique. The white or yellow houses show dark wooden construction beams in their walls. Although fairly common in the region, this building style is rarely used in the rest of the Netherlands. The often old houses form a picturesque sight in the green countryside.
- Maastricht is a charming city on the banks of the river Meuse, filled with monumental buildings, cathedrals and the ruins of what was once its city wall. Exploring this historic city for a day is an excellent way to spend your time. Its main sights include the 11th-century Basilica of Saint Servatius, the 12th-century Basilica of Our Lady, the Helpoort, which is the oldest remaining city gate in the country, and the Sint Pieter Castle on top of a hill. The Bonnefanten Museum is the most prominent fine and contemporary arts museum in the province.
- The Miljoenenlijntje (literally "Millions Line") is a touristic train connection between Kerkrade and Valkenburg. A second line runs from Simpelveld to Vetschau, Germany. It derives its name from the steep costs of its construction in the 1920s, then intended for cargo and regular passenger transport. It is now operated by the South Limburgian Steam Train Company, a non-profit that is headquartered and runs a small museum in the Simpelveld train station. Historic trains and railbuses are used for the Miljoenenlijntje and a tour on it provides a fun way to see the South Limburg countryside. (Check schedule for actual operative days.)
- The World War II Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial is the final resting ground for 8.301 American soldiers who lost their life in this region during the Second World War. It is located on a hill in Margraten, along the ancient road from Maastricht to Aachen. Viewing the thousands of white crosses on the green fields and the tall Walls of the Missing, with the names of another 1722 missing American soldiers engraved, is a humbling and impressive experience. (10 km east of Maastricht, on the road to Margraten).
Castles, caves and fortifications
A good number of fortifications and castles remind the visitor of times long gone, when South Limburg's lands were scattered over many different fiefdoms, all with their own respective lords and manors. Even small villages boast fine examples of Ancien Régime housing and medieval strongholds. Some are now private property or not open for the public but others house upscale restaurants or even a museum. Some great examples are the large Kasteel Hoensbroek, (now a museum), the picturesque castle Schaloen in Valkenburg, the castles of Eijsden and Gulpen (all no entrance). The two castle buildings in Vaals and of course the main chateaus near Maastricht are beautiful and house restaurants and hotels. Quite something else, but with the same sense of force, are the different kinds of underground caves and mines. The casemate of Maastricht is a fine example of underground caves, cut out to hide people and weapons. In Valkenburg, not much remains of the city castle, but underground you'll find a full-fledged replica of Roman catacombs created in the extensive network of former marl quarries.
Museums & art
Maastricht is known as a centre of culture and arts and home to many arts galleries and events. There is also a good number of museums, some with a focus on arts, but also with collections on culture, history and nature. The Bonnefantenmuseum is the prime museum in the city, displaying modern and medieval arts from the area. The Museum aan het Vrijthof is smaller, but in a nice way intimate and home to a good collection on Maastricht history through arts and artefacts. The Natural History Museum is a whole different kind of museum, but quite interesting, also for kids. Other cities in the region have fine options too. In Kerkrade, the Discovery Centre Continium is a science museum with lots of things to do for kids. In Heerlen, there's the Thermenmuseum, displaying the remains of Roman heritage in the area and foundations of Roman bathhouses.
The Mergelland route is perhaps the finest and best marked touristic route in the Netherlands, and an initiative of the Dutch Automobile Organization ANWB. There's a version for bikers (125 km) and one for motorized traffic (110 km). Many tourists pick just a piece of it or take the full route in parts. Of course you can find different accommodation for each part. If you're taking the route by car however, heading back to a single hotel every evening is an option as you're never more than half an hours drive away (if taking the main roads, of course). Any tourist information office can provide you with maps and more information.
- Touring - the Heuvelland by bike, car or motorcycle is perhaps the most popular activity around. The famous Mergelland Route leads along some of the regions most interesting places but it's also easy enough to cherry pick on your own. Enjoy the calming views and make sure to stop at some of the friendly villages for a coffee on a local terrace. See the section on getting around for more details.
- Hiking - is another highly popular pasture in all parts of the region. The area between Vaals and Gulpen was even voted the most beautiful natural region of the country and the villages around there make good bases from where to start. In the tourist season, it's hard to find a countryside trail without encountering at least a handful of other hikers. Locals and visitors alike love to explore the fields and forests on foot, enjoying the scenery and many little village cafés on the way. There are countless color-marked routes, maps and GPS trails. The tourist information offices (VVV) are the best place to start. Many of their paid maps and routs are produced on a non-profit base and cost between €1-5. They include routes per subregion and per theme. Larger villages usually have at least an information point for tourists where some or all of these are available, and many can be ordered or downloaded online. For trained hikers several walking events are organized each year, including the Night of Gulpen, a 70 km nighttime hike through the Heuvelland.
- Mountain biking - the large forests and hilly landscapes make the South Limburg area one of the most interesting Dutch places for mountain bikers. Routes are available from the tourist information offices.
- Snowworld Landgraaf - the largest indoor ski resort in Europe is a great place to learn to ski or snowboard, whatever the weather holds. There are 2 fairly long pistes and a snow board fun park. Rates drop in summer, especially for private lessons. However, the fastest piste isn't available during summer as it is used by professionals to practice. There's a hotel, too.
- Pinkpop is an annual rock festival, first organized in 1970 and therefore the longest running pop/rock festival in the world. In the course of its history it has received over 500 performing artists, including many world famous music icons. The event lasts 3 days, is held in Landgraaf and receives over 60.000 visitors per day. (Usually held during the Pentecost Weekend.)
- Art lovers shouldn't miss the TEFAF art fair in Maastricht. It's held annually in Spring and is the leading fair of its kind in the world. It features a vast collection of arts and antiques and attracts many international visitors.
With 8 Michelin stars awarded in just a 20x20 km area, South Limburg (and the Maastricht area in particular) maintain a reputation for fine dining opportunities. Notable restaurants include the 2-star restaurants Beluga in Maastricht and De Leuf in Ubachsberg. For a royal haute cuisine experience, try the 1-star restaurants in Chateau St. Gerlach or Chateau Neercanne.
If your budget doesn't allow for such a splurge, a taste of traditional local cuisine is a good alternative. The laid-back restaurants on the town squares make an excellent place to try some of South Limburgs favorite local foods. Local cuisine is clearly influenced by those of nearby German and Belgian regions. You'll find a good deal of sweetness, and many sweet and sour dishes. The story goes that the use of sugar, apple syrup and other sweeteners resulted from the close ties of Maastricht and the surrounding area to Liège. As Liege was one of the main Belgian pâtisserie cities, young boys would grow up in a sweet environment. When they would grow up to be cooks later, they would integrate their love for sweet tastes in savory dishes.
- Zuurvlees - this sweet and sour stew is made with horse meat or beef and is usually served with fries or cooked potatoes. In the South Limburg region you will also find zuurvlees as a sauce option in any "friture" (snackbar). As common as that is here, you're unlikely to see it anywhere in the more northern provinces.
- Tête de veaux - this dish has French origins and consists of veal with champignon mushroom in a tomato sauce.
- Sour Rabbit - despite the name, it's a rather sweet and sour than sour dish.
- Head cheese - also called brawn in English comes in a red, sweet variety and a slightly sour, grey variety. Originally made of the left over cuts of pork. It's eaten on bread, with cold buffets or as a starter, usually with mustard or vinegar.
- Koude Schotel - a particular kind of salad olivier, with the ingredients usually very finely chopped or even practically mashed.
Popular sweet treats include Limburgse vlaai, a pie or tart with a fruit or pudding filling, originally from the North Limburg city of Weert but a very common sweet dish here as well. Nonnevotten or poefelen are a deep-fried sweet pastry originally associated with carnival celebrations, but now available year round.
For long the South Limburg region has been known for its beer making traditions. Still today, a number of South Limburg breweries exist and produce beers that are popular throughout the rest of the country. The most prominent examples are the old Brand-brouwerij in Wijlre, de Gulpener-brewery in Gulpen, Leeuw-brewery in Valkenburg and the Alfa-brewery in Thull. Many bars in the region serve one of these beers as a standard beer and if you're interested the breweries themselves often offer beer tasting activities and tours.
Wine making is becoming increasingly popular in South Limburg. Experiments have been undertaken since the 1980s, trying to establish which grape varieties would be most suited for the local climate and soil. The Apostelhoeve near Maastricht is the largest vineyard in the Netherlands. Also notable is the vineyard of the beautiful Château Neercanne, again near Maastricht. This is the only Dutch vineyard with an actual castle, and able to use the term "Château". Its wines are available in the upscale castle restaurant.
Travellers will encounter no specific dangers here and common sense will generally be enough to keep you safe. For Dutch standards, Limburg is quite densely populated and petty crime numbers are in line with that. Drug-related crimes are slightly more widespread than in some other Dutch areas, due to Limburg's location on the German and Belgian border and the associated smuggling potential. If you do not seek contact with drug traffickers however, you are unlikely to notice any of it.
Pick pocketing isn't nearly as much of a problem as it is in, e.g., Amsterdam, but keep an eye on your personal items nonetheless. As in other Dutch regions, you might meet an occasional wanderer on the streets, asking for small change. The social welfare system is pretty well arranged and begging (which is illegal) is often related to drug addiction. Kindly declining is usually enough to send them off. An exception are homeless people selling "street newspapers" ("straatkrant"), often at supermarket entrances. This is a legal and organized initiative in the Netherlands which you may support, but sellers should visibly be wearing an ID card.
The German city of Aachen is just at the other side of the border and makes a great day trip. You can take a train from Heerlen or a bus from there, Maastricht or Vaals. To the Belgian side, Liège is close and well connected. To go further, train times from Maastricht include: