Vaals is a small city in the South Limburg region, in the Dutch province Limburg. It is located right on both the Belgian and German border, with the much larger German city of Aachen at just a stone's throw away. A popular holiday destination for Dutch domestic tourists, the town is surrounded by the rolling hills this region is famous for and is known for its beautiful landscapes.
The borders of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet here in Vaals, on the Drielandenpunt. The official place of the Drielandenpunt is just a few steps aways from the highest point of the (European) Netherlands, the Vaalserberg. Vaals is a friendly town for tourists, with regular activities and a beautiful natural area surrounding it. The Dutch call it "a piece of abroad in the Netherlands".
The municipality of Vaals comprises the town and a few other villages and hamlets. The main population centres are:
- Vijlen and its hamlets, the highest located village in the country and popular with hikers and bikers.
- Lemiers, a small village with a nice, old church.
- Holset, a tiny village with some good options to eat and a medieval church.
A large number of the inhabitants, up to 26%, are Germans. Nowadays, the town's main activity is tourism. Many Dutch, German and Belgian tourists visit this friendly town each year, with the Drielandenpunt as its main attraction but mostly of course for the beautiful scenery and picturesque hamlets around town.
The oldest archaeological traces of human settlements in Vaals were found in the nearby Vijlener forest, and date from the time of Linear Potter culture, about 5000BC. The origin of the town's name is Roman, with its ancient names Vals and Vallis meaning "in the Valley".
Vaals is first mentioned in documents in 1041. In that time, Emperor Henry III donated land to the St. Adalbert Abbey and to distinguish between the city of Aachen and this land, it is referred to as "in the valley"/in Vallis. In those days, the centre of the municipality was Holset, also home to a high court of justice.
Given the location of the municipality, along the main (and originally Roman) road between Aachen and Maastricht, Vaals observed many armies passing by. During the war against the Spanish occupation, in 1568, the armed forces of William of Orange passed through Vaals and looted St. Pauls Church.
In 1661 Vaals became part of the Republic of the United Netherlands. Many wealthy citizens moved to Vaals and turned it into a flourishing industrial hub. One prominent industrial family were the Von Clermonts, who moved from Aachen to Vaals in 1761 and established a large linen factory, with clientèle in Prussia, Belgium, Austria, Poland and even Russia. In 1717, Tsar Peter the Great visited the Von Clermonts. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, and his wife Josephine de Beauharnais visited Vaals and stayed in Bloemendal Castle, one of the outhouses of the Von Clermont family.
During the Conference of Vienna, Aachen was assigned to Prussia and Vaals to the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Upon the Belgian declaration of independence in 1830, Vaals was Belgian claimed territory until it was reassigned to the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1839. As a result, the four national boundaries of Prussia, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Neutral Territory of Moresnet, met near Vaals until Moresnet was absorbed into Belgium in 1919 and the current 3 countries point remained.
Owing to increased competition and the political closure of the German and Belgian regio to Vaals, industrial activity went down after 1840. Vaals turned from a wealthy industrial town into a leisure and holiday destination for the citizens of Aachen. Its casino's in this time made it a Monte Carlo like destination for the well-to-do of the surrounding regions. Germans referred to the town as the "Vaalser Paradies". To stimulate industry and tourism, a tram was installed in 1922 from Aachen, via Vaals to Wijlre, which was expanded to Maastricht in 1924. This prestigious and costly project was not very successful, as the tram ran no more than 13 years.
Before and during World War II the borders were closed and Vaals grew isolated due to its remote location in the Netherlands. After the war, commerce rose. Germans visited Vaals on a daily basis, as they still do today. Many inhabitants of Vaals found jobs in Aachen and smuggle routes across the border prospered. The smugglers of Vaals were called "The Owls of Vaals", referring to their nightly endeavours. Nowadays, the borders are of course open and Vaals is well embedded in the Aachen local transport system.
- VVV Limburg tourist information store Vaals, Maastrichterlaan 73a, ☏ (€1 per call). The tourist information office is a well equipped place with maps, tours and information on all major sights. They can also assist in hotel bookings etc.
The main way in by car is over the N281, which is connected to the E14/A76. This road is essentially the ancient Roman route from Maastricht to Aachen. Still today, it goes straight through town on to Aachen, and the two towns have basically become one big urban area, with no space in between. Smaller, regional roads (which are advisable if you like to enjoy the scenery) lead to neighbouring Epen and Vijlen, and across the Belgium border to Gemmenich and Plobières.
Buses run frequently and are the only form of public transport to get in or out. The town's main terminal is right in the centre, at the Alexanderplein and in the middle of the shopping area. The main connections are:
- Line 43 - to Simpelveld and Heerlen
- Line 50 - to Gulpen and Maastricht
- Line 50 - to Aachen
The nearest airport is Maastricht-Aachen Airport (MST IATA) served by a handful of seasonal flights to beach destinations, and from nearby Aachen direct trains also run to Düsseldorf Airport (DUS IATA), which is just over an hour away and has many more international destinations.
The old centre can be reasonably well be explored by foot, but a bike or car is a good option since many of the sights lie on the outskirts of town. Also, the surrounding natural area and villages make one of the towns greatest assets, but take quite a hike on foot. Unlike most other Dutch cities, the centre is not car-free and it therefore easy to get around when driving.
Electric bikes are an increasingly popular way to get around, as they provide all the benefits of a normal bike but make it a lot easier to make your way to the hill tops. This "groenfietsen" (green biking) is an extensive initiative and comes with route proposals. If you book ahead, several restaurants, hotels and campings in Vaals can make these so-called "green-bikes" available for you. If you haven't reserved one, try nearbyHerberg Oud Holset, Holset 54 Lemiers. For more information and a list of participants, see the project website.
- 1 Border triangle (Drielandenpunt). At this point the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany come together with their respective borders. The exact point is marked by a small, unimpressive stone pilar but is still considered the main must-see in town. To entertain the 1 million visitors that find their way here each year, the largest labyrinth in the country was built here, as well as two towers allowing to enjoy to view from the top of the Vaalserberg. There are a few cafés and the forests around it allow for a hike through 3 countries at once.
- 2 Museum de Kopermolen, Von Clermontplein 11. This small museum is housed in a monumental building, build in 1736 as a Lutheran church. It has changing art expositions and regularly concerts and lectures are organized. €1.50.
- 3 Museum Vaals, Eschberg 5-7, ☏ . Tu-Su 10:30-17:30. The collection of this small museum comprises a somewhat odd combination of church statues and modern art. It's in a historic monastery chapel.
- 4 St. Pauluskerk, Kerkstraat 27. This late 19th-century Neo Gothic church listed as a national monument. It was designed by Johannes Kayser to replace an older church, also dedicated to St. Paul, about 150 m to the south. €5/2.5 for adults/children.
- Kartingbaan Vaals, Selzerbeeklaan 23, ☏ . The only outdoor carting track in the province makes a good option for a small adrenaline rush.
- Horse carriage tours, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. A horse carriage tour through Vaals' beautiful surroundings is a lovely experience. The carriage will take you to some of the nice hamlets and town outskirts. You will have to book some time in advance, as this is a small scale private enterprise.
- Kunstroute Vaals. For about 3 weeks in July, several historic locations in town host art expositions of various kinds for the annual "Art Route". Walk from one exposition to the next, exploring town as well as the work of various artists. Information is in Dutch, but the collections are usually good and a ticket will buy you entrance to all participating locations, some little snacks served at a few of those places and an art brochure. Tickets are available from several Tourist Information Offices (VVV) in the region, but you might as well buy it at the starting point: the Tourist Information Office in Vaals. You can start the route between 10:00 and 13:00. €14.50.
Vaals has a good range of shops, including clothing, shoes, toy and giftstores as well as many daily grocery options. Most of the stores are along the Maastrichterlaan, the main road through town.
There's a fairly large weekly market on Tuesday mornings, in front of the town hall. During the tourist season (roughly from May to October) a regional products market is held very second Saturday (in the evenly numbered weeks). It's small but sells local products like mustard and jams that make good souvenirs. You'll find it on the Prins Willem Alexanderplein, in front of the Albert Heijn Supermarket.
- Cafetaria Delnoye, Maastrichterlaan 164, ☏ . One of the most popular places among locals for fries and a snack. €5.
- Kasteel Bloemendal, Bloemendalstraat 150, ☏ . This beautiful small castle in the middle of town houses not only an upscale hotel, but also a restaurant. Plenty of luxurious dishes to choose from, but menu offers do start from around € 30. There's a pretty good wine list. from €30.
- [formerly dead link] Brasserie Lodge 7, Epenerbaan 1, ☏ . The beautiful location of this modern place out of the town center makes it worth a visit. There's a nice terrace in summer and a fire place in winter. The food gets pretty good reviews too. €30.50.
- De Raadskelder, Koningin Julianaplein 49, ☏ . Lovely restaurant setting in the ancient cellars of the town hall. The food is traditional but good and the service adequate. €20.
- Troje, Kerstraat 68, ☏ . Greek restaurant with nice food and large portions. The service is friendly and take away is an option too. €17.
- Schatull, Akenerstraat 31, ☏ . Housed in an old South Limburg building, Schatull serves sunny dishes with a Tuscan origin. Perhaps the best place around for a taste of Italian cuisine. On request, they can organize cooking workshops and demonstrations. 3-course menu from €25.
- Café Allure, Maastrichterlaan 81, ☏ . Cosy, old-fashioned brown café with a good choice in beers.
- Grand Café Zera, Pr.W.Alexanderplein 1, ☏ . This grand café right in the heart of town is really more than just a café. It also serves lunch and dinner, which you can order on the outdoor terrace if weather allows.
- Bloemendal, Bloemendalstraat 150, ☏ . Located in the heart of town, this is both one of the best hotel and one of the main sights in town. It's a romantic place with lovely gardens and a pleasant outdoor terrace in summer. Facilities include a swimming pool, a whirlpool, a solarium and a sauna. They offer good but general rooms in a side wing of the castle, as well as nicely decorated suites in the old parts. Note that some (more expensive) rooms have nice and spacious bathrooms, while some cheaper ones have fairly small showers. Whichever room you're in, however, this is a beautiful hotel with excellent service and a good restaurant. From €115 for a standard or €150 for a suite.
- Bilderberg Kasteel Vaalsbroek, Vaalsbroek 1, ☏ . The service at this place is excellent and the rooms are good value. There's no common lounge area but the restaurant is one of the best around and this place gets points for its quiet, just out-of-town location and outside looks. You don't sleep or have breakfast in the castle area, but you can dine there. €99 for a double incl. breakfast.
- Vaalserhof, Lemierserberg 35-37, ☏ . Fully equipped apartments with private balcony or terrace on the back side, giving a nice view.
- Camping Hoeve de Gastmolen, Lemierserberg 23, ☏ . Fairly small natural camping on the outskirts of Vaals. It's a former farm, close to the Selzerbeek creek. It has all the basic facilities, including good sanitary and a small playground for the kids. €12 per night + €3.75 p.p.
Several hotels and other accommodations offer wifi for their guests. The public library offers free use of computers with internet access.
- Public Library (Bibliotheek Vaals), St Jozefplein 51, ☏ . Tu 10:30-12:30, 14:00-18:00; W 14:00-18:00; F 14:00-20:00; Sa 10:30-12:30; closed on Su M Th.
- Post Office, Maastrichterlaan 43 (located inside Drogisterij-Parfumerie Ramaekers). Open on weekdays, but they take a lunch break from 13:00-14:00, Sa open from 09:00-13:00.
As the old German city of Aachen is just a stone's throw away, it makes for a great day trip. You can easily bike there, or take bus line 50 from the bus station in Vaals.
Other nearby travel destinations include:
- Gulpen, take the N278 or bus line 50
- Maastricht, take the N278 or bus line 50
- Simpelveld, take the N287 & N281 or bus line 43
For further destinations you can catch an intercity train in Maastricht, Heerlen or Aachen.