Amsterdam, right? Rotterdam maybe and if you push hard enough some people might have heard of Maastricht. But Arnhem? Nah, this compact city close to the stunning Veluwe National Park is rarely on the must-see list of people travelling to the Netherlands. I wasn’t sure what to expect either when my partner expressed the desire to spend a weekend in Arnhem, but boy was I in for a surprise! Turns out Arnhem is a hip, cosy, modern and historic city all squeezed into one! Read on to see why you should give Arnhem a try!
The best things to do in Arnhem
1. Learn about the Battle of Arnhem
If you’re British you’ll definitely have heard of the famous Battle of Arnhem. Back in 1944, the British and the Allied Forces could have ended World War II six months earlier than it did, but it wasn’t to be…
When trying to make their way from liberated Belgium into German territory, Arnhem was a very strategic place. It is here that the Allied Forces wanted to cross the river Rhine to break through the German defences. But things didn’t go according to plan…What followed was 9 days of intense fighting at the end of which the whole city was destroyed and 1400 lives were lost. “Operation Market Garden”, the largest airborne operation in history, had failed.
There are various sites in and around the city that commemorate the bravery of the Allies and you should definitely visit a few when exploring Arnhem.
The John Frost Bridge
The bridge that was “A Bridge Too Far” for the Allied Forces. It spans over the Lower Rhine and was named after Major-General Frost who commanded the British forces that reached and defended the bridge during the Battle of Arnhem.
Walking or cycling across you’ll stand where the Allied Forces tried to reclaim the Bridge from the Germans.
Airborne at the Bridge
Situated on the Rijnkade, next to the John Frost Bridge, this small, but free, information centre greets you with personal stories by people from different sides of the battle. There are videos that give you a perspective from the British, German and Dutch point of view as well as photos and letters of people who fought during the Battle. There’s also a video presentation showing you how the battle played out.
It’s a taster for the main museum in Oosterbeek, but definitely worth visiting in its own right.
Airborne Museum Hartenstein
If you only visit one site related to the Battle of Arnhem, make it this one. A 15-20 minute bus ride from Arnhem Centraal Station takes you to Oosterbeek, home to the “Hartenstein” building. Hartenstein used to be the head quarters of the British 1st Airborne Division and has been converted into the main point of reference for thorough information about the Battle. An extensive and diverse collection is displayed consisting of original weaponry, uniforms and equipment used in the Battle. The video at the start gives a clear idea of how the Battle unfolded and the Experience Exhibition paints a very realistic picture of the battlefields in the area around Arnhem and Oosterbeek .
The Airborne Cemetery
A 20 minute walk from Hartenstein will take you to the Airborne cemetery that contains the graves of almost 2000 Commonwealth and Polish soldiers and airmen who fought in the Battle. Heading towards it, you’ll be passing the frontline between the Allied Forces and the Germans.
We had a special reason to come here. My partner had family connections to a Glider pilot who lost his life in Arnhem and was buried here back in 1944.
But even if you have no specific connections, you should still visit the Airborne Cemetery; no visit to the Battle-sites of Arnhem is complete without standing amongst the sober and serene white graves of these men who gave their life for their country!
If you’re hungry for more information about this important part of Arnhem’s history, you can download the free audio tour about the Battle of Arnhem on iPhone or Android. Look for the “Airborne Stories” app, put on your headphone and stop at 25 different listening points along the route to hear what happened right there on that spot!
2. Indulge in Arnhem’s cool bars and coffee houses.
Arnhem is not all doom and gloom, but after visiting the Battle-sites, you might need a quick pick-me-up! No worries, the city has you covered! The old part of Arnhem is full of modern coffee bars and historic pubs. You’ll have to make a choice, but these are a few of my favourites:
The whole place breathes contemporary grandeur. The stylish and comfy interior is perfect for a tasty breakfast or a lingering lunch. It’s a great meeting point, whether it’s for a business lunch or a catch-up with friends. Read the newspaper at one of the long tables or catch-up on the latest news online!
Situated inside a former bank building, the stylish Stan&Co reminds me a bit of “Jans”. It’s equally inviting and the perfect place to escape the rain on a dreary autumn day. Taste the “bitterballen”, a typical Dutch meat-based snack, and wash it down with a “Jan Hertog” beer!
There’s a unique concept: beers and wines on tap! Over 100 different beers and 80 different wines are waiting to be sampled. No service here, you just get a “menu”, decide which beer takes your fancy and fill the glass yourself at one of the many taps. Not sure which one to go for? No problem, you don’t need to have a full pint, you can even sample your beverage of choice by centilitre!
The system works with a “tap card” that you buy at the till. Charge it with the amount you’re thinking of spending and off you go!
It’s a perfect way to spend an evening with friends. On Fridays and Saturdays it gets packed and the DJ even adds more to the weekend-atmosphere.
Ready for some genuine Dutch atmosphere? On a Friday or Saturday night, there’s no better place than the Freaky Pianobar! After 10pm, locals get massively enthusiastic singing and dancing along international evergreens (Country Roads, anyone?) or the Dutch “levenslied”. (emotional songs about love, life and heart break) The songs are played by a pianist.
It’s probably not to everyone’s taste, but I truly enjoyed the enthusiasm of the crowd and the really good vibes!
3.Take a look at the many historic houses
Walk around the historic city centre of Arnhem and you’ll be tempted to stop at every corner to admire the architecture that embellishes many of the façades of the city’s historic houses.
Korenmarkt and Jansplein
Behind the bars and restaurants that spill out on the Korenmarkt stand a few remarkable buildings. The granary houses are a testimony to the corn trade that lasted here till the early 20th century. (“koren” means “corn”, hence the name)
The main building on Jansplein is the former post office (now home to ‘t Taphuys) This neo-gothic building shows strong influences from the Hanseatic Gothic period.
The nearby Jansplaats has a few gabled houses dating back to the 18th-19th century.
Probably the most ornate house of Arnhem, the Devil’s House is so-called because the 16th century owner decorated the building with numerous statues. Residents of Arnhem thought of them as devils. The basement of this building served as a temporary prison for captured British parachutists during the Battle of Arnhem in 1944. If you look closely, you can still see bullet holes in the building.
This originally 14th century house is in fact two houses into one. The oldest part of the house dates back to 1358. The new wing, with the lovely stepped gable was added in 1368 and is still more or less intact. It has served as a mayor’s house, teashop, café and clothing shop.
The medieval Sabelspoort is the only city gate left after the demolition of the city walls in the 19th century. It’s a great way to arrive into the old part of the city, coming from the Rhine banks.
Underneath many properties in the old city centre lie historic cellars and a few are open to the public. The entrance is on the Oude Oeverstraat.
4.Visit the Eusebius church
Its 93m high tower can be spotted from far away and can be climbed too, offering a beautiful view over Arnhem. Daredevils can stand on the glass balcony looking down on the Audrey Hepburn square. The inside of the church has been under restoration for a large number of years, but it’s still worth having a look at the crypt and foundations of the St Martin’s Church, Eusebius’ predecessor.
5.Stroll along the Rijnkade and the Food Hall
The river Rhine continues to play an important role in Arnhem’s daily life. In summer bars line the quayside and an artificial beach is created on the banks of the river. I was visiting Arnhem during a very wet October weekend, but it was still lovely to stroll along the river and going inside the Foodhall! There are various cuisines, you’re about to find something that tickles your fancy!
The ultimate Rhine experience however is to stay overnight in one of the houseboats that line the Lower Rhine and have been converted into B&B’s. Ducks floating next to your breakfast table? Yes please!
I must say, I was really impressed by Arnhem. It shows respect for its history, but doesn’t let this stop it from moving forward! There are plenty of things to do in Arnhem too: from quirky shops to modern coffee bars, from theatre to international restaurants, I can imagine Arnhem to be a really nice place to live!