11 Jan Rachel Heller’s Groningen, Holland
Travel Blogger Rachel Heller shares her insider knowledge of the Dutch city of Groningen
Rachel Heller started her blog http://www.rachelheller.org/ back in 2007 , originally inspired by a need to rant: “I was bursting with the need to express my amazement at the rudeness I experienced at the supermarket that day, so I started a blog and posted it. I wrote a lot in the beginning about my experiences as an expat American in the Netherlands, but then expanded to writing about my travels, my family, education, and whatever else came to mind. Over the years, I’ve found more time to write, and the more I write, the more I enjoy writing. I’m now in the process of professionalizing the blog, and focusing it more on travel.”
I’d never heard of Groningen when I met Rachel at TBEX Athens last year, so was curious to learn more about it…
Rachel, how long have you lived in Groningen?
I’ve been here 17 years. I came here because my husband is Dutch and wanted to move home. We had lived in San Francisco for eight years and our deal was that we’d stay here for eight years, after which we could move somewhere else if I wasn’t happy. But it’s a great place to live, so here we are.
What do you to do to relax in Groningen?
Sitting in an outdoor café, having a drink or a cup of tea, soaking in the sun. I don’t get to do that often, but it’s a joy when I can. I also love a stroll on the Folkingestraat, which has wonderfully quirky little shops.
Are there any bars or restaurants you can recommend for long lingering lunches or just people watching?
The Nieuwscafe is a popular one for people-watching, especially if you are lucky enough to get a table outside. It’s right between the two big market squares so everyone walks by there. The same goes for the Drie Gezusters, right on the Grote Markt, or De Kostery, at the base of the Martinitoren (the tall clock tower on the Grote Markt). I like Hemingway’s, opposite the casino, for tapas and a chat. The Groninger Museum has a pleasant restaurant for lunch or tea, and again, if you can get a table outside, you’ll get in some good people-watching. And the Pannenkoekschip isn’t the quietest restaurant, since it’s often full of parents with their kids, but I like to take visitors there because it’s such a typical Dutch phenomenon: a ship converted to a pancake restaurant. And the pancakes are really good.
Can you recommend any free things to do?
There’s a lot you can see just by walking around. It would probably be a good idea to start at the VVV, the tourist agency, which is housed at the moment in the colorful little building on the Grote Markt. Get a map there, and get some advice from them.
A few suggestions:
- Go to the A-brug and walk in either direction along the canal and you’ll see lovely old “pakhuisen” (warehouses) and old boats that have been converted to houseboats.
- Window-shop on the Folkingestraat or Zwanestraat.
- If you pass a “hofje” (almshouse) try the door. If it’s unlocked, by all means go in and look around; they have lovely little gardens inside. Just don’t make a lot of noise or the residents might evict you! There are a dozen of them scattered around the city; all of them survived the bombing the city suffered during World War II.
- The Stadspark and the Noorderplantsoen are both pleasant parks to walk in and they’re great for people-watching as well.
- Ask at the VVV about free concerts: there are often performances by the students at the local conservatory.
- Even if you can’t afford to pay admission, take a look at the post-modern architecture of the Groninger Museum. You can go inside and visit the lobby and the museum shop without paying.
- Groningen is a big university city. Strike up a conversation with a student and you’re likely to get all sorts of advice about the nightlife. Clubs don’t get going till very late, about midnight or one o’clock, but many of them don’t charge admission.
- If you have a car, drive out to Bourtange on the border with Germany. It’s a fully-restored fortress town, and there’s no charge for admission.
Tell us one thing most people don’t know about the city…
Groningen is a wonderfully bicycle-friendly city. Like all of the Netherlands, there are dedicated bike paths everywhere. What’s different here is that the center of the city is off-limits to private cars, and the ring outside the center is set up so that it is impossible to drive from one quarter of the city to another. That makes it a really pleasant inner city, and it also makes it faster to get from place to place by bike than it would be by car.
Where is the best place to get away from the crowds?
It’s not a very crowded city, except on sunny Saturdays, when everyone flocks into town, along with a lot of German shoppers from over the border.
Any great shopping suggestions?
The Folkingestraat is my favorite for unusual items. It’s a very hip collection of shops: clothing, gifts, musical instruments, housewares, whatever you could want. There’s a tiny shop attached to the A-kerk that sells food products produced in the Hanze trade cities. You can find some unique gifts there. The Gedempte Zuiderdiep has a lot of antique shops, but many have very limited opening hours. Your best bet is Saturday afternoon.
What’s your favourite season there and why?
What city would you most like to visit?
I’m very curious about Japan. I’d love to visit Tokyo, but also smaller cities there.
Any practical advice for people visiting Groningen?
Bring rain gear. It often rains, but it usually passes quickly. It’s the price of living in such a green place. Dress in layers because the temperature can vary along with the rain. Look both ways crossing the street: bikes can hurt you as much as cars, and you don’t hear them coming!
You can read Rachel’s blog here