Maastricht is special. It’s the oldest city in the Netherlands (settled around 50 BC), yet in many ways feels like the newest. Maastricht is vibrant, historic, creative, international, and easier to navigate than Amsterdam or Rotterdam. The city has brilliant restaurants, bars, museums, shops, and even a rubber ducky store. Even better: it’s just across the German border!
Maastricht underground (literally)
One of the coolest – and most unique – experiences in Maastricht is hidden from sight. The Maastricht Underground, which is accessible from the imposing Fort Sint Pieter, offers a real-life labyrinth beneath the city.
And it truly is a labyrinth. There are no lights. It contains tens of thousands of passages, and anyone who tries to go in without a guide (which is not legal, so don’t do it) will likely become so lost that they wouldn’t survive (which has happened). Thankfully, guided tours in English are available. They begin at Fort Sint Pieter, and can be booked ahead of time.
The tour, which lasts about an hour, is well worth it. Some of the passages are decorated with amazing drawings, and visitors learn about the history of the amazing complex. Impressively, the Nazis never cracked the secrets of the Underground during World War II, and the tunnels were used to shuttle people to safety for years. Once you’re inside, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you become disoriented, and how grateful you are to have a guide.
Explore the city center
Exploring the city center on foot or by bike is the perfect way to see Maastricht. Begin in the Market Square, which is home to Maastricht’s centuries-old city hall. On Saturdays, there are fantastic flea markets there, as well.
Then, you can wander in almost any direction and be charmed. The city has so many fabulous shops (the rubber ducky store is almost as cool as the Dominican Bookstore, which is located inside an old church) that you really can’t go wrong. There is also the Mosae Forum, which is a beautiful covered shopping center, next to the Market Square, that also houses the aptly named Museum of Illusions.
As you near the river, you’ll be amazed at the variety of restaurants and pubs. Walk for a while. Then stop, have a refreshment, and watch the world float past.
St. Servatius Basilica
Speaking of wonders in the city center, the Basilica of St. Servatius is a must. Nestled between three lovely squares (Vrijthof square, Keizer Karelplein, and Henric van Veldekeplein) in the historic center of Maastricht, it’s the oldest standing church in the Netherlands: there’s been a church on this site for more than 1,400 years.
The basilica is built in a Romanesque style, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is also supposedly built upon the grave of St. Servatius, who was a 4th century bishop in nearby Tongeren, and contains his remains. Guided tours in English are available.
Secrets of the Sphinx Quarter
Maastricht’s Sphinxkwartier (Sphinx Quarter) is well worth a visit, too. This innovative, industrial neighborhood is located in the lesser-known old factory district near the Maas River. It’s considered one of the coolest neighborhoods in the city, thanks to the blend of new and old.
While you’re there, you can certainly find great restaurants and pubs. Visitors can also catch a movie in an old power plant at the Lumiere Cinema, sleep in a refurbished factory at The Student Hotel, or check out the Sphinxpassage, a long, tiled corridor that tells the story of how the Quarter came to be.
By car, Maastricht is approximately 3 hours from Kaiserslautern and Wiesbaden, and 5 hours from Stuttgart. Check with Deutsche Bahn for train information.