Dordrecht is a very quick day trip from Rotterdam. Just 14 minutes on the train (€4), or accessible even by ferry. It’s not too far for a longer day trip from Amsterdam (90 minutes each way and €19) or easily done with a quick one-night stopover — it’s well worth it!
I’ve travelled all over the Netherlands. I’ve been to all 12 Provinces and I’ve explored the major cities from Groningen to Maastricht, as well as most of the smaller towns in between. From Texel to Zeeland, from Zwolle to Leiden, it’s an amazing country.
Ik hou van Nederlands!
With that background, I can unequivocally say that Dordrecht is a very under-appreciated gem. Often ignored, but very much worth a day trip or even a weekend getaway.
The charm of going on a day trip to Dordrecht
Dordrecht has all of the quaint, gezellig qualities we associate and love about the Netherlands, plus some unique features too. I loved it!
Yes, it’s got gorgeous canals and step-gabled architecture and beautiful people buzzing by on bicycles. Yes, it’s got outdoor squares (Schefferslein and Grote Markt, among other convivial spots) where flutjes of beer and plates of bitterballen await. And yes, it’s got the usual touristy straats too. You know the type, with souvenir shops selling junky T-shirts, with a FEBO, and with streets crowded with teenagers and baby-strollers, which could be in any Dutch town (think Kalverstraat in Amsterdam).
But mystical Dordrecht is also drenched in history! Plus, its quaint harbour-like layout positioned on the banks of the huge Oude Maas River make it outstanding. Dordrecht, in my Dutch travels, is one of the cutest and friendliest of all of the towns I’ve visited in the Netherlands.
The history of Dordrecht
OK, let’s start with some history: Dordrecht is ancient — one of the oldest river towns in the Netherlands. Claiming a critically strategic geographic position, where several smaller rivers converge into one giant one, the town emerged centuries ago as a major trading centre and commercial hot spot. It’s claimed that Dordrecht is literally the oldest official town in the country. Having been granted a city charter in 1220, it’s older than Amsterdam, Leiden, Haarlem or Utrecht.
And for those early centuries, Dordrecht was one of the most powerful political and trading centres in the land, or, more appropriately, on the water. In 1572, at the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War (the Dutch war of independence from occupying Spain), it was in Dordrecht that political, military and ruling class leaders from all over the Netherlands met to declare independence. War and future independence were sparked here. For Americans, it would be like the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 in Philadelphia, when the newly formed United States declared itself free from England. Here, in Dordrecht, a similar political event unfolded, more than 200 years earlier.
To get a sense of the historical perspective, if you’re ever in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, check out the anonymously painted ‘St. Elizabeth’s Day Flood’. It’s an amazing painting depicting the tragic events of 1421 when the dykes in the surrounding countryside were breached and 22 villages were swept away in the flooding. What’s amazing to me about this painting is that most of Dordrecht looks pretty much the same in 2018 as it did then! The Grote Kerk in the centre-left of Dordrecht’s old town looks exactly the same, and the view from the top makes you feel as if you’ve climbed right inside the ‘St. Elizabeth’s Day Flood’ painting itself. So beautiful! Prachtig!
Where to get started on your day trip to Dordrecht
For a modern visitor to Dordrecht, it’s an easy walking town, very small, central and easy to navigate. Unlike Rotterdam or Amsterdam, it’s so small you can hardly get lost. Keep wandering around and when you get to the river, turn around. You’ll likely start your visit from the tiny train station. Look out the window as you approach the town for excellent views. When you depart the station, you’ll be in a typical Dutch stationplein area.
It will look similar to just about every Dutch town. The same brick masonry laid out in those hypnotic little squares, the same tourist trap restaurants with signage in English and rent-a-bike stands. Luckily, the walk into the town centre is very short and fast. The VVV is right along this route. (The VVV is your one-stop tourist information centre. This one is excellent. Grab a free map of the town or buy tickets to the museum here. The ladies behind the desk might be the most friendly Dutch people anywhere!)
But the charm of going on a day trip to Dordrecht doesn’t stop there…
Then, after getting oriented, head for the Visbrug, the landmark bridge over the Wijnhaven canal, at the foot of the Stadhuis or Town Hall. Note the two lion sculptures in repose guarding the magnificence of the environment. Wander the streets in this central neighbourhood and you’ll see some of the oldest houses in town, many dating from the 1660s. Stroll down Voorstraat, one of the nicest shopping streets, until you see the noble Augustinerkerk.
It is an elegant old church with a small almost hidden doorway leading to Het Hof, a gorgeous hideaway spot of tranquillity where you can almost sense the ghosts of important town citizens strolling around conducting business deals and gossiping about ships and commerce. Then walk down to where the land comes to a point sticking into the river, the Groothoofdspoort.
This is the ideal spot to just look out over the water and let the mind wander and soak in the ambience. The riverfront views are incredible. Take a seat on one of the promenade benches and enjoy the views. You’ll see pleasure boats bobbing out on the water. Perhaps even a huge commercial tanker drifting by like a whale! And you’ll find outdoor cafes on each corner (what the Dutch call terraces) dotting the streets. Stop for a coffee or a beer and relax — this is about as Dutch as you can get! Heel mooi.
Museums? There are plenty of those to visit on your day trip to Dordrecht!
The big museum to see, definitely, is the famous Dordrechts Museum. It’s great. Sort of like a mini-Rijksmuseum, which is almost better since the Rijkmuseum can seem intimidating. You can hardly conquer it in one visit! That’s a big dragon to slay. In contrast, the Dordrechts Museum is manageable. But you’ll still want to devote at least a good, solid two hours to exploring the important classic art and rotating modern art exhibits, with a stop at a nice gift shop and a typical cafe inside if you want a healthy lunch. Here, in the Dordrecht Museum, you’ll find treasures by Dutch Masters Jan van Goyen (1596 -1656) and Albert Cuyp (1620 – 1691) among many others.
Here’s the famous Albert Cuyp, who lived in Dordrecht his entire life and who painted rural landscapes and town scenes which are now immortalized. For those who’ve walked the atmospheric Albert Cuypstraat in Amsterdam, you know it as the one with the endless outdoor market with stalls selling everything under the sun. From patat frites to spices to CDs to flowers to pantyhose. Yes, that Albert Cuypstraat in De Pijp neighbourhood south of the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam. But now the connection is finally made and you can put a real person’s name to the street!
A little aside: I was wandering Haarlem a couple of months ago. I got lost in a back residential neighbourhood where all of the streets were named for, I guess, famous Dutch people in history. Not knowing any of them, I asked my host, “Who was the street of our Airbnb named for?” She, a native Dutchwoman with multiple professional degrees said, “Oh, I have no idea, but probably another Dutch painter!”
What else is there to do on your day-trip to Dordrecht? Grote Kerk of course!
After checking out the stunning Dordrecht Museum, wander toward the Grote Kerk on the other side of town. You can’t miss it — just look up! The Grote Kerk (Large or Grand Church in English) can’t be missed. You can see it from anywhere. Like those Parisian hotels that boast an “Eiffel Tower view,” which is a scam since you can see the Eiffel Tower from ANYWHERE in Paris, the Grote Kerk looms majestically over Dordrecht as if to guard its ancient secrets and spirit. Built over a 150-year span, the Grote Kerk allows visitors to climb the spiral stairs to the top. All 275 steps!
On a hunch, I decided to pay the €2 for this privilege. Climb up, up, up. While the height wasn’t too formidable, the going round-and-round-and-round in that tight spiral staircase proved to be dizzying and claustrophobic! Onward! Almost regretting my decision as my quadriceps started failing about 12 stories up, I started praying to whatever Protestant God would listen to get me to the roof. Alas, my legs supported me, barely, to the top. And, man, it was worth it! Such a gorgeous view of the town and the Oude Maas stretching as far as the eye could see. Very beautiful. Deep breath, sigh.
Done all of these? Well, have you tried these extras with your day trip to Dordrecht?
I also made time for a quick visit to the Museum 1940. It depicts the Nazi occupation of Dordrecht, the subsequent Dutch Resistance movement, and the story of World War II in the southern region of the Netherlands during a very dark, more recent period of history. It’s a tiny museum, I mean extremely tiny. Like the ground floor of a townhouse, but the old men who guide you are extremely kind and almost happy you’re there. I asked about a film, and the next thing I knew, they had set up a TV monitor and placed old VCR tapes on for me to watch. A similar story is told in the Verzets Museum on the Plantage Kerklaan in Amsterdam, which is much larger and more touristy than this charming little spot.
Dordrecht! Yes, Dordrecht. It’s a great small town for an authentic and historic Dutch experience. Enjoy!
Have you ever been on a day trip to Dordrecht? Let us know how it went in the comments below! And let us know what you did on your day trip to Dordrecht!
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2018, but was fully updated in October 2020 for your reading pleasure.
Feature Image: David Mark/Pixabay