As someone who comes from not the biggest or most famous city in my country (I’m a proud Melburnian), I know what it can feel like to be overlooked by the international tourist market.
In Australia, most people are attracted to Sydney’s flashy harbour (rightly so, it’s stunning) or the breathtaking natural landscape of Uluru or the Great Barrier Reef. But so many people I’ve spoken to are like ‘what’s the point of going to Melbourne, it’s just like any other city?’
That’s so wrong! Melbourne is unique compared to the rest of Australia and pretty damn fabulous.
So when the chance came up to visit one of the Netherlands’ less known cities, Groningen, I jumped at the chance.
I’m an avid traveller and I really prefer going to cities and exploring grand metropolises to soak up the atmosphere and culture.
Groningen is in the north of the Netherlands and when I got the chance to go there I was initially like ‘um, sorry, but where?’. But also saw it as a great opportunity to put my money where my mouth was.
Groningen only has a population of about 200,000 people but don’t let its size fool you into thinking it’s a sleepy town. Thanks to the local universities, the city has a sizeable student population – one in every fourth person is a student – that gives the city a youthful energy.
There’s not many places I’ve pulled into in the world and felt an immediate sense of excitement. But there is something stylishly modern and yet traditional about the city’s landscape which made it feel like a welcoming place that I wanted to get out and explore.
It’s very easy to walk around Groningen, but like most places in the Netherlands a bicycle is a fantastic way to lap up the sights. It was even better for me as an anxious bike rider because being a smaller place with less traffic I wasn’t intimidated to get around.
I hired a bike from the Student Hotel where they patiently helped me adjust the seat to my tiny frame. Initially I teetered on my bike as I tried to navigate traffic coming at me from the opposite direction of what I was used. I ended up on the wrong side of the road many times. But road rage musn’t exist in Groningen because none of the drivers or other cyclists got mad at me.
Punching above its weight
I think there are some cities in the world who can’t rest on their laurels of being a capital, having natural beauties or being world famous. So these places are forced to be more creative when it comes to attracting visitors.
Groningen is no exception.
Take for example DOT. The imposing dome structure stands out against the city’s more stereotypical Dutch landscape and plays home to not only a spacious gastrobpub, but upstairs is a unique dome shaped theater hall. The Dot Dome Cinema hosts all kinds of unique events from planetariums to film festivals. Sitting in one of the 234 luxurious seats is a lush experience which will help transport you into whatever world is playing on the screen.
Another of the city’s quirky highlights is the Groningner Museum. Even if you’re not super into museums or galleries, the Groningner Museum is an absolute must see. Located minutes from the main train station the building was controversial when first built because it bucks the city’s local architectural style in a garish show of show of dramatic slopes and mismatched materials.
I felt like a kid in candy shop walking through the colorful exhibitions, marvelling at the imagination of the revered architects who brought the building to light.
Food, drink, shopping
My favourite moment in Groningen was catching a little boat down a canal to pull up at a local brewery where we hopped off the boat and went straight inside to enjoy delicious beers.
The award winning Bax Bier brewery showcases the talents of Dutch brewers and is an absolute gem in the local landscape.
But I still can’t get past the fact you can catch a boat there, it honestly made my 2018. While jumping on a little motor boat to cruise down a canal in Netherlands is common practice, it’s not something I’d done before. Streaming down the canal on a summer’s day with the sun in our faces to pull up to enjoy my favourite beverage felt quaint and just a little bit special.
Amazing food and drink is something you can find in spades in Groningen. It feels that after university students, the city’s biggest population is cafes, restaurants and bars.
As a food snob what a place to have offer cuisine wise is very important. Groningen passed my very hard test with flying colours.
It has everything from street food – where I first raw marinated herring (zoute herring) – to fine dining.
Mr Mofongo is one of those establishments that is just mind-blowing. It contains several different restaurants with multiple dining options and moods, a wine bar, distillery and cocktail bar. The owners started in one small building as a typical pub restaurant and kept buying the surrounding buildings to expand into the unbelievable entity it is now.
It’s clear the owner of Mr Mofongo, Patrick Beijk, has a wild imagination. Every corner of the establishment is decked out in one-of-a kind inventions designed to maximise the space, while jamming it with massive ranges of liquor (both distilled at Mr Mofongo and normal brand) and wine.
A massive robot in the cocktail bar travels three storeys high to pour a shot from one of the hundreds of spirit options available. I mean, I was excited to just be going to a cocktail bar for drinks but when I spotted the futuristic contraption, I knew I had to order something from the highest shelf.
I watched as the robotic arm holding a glass zoomed almost to the ceiling, stopped in front of a numbered bottle, while a shot of alcohol poured in.
The wine bar also features a snazzy invention to store wine. A literal underground robot cruises an huge cellar underneath the wine bar, as dazzled customers watch its journey through the the glass floor. The robot arm delivers the chosen wine in a glass on a rising platform through the bar. Beijk said he came up with the design because it allowed them to store a wider variety of wines, therefore being able to offer their customers more options.
Why I loved Groningen
Groningen turned out to be an utterly delightful and friendly, chilled but also a lot of fun city.
I loved it because I prefer travelling to cities, but I also needed an escape from London’s rat race for a few days.
Groningen had everything I needed to keep me entertained: arts, culture, food, drink and shopping. But all of these options felt like nowhere else I had experienced before.
But what was best about Groningen was that it gave me a unique city experience without exhausting me. The city was so easy to get around whether on foot or bike (albeit shakily like me) and didn’t wear me down like when you visit much bigger cities.
Locals were friendly and those who tried to convince me to move there came very much close to convincing me to stay.