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Set your worries aside on the boardwalk and beaches along the North Sea. (Picasa/Barbara Ramsay Orr)
Set your worries aside on the boardwalk and beaches along the North Sea. (Picasa/Barbara Ramsay Orr)

The Hague, unbuttoned: Dining, shopping and lounging in this vibrant city Add to ...

Morning sun streams in through windows, bouncing off linen and silver, making the red velvet chairs glow. In one corner, men in business suits and white shirts sit drinking coffee and checking their iPhones.

It’s 8 a.m. on a Monday in the Hotel des Indes, the favoured headquarters for lawyers, politicians and diplomats who conduct business in The Hague. And since this is the Royal City, the home of the World Court and seat of the Dutch parliament, there is much serious business to be done.

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There’s a problem, though.

Step outside the revolving brass doors of Hotel des Indes, and you face the seductive charms of the Lange Voorhout. Thinking about business is difficult when confronted with a corridor of green lindens, an outdoor antique market, little secret gardens and beckoning cafés.

Welcome to the vibrant dichotomy that is The Hague, a city that has been labelled the greenest in Northern Europe as well as a global centre for peace and justice. Its decisions affect the world, and its Indonesian rijsttafel is world famous.

Somehow these competing elements manage to strike a balance. The serious business of world issues and governance finds a comfortable fit with the business of enjoying life – dining, shopping, lounging in the sun and people watching, in this, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities.

As my guide, Remco Dorr, and I walk down the tree-lined Lange Voorhout in the centre of the old city, we pass elegant town houses and embassies. On one side is the 18th-century Het Palais Museum; on the other, the smallest four-storey townhouse I have ever seen, just one room wide. “It’s a popular saying that it is better to live in one room on the Lange Voorhout than in 10 rooms anywhere else,” Mr. Dorr tells me.

We walk toward the 13th-century buildings that house the parliament, the Binnenhof, which is perfectly reflected in the Hofvijver, the royal lake. Raise your eyes above the Binnenhof and there’s a jolt – the modern skyline, where skyscrapers are multiplying.

It doesn’t feel like a disconnect, however. Traditional canal-house design elements are suggested in the shapes and the locals have personalized the new buildings with nicknames. The all-white city hall designed by Richard Meier is called the Candy Box, the green-domed building is the Citron Press and Michael Graves’s Castalia, the new Ministry of Health building, has the slightly naughty sobriquet the Tits of Den Haag, because of its two distinctive pointed towers.

This is a city that celebrates its architecture. While there are many well-preserved historic buildings, The Hague is also the art nouveau capital of the Netherlands. A walk through the pedestrian-only city centre will allow you to discover gems like No. 26 Smidwater. It’s a privately owned house overlooking a quiet canal, now being meticulously restored after years of neglect. The mail slot is a cool stylized brass cat.

Above the street-level façades of shops and cafés in the Hoogestraat, the original architectural details have been preserved. The curved brick, art glass, and incised sculpture of the Bijenkorf department store in the Grote Markt area is one of the last examples built in the classic architectural style of the Amsterdam School.

After a stop at a stall outside the Bijenkorf for coffee and a warm stroopwafel (the thin waffle cookie with a centre of thick syrup that the Dutch make so well), Mr. Dorr takes me to a Pizza Hut in the Noordeinde. “This is probably the most unique Pizza Hut in the world,” he tells me. It is situated in the middle of one of the most affluent shopping districts in the city, in a palace that used to be the treasury. Kind of redefines pizza with the works.

Radiating out from the city heart are streets that bend and twist, opening onto broad pleins, or squares. On this sunny day, the café tables are busy. This is a city with a passionate outdoor culture. As soon as the weather is warm enough, the terraces fill up and the restaurants with garden patios, such as It’s Raining Fishes, are perpetually crowded.

The shopping is good. Along Hoogestraat you’ll find Ogen, Eduard Pelger and Dunklemens (famous for its croquettes), all upmarket Dutch shops. If remarkable undergarments interest you, be sure to visit Marlies Dekkers’ shop on the Denneweg to pick up a “little nothing” from her Undressed line. Amble by the shops in the grand glass-roofed Passage, or swan around the cafés and stores in the new Haagsche Bluf (the Hague Boast).

The Noordeinde is the most fashionable shopping street, with Maison de Bonneterie, Pauw, and Hoogeweegen Rouwers rumoured to be favourite shops of the Dutch royals. I love the funky fitted jackets and short swagged skirts in Purdey and the classic elegance of a pleated yellow silk dress in the windows of Frans Hoogendorn.

When I observe that the Dutch are better dressed than North Americans, Mr. Dorr smiles. “Ah, those are Hagenaars,” he tells me, “the affluent, slightly posh denizens of the old city, not to be confused with ‘hagenezen,’ those born outside the circle of the city.” Two young women walk by, dressed even on this warm day in head-to-toe black, with high leather boots, couturier outfits and splendid hats. “Yep, Hagenaars,” he nods.

Nicknamed Manhattan by the Sea, The Hague is a true seaside city, with beaches and miles of sandy dunes lying minutes from its centre. An easy 15-minute tram ride, or a 20-minute bike ride, brings you to a whole new face of The Hague, where ties are loosened and briefcases are exchanged for beach bags. The seaside resorts of Scheveningen and Kijkduin lure city dwellers out to swim in the North Sea, to walk the miles of white beaches or lounge in the sun with a glass of Heineken at one of the clubs along the boardwalk.

Stretched out beside the sand, with a cold drink in one hand, I was impressed by a surprisingly aggressive game of beach volleyball. There were sailboats and yachts on the horizon, and bungee jumpers leapt from the observation tower at the end of the pier. As the sun got lower, the music got louder and clubs in the beach pavilions along the boulevard began to prepare for the evening crowd. The lights in the layer-cake-pretty Steigenberger Kurhaus Hotel winked on. This is the summer place to be in The Hague – by the water, in the dunes, under the stars.

Still, the city’s museums are the real treasures. Beguiling stops for art lovers are the Mauritshuis, described as the most beautiful museum in the world, the Gemeentemuseum, which specializes in classical modern art, Museum Het Paleis, which displays the inscrutable graphic works of M.C. Escher, and Panorama Mesdag, which contains the world’s oldest 19th-century panorama still in its original site.

The art of the table flourishes here, as well. The Hague has its own culinary specialties but, like its citizens, the restaurants are international and you can find almost any cuisine represented well. It’s most famous for Indonesian, however, a flavour rooted in The Hague’s history: The city’s nickname is the Widow of Indonesia, as many of the plantation owners and employees of the Dutch East India Company came from here.

Garoeda is one of the best known Indonesian restaurants in the old part of the city, so I headed there for the house specialty, the rijstaffel, or rice table, a dizzying collection of different dishes. Chicken satay, shrimp in coconut sauce, chicken with peanut sauce, spicy beef, bitter melon, sweet and sour cucumbers, prawn crackers – 17 dishes altogether in the version I ordered, served with bowls of white rice.

“The rijstaffel is more Dutch than Indonesian in style,” Mr. Dorr explained. “We don’t like to waste anything, so the ladies who ran households on plantations wouldn’t throw out the leftovers. Instead they had them served in a collection, with rice, at the end of the week.” Now a culinary tour de force of Indonesian specialties, it was origin-ally the result of Dutch parsimony.

At the end of a day in The Hague, head for the Grote Markt area and one of the many clubs to dance or just listen to music. Or slide into a café for a chilled genever, the Dutch-style gin.

With the grandeur and gravitas of the old city balanced by the pleasure pavilions in the dunes, life in The Hague is the perfect blend of work and play.

PLANS FOR A PERFECT DAY

Remco Dorr is the author of several city guides of The Hague, covering the Jewish Quarter, the Royal City and the art nouveau architecture.

“My perfect day in Den Haag would begin with coffee, maybe at one of the cafés beside the canal, like Café Hathor. You often see politicians or diplomats there. I’d walk through the city in the morning, while the crowds are smaller, visiting the Parliament, the shopping district and the royal palace. On Thursdays and Sundays there is a good antique market under the lindens. If you are looking for art, stop in at one of my favourite galleries, Gallery Arte Fortunata, at Noordeinde 51. It features artist Bas Meeuws, whose photographs of floral still life, epoxy-sealed on metal, are an homage to the golden age masterpieces of Bosschart and van Aelst.

“Then I’d head to a museum or two and top that with a late lunch on the Lange Voorhout, under the trees where it is cool. Or I would eat at my favourite French restaurant on the Plaats, Le Bistrot de la Place. The duck is superb. After lunch I would walk to the Gemeentemuseum to see the Mondrians, or perhaps take a tram to Madurodam, the miniature recreation of Holland.

“In late afternoon, I’d take a tram out to the beach at Sheveningen and settle into a sofa with a glass of wine. I’d stay to watch the sunset, and then head back to the city for dinner. There’s a window table on the second floor of Garoeda with a view of the Lange Voorhuit, where I’d linger over a rijstaffel.”

- As told to Barbara Ramsay Orr

IF YOU GO

Getting there

Air Transat and Air Canada fly to Schiphol Airport, which has frequent train service to The Hague. The trip takes about 40 minutes to Central Station, from which you can cover the heart of the city on foot.

 

Getting around

This is an easily walkable city, but there is a convenient network of trams that will even take you out to the dunes. Invest in the Holland Pass (hollandpass.com) to get a good discount on museums, attractions and city transit.

 

Where to stay

Hotel Des Indes is a combination of old-world luxury and modern amenities. It is a Hague tradition to take afternoon tea in the dining room. Lange Voorhout 54-56, The Hague; hoteldesindesthehague.com; from $215.

 

Where to eat

Garoeda (garoeda.nl) at Kneuterdijk 18a serves traditional Indonesian dishes. Saur (saur.nl) is one of the best fish restaurants in the city, while Taste (tastethewinebar.eu) is a wine bar with a patio view of the Hofvijver, the lake that lies in front of the Dutch parliament like a reflecting pool, and the Mauritsthuis. Brasserie t’Ogenblik (t-ogenblik.nl) is a sweet café on Molenstraat that was recently honoured for the best service in the Netherlands. Wox (wox.nl) is a newer Japanese fusion restaurant near the Hofvijver, where you can watch Dutch parliamentarians coming and going.

 

Tourism The Hague assisted the writer with her stay.

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