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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.

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.

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