High art coexists with gin distilleries and seaside dining at The Hague, writes Lee Marshall.
'Haguers are seen as a bit dull by other Dutch people," my friendly bicycle tour guide, Danny Versmoren, says as we sashay on a pair of solid, old Dutch bikes between trams and prams on our way to sample the wares of Van Kleef & Zoon, The Hague's oldest gin distillery.
It's not just other Dutch people who feel that way. In contrast with funky Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands is associated with institutions such as the International Court of Justice rather than with art; with politics and Queen Beatrix rather than sex shops and over-the-counter marijuana.
But I find myself warming to The Hague precisely because it's the sort of place where you feel under little pressure to tick off sights on a checklist. Which is not to say that this city of 500,000 inhabitants does not have its must-sees — such as the Mondrians in the Gemeentemuseum, a building that broke new ground in museum design when it opened in the 1930s. There's time, even on a day trip, to lunch in good-value bistros and browse the quirky fashion shops and designer antique emporiums of the old Hofkwartier. Or hire a bike and pedal along a network of dedicated cycle lanes to the genteel seaside suburb of Scheveningen for Sunday brunch in a revamped beach pavilion.
People are so vague about The Hague that it comes as a surprise to many visitors to discover that one of the most famous Dutch paintings of them all is here: Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. It's one of a clutch of Dutch Golden Age masterpieces housed in the Mauritshuis, a 17th-century nobleman's townhouse that brushes up against the Binnenhof Royal Palace and overlooks the Hofvijver, a swan-plied lake seemingly designed for maximum scenic effect.
With its dozens of Rembrandts and Vermeers, Steens and Holbeins, the Mauritshuis is one of the world's great small museums and for sheer artistic satisfaction per square metre, is the equal of anything in Amsterdam. Vermeer's Girl is as good a place to start as any. She hangs without much fuss in one of the museum's house-sized rooms. It's one of those paintings you first glance at as if at an old friend — then, as you look more closely, are surprised by.
No reproduction quite catches the dreamlike quality of the light, or the way the artist manages to focus all our attention on a face that is itself not quite in focus. The same painter's View of Delft, on the opposite wall, is just as absorbing: a study in the quietude of early morning that has the atmosphere and movement of a long-placing shot in a film.
Now is the time to come if you want to see the whole collection in situ. On April 24, the Mauritshuis will close for at least two years to allow the museum (which suffers from seriously cramped visitor facilities and exhibition spaces) to expand via an underground foyer to a vacant art deco building across the road. During renovation, 70 works — including View of Delft — will move into temporary quarters at the Gemeentemuseum, while Girl with a Pearl Earring will join a fund-raising "world tour" to Japan and the US.
The Mauritshuis' imminent closure is a good excuse to visit The Hague now; but sightseeing here is not all high culture. In fact, two of its other main visitor magnets — Panorama Mesdag and the Madurodam — together chart the modern history of the visitor attraction. Panorama Mesdag is a huge cylindrical landscape painting from 1881 of the beach and fledgling resort at Scheveningen, displayed in a tower shaped like a camera obscura - and, indeed, the illusion that attracted thousands of visitors back in those pre-cinema times was that one was really looking out from a tower with a 360-degree view.
It's still a potent illusion, curiously not dispelled by the often impressionistic technique of the artist, Hendrik Willem Mesdag. You can almost taste the salt on the air. Inaugurated more than 70 years later in 1952 as a memorial to the resistance hero George Maduro, who died in Dachau, Madurodam is a 1:25 scale "Holland in miniature" park visited by about 600,000 people a year. It is startling in its detail: on its Schiphol airport baggage system, 500 tiny suitcases do an eternal carousel dance.
When the Madurodam reopens next month after a 60th-anniversary facelift, the whole experience will become more hands-on. In some cases literally so: like little Hansje Brinker, you'll be able to plug the holes in a miniature dyke and save Holland from flooding. Now that's progress.
Emirates has a fare to Amsterdam from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2040 low-season return including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Amsterdam (7hr 15min); see emirates.com. There are regular trains to The Hague (34min).
The Mauritshuis closes for expansion on April 1. From April 28 until mid-2014, about 70 highlights from its collection will be displayed in the Gemeentemuseum, open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm.
See www.mauritshuis.nl and gemeentemuseum.nl.
Panorama Mesdag, open Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm, Sunday, noon-5pm. See panorama-mesdag.com.
Madurodam reopens in April. See madurodam.nl.
The Hotel Des Indes is the Ritz of The Hague, a Belle Epoque gem revamped in 2006 by French interior designer Jacques Garcia in a playfully sumptuous style. Double rooms from €136 ($169).
The Hotel Mozaic is an affordable design hotel that feels warm despite the prevailing white, black and grey-brown decor. Double rooms from €70. See mozaic.nl.
Eating there The old town is full of cafes, bistros and ethnic restaurants, especially around Molenstraat, just south of the Royal Palace, and Denneweg, which runs north from the Hotel Des Indes.
The organic cafe Juni Lekkernijen makes a good, cheap and healthy lunch stop. Molenstraat 63, closed Monday, junilekkernijen.nl.
At the classy bistro Maxime, two excellent French-inflected, four-course, fixed-price menus are served for €35, wine excluded. Denneweg 10B. See restaurantmaxime.nl.
Little V is a stylish Vietnamese restaurant where you can eat well, drinks included, for about €25 to €30. Rabbijn Maarsenplein 21, closed Monday. See littlev.nl.
Getting around Solid Dutch bikes (with or without gears) can be rented from Totzo!, Nordeinde 59. See totzo.org.