Travel Feature: Groningen, vibrant city of the north

Article by Paola Westbeek


Because of its renowned universities, richly intellectual atmosphere and bustling nightlife, the city of Groningen attracts a large number of national and international students and has the youngest average population in the country. It is no wonder that a visit to the northern Dutch city always feels like a breath of fresh air. Like tonic for the senses!

Groningen through the centuries

Even though Groningen is a city that highly appeals to the young, its history can be traced back to the third century AD when it was founded on a ridge of sand known as the Hondsrug. In the Middle Ages, Groningen became a member of the powerful alliance known as the Hanseatic League (1229 – 1669) and thus, one of the most important trading centers in Northern Europe. By the end of the 15th century, the city had entered its Golden Age, even managing to get control over a large part of Friesland. It was during that time that some of Groningen’s major landmarks were erected. The building of the Gothic-style Martini Tower, which looms at a height of 318 feet, started in 1469, for example, and the famous Der Aa Church underwent some of its most significant renovations.

By the beginning of the 16th century, Groningen began to lose power, and a period of struggle ensued. During the Eighty Years’ War, the city was alternately besieged by Spanish and State troops. It wasn’t until 1594, when it finally became part of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, that peace started to return. A large-scale urban expansion soon followed, and in 1614 the University of Groningen (the second oldest in the country after the University of Leiden) was founded.

With the exception of the economic decline that took place during the first decades after the French invasion of 1792, the city maintained a high level of prosperity and growth. In the middle of the 19th century, Groningen was the third most important trading city in the country and a leader in products such as grain, wood, sugar and tobacco.

Unfortunately, Groningen was not spared during the Second World War. In April of 1945, large parts of the center, including the Grote Markt (Main Square), went up in flames and approximately 3300 citizens lost their lives. Reconstruction after the war included building new housing for the increasing population, and the rise of surrounding neighborhoods such as Corpus den Hoorn, De Wijert, Selwerd, Paddepoel and Vinkhuizen.

Today, with close to 186,000 inhabitants, Groningen is the largest city in the north of The Netherlands. Let’s have a look at what makes this lively city (approximately an hour and a half away from the capital of Amsterdam) so appealing to those under twenty-five, yet just as much fun for the rest of us!

Artistic charisma

Whether you’re there on a run-of-the-mill weekday or during the busier weekends, the first thing to catch the attention when you enter the heart of Groningen is its energetic buzz. Cyclists whizz by (Groningen is known as the world’s cycling capital); weather-permitting, the patios are filled with people having drinks; and streets, especially the Herestraat, are crowded with shoppers checking out the many interesting stores and boutiques.

What you’ll also notice is that Groningen has plenty of artistic charisma. If you’re coming by train (highly recommended as the center is mostly closed off to cars), the impressive central station will immediately attest to this. The eclectic building, with Renaissance, Gothic and Classical elements, was designed by Issac Gosschalk in 1896 and boasts stunningly decorated ceilings and stained glass windows.

Directly across from the station, appearing to almost float on an island on the Verbindingskanaal (Connection Canal), is the Post-Modernist building of the Groninger Museum. It was completed in 1994 and is a work of art in its own right. The museum has three pavilions that exhibit modern and contemporary art by national and international artists.

Other museums well worth a visit include the Noordelijk Scheepsvaartmuseum (Northern Maritime Museum) which is housed in two medieval buildings on the Brugstraat and features exhibitions on Dutch shipbuilding history from the Middle Ages up until the present, and Het Nederlands Stripmuseum (Dutch Comic Strip Museum), located at the Westerhaven shopping center. If you’re interested in photography, head on over to the Noorderlicht Photogallery on Akerhof. This permanent exhibition space functions as an innovative platform for photographers from all over the world and holds five or six exhibitions annually.

Hip and happening entertainment scene

Groningen’s hip and happening entertainment scene means that there is never a shortage of things to see, do and experience. The Stadsschouwburg (City Theater) is a major cultural podium for established names and upcoming artists. It hosts plays, opera, comedy and all kinds of festivals year-round. The Neo-Renaissance-style building was designed by Frederik Willem van Gendt and Hugo Pieter Vogel in 1883 and is a sight to behold both inside and out.

Fans of modern-music might want to check out Vera, a well-known underground pop club where bands such as U2, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Sonic Youth once played. Two to four concerts are held at the hip venue every week, and on Saturdays, those who like to dance can shake their hips to everything from The Beatles to The Arctic Monkeys during the club’s ‘Swing’ evening.

The annual Eurosonic-Noorderslag Festival, held this year between January 14th and 17th, brings bands from all over the world to different stages throughout the city. This important music event has helped launch the careers of many European artists with a varied program that includes concerts, workshops, meetings and award ceremonies.

Another interesting event for culture connoisseurs is the Noorderzon open-air festival. Attracting approximately 135,000 national and international visitors to the city every summer, the eleven-day festival features music, theater, literature and visual arts. This year, the festival will take place from August 20 through 30 and will be celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary.

Plenty of old-world charm

Groningen’s historic city center is mostly pedestrianized, and therefore, discovering its monumental buildings and attractive streets is delightfully easy. The Grote Markt (Main Square) has many cafés and restaurants and is the perfect place to start exploring the city after enjoying a nice lunch or a cup of coffee with a slice of the local Groninger koek (dark, dense spice cake). If you are there on a Thursday, you might want to start by taking a stroll through the weekly open-air market where you can grab a warm, giant-sized stroopwafel (syrup waffle) to enjoy along the way.

Dominating a large part of the Grote Markt is the Stadhuis (Town Hall). It was designed in Neo-Classical style by Jacob Otten Husly and built between 1793 and 1810. In 1962, the building was expanded, much to the dismay of many locals. It was torn down in 1996 and replaced with the housing/shopping complex Waagstraat designed by Italian architect Adolfo Natalini.

Perhaps one of the most enchanting buildings on the Grote Markt is the Goudkantoor (Gold Office). It dates to 1635 and has a colorfully ornate Dutch Renaissance-style facade. First used as a provincial tax office, it is now a restaurant. The building’s name originated in the 19th century when it housed the bureau of security for gold and silver.

Hard to miss from the Grote Markt is the Martinitoren (Martini Tower). Often referred to by locals as ‘d’ Olle Grieze’ (‘the Old Gray’), the tower is Groningen’s most important monument and is the fourth highest tower in the country. If you’re not afraid of heights, climb to the top for a breathtaking view over the city. Don’t forget to also visit the Martinikerk (Martini Church) which dates to approximately 1230 and boasts beautiful frescoes and an impressive Baroque organ (one of the largest in Europe). Around the corner from the Martini Church, on the east side of the Martinikerkhof park, is the seat of the provincial government, the Provinciehuis (Province House). The oldest part of the building, the former Sint Maartens School, dates to the 15th century and is located at Martinikerkhof. The newest part, found on Sint Jansstraat, was officially opened by Princess Beatrix (at the time queen) in 1996.

Just a stone’s throw away from here is the Prinsenhof. Once used as a monastery and later as a hospital for the French military, the impressive 15th-century complex is now home to a café, restaurant and hotel. If you’re there between early April and the middle of October, make sure to visit the complex’s exquisitely manicured, Renaissance-style gardens where you can indulge in the scent of roses and herbs or walk through the romantic foliage-covered footpaths.

Planning your trip

If you will only be visiting Groningen for one day, it may be a good idea to first stop at the local VVV (tourist information office) on Grote Markt before deciding on your itinerary. There are a number of guided walks available, and should you wish, a canal cruise through the heart of the city is also possible. Whether you’re there to revel in its magnificent architecture, learn something new at one of the various museums or let loose at a concert or festival, Groningen will not disappoint no matter what your age.


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Posted by on Jan 3 2015. Filed under History, Travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Travel Feature: Groningen, vibrant city of the north”

  1. w. aardsma

    interesting, thank you. my relatives that stayed in the Netherlands seem to have moved away from the Dongeradeel and over to Groningen (“Grins”) or elsewhere as part of the general depopulation of the area. where i live now is near another St. Martin’s Church, albeit to the west and not to the east, but it can still pass for a family tradition of living in the shadow of the bell tower 😉

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