We have all heard of Maastricht… Well, rather, the famous treaty! That of 1992 which gave birth to the European Union and laid the foundations for the euro, the single currency. But who has ever been to the city itself? Who has images in mind? Not many people certainly… And neither do I, before making this trip to the Netherlands. I was then quite unable to imagine what Maastricht could look like. It’s a shame because it’s a city that deserves to be better known.
Located on the banks of the Meuse, very close to Belgium and Germany, it is an interesting destination for a city-trip weekend away from tourists, in the heart of a resolutely European city with a rich historical past. We could have the austere image of an administrative city, but it is not. It is a dynamic city with lots of good addresses. Here are ten good reasons to visit Maastricht. Follow the guide…
1. Stroll on the banks of the Meuse
The Meuse is the very identity of Maastricht… In Dutch, the Meuse is called “Maas”, and “tricht” comes from the Latin “trajectum”, which means “ford, the passage of water”. Literally, Maastricht is therefore the city that crosses the Meuse. The river separates the city into two parts: on the west side is the historic town, with the medieval district of Vrijthof, the ramparts, and religious buildings, on the east side is the trendy district and the architectural innovations of the Wyck and Ceramic districts.
The historic bridge that connects the two parts of Maastricht is the Pont Saint-Servais, which dates from the 13th century, and is considered the oldest bridge in the Netherlands. Originally it had nine stone arches, but part of it has been destroyed and today it is split in two, with a metal walkway that rises to allow the passage of boats. The system is quite ingenious, with a platform that lifts smoothly, and you can still cross the bridge on all occasions. There are many possibilities for taking cruises on the Meuse: you can either take a trip on the banks of Maastricht in an hour, or you can go all the way to Liège in one day. in Belgium, a really interesting city to discover.
2. Visit the most European city in the Netherlands
Successively in the hands of the Romans, the Spaniards, the Prussians, then the French, Maastricht has undergone many influences. It was attached to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815. Normally the Meuse marks the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, but in 1843 it was decided that the area around Maastricht on the west bank is part of the Netherlands and not Belgium.
Today, very close to the borders with Germany and Belgium, we feel that Maastricht is first of all a European city before being Dutch. It has a large population of foreign students thanks to the Erasmus program, and its inhabitants, the Maastrichtois, are very multilingual.
For those who are closely interested in the history of the European Union, it is possible to visit the Government aan de Maas , south of the city. It was there that in 1991, the ministers of the 12 EEC countries met for months for long and bitter negotiations, before signing the Maastricht Treaty. There are also many works of art on display and temporary exhibitions.
3. Discover a rich religious heritage …
Maastricht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands. Its historic heart is the large Vrijthof Square, lined with pleasant terraces and two of the city’s most important religious monuments. On one side is the Basilica of Saint Servatius (St. Servaasbasiliek), characteristic of the Mosan Romanesque style, with a choir surmounted by two square towers. Built around the year 1000, then reworked several times, it is one of the oldest monuments in the Netherlands. On the other, it is the Saint-Jean Church, with its large red tower. If you have the courage, you can climb its 218 steps to have a superb view of the city and the surrounding countryside.
In the old town, you should also go and see the Notre-Dame Basilica (Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek), the oldest monument in Maastricht. It already existed in the year 1000 and is based on the foundations of a Roman building. Like Saint-Servais, the building is in Romanesque style. The front of the basilica is impressive with a large massive wall, framed by two towers.
Inside, just at the entrance, an altar with an icon of Mary, Star of the Sea is covered with candles and attracts many pilgrims. From the church, it is possible to access the cloister garden for a small donation.
4. A rich industrial past
In the 19th century, Maastricht was one of the main industrial cities of the Netherlands with the production of ceramics, glass, and cement. The district that must be discovered is the “Sphinx quarter”, north of the old town. The large industrial warehouses around the port have been rehabilitated, with quite a few restaurants, hotels, and cinemas. The Eiffel building (nothing to do with the architect) housed a large ceramic factory. Today, you can discover the mysteries of this building and the products that were made thereby crossing the “Sphinx passage”, more than 120m long. A real free exhibition, open every day from 8 am to 6 pm.
5. Street art that thrives on brownfields
It is in the same district that we can see a number of street-art frescoes. One of the most emblematic is this very beautiful bird painted by the Dutch artist Collin van der Sluijs. Surrounded by flowers, it rests on the debris of ceramics that were made by Sphinx.
On the other side of the harbor basin, we come across a huge disused building, half in ruins. Several artists have drawn on the facades, including Luke Sky, whose portrait style I really like.
6. Visit the Bonnefantenmuseum art museum
The Bonnefantenmuseum, or “Bons-Enfants museum” is the largest art museum in Maastricht. Designed by architect Aldo Rossi, it includes the main building in red brick, with a 28m high zinc tower. On the first level, we find the ancient art collections with paintings by great masters and medieval sculptures. Above, there are contemporary works of art by artists from Limburg, the Maastricht region, and temporary exhibitions. Be careful to book your ticket online during these difficult days: Bonnefanten museum.
7. See the oldest watermill in the Netherlands
The oldest water mill in the Netherlands is located in Maastricht: the Bisschopsmolen. It dates back to the 7th century, and it is still in operation. It now houses a traditional bakery where bread and vlaaien (Limburg pies) are made as they were at the time. I wish I could go inside and of course, taste the vlaaien, but we stayed there on a Monday, the weekly closing day. Information on the Bisshopsmolen website.
8. Buy books in a church
It is one of the most unusual places in Maastricht: the “boekhandel Dominicanen”. It was an old Dominican church, which has been converted into a bookstore. It really makes you want to hang out on the shelves, even if most of the books are in Dutch … In the background, a tea room is installed in the choir, with a table in the shape of a cross. A pleasant place to drink: tea or a coffee in peace and to rest during the day of the visit.
9. Pay homage to the musketeer D’Artagnan
It is a relatively unknown chapter in French history. The most famous of the French musketeers, D’Artagnan died in Maastricht on June 25, 1676, during the siege of the city by the army of Louis XIV. The victory will go to France, but it will take several other battles for Maastricht to be annexed to France in 1794, before returning to the Netherlands in 1815. The statue of D’Artagnan is located at the foot of the ramparts, where is fallen the valiant musketeer. On the other hand, he has no burial. He would have been buried in the mass graves of this gigantic battlefield where 8,000 men lost their lives.
10. Visit Maastricht Underground
To the south of Maastricht city center is Fort St.-Pieter, an 18th-century fortress, which was the city’s defense post, very close to the border with Belgium. For a long time, it served to push back the French army. It is from there that one can access the immense network of Maastricht Underground, the underground galleries which mark out the basements of the city.
With a total length of 200km, these caves and galleries come from old quarries exploited since Roman times. They also served as a refuge for residents during wars and sieges of the city. More recently, artists have drawn graffiti there. The fort and the caves can be discovered with guided tours. Be careful to bring warm clothing because in the caves it is 9 degrees all year round.
Where to eat in Maastricht
Eat on the terrace on the banks of the Meuse: the Crowne Plaza (address: Ruiterij 1). Fancy lunch or dinner by the water? Then head to La Mangere , the restaurant at the Crowne Plaza hotel. The poke bowls are fresh and tasty and for dessert, you can try the local specialty: the Vlaai tart, typical of the Limburg region. The atmosphere is very calm, with just the bicycles and pedestrians passing by the river. Also, a good place to have a drink at sunset.
Gourmet lunch in Maastricht: Sofa (address: Hoge Weerd 6). It is a bit out of the way, but easily accessible by bike or car, in a beautiful natural setting near the Maastricht marina. If the weather is nice, the terrace is very pleasant. The food is very tasty there. It’s a chic and trendy restaurant to have fun.
A French dinner in a “Lyonnais stopper”: the Bouchon d’en face (address: Wycker Brugstraat 54). If you are in need of French gastronomy, then go to Le Bouchon d’en face, a very friendly address that recreates the friendly atmosphere of our typical bistros, a stone’s throw from the Pont Saint-Servais. The menu is a clever mix of French specialties, revisited in the Dutch way. The restaurant was opened by a family of lovers of France, and Arnaud, its owner has just written a book on a road trip in France “Heimwee naar Zuid-Frankrijk”.
Have a drink with a view of Maastricht: Bold (address: Sphinxcour 9A). Located on the roof of the Eiffel building in the Sphinx district, it is the only rooftop bar in Maastricht. A nice place to drink a cocktail with a view of the city. The entrance is located in the Student Hotel. It was from there that we were able to spot several works of street art and go see them the next day.
Where to sleep in Maastricht
There are many good hotel addresses in Maastricht. The city is not very big, but I recommend that you stay in the city center, it will be easier to visit. I spent two nights at the Dutch Hotel, a pleasant “boutique hotel” very well located in the Wijck district. The real bonus is the rooms on the ground floor with access to the garden. In addition, we are entitled to free coffee at will. On the other hand, I did not like the breakfast formula which is in fact a “break-fast bag” distributed in front of your door with a fruit juice, a croissant, and yogurt. Do not take the option and instead go have your breakfast in a café next door, the Van Wijck , ideal for those who like a hearty brunch!