Let’s start with a Dordrecht cat. Because why not!
From the 11th century, Dordrecht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, and one with an interesting past. A stroll around the historic centre is a must, and a delightful one. At the north end is Groothoofdspoort; at the south end is Grote Kerk (more on both below). Between the two, you’ll find harbours, warehouses and traders’ houses, monuments and bridges.
If you would like more of a guided wander around Dordrecht, you can take a Rondje Dordt walk, a 5-km audio tour around the city.
Dordrecht Island – on 5 rivers
We are in a city on water, very strategically located on five rivers. If you’re a bit of a geek, you’ll want the names, don’t you? Here you go: Oude Maas (the Meuse in English and French), Beneden Merwede, Nieuwe Merwede, Hollands Diep, and Dordtsche Kil. As you would expect with that kind of location, Dordrecht is an important city of commerce – and has been for nearly 900 years, trading in wood, wine and cereals.
OK, let’s get on with the 11 things you’ll love:
1. Dordrecht as a model coastal city for climate adaptation
Not only is Dordrecht a water city, it is also an island city: Het Eiland van Dordt (the Island of Dordt), an island created from a disaster 600 years ago. The Saint Elizabeth’s flood in November 1421 is no. 20 amongst the world’s worst flooding disasters, with 10,000 – 100,000 casualties. (Numbers vary; must have been hard to keep track of people in medieval times, no SnapMap or anything).
Fast forward to our time, as a result of climate change, sea levels are expected to rise 34 cm in the next 30 years. About 20 major cities around the world are threatened by urban flooding. A plan is needed, well before 2050.
You won’t be surprised to hear the Netherlands is particularly vulnerable to flooding, so Dordrecht already has a plan. It involves spatial planning and layouts, dykes and stop logs, methods adapted from centuries of flood protection. In short, Dordrecht is a model city for adapting to climate change. You can read more about it here.
At the north end of the old city is the gorgeous former city gate, 17th century Groothofdspoort (meaning Big Head Gate), underneath Dordrecht’s shield held by two griffins. (Did anyone say Gryffindor?)
We’re staying next door, in the Hotel Culinair Bellevue. The restaurant has lovely views of the confluence of three of the five rivers, and is a pleasant spot to watch boats and barges gliding past.
3. Before you move on, take a look at the Dutch maiden
While you’re here at the old city entrance, take a look at the sculptural relief above the gate. No griffins on this side, but the Dordrecht Maiden. Since the 16th century, she has been the personification of the Netherlands. In addition to the main girl here, towns and provinces had their own maidens.
And here she is, sitting in the symbolic Garden of Holland, holding the shield of Dordrecht, surrounded by the shields of the 15 other cities that rebelled during the 80-year-war, the Dutch war of independence from Spain, and from Catholicism. It was here in Dordrecht that the rebellious provinces had their first independence meeting in July 1572. The plaque underneath reads:
Unity and peace are the best defence for a city; May my God Jehovah protect me.
We can certainly get behind unity and peace being the best defence, can’t we? (Also, 80 years of warfare, can you imagine? And we complain of 1.5 years of corona restrictions.)
4. Stroll along the ancient harbour
Dordrecht’s trading past is visible in the cityscape: wandering around the ancient harbour, past the impressive port warehouses, you can sense of a long history of culture and prosperity.
Warehouses in Voorstraathaven –
– and the gabled facade of a merchant’s house in Kuipershaven
5. Keep strolling – look at the facades
The streets of Dordrecht have rows of historic merchant houses with pretty facades and gables – and almost 1,000 national monuments and sculptures scattered around town.
Houses old, new and extremely narrow
6. Grote Kerk (Great Church)
The Gothic Grote Kerk with its 65m tall belltower is another not-to-be-missed. Climb to the top for a birds-eye view of Dordrecht.
7. Museums, galleries, street art and shopping
Must-sees in this category include the old mayor’s house on the harbour, Huis van Gijn, with its spectacular interior (the fab shades of reds and pinks alone!), and Dordrechts Museum, with six centuries of paintings by Dutch masters.
On the funkier side, look out for the many antique, vintage and speciality shops, as well as the weird stuff shops.
8. Nighttime wanderings
Dordrecht is even prettier at dusk, so make sure you take a stroll around town and along the water during the early evening hours.
Dordrecht: soft dusk lighting
Scandinavian journos hard at work as the day draws to a close
9. Consider it done
In Wolwevershaven, one of Dordrecht’s many harbours, you’ll find the Schroevendok Straatman lift, once used to hoist ships out of the water for repair. It’s a national monument, and possibly the most photographed one in town. But my favourite is another, less visible one.
You see, just by the monument, back in 2017, I spotted this bench and rather loved it. One of my favourite mottos.
I prefer to scratch the first full stop/period and read it Consider it done. But you could always take it literally if you’d like: Consider it. Done.
Wonder if the bench is still there. If you see it, let me know.
10. Villa Augustus
Another Dordrecht fave of mine, is this old water tower, with everything inside and around it (restaurant and garden, respectively). In fact, I wrote an entire post about it, so I’ll just leave you with a pic of the fabulously Gothic building. Head over here for more on Villa Augustus.
11. Biesbosch National Park
10 minutes from the city is the largest freshwater delta in Europe, with no less than 8,000 hectares (ca. 20,000 acres) of rivers, creeks, islands, forests and swamps, excellent for hiking, biking, horse riding, and not least, all kinds of water sports in crystal clear waters. We were out in one of the electric boats above.
Boating through Biesbosch reminded me of the swamps of Louisiana (no gators to worry about, though) – and Brunei, just outside the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. Wildlife is abundant here in Biesbosch as well; with hundreds of species (notably kingfisher and sea eagles), it’s a proper treat for bird spotters. However, I’m more intrigued by the beavers. The ones here have been particularly busy beavers, building more than 100 dams in these wetlands.
Biesbosch is on UNESCO’s tentative list. We’ll see what happens next.
In the neighbourhood
As a bonus, I’ll add two things you’ll love in Dordrecht’s neighbourhood:
12. The windmills at Kinderdijk
Just 20 minutes from Dordrecht is the 19 World Heritage-listed windmills at Kinderdijk. Along with wooden clogs and colourful tulips, this must surely be the most famous image of Holland. An ancient ingenious water management method (an absolute necessity in this country, where water must be kept at bay at all times), you can find windmills all around the Netherlands, but only at Kinderdijk and at one other place (Zaanse Schans) are you able to see so many in one place. There is really no comparable site anywhere in the world.
I’ll also throw in Rotterdam, since it’s very close. (Not that anywhere is far from anywhere else in tiny Netherlands). Rotterdam is the world’s largest seaport outside of East Asia. It is a lively, busy, hyper-modern city with creative, contemporary architecture, a far cry from the sleazy port city I remember from the 90s. Well worth a closer look.
You can travel between Dordrecht and Rotterdam the conventional way, i.e. by car (about 30 minutes), bus or train. But more interesting, and definitely more scenic, is the Waterbus. It takes about one hour between the two cities.