Even though scholars note the history of the Netherlands (a.k.a. Holland) as far back as the days of the Roman Empire (when that country was a far-flung northern outpost), from a visitor’s point of view, the real history of the country started during its
Golden Age (17th century). At that time, the Netherlands was a center of innovation and international trade. The city of Amsterdam (the country’s capital) was the leading center for finance and diamonds in northern Europe. Ships sailed from there to the Baltic Sea, North America, and Africa, as well as present-day Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Brazil, forming the basis of a worldwide trading network. Amsterdam’s merchants had the largest share in both the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company. These companies acquired overseas possessions that later became Dutch colonies.
Along with the colonies that the Dutch established in places as diverse as Indonesia (Southeast Asia), the Dutch Antilles (the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao), Suriname (South America), and for a time South Africa (Cape Province), the Dutch also established an unique settlement in North America called “New Amsterdam” in 1624. Dutchman Peter Minuit reputedly bought the island of Manhattan from local natives for just $24 in trinkets. New Amsterdam grew to include what is today New York City, as well as parts of Long Island, New Jersey & Connecticut. New Amsterdam officially became New York in 1664 when the British took it over from the Dutch.
Amsterdam and the rest of the Netherlands earned their long-standing reputation for religious & ethnic tolerance to The Dutch Golden Age. By that period, Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, Huguenots from France, prosperous merchants and printers from nearby Flanders (Belgium), and economic and religious refugees from the Spanish-controlled parts of the Low Countries found refuge in Amsterdam. The influx of Flemish printers and the city’s intellectual tolerance made Amsterdam a center for the European free press.
When the 20th century came along, its first half was marked by the Netherlands staying neutral during World War I, and being invaded by Nazi Germany during World War II (1940). The Dutch endured that occupation until the end of that war. Afterwards, the Dutch recovered, and became among the more prosperous countries in Western Europe – complete with membership to NATO, and later into the European Union (EU).
In terms of the country’s now-diverse population, a large wave of Indonesians migrated to Amsterdam and other parts of Holland (like Rotterdam) during the 1940s & 1950s (just after the Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia, was granted independence). Guest workers from Turkey, Morocco, Italy and Spain migrated to the country during the 1960s. After the South American Dutch colony of Suriname was granted independence in 1975, a wave of Surinamese immigrated settled in Amsterdam as well. Such immigrant populations help explain the diverse cuisine options that visitors often find in present-day Holland. With 176 different nationalities, the Netherlands is home to one of the widest varieties of nationalities of any country in the world. The immigrant share of the population in Amsterdam now counts about 50%.
First-time visitors to Holland will likely fly into Amsterdam – the most tourist-friendly part of the country. Its main attractions include its historic canals, the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk Museum, Hermitage Amsterdam, Anne Frank House, Amsterdam Museum, its red-light district, and its many cannabis coffee shops. With tourism being a small part of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) – just 5.4%, the country received 17 million international visitors in 2017 (mainly from neighboring countries like Germany, Belgium and the UK, along with Americans – since English is widely spoken in Holland).