As I walked from the station through the city, I immediately liked Groningen. I liked the small, friendly vibes and the low, long streets of houses. I liked the cobbled walkways along the canals and watching people sat on the decks of their houseboats during the sunset. It immediately felt like a chilled and happy city, but with a surprising urban edge that I was excited to explore.

Rebel Rebel Hostel

Rebel Rebel Hostel was not only where I stayed in Groningen but one of the chief reasons I visited the city. It was one of the most unique hostels I’d heard of and staying there was even cooler than I expected. A rare container hostel, it is based on empty warehouse land with a truly individual urban vibe.

The detached containers hold 27 beds and a communal bathroom. With toilets using reused shower water and hot water heated by a pellet stove, it is an eco-friendly system, which fits in with the general green feel of the place. Everything is social, shared and sustainable.

The kitchen and bar is a casual space and great for budget travelers, with a great kitchen and cheap beer. You can enjoy a free breakfast every morning and rent bikes for a low price. Everyone was super friendly. Plus, the outside space is down to earth and a perfect place to relax with the sunset and check out the stars.

The best thing about Rebel Rebel Hostel is that it’s an experience, as well as a place to sleep. Comfy and cozy but with a distinctly urban edge, much like the city itself, this is the only place to stay in Groningen.

Surrounding the hostel

Much more than an abandoned old section of warehouse land, the area surrounding Rebel Rebel Hostel is a creative space. Just across the way is EM2, a café, bar and venue for cultural events. Also known as “the barn”, with its high ceilings, open inside and wooden exterior, it’s a beautiful location for shows, gigs and festivals.

While I was there, the Blockchaingers Hackathon was on at The Former Sugar Factory, an old empty but urbanely renovated warehouse space next to the hostel and EM2. The event welcomed teams from all over the world to work on solutions to global challenges. The aim was to find efficient shortcuts to societal problems, with the support of top-level tech gurus, lawyers and regulators. It was cool to see the use of space, even if I didn’t understand the specific workings of the event! A large room full of brilliant minds using computer skills and shared support to ultimately just make society better.

Live like a local

Food

De Herbivoor is a favorite spot for local vegetarians. With all dishes prepared from scratch, using all organic ingredients and seasonal products, it’s the ultimate feel-good place to eat in Groningen. With a great cozy atmosphere and incredible food, come here for one of the best meals in the city.

Lunchroom Anat is another excellent option. Another veggie restaurant, it has an award-winning menu, making healthy food delicious food. All made with organic and sustainable ingredients, it’s a natural and local oasis found right in the center of Groningen. Check it out for breakfast and enjoy a stunning view of the Noorderplansoen Park that surrounds the restaurant in a peaceful environment.

Another veggie-conscious place is Het Concerthuis, but it also caters for meat-eaters. With a unique menu and social vibe, this is a buzzing culinary hotspot of the city. They especially focus on food sharing events. And they’re very proud of their drinks menu, including favorite wines, home-baked coffee beans and, of course, special beers.

Drink

The Netherlands is full of microbreweries doing great things with beer. Het Concerthuis, with its collection of both local and international brews, is just one of the many places you can enjoy a night of drinking.

Also check out Brewery Martinus, which offers a combination of amazing beers and an exceptional venue. The old industrial building was once a printing press and still stands as an iconic structure of Groningen. You can take a tour through the brewery to learn more about the process, watch the creation of local beers and, naturally, sip a couple of pints on the beautiful roof terrace.

As well as bars, Groningen has its fair share of great cafes. One of the most interesting I found was Cat Cafe Poeslief. This is a rising trend in European cities, and the owners were inspired by their own visit to one in Berlin. The result is a unique experience along with a great cup of coffee. Although you can’t pick up the cats, you can watch them enjoying their home, all of whom came from a local animal shelter.

Market

For another typical local experience, head to the Grote Markt and Vismarkt squares for the regular city market. It energizes the entire city center. Selling cheap delicious food, clothes, souvenirs, drinks, everyday objects, the stalls bring the streets to life.

Grab a cone of typical Dutch frites from the market and sit watching the movement of the city. Join other people-watchers on the steps beside the Matinikerk. Especially in the early evening, it’s a great place to sit and watch the dimming activity of the market. Perhaps before heading out to enjoy the vibrant nightlife of Groningen.

Shopping

The city center is saturated in shopping opportunities. Main chains and brand stores clutter the high street. However, there is also plenty of hidden space for smaller boutiques and local vintage stores. One of my favorites to explore was Stardust, the original vintage shop of Groningen. Inspired by 80s and 90s fashion, it sells Swedish brands, remade English clothing and local designs. The classic styles are cool and timeless, and a perfect reminder of your time in Groningen.

Explore like a tourist

Churches

The Matinikerk is a defining highlight of Groningen and a tourist hotspot. 800 years old, it is an impressive landmark revealing the dynamic history of the city. From simple brickwork to arched windows, an ancient organ and colorful artwork, the inside is a deeply detailed contrast to the grand and impressive exterior.

It is also famous for its 97-meter-high tower, the Martinitoren. As the tallest structure in the city, it provides the best views in Groningen, stretching out beyond the low rooftops, past the cyclical canals and out to the flat landscape of the Netherlands beyond. Be sure to climb the 260 steps to experience this stunning perspective.

Wandering around Groningen, you might also stumble upon smaller, local churches, all of which hold their own individual and historic story of the city.

Museums

For an ultimate understanding of the city, visit Groninger Museum. The design of the building itself is enough to draw you in, with a modern and eccentric structure. The artwork contained within its walls speaks volumes about the place and the people that have lived there, specifically, the impressive artists who have left their mark. Here you can see famous works by Joost van den Toorn and Andy Warhol, as well as discover the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age.

If you’re looking for something historical, check out the Northern Shipping Museum. The significant maritime history of the Netherlands is significant to its story as a country, filtering down even to its modern day culture. This museum reveals the original artifacts of that history, including large ships structures, engines and descriptions of the shipping trade. All revealed in an immersive and fascinating way.

Parks

Noorderplantsoen is a buzzing space of the city. In the summer, locals lounge on the expansive grass, beside tranquil lakes and in the shade of beautiful trees. It’s a wonderful place to wander and escape the small city streets. The 1km of land was originally the fortified area of Groningen, although its walls have long been dismantled.

One of my favorite things about Groningen was that it wasn’t at all overwhelming. Lovely parks like this one showed the balance between natural and urban space, and the importance of wildlife and greenery to the planning and people of the city.

If you’re willing to travel beyond the city, head for Lauwersmeer National Park for more stunning nature. The wildlife here is truly impressive as rare birds and wild horses inhabit the land. More than a park, it’s the perfect place for activity, drawing many cyclists and hikers throughout the year. It is home to a diverse range of plant life, dotted with vast water landscapes and eventually stretching out into the Wadden Sea.

Groningen had been recommended to me many times by Dutch people, even though it’s a small and relatively quiet city. But I definitely understood the enticement after experiencing the place for myself. Even though it still had bikes, canals, flat streets and frites, it felt different to the other cities I’d visited in the east and south of the Netherlands.

A blend of small-town vibes and an urban underground scene, historic monuments and an edgy nightlife, I could see what drew people in, and I was definitely happy to be drawn there myself.

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