Film legend Audrey Hepburn once called Arnhem home and the town is perhaps best known for its famous bridge. However, the capital of Gelderland has more than that to offer visitors looking for a hiking weekend a bit off the beaten track.
First of all, a trip to the John Frostbrug might not be worth it.
A walk along the Nederrijn River in Arnhem will take you past a few cafes, several interesting street art murals and a memorial for soldiers who lost their lives in World War II. But the John Frostbrug, the bridge that replaced the one they fought and died for, is pretty unremarkable and utilitarian. He didn’t even manage to play the role of his famous predecessor in the film A bridge too far.
It wasn’t the bridge’s fault. The surrounding landscape had become too modernized when cameras started rolling in the mid-1970s. The rest of the city has also come a long way since the Battle of Arnhem catapulted it to international infamy in the 1970s. 1940. He doesn’t fear his past either.
The rich history of the region dates back 70,000 years, more or less a few millennia. Neanderthals made the area their home in the Stone Age. Centuries later, the Dutch, Spanish and French fought to take control of it for a few hundred years.
Arnhem was known as “The Little Hague of the East” for several decades in the 19th century as wealthy sugar barons flocked to both towns to bask in their newly acquired riches. Audrey Hepburn’s family lived in Arnhem on and off for several generations. His grandfather was the mayor throughout the 1910s. There is now a square named after him which is adjacent to the Focus Filmtheatre.
Arnhem offers residents and visitors an elegant mix of old and new which is perhaps best exemplified by the Eusebiuskerk. You can take a lift to the top of the tower of this 15th-century Gothic church or search for the bizarre sculptures and cheeky gargoyles outside. Just a short walk away, the city’s colossal former post office now houses a brewery. There is even an unusual theme park near the zoo devoted entirely to historic buildings.
Five things to do
Learn more about the war years
Many visitors travel to Arnhem to pay their respects or spend time in its WWII museums. Arnhems Oorlogsmuseum 40-45 is on the outskirts of town and features various wartime artefacts including tanks and other vehicles. The Arnhem part of the Liberation Route is best experienced by bike if you want to see it all.
The 42 km route will take you past monuments and information terminals as well as the John Frostbrug. Airborne at the Bridge is a small museum housed inside Villa Hartenstein, which served as the headquarters of British troops in 1944. It serves as an annex to the larger Airborne Museum at Hartenstein in Oosterbeek, a community in the west of Arnhem.
Explore the Eusebiusker
Many people head straight for the elevator, but the Eusebiuskerk has several other things worth checking out. That’s not to say that if you’re feeling brave you shouldn’t visit the top of its clock tower and climb to the clear platforms that overlook the streets and pavements 73 meters below.
Prince (now King) Charles donated £60,000 to help defray the cost of refurbishing the church several years ago and visited in 2019. Although he did not go as far as the lift, he checked other areas, which included the restored burial vaults. On the ground floor you will find stone lions protecting the tomb of Karel van Gelre, a duke who conquered much of the region centuries ago.
Look up as you stroll along the exterior and you’ll spot sculptures of planets, water bears, and other random objects, including gargoyles modeled after various Disney characters. You will need binoculars to see at least a few of them.
Hiking in the Sonsbeek park
Only the most dedicated will make it to every corner of this great park in a single afternoon. It’s one of the most elaborate public spaces in the country and easily puts Amsterdam’s most famous Vondelpark to shame.
Sonsbeek Park contains waterfalls, cafes, a teahouse, a belvedere-style observation tower, a water museum, meditation and butterfly gardens, a watermill, an old ice house, sculptures , monuments, ponds, streams and many ducks, coots and swans. There are also hills, real hills, which are rare in many other parts of the Netherlands.
Visit a retirement community for old buildings
Openluchtmuseum Arnhem is a strong contender for the most unique and arguably weirdest open-air museum in the country. It’s huge too but luckily there’s a fleet of old carts that will take you back to the entrance if you’re too tired to walk back.
The sprawling complex includes a variety of buildings from all over the Netherlands that were once due for demolition. They include everything from farms and windmills to old Chinese restaurants and a good part of the Jordaan in Amsterdam. Walk past a car that crashed into an Amsterdammertje barrier to a brown bar that looks locked in time.
You can also visit many of the interiors of the other buildings, but keep an eye out for mannequins scattered around. Stumbling upon one when you least expect it could make your heart race, especially if you’re exploring one of the houses at the end of the lot near closing time.
Have fun at the zoo
Just down the hill from the Openluchtmuseum is the 44-hectare Burgers Zoo. It is named after Johan Burgers, a local animal lover who assembled a menagerie in his garden which originally housed pheasants and a few dogs in the late 19th century.
Things started spiraling out of control as he started adding more creatures, big and small. He eventually bought land and opened the country’s first private zoo. It was moved to its current location in 1918. Over a century later, it is home to a small safari park, indoor rainforest, aquarium, indoor desert and many exotic animals.
Where to eat
‘t Taphuys Arnhem is an impressive brewery located in the city’s former central post office. There are dozens of beers on tap and many more in bottles and wines. These are the main draw, but are also great for lunch or dinner. There’s a kids’ menu as well as standard adult pub fare like burgers and ribs.
Cross town for a more relaxed experience at Schatje van Arnhem, a neighborhood Indonesian cafe. The owner’s dog was snoozing nearby, pandan coladas were on the menu, and the waitress was singing by Motown standards on a recent visit.
Look beyond the basic interior and focus on the food at VieVie. This small cafe has an impressive menu devoted to Indian street food. Try the sambar batata vada, a fried potato ball or a spicy bean curry sandwich. SPDPs are definitely not for picky eaters. They are deep fried balls filled with vegetables soaked in flavored water and yogurt. Vrijdag Cafe is a great place for lunch or dinner any day or night of the week.
Sit down in a downpour or enjoy lunch at the kitsch Koffiehuis ‘t Hemelrijk. There is a quiet outdoor terrace when the weather is good and the interior is decorated like a omathe living room.
The hallway that serves as the entrance is also decorated with curious display cases dedicated to Arnhem’s quirky historical figures. Libertas is a second-hand cafe/bookstore that can serve as an oasis on a rainy day. Puck is another great cafe with a good breakfast and lunch menu.
Where to stay
Bed and breakfast options are quite limited around Arnhem, so your best bet will probably be a hotel. Hotel Haarhuis is a short walk from the train station. Try one of their Superior Deluxe rooms which have saunas and whirlpool tubs or split-level lofts with separate lounging and sleeping areas if you have the cash burning a hole in your pocket.
The Molendal hotel, near the Sonsbeek park, has sixteen rooms in a former 19th century mansion. The Art Nouveau interior is stunning, but a word of warning if you have mobility issues. The hotel does not have an elevator.
Hotel Modez is a ‘designer hotel’ that definitely delivers when it comes to design and many of its rooms have some really crazy styles – so not for those looking for a bit of zen.
Even weirder and potentially wonderful is the much-loved Drijfpaleis. This hotel is located on a large houseboat covered in psychedelic paint and…well, it’s an experience that might not appeal to everyone. The Holiday Inn Express Arnhem is a suitable alternative for those who prefer more conventional accommodation.
How to get there
Located north of Nijmegen, Arnhem is about 90 minutes by car from the center of Amsterdam. The train journey takes about two hours.
Arnhem has a shopping area similar to Amsterdam’s 9 Straatjes. The city’s 7 Straatjes are full of charming boutiques, galleries and cafes.
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