A city of 30,000 in Friesland, Heerenveen has a sporting prowess that belies its modest size.
Thialf, the Netherlands’ top speed skating arena is here, and this is big news in a nation that leaves all competition trailing on the ice.
The local football team , SC Heerenveen will forever be synonymous with the famed striker Abe Lenstra, but has also helped produce some modern hotshots like Ruud van Nistelrooy and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
In the same municipality, Oranjewoud was founded as an estate in the 17th century by Countess Albertine Agnes of Nassau, widow of the Stadtholder of Friesland, William Frederick.
In the 19th century a few prominent families in the region set up their own, smaller estates at Ornanjewoud.
These opulent mansions are private but there’s an excellent art museum, and the 17th-century park is open to the public.
1. Museum Belvédère
Devoted to modern and contemporary art, the Museum Belvédère is in Oranjewoud and named for a 1920s lookout tower in the park.
In an award-winning low-impact building straddling a canal, the museum was opened in 2004 by Queen Beatrix and deals mainly with Frisian artists, including the likes of Jan Mankes, Gerrit Benner and Thijs Rinsema.
The exhibition brings you from the 19th century to the present, via Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Constructivism and New Figuration.
When we wrote this article in late 2018 there were shows for Dick van Arkel and Tjibbe Hooghiemstra, respectively inspired by the Frisian polders and the bocage landscape of the Friese Wouden.
Speed skating is a Dutch forte, and over the last 35 years this nation has taken twice as many ISU Speed Skating World Cup (986) as its nearest rival the USA (436). One of the cathedrals to this speed skating is Thialf, a 12,500-seater arena for ice sports, opened in 1986 and renovated in 2016. The outdoor rink beside it goes back to 1967 and was inaugurated by Princess Christina.
Thialf is the top venue for skating in the Netherlands, hosting two World Cup events a season as well as home matches for the Friesland Flyers ice hockey team, competing in the Eredevisie.
The track is noted for its speed, and world-records in various distances tumble here each season.
Check the opening times, and from September to March you can come to test the ice, either on the famous 400-metre track or the casual Krabbelbaan.
Skate rental is available, and there’s a special 30 x 30 metre rink for younger skaters.
A municipal building since the 19th century, this Baroque mansion was ordered by the grietman (roughly equivalent to a mayor) Johannes Sytzes Crack in 1648. In the Frisian tradition the name of the house is a portmanteau of the owner, Crack’s name and state (estate). The Crackstate is protected by a moat, crossed by a bridge built in 1775, with iron gates dating from 1819. Climbing above the pediment is a lantern, believed to have been used as a watchtower, which has held the Crackstate’s ring of bells since the 1960s.
In 1890 a prison was added to the basement and used as a torture chamber during the Second World War.
On a lighter note, the Crackstate is now a wedding venue set next door to a new city hall built in 1993.
This magnificent villa dates to 1640 and was built as a residence for the grietman Amelius van Oenema.
After being handed down two local noble families the Oenemastate became the official office for Heerenveen’s grietman in 1828, and then a town hall for Heerenveen from 1876. On the balustrade below the fine central dormer there are panels recording the building’s construction and its restoration in 1876. After being sold off in the 20th century villa is now a grand cafe, worth visiting so you can check out the exuberant ceiling paintings.
5. Museum Heerenveen
You can get the lowdown on Heerenveen’s history at this local museum, which has a display of historical objects, archaeological artefacts and works from regional artists like the Symbolist Jan Mankes.
There’s an exhibition about the distinguished families that resided at Oranjewoud, as well as their poorer peat-cutting counterparts, and a highly detailed scale model of Heerenveen as it would have looked in 1830. You can track the life and career of the prolific Heerenveen striker Abe Lenstra (1920-1985) and learn about the town’s long ties to industry, and famous Dutch manufacturers like the bike brand Batavus and Koninklijke Smilde.
There also a sculpture garden, changing displays of contemporary art and a museum shop designed like a 19th-century Heerenveen pharmacy.
6. Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis Museum
Part of the Heerenveen Museum, but officially a separate attraction is this biographical collection dedicated to the first socialist in the Dutch parliament.
Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis (1846-1919) represented the Frisian People’s Party and was elected in 1888, lasting three years in the House of Representatives, after which he leaned towards anarchism and revolution.
During his incumbency he proposed universal suffrage, an eight-hour working day, an introduction of a minimum wage, ending the Netherlands’ war in Aceh, and many other policies that were a little too progressive for the period.
In four areas you can view some personal possessions, uncover his private life, read excerpts from letters, view his library and assess his impact on the Netherlands at the turn of the century and today.
7. De Overtuin
The Oranjewoud’s parkland has been open to the public since 1953. Dating from the 17th century, this as old as Oranjewoud, and was updated to stay fashionable, first in the Baroque style in the 18th century and then as an English landscape park in the 19th century.
The park is a Dutch heritage site in its own right, and its canals and oak and beech avenues survive from its foundation in the 17th century.
In the landscape garden there are meandering paths through groves and around a kidney-shaped water feature.
The mass of rhododendrons here goes back to the 1800s and are spectacular in June when they flower.
To the east you can scale the 18-metre concrete Belvedère tower (1924), 18 metres tall and giving its name to the museum nearby.
8. Welgelegen Windmill
The handsome smock mill on Tjepkemastraat was erected in 1849 and has been millling flour by wind power once more after a restoration in the early 1970s.
The upper floors containing the mill’s machinery are thatched, while the lower levels are composed of brick and were heightened by six metres in 1898 to raise the sails above the surrounding buildings.
Mill aficionados can pay a visit on Saturday mornings to inspect the Burr and Cullen stones, cogs, shaft and gears, all in action if the wind is blowing.
At the shop you can peruse a variety of flours, from spelt to six-grain bread flour, all produced at this 170-year-old mill in the old-fashioned way.
9. SC Heerenveen
The local football team is one of those sides that like, say Athletic Bilbao, Bayern Munich or FC Barcelona, conjures a real sense of regional identity.
SC Heerenveen’s crest is the flag of Frieslad, with diagonal blue and white stripes dotted with the “pompeblêd”, heraldic water lily leafs that look a lot like hearts.
The Frisian national anthem, De Alde Friezen, is sung before every home domestic game at the 27,224-capacity Abe Lenstra Stadion.
Opened in1 1994, this is named for the club’s greatest player, who had a scoring ration better than 1 to 1 in his 18-year association with “De Superfriezens”. SC Heerenveen’s average attendance is 20,000, so there’s a good atmosphere but also means you should be able to get tickets provided you first register for a free club card.
10. Frisian Lakes
Heerenveen is on the eastern flank of a lake district, the Friese Meren, cherished in the Netherlands, but little known among visitors from overseas.
These 35 lakes, intertwined with rivers and canals are in fact man made, having been created by peat cutting starting in Medieval times.
One thing you could do is ride there, through easy-going countryside, passing herds of Frisian cows.
You can hire a bike from Heerenveen Tweewielers in the centre of town and the tourist office at the Heerenveen Museum has plenty of maps and leaflets.
In summer a world of water activities opens up at the lakes, be it tours in heritage vessels, sailing, stand-up paddleboarding, kite-surfing, windsurfing or kayaking.
You can also use the canal network to reach the lakes from Heerenveen.
There’s a hire centre, Bootverhuur Kalf on the Heeresloot canal boasting a small armada of motorboats, some of which don’t require licences.