This fortified town on the Bergsche Maas was founded around the 13th century but went through a big transformation in the 1500s.
At a key strategic position on the river dividing Brabant and Gelderland, Heusden was turned into a fortress on the Zuiderwaterlinie, a string of defences to protect the Netherlands from Spanish and then French attacks.
As time went by Heusden lost some of its heritage when the Maas was rerouted at the start of the 20th century and then during the German retreat in 1944. But in the decades following the war, Heusden recaptured its historical character, with a town-wide restoration based on a 1649 map by the cartographer Johannes Blaeu.
This project earned the town a coveted Europa Nostra cultural heritage award.
1. Heusden Fortifications
As you approach the town across the moat, you’ll be itching to explore Heusden’s jagged mass of ramparts, ravelins and bastions, dating from the 16th and 17th century.
You can follow a path tracing the course of the defences and climb the embankments for far-reaching views over North Brabant to the south and the River Maas and Gelderland to the north.
The tourist office has a self-guided walking tour for the fortifications that you may find handy, filling you in with historical snippets and the purpose of the various defensive structures.
2. Town Tour
Make for the tourist office/visitor centre in the old town hall, where you can sign up for a bilingual walking tour of the centre, held on Sundays.
A tour can be done on your own initiative of course, pottering around streets lined with more than 100 Dutch heritage sites.
Heusden has an upmarket air, as you’ll detect at the cafes and clusters of galleries and artists’ studios.
You’re sure to find yourself on the fish market at some point, where the Neoclassical shelters have 12 Doric columns and were put up in 1796. The old harbour in the north is a treat, enclosed by rows of quayside houses and the monumental Molen I windmill, completed during Heusden’s reconstruction and opening on Saturdays.
The harbour was filled in after the Maas was redirected in 1904, but was rejoined to the river in the 1970s.
3. Het Gouverneurshuis
Lifting the lid on Heusden’s history in a refined location, Gouverneurshuis was built for the governor of the garrison in 1592. The house was designed with a stepped gable and has its own walled garden, laid out in a formal style with geometric rose beds, benches, fruit trees and lawns.
The town museum opened here in 1985 and was brought up to date in 2012 with an interactive exhibition recounting the construction of this fortified town, calling on paintings, books, archaeological finds, old maps and silverware.
The museum leads you into the house’s outbuildings, including a smaller dwelling and a wine shed.
At the end of your visit you can pause for a cup of coffee at the terrace.
4. National Park De Loonse en Drunense Duinen
Heusden is just ten kilometres north of a national park often dubbed the “Brabant Sahara”. Nearly all of this landscape is composed of dramatic sand drifts with tufts of grass and coniferous woodland.
Created by overgrazing in Medieval times, this is the largest region of shifting sands in Western Europe, with a desert-like microclimate that can hit the 40s on a summer’s day and plummet to near freezing at night.
Paved and unpaved walking and cycling paths course through the park, and as you make your way you may be intrigued to learn that whole villages lie beneath your feet engulfed by the sands hundreds of years ago.
People with a little horse-riding experience could go on the trek of a lifetime through the dunes with Maaike’s Adventure Stables, a couple of minutes out of Heusden.
5. Bezoekerscentrum Heusden
The tourist office and visitor centre is housed in Heusden’s former town hall.
This monument is rooted in the 15th century but was blown up by retreating German troops in November 1944 at a cost of 134 lives, a tenth of the town’s population.
The reconstruction was completed 1956, but went in a new direction in the style of the Bossche School.
In 1997 this building lost its administrative function to become a tourist resource.
The town hall is the starting point for tours around the town and has a monument to the victims of the atrocity in 1944. Head in for a mine of inspiration for your stay in Heusden, and an informative film shown in Dutch and English.
There are also changing exhibitions on the town, and a 30-square-metre scale model of the fortified town is on permanent display.
6. Kasteel Heusden
Heusden was born at the foot of a castle founded sometime in the 12th century.
In 1328 this came in to Brabant’s hands and was reinforced soon after with an octagonal keep 40 metres high.
This might still be here today if it wasn’t for a disaster in 1680 that took out not just the castle, but most of the houses around it.
The keep was struck by lightning, detonating 16,000 pounds of gunpowder.
The remnants of the castle are in the southwest nook of the fortified town.
There was a rudimentary attempt to restore the foundations in 1987. These merit a quick look, while there’s a children’s playground on the green courtyard beside the ruins.
7. River Cruise
If you’ve fallen in love with the romantic scenery of the Bergsche Maas there’s a tour boat operator based at the harbour in Heusden.
Rondvaart Wiljo has three boats and arranges a whole menu of tours, lasting up to 7.5 hours.
If you have half a day to spare you could take a cruise along the Maximakanaal to Den Bosch, or do a fortress to fortress trip to the spellbinding Woudrichem.
For more of a whistle-stop trip Wiljo offers an hour-long round trip from Easter to the start of September.
This takes you out onto the Maas, and into a former arm of the river, the Dode Maaasarm, which is now a nature reserve replete with waterfowl and overlooked by windmills and the cute villages of Nederhemert and Wellseind.
8. Kasteel Ammersoyen
Upriver on the opposite bank of the Maas, this castle was raised in the middle of the 14th century.
At that time it was right against the river, which has since been rerouted and is now around half a kilometre away.
In the 16th century Kasteel Ammersoyen was occupied by the Habsburgs during the Guelders Wars and then by the Spanish in the Eighty Years’ War, but neither spell lasted long.
From 1873 Up to the Second World War this was a Clarisse Convent, but after the conflict the damaged building was patched up and used as a washing machine factory.
The castle is open Tuesday to Sunday, April-October and on Sundays for the rest of the year.
You can soak up the restored historic interiors, and pore over the many pieces of earthenware, glass and metalwork pulled from the moat.
Most impressive is a pristine bronze beaker from the 1400s.
9. Heemtuin de Meulenwerf
Maintained by volunteers, the Heemtuin de Meulenwerf is a garden in 3.5 hectares close to the old harbour.
The aim of the garden is to help Heusden’s residents regain a lost connection to the countryside.
To do this the garden has planted indigenous species, crops and a range of plants grown for pharmacists, brewers and clothes makers.
Each plant comes with a label describing where it would have been grown and what use it would have had.
In the lower parts are marshes, reedbeds and meadows, while a trail has also been drawn up to stimulate the senses of touch, sound and smell of blind visitors.
If you’re cycling on the Loonse en Drunense Duinen trail to the southeast of Heusden, you’re sure to see this charming tower mill dating back to 1886. Set next to a nature reserve, the Emmamolen was named after Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont, Queen of the Netherlands at the time.
The mill is in working order and has kept most of its original interiors, last restored over 50 years ago.
And unlike most old windmills, it’s open every day of the of week.
That’s because there’s a cafe on the ground floor, with guided tours given during opening hours.
There’s also a bakery making treats with mill’s own flour, and you can buy a bag from the shop.
On the western border of the national park is the largest and oldest theme park in the Low Countries, as well as the third most-visited in Europe.
The phenomenal Efteling is steeped fairytales, myths and folklore, and first took shape in 1952 when the illustrator Anton Pieck was called in to design the Fairytale Forest, still one of the park’s best loved features.
Efteling is treasured for its high production values, ample foliage and four imaginatively designed zones or “Realms”. The Fairy Realm is the home of the Fairytale Forest, but also Droomvlucht (Dreamflight), an indoor ride and must-do, where fairies, unicorns and trolls come to life.
Teenagers will find the Adventure Realm more their speed, for rollercoasters like the Python, Joris en de Draak (George and the Dragon) and the new Baron 1898, a high-tech steel dive coaster soundtracked by the Brussels Philharmonic.
Being in the Netherlands, Heusden is served by a vast and well-maintained system of cycling paths.
You can navigate the countryside using Knooppunten, which are nodes at intersecting cycle routes, and this allows you to plan your route online before you set off.
At the tourist office you can buy a leaflet for the Ringdijk route, a 35.5-kilometre trail over the dikes and floodplains of the River Maas, with mills, farms, locks and another fort to see as you coast through the flat countryside.
If you’re using an e-bike there are charging stations on the way, as well as 17 information boards to fill you in on the nature and history of the Bergsche Maas.
Heusden is also on a trail incorporating the fortified towns of the Zuiderwaterlinie, that defensive line founded in the 16th century.