The small town of Vaals in South Limburg is on the map for a couple of big reasons.
The first is the Drielandenpunt, the tripoint on the Dutch, German and Belgian borders.
This is five minutes from the town centre, and has become a real tourist attraction, enhanced by an observation tower, hedge maze and a few places to grab Dutch treats like poffertjes (mini pancakes). The tripoint is on the wooded Vaalserberg hill, the summit of which is highest point in mainland Netherlands.
Vaals itself is very pretty, with a townscape moulded by wealthy Lutherans who crossed the border from Germany for religious freedom in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Something that literally puts Vaals on the map is the tripoint where the Dutch, German and Belgian borders meet.
This point is close to the summit of the Vaalserberg hill and is the only place in the Netherlands where three borders touch.
Belgium has three more, while Germany has another seven tripoints.
Between 1839 and 1919 there was actually a quadripoint here, with a fourth boundary for the tiny Belgian-Prussian condominium Neutral Moresnet.
The marker post where the three lines meet dates to 1926, and close by there are three other markers, representing Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The hill where you’ll find the tripoint also happens to be the highest point in mainland Netherlands.
The Vaalserberg is 322.4 metres high and is on the eastern edge of the Vijlenerbos, a woodland area that we’ll talk about below.
On the hill you can follow hiking trails disappearing into the forest, but also check out an assortment of minor attractions in the summer, like a big hedge maze, a playground, an observation tower (more below) and a few eateries.
A little way from the Drielandenpunt there’s a lookout tower that was built in June 2011 in place of one that had stood for 65 years but was starting to show its age.
Before that there was another wooden tower,named, like its successors, for Queen Wilhelmina but damaged by storms and then German artillery fire in the Second World War.
The newest version, fitted with an elevator, is 35 metres tall and takes in vistas of the Ardennes and Aachen’s emblematic cathedral.
At the top there’s also a transparent glass platform called the Skywalk, with a dizzying view down to the terrace below.
4. Historic Centre
It comes as no shock that the tripoint and Vaalserberg win most of the attention in Vaals, but you’ll be missing out if you don’t take time to poke around the old centre, which is replete with fine old buildings.
We’ll deal with some of these below, but there are more than 70 Dutch heritage sites packed onto just a few streets.
On the Von Clermontplein/Julianaplein, site of the town hall, there’s a glorious ensemble of stately 18th and 19th-century houses, with mansard roofs and whitewashed walls.
Many of these have ties to the Lutheran German cloth maker Johann Arnold von Clermont, who set up a manufacturing base in Vaals as he was free to practise his religion in the Netherlands.
The square boasts an eye-catching fountain with 44 jets and is paved with the motif of woven cloth.
The local tourist office has laid out a walking route for the centre of Vaals, waymarked with hexagonal signs.
5. Museum Vaals
If you have an eye for liturgical art, you’ll be pleased with Vaals’ town museum, which displays over 200 images of saints.
The location is impressive too, in the chapel of De Esch, a former Camillian monastery.
The Camillians took over in 1897, and before that time this had been a country estate, with a Rococo mansion re-designed in the 1770s by the German-Italian architect Joseph Moretti.
The house is now a hotel, while the museum opened in the chapel in 2009. The workmanship and diversity of the museum’s collection is staggering, and there are pieces ranging from 1 to 3.5 metres, all set against the chapel’s own frescoes and stained glass windows.
You can pop into the cafe for coffee and a slice of Limburgse vlaai fruit pie and wander in the estate’s garden, where the oldest tree in the town awaits.
6. Lutherse Kerk
On the Von Clermontplein/Julianaplein, along with Vaals’ town hall, is the town’s Lutheran church, dated 1736. The Lutheran congregation in Vaals was set up in 1669 at a time when the town was overrun by Lutherans from Aachen who were able to practise their religion under the protection of the Dutch States General.
In the Lutheran style, emphasising participation and equality, the church is octagonal, supported inside by eight tall Doric columns with octagonal plinths.
The last service at the Lutherse Kerk was in 1955 and since then the building has been a cultural centre, De Kopermolen, arranging concerts, theatre performances and exhibitions.
7. Huis Clermont
The grand Rococo complex housing Vaals’ town hall was intended as a cloth factory by Johann Arnold von Clermont.
It was established in the 1770s and was also designed by Joseph Moretti.
Until the factory closed in the mid-1920s the complex was a square courtyard, including wings containing residence, offices and two for a cloth factory and paint shop.
When production stopped, the main factory wing to the north was demolished leaving a U-shape.
The local council moved in after a restoration completed in 1981. Head around to the facade of the south wing, which has a distinguished pediment carved with the coats of arms of von Clement and his wife Maria Elisabeth Emminghaus.
Cross the border with Germany and in ten minutes you’ll be in Aachen, a city of real historical importance.
Aachen was Charlemagne’s preferred residence and was the place where he died in 814. His remains are in the gleaming Karlsschrein reliquary, at the magnificent and UNESCO-listed Aachen Cathedral, which was built under his orders and is one of the oldest cathedrals in Europe.
The Palatine Chapel here is the last surviving element of Charlemagne’s palace in Aachen and witnessed the coronation of every Holy Roman Emperor up to 1531. The cathedral treasury holds hundreds of years of invaluable pieces like a silver-gilt bust of Charlemagne, the jewel encrusted Ottonian Cross of Lothair and the Roman marble Proserpina sarcophagus in which Charlemagne was first interred in the 9th century.
Vaals is at the eastern tip of a mosaic of forests adding up to 650 hectares.
This area stretches out westwards for about eight kilometres from the Drielandenpunt to the village of Epen.
Something noteworthy about the Vijlenerbos is that it’s one of the few places in the Netherlands that can claim to have a microclimate, caused by the high ground and resembling the Ardennes not far away to the west.
If you’re up for a walk you can work your calves in these hills ambling into birch, oak and pine woodland and happening upon Bronze Age burial mounds, three of which are sited close to Vaals.
10. Zuid-Limburgse Stoomtrein Maatschappij
After the passenger railway between nearby Simpelveld and Kerkrade was shut down in 1988 a heritage line was founded in its place.
This chugs through South Limburg’s green rolling countryside for 29 kilometres.
You’ll travel in a vintage carriage from the 1930s, while trains are pulled by historic steam and diesel engines, like a Swedish NOHAB steam locomotive built in the 1910s.
If you’re navigating the countryside around Vaals by bike there’s a special carriage designated for cyclists.
The elegant old station at Simpelveld is stunning too, and houses a restaurant and museum about the South Limburg Railway.
Outside there’s preserved steam railway infrastructure like a water tower, turntable pit and a locomotive workshop where you can watch these old giants being restored.
The line mostly runs on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays in summer, as well as during the Christmas period and on select weekends for the rest of the year.
For cyclists the regional tourist board, VVV Zuid Limburg has created the37.7-kilometre Drie Grenzenroute (Three Border Trail), which can be ridden in one afternoon.
What’s exciting is that in the space of two or three hours you’ll pass through three different countries.
The ride can be a little strenuous in places, but your reward will be fresh upland forest and some awe-inspiring views.
The trail is on the existing cycling network, and you’ll use knooppunten, or nodes to get around.
These are signposted intersections, often with useful geographical details.
And to make up for some of the climbs, the trail has been designed to lead you past bar and cafe terraces where you can rest up and get refreshed.
12. Wekelijkse Markt
The Von Clermontplein/Julianaplein hosts a market that seems larger than it should be for a town of Vaals’ size.
The Wekelijkse Markt trades on Tuesdays from 08:00 ’til 13:00 (or 13:30 in summer) and brings in shoppers from across the Belgian and German borders.
If you’re staying at a holiday rental in Vaals you could shop here for groceries like fruit, vegetables, cheese, charcuterie, fish, fresh bread and herbs.
Every second Sunday of the month in summer there’s also a market for regional specialities if you’d like to get hold of some artisan conserves and mustards to take home with you.