The Hanseatic cities (Hanzesteden) is a group of cities across multiple countries that came together in the Middle Ages to defend and expand trade. At the time, the majority of trade was performed over water, namely rivers. As a result, traders were always vulnerable to having their goods stolen.
The group started with a few German merchants and towns in the 13th century. The initial purpose was simply to help each other protect their merchandise from being hijacked and stolen. However, as more merchants, cities, and countries joined, the group, now called the Hanseatic League, also granted its members duty-free and diplomatic rights in linked localities and trade routes.
The Hanseatic Cities in the Netherlands
The Hanseatic League was at its peak in the 13th and 15th centuries with over 200 members across Europe. In the Netherlands, there are 23 Hanseatic cities: Arnhem, Bolsward, Deventer, Doesburg, Elburg, Groningen, Harderwijk, Hasselt, Hattem, Hindeloopen, Kampen, Maasbommel, Nijmegen, Oldenzaal, Ommen, Rijssen, Roermond, Stavoren, Tiel, Venlo, Zaltbommel, Zutphen and Zwolle.
Sometimes you won’t see Maasbommel included, as it was more like a suburb to Nijmegen. But due to its strategic location, it was still included in the Hanseatic League.
Apart from the trade, the cities also influenced each other in their construction styles, namely Gothic-style architecture. Many Dutch cities still show impressive historic trade houses and buildings in that style.
Visit the Dutch Hanseatic Cities: On Foot, By Bike or Over Water
Just like any Dutch city, there are walking and biking routes, as well as boat tours you can take to get an impression of this period.
For example, take a Hanseatic walking tour such as the ones available in Kampen or Zwolle. The Grote Markt in Zwolle is a popular shopping and dining destination today but did you know that it was one of the centers of trade between some of the Hanseatic League members? Germany traded their natural stone there, while Scandinavia used to sell their lumber at this location.
The city of Elburg is another example where you can see many Hanseatic-related buildings and monuments. For instance, the Gruithuis, erected in the 1400s and one of the oldest buildings in the city, is popular because it used to be where beer herbs were sold in this period. Today, it’s an antiquities shop, but the building itself has been restored to its Hanseatic look.
If you want to explore a Hanseatic city from the water, boat tours (guided and unguided) are available. In Zutphen and Hasselt (a.k.a. Little Amsterdam due to its charming canals), a boat tour will take you past historic Hanseatic-related monuments.
If you want to visit multiple Hanseatic cities at once, then consider taking a 9-city Hanseatic pilgrimage. These nine cities (Deventer, Doesburg, Elburg, Harderwijk, Hasselt, Hattem, Kampen, Zutphen, and Zwolle) are located at or near the river IJssel so they’re close together.
How you go about your Hanseatic tour is all up to you. You can set sail and anchor on and off each city or take weekend city trips to each one.
If biking is your thing, then you’ll be happy to know that there are cycling routes that connect Hanseatic cities, ranging from 35+ to 54+ kilometers.
Our Tip: Fitsroutenerwerk is a Dutch biking organization that has cycling routes around the Hanseatic cities. They provide a mobile phone app through which you may download the course you want to take.