DEN HAAG (The Hague) is markedly different from any other Dutch city. In a country built on civic independence and munificence, it's been the focus of national institutions since the sixteenth century, but it is not – curiously enough – the capital, which is Amsterdam. Frequently disregarded until the development of central government in the nineteenth century, Den Haag's older buildings are a comparatively subdued and modest collection, with little of Amsterdam's flamboyance. Indeed, the majority of the canal houses are demurely classical and exude a sense of sedate prosperity.
Apart from the diplomats and top-flight executives inflating city-centre prices, parts of the centre are now festooned with slick government high-rises and, more promisingly, Den Haag now holds a slew of lively and reasonably priced bars and restaurants. A creative city council has done much to jazz the city up, too, organizing a lively programme of concerts and events, and it boasts a veritable battery of outstanding museums.
The prettiest spot in the centre of Den Haag – and the logical place to start a visit – is the north side of the Hofvijver (Court Pond), a placid lakelet that mirrors the attractive, vaguely Ruritanian symmetries of the extensive Binnenhof (Inner Court) beyond. Long home to the country's bicameral parliament, the Binnenhof occupies the site of the medieval castle where Den Haag began.