The Low Countries is a term that's often spotted in travel and history books, but its exact boundaries are sometimes fuzzy to readers. This is understandable, as its definition has fluctuated over the years: in modern Europe, the term "Low Countries" refers to the territory of the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta (Rhine Delta or Rhine-Meuse Delta for short), where much of the land lies below sea level. The delta comprises the northwestern coast of Europe, and as such is more or less coextensive with the Netherlands and Belgium.
However, "the Low Countries" is also frequently used to refer to all of the Benelux countries, despite the fact that Luxembourg lies outside the delta proper. Nevertheless, the country shares much of its history and culture with the delta lands; not only did it form a short-lived political unity with them in the mid-19th-century, but it is also physically linked by two of its own major rivers, the Moselle (from the Latin Mosella, "little Meuse") and the Chiers, which are tributaries of the Rhine and Meuse, respectively.
Occasionally, the term "Low Countries" is even pared down to a sparser definition of just the Netherlands and Flanders. In the past, however, the Low Countries denoted a much wider part of Northern Europe, namely all of the land downstream of the major rivers, whereby it also included western Germany (bounded by the Ems River in the northeast) and northern France.
What does this mean for your travel itinerary?
Well, a tour of the Low Countries and/or Benelux is an excellent theme for an itinerary that combines an enormous richness of culture in a compact space. Find an overview of Low Countries travel - taken in its widest sense, of Benelux plus western Germany and northern France - in Europe Travel's tips for Benelux and Beyond, which combines the best of the Low Countries into a two-week itinerary.
Special Low Countries/Benelux transport passes are available to facilitate travel between the different destinations, from all-inclusive rail passes to rail and rental car combos. Some recommended destinations in the Low Countries include:
- Antwerp - Just a short trip over the border from the Netherlands, the city of Antwerp is crammed with opulent merchant's houses, world-class museums, uniquely delicious cuisine and one of the most beautiful train stations in Europe.
- Ghent/Gent - The canal-laced city of Ghent reminds many a visitor of the Netherlands, but its unmistakably Flemish identity is seen in its ubiquitous traditions, from its food specialties to its renowned festivals.
- Brussels - Brussels is a city that needs no introduction; its food, fine art and architecture make it worth a few days on any itinerary of the Low Countries.
- Brugge/Bruges - The immaculately preserved medieval architecture of this Western Flemish city has earned it UNESCO status; its crown jewel is the 13th-century belfry, which houses an elaborate carillon.
- Vianden Castle - Perched on a promontory above the River Our, Vianden is a beautifully restored Romanesque castle constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries.
- Beaufort Castle - This castle in eastern Luxembourg, which also dates to the 11th century, hasn't been restored like its contemporary the Vianden Castle, but its ruins make for an extraordinary attraction in themselves.
- There are dozens of attractive tourist destinations all across the Netherlands, virtually all of which are convenient to Amsterdam; for a list of those outside the capital city, see my Guide to Amsterdam Day Trips, or my profiles of individual Dutch cities and towns.