In the latest of our pre-Brexit guides, we take a look at life in Groningen, an unsung star of Dutch living. Like bikes, live music and reasonably priced education? Groningen may be for you
Because the Netherlands is so much more than Amsterdam...
To some of the city dwellers in the ‘Randstad’, the name given to the four largest Dutch cities – Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht and Rotterdam – the northern city of Groningen is looked upon as if a farming village, surrounded by fields and cows.
Well, yes. It is surrounded by fields and cows. But Groningen is no backwater, nor is it a sleepy farming town. It’s a bustling student city with a nightlife and music scene that rivals the bigger Dutch cities.
“There’s nothing that tops Groningen”
Er gaat niks boven Groningen is the city’s slogan. As the biggest city in the north of the Netherlands, there is literally nothing on top of it geographically (are we not counting Friesland these days?) and, also, there is just no better Dutch city. It’s the best to its local inhabitants, for sure, who have a distinct Grunn sense of pride (and accent) – yet many more British expats and internationals are feeling the same way about the small northern city. Far from the pricey bureaucratic city that is The Hague, the industrial modernity of Rotterdam or the touristic tackiness of Amsterdam, Groningen has a down to earth character that makes it incredibly easy to feel at home here.
For starters – the size of the city makes it easy to get around, even if you’re not up for biking (but really, you should be – it is the norm here). The city centre is walkable and those who live further out of the city (the outskirts span about 3km) are served by regular buses.
Groningen embodies the picturesque Dutch ideal. The streets are lined with bicycles, the city centre is surrounded by canals crammed with houseboats, and the tall, narrow bell-roofed houses are abundant. When these cityscapes form part of your daily life, it is easy to take these scenes for granted.
So, let’s say you are interested. Let’s get down to what you need to know to live here.
Studying in Groningen
An increasing number of courses are now being taught in English in the Netherlands (especially postgraduate ones), which makes your study choice quite wide. The main university is the RUG (University of Groningen) – a reputable, 400 year-old academic institution offering BA courses in English from American Literature to Applied Mathematics. Check the list here. Fees are considerably cheaper than in the UK, with the 2017-18 prices listed as €2,006 per year (let’s just pretend Brexit didn’t happen and keep with these subsidised EU costs for now – nothing’s changed, yet).
The Hanze is another University offering more practical courses such as physiotherapy. It is partly situated in a huge new campus called Zernike (which is shared by the RUG) in the north of the city, equipped with extensive sporting facilities and more. Find more information here.
Student accommodation can be found on websites such as woonnet and studentenwoningweb – these give priority to older members, so register as soon as possible, as it can be tricky to find good accommodation at decent prices.
Working in Groningen
While Shell used to attract most of the expats to the North (the Groningen province has the largest gas field in Europe), the expat working scene has changed – which is kind of good, as it makes things a bit more diverse, more integrated and less cliquey. Expats working in Groningen don’t tend to flock to one type of industry and may find their working opportunities limited without speaking the local language. Yet there are opportunities: the universities are the main employers of internationals and there is a growing tech and start up scene in the city which is worth keeping an eye on. Hospitality also offers numerous opportunities, especially suitable to any student looking for a side job.
For those thinking of hoerca (which is the Dutch word for hospitality/catering type of jobs) or retail work – The Netherlands has recently been voted the top country for English-speaking fluency outside of English-speaking countries, so don’t worry about a lack of Dutch. You’ll pick up what you need to know, and more often than not the Dutch are happy to switch to English for you.
That being said, it’s nice to try and learn a bit. Groningers can get a bit aggravated when neighboring Germans come to visit and speak only German to them (although, admittedly, they are much more accommodating to English speakers in general!). The Online web portal FutureLearn hosts a free Learn Dutch course offered by the RUG, which is a good place to start. Enrolment is open at various stages of the year.
Biertjes and Hapjes
Groningen has many places to get a biertje. For beer aficionados, pubs near the RUG university campus such as Belgium café Pintelier and English-style pub The Dog’s Bollocks have extensive beer selections. For cocktails Mr. Mofongo’s has recently opened a swish cocktail bar on their second floor (equipped with an impressive robotic arm to assist the cocktail makers). For more alternative vibes, The ConcertHuis has a relaxed atmosphere with a good beer and food selection (and a hearty all day brunch on Sundays).
Most Dutch pubs are served with hapjes (fried snacks) and if you are looking for a regional specialty you can try the Eierbal (is it just a Scotch Egg? You’ll have to find out).
Gigs & Festivals in Groningen
Groningen has a great music scene where you can see some fantastic musicians play rare and intimate gigs. Last year saw Dinosaur Jr. play in Vera Groningen and Madness play in Oosterpoort, to name a few.
Vera Groningen is a great non-profit venue that also hosts club nights at the weekend. It’s a somewhat legendary venue which has contributed greatly to the city's music scene (Nirvana and Joy Division both played here). The basement Kelderbar is also open after concerts and is a nice spot to get a beer. Check the venue's listings here. If you want to get involved in the Groningen music scene, it’s a cool place to volunteer.
The Oosterpoort attracts some bigger names – Paul Weller, Madness and Elbow have played here over the last few years. Shows from Bonobo, Interpol and Sigur Ros are among those scheduled for 2017.
The annual Eurosonic is Europe’s largest conference festival and is considered a stepping-stone for musicians to get billed on larger summer festivals. Industry experts and rising artists all head to Groningen for the three day event in January. Previous artists include the XX, Adele and Calvin Harris. Get tickets for next year as soon as the presale starts – it sells out quickly.
Finally, Noorderzon is a free festival that takes place over ten days in the Noorderplantsoen park in August. It’s mostly just overpriced beers and snacks but sometimes there are some quality gigs – HAIM, Angus and Julia Stone have played in recent years.
And all this isn’t enough for you then, just remember the Netherlands is a tiny country. Yes, in Dutch terms Groningen is far from everything. But realistically, all the major cities are merely a few hours away if you miss the big city vibe. But I don’t think you will.