The Netherlands is the main "constituent country" (Dutch: land) of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It is a small, densely populated country located in Western Europe with three island territories in the Caribbean. The European part of the Netherlands borders Germany to the east, Belgium to the south, and the North Sea to the northwest, sharing maritime borders with Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany. The largest and most important cities in the Netherlands are Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam. Amsterdam is the country's capital, while The Hague holds the Dutch seat of government and parliament. The port of Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe – as large as the next three largest combined - and was the world's largest port between 1962 and 2004.
The Netherlands' name literally means "Lower Countries", influenced by its low land and flat geography, with only about 50% of its land exceeding one metre above sea level. Most of the areas below sea level are man-made. Since the late 16th century, large areas (polders) have been reclaimed from the sea and lakes, amounting to nearly 17% of the country's current land mass.
The Netherlands is a founding member of the EU, Eurozone, G-10, NATO, OECD and WTO, and a part of the trilateral Benelux Union. The country is host to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and five international courts: the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Court and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The first four are situated in The Hague, as is the EU's criminal intelligence agency Europol and judicial co-operation agency Eurojust. This has led to the city being dubbed "the world's legal capital". The Netherlands is also a part of the Schengen Area.
The Netherlands has a market-based mixed economy, ranking 17th of 177 countries according to the Index of Economic Freedom. It had the thirteenth-highest per capita income in the world in 2013 according to the International Monetary Fund. In 2013, the United Nations World Happiness Report ranked the Netherlands as the fourth happiest country in the world, reflecting its high quality of life.
About 13% of all distance is travelled by public transport, the majority of which by train. Like in many other European countries, the Dutch rail network of 3,013 route km is also rather dense. The network is mostly focused on passenger rail services and connects virtually all major towns and cities. Trains are frequent, with one or two trains per hour on lesser lines, two to four trains per hour on average, and up to eight trains an hour on the busiest lines.
Cycling is a ubiquitous mode of transport in the Netherlands. Almost as many kilometres are covered by bicycle as by train. The Dutch are estimated to have at least 18 million bicycles, which makes more than one per capita, and twice as many as the ca. 9 million motor vehicles on the road. In 2013, the European Cyclists' Federation ranked both the Netherlands and Denmark as the most bike-friendly countries in Europe, but more of the Dutch (31%) than of the Danes (19%) list the bike as their main mode of transport for daily activities. Cycling infrastructure is comprehensive. Busy roads have received some 35,000 km of dedicated cycle tracks, physically segregated from motorised traffic. Busy junctions are often equipped with bicycle-specific traffic lights. There are large bicycle parking facilities, particularly in city centres and at train stations.
The predominant wind direction in the Netherlands is southwest, which causes a moderate maritime climate, with cool summers and mild winters, and typically high humidity. This is especially true close to the Dutch coastline, where the difference in temperature between summer and winter, as well as between day and night is noticeably smaller than it is in the southeast of the country.
Ice days (maximum temperature below 0 °C (32 °F)) usually occur from December until February, with the occasional rare ice day prior to or after that period. Freezing days (minimum temperature below 0 °C (32 °F)) occur much more often, usually ranging from mid-November to late March, but not rarely measured as early as mid October and as late as mid May. If one chooses the height of measurement to be 10 cm (4 in) above ground instead of 150 cm (59 in), one may even find such temperatures in the middle of the summer. On average, snow can occur from November to April, but sometimes occurs in May or October too.
Education in the Netherlands is compulsory between the ages of 5 and 16, and partially compulsory between the ages of 16 and 18.
All children in the Netherlands usually attend elementary school from (on average) ages 4 to 12. It comprises eight grades, the first of which is facultative. Based on an aptitude test, the 8th grade teacher's recommendation and the opinion of the pupil's parents or caretakers, a choice is made for one of the three main streams of secondary education (after completing a particular stream, a pupil may still continue in the penultimate year of the next stream):
• The vmbo has 4 grades and is subdivided over several levels. Successfully completing the vmbo results in a low-level vocational degree that grants access to the mbo.
• MBO ("middle-level applied education"). This form of education primarily focuses on teaching a practical trade, or a vocational degree. With the mbo certification, a student can apply for the hbo.
• The havo has 5 grades and allows for admission to the hbo.
• HBO ("higher professional education"), are universities of professional education (or applied sciences) that award professional bachelor's degrees; similar to polytechnic degrees. A HBO degrees gives access to the university system.
• The vwo (comprising atheneum and gymnasium) has 6 grades and prepares for studying at a (research) university.
• Universities offer of a three-year bachelor's degree, followed by a one-, or two year master's degree, which in turn can be followed by a four-year doctoral degree program. Doctoral candidates in the Netherlands are generally non-tenured employees of a university.
Originally, the country's cuisine has been shaped by the practices of fishing and farming, including the cultivation of the soil for growing crops and raising domesticated animals. Dutch cuisine is simple and straightforward, and contains many dairy products. Breakfast and lunch are typically bread with toppings, with cereal for breakfast as an alternative. Traditionally, dinner consists of potatoes, a portion of meat, and (seasonal) vegetables.
The Dutch diet was relatively high in carbohydrates and fat, reflecting the dietary needs of the labourers whose culture moulded the country. Without many refinements, it is best described as rustic, though many holidays are still celebrated with special foods. In the course of the twentieth century this diet changed and became much more cosmopolitan, with most global cuisines being represented in the major cities.
The Southern Dutch cuisine consists of the cuisines of the Dutch provinces of North Brabant and Limburg and the Flemish Region in Belgium. It is renowned for its many rich pastries, soups, stews and vegetable dishes and is often called Burgundian which is a Dutch idiom invoking the rich Burgundian court which ruled the Low Countries in the Middle Ages, renowned for its splendor and great feasts. It is the only Dutch culinary region that developed an haute cuisine.
In early 2014, Oxfam ranked the Netherlands as the country with the most nutritious, plentiful and healthy food, in a comparison of 125 countries.
The official language is Dutch, which is spoken by the vast majority of the inhabitants. Besides Dutch, West Frisian is recognised as a second official language in the northern province of Friesland (Fryslân in West Frisian). West Frisian has a formal status for government correspondence in that province. In the European part of the Netherlands two other regional languages are recognised under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
The first of these regional languages is Low Saxon (Nedersaksisch in Dutch) is recognised. Low Saxon consists of several dialects spoken in the north and east, like Twents in the region of Twente, and Drents in the province of Drenthe. Secondly, Limburgish is also recognised as regional language. It consists of Dutch varieties of Meuse-Rhenish Franconian languages and is spoken in the south-eastern province of Limburg. The dialects most spoken in the Netherlands are the Brabantian-Hollandic dialects.
Ripuarian language, which is spoken in Kerkrade and Vaals in the form of, respectively, the Kerkrade dialect and the Vaals dialect is not recognised as a regional language of the Netherlands.
English has a formal status in the special municipalities of Saba and Sint Eustatius. It is widely spoken on these islands. Papiamento has a formal status in the special municipality of Bonaire. Yiddish and the Romani language were recognised in 1996 as non-territorial languages.
The Netherlands has a tradition of learning foreign languages, formalised in Dutch education laws. Some 90% of the total population indicate they are able to converse in English, 70% in German, and 29% in French. English is a mandatory course in all secondary schools. In most lower level secondary school educations (vmbo), one additional modern foreign language is mandatory during the first two years.
In higher level secondary schools (havo and vwo), two additional modern foreign languages are mandatory during the first three years. Only during the last three years in vwoone foreign language is mandatory. Besides English, the standard modern languages are French and German, although schools can replace one of these modern languages with Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, or Russian. Additionally, schools in the Frisia region teach and have exams in Frisian, and schools across the country teach and have exams in classical Greek and Latin for secondary school (called gymnasium or vwo+).