There are almost twice as many bikes as people in Groningen.

“So many bikes!” was the first thought that came to my mind when I arrived in Groningen, the biggest city in the north of the Netherlands. I had known about Dutch bike-affection before going there for my Master’s studies, but I didn’t guess that cyclists would be everywhere – turning left, right, behind and in front of you no matter where you go.

Soon it became clear that there is no other ‘real’ way to live in or visit Groningen than by bike. Brave tourists who have the courage to jump on the saddle can see the city from a completely different point of view than on foot. They can also benefit from the fact that the city is actually built for cyclists. There is more than 200 kilometres of special roads for cyclists, with their own traffic lights, tunnels and multiple-floor parking lots.

A catchy view for foreigners can also be the biking Dutchies. As they grow up pedalling, they learn to master it perfectly: it is common to see people cycling with their whole family on a bike, multitasking by eating a broodje (a sandwich, the well-loved Dutch meal) or even reading a book. Because a ‘proper’ Dutchy often owns more than one bike, it’s no surprise that there are almost twice as many bikes as people in Groningen. Apparently biking contributes to people’s wellbeing, because last year, the residents of Groningen were so satisfied that the city was rated to be one of the happiest in Europe. According to this European Union survey, residents were especially satisfied with the public space, health care and cultural facilities.

Besides bikes and happy citizens, this city with the population of Tampere is home to a great batch of university students who form about a quarter of the city’s population. Therefore, the streets are empty in the summer and come to life in September when they fill up with excited youngsters from all over the world. Two big universities also attract world-known scholars, engineers and medical specialists. This spring I had a great opportunity to listen (and almost even understand) the lecture about the accelerating expansion of the universe by Brian Schmidt, the 2011 Nobel Laureate for Physics.

Besides biking and learning, Groningen offers something for everyone from strolling near the canals to visiting the art museum. And the Finns who are afraid of homesickness, don’t worry: there’s a Scandinavian restaurant just a few kilometres from the city and all shops sell salmiakki, just search for its Dutch name drop!

Merle Must