The story of Breda lies tucked away behind towering facades, in hidden courtyards and among monasteries and castles. Some of them featuring regal splendour, a thriving sweet industry or celebrated war heroes. When visiting Breda, these stories are there for the taking; in museums and monuments, in colourful murals or served up on plates and in glasses. Go for a drink in an old sweet factory, sleep in a former monastery and imagine you are a French god among the vineyards.
The centre of Breda exudes history on every street corner. If you really want to know more about the town, it’s best to start at the Stedelijk (Municipal) Museum. Its collection of religious art and changing exhibitions will take you on a journey through Breda’s history from the Middle Ages to the present day. This is a sample of what you will see with your own eyes when you leave the museum and walk through the old town centre.
The allure that the Royal Family has given to Breda is still very much evident in the town centre. The House of Nassau royal family lived here in the 15th and 16th centuries. They left behind many traces of their 150 year residence. These include the castle they lived in, the Grote Kerk church where the first Prince of Orange and several others are buried, and the Begijnhof, where to this very day, it’s like going back in time.
A walk through the centre of Breda will sooner or later lead you to the beautiful Valkenburg Park, past the canals and on to the harbour with its many street cafes and characteristic ‘lovers locks’ bridge. If you’re hungry, you can stop for lunch at the Food Hall where you can choose snacks and drinks from twelve caterers from all corners of the world.
You will find all the locations that remind us of the House of Nassau during the ‘Historische Kilometer’ city walk, and a book describing it is on sale in the Grote Kerk church.
For the past few years, the Blind Walls Gallery has transformed the grey walls of Breda into colourful artworks. The result is not just beautiful street art, the paintings also tell the story of the town bit by bit. One of the most iconic of these is by the artist Otecki; an ode to the liberation of Breda by the First Polish Armoured Division in 1944 under the leadership of General Maczek. You can find out more about this important event in Breda’s history at the Maczek Memorial and the Polish Military Cemetery, just outside the centre.
Using the Blind Walls Gallery App, you can walk or cycle your own route past these artworks. This way you will discover places that you would normally pass by, such as the beautiful works by Zenk One. One of the hidden gems is the ‘Lonka Girl’ from a brand of confectionary, which has been painted on what seems to be a randomly selected house in the Pioenroosstaat. But behind this lies the story of Breda as the centre of the confectionary industry in Western Brabant.
Western Brabant has traditionally been an important producer of sugar beet, which attracted famous names among Dutch sweet producers, such as Hero, Kwatta and Lonka. The latter opened its first factory in 1920 at the place where the house with the painting of the Lonka girl now stands.
Since then, many sweet factories have moved, but even today in 2020, Breda still has a sweet connection. Just west of the town centre, Perfetti de Melle ensures an unmistakably sweet aroma – one which depends on the direction of the wind and the type of sweet rolling off the production line.
Another big name in Breda’s confectionary industry is De Faam, close to the station. The factory has been closed for years, but the historic building, including its distinctive chimney, still stands. Nowadays it houses a brewery where between 40,000 and 50,000 litres of beer are produced every month. You can sample beers with names such as Man on the Moon, Bulldog and On a Whim in the industrial brewery pub. Ask one of the staff if you can take a look behind the scenes!
Anyone who talks about Breda’s icons cannot ignore Hotel Nassau, originally the court of the nobility, then a monastery, and now a luxurious and unconventional hotel. The bedrooms are in a labyrinth of corridors full of unexpected alcoves and prestigious artwork. Every room reflects the history of the building, which is located in Breda’s oldest street. If you stay for breakfast, you will take your seat in the former church, with views of the small chapel, while the sunlight shines through the stained glass windows.
But dinner comes first, and you can be pampered in the adjoining Restaurant Liefdegesticht. The town centre is just a step away, full of places where many entrepreneurs are waiting to surprise you. These include Jongens van Zand en Klei (‘The Sand and Clay Boys’), where the most unusual dishes are served at your table by Tako, Miranda and three ‘apple farmers’ to prove that potatoes are not boring but sexy. They have as their motto, ‘Let’s make our potato great again!’ From a tasting session of potato dishes to crunchy potato baskets with the most exotic fillings, after this dinner you will never consider Brabant ‘taters’ to be boring again!
It’s not just Breda’s atmospheric town centre that makes it a favourite destination; the surrounding area has plenty on offer for nature and culture lovers who want to stay a bit longer. With natural gems such as the Mastbos woods and the Markdal valley within cycling distance of the centre, you can spend hours in the countryside. You can drive to Oosterhout in just ten minutes from the town. This area is maintained by the Barony of Breda, which is home to the most beautiful and the oldest woods in the area.
You can walk and cycle as much as you like, but if you want some real action after a day in town, take to your mountain bike. The Dorst Forestry Commission has some of the best MTB tracks in the Netherlands, thanks to the undulating countryside with differences in height of up to 10 metres. You can start the route at De Hannebroeck pancake restaurant, or park at ’t Haasje recreation park, where you can also rent mountain bikes. The total length of the route is 8.2 km, with plenty of challenges along the way. After your ride, you can relax at the Natuurpoort BOS & Co café.
The Dorst Forestry Commission
If you prefer to combine your visit to Breda with a more relaxing day out, one of Brabant’s best-kept secrets is hidden less than 13 km from the centre of Breda, among tall trees and stately avenues. You are in the ‘Holy Triangle’; comprising three monastery complexes in Oosterhout. Most noticeable of these is the St Catharinadal, a convent that has been there for almost 750 years. Nowadays there are still 14 nuns living in the grounds which contains not only a beautiful cloister but also a vineyard that would not look out of place in France. The nuns and volunteers will be pleased to show you round the estate on Wednesdays, where you can learn about the history of their community and the nuns’ way of life. They sit in their abundant vegetable and herb garden every day with their hands in the soil, while just outside the convent walls, long lines full of vines are looked after with loving care until it is time to harvest them.
And this harvest is the reason that St Catharinadal has a reputation across the country. The 7½ hectare vineyard supplies grapes for an average of forty thousand bottles of wine in three varieties: a Chardonnay aged in oak, a white blend and a lightly coloured rosé. You could imagine you are in French wine country, while sipping a glass, with views of the vineyards and the convent in the background. That feeling is intensified in the adjoining winery, the Blauwe Camer. Top quality dishes are now served, with ingredients from the kitchen garden and wines to complement them, in the convent’s former cow sheds. It is run by Maikel and Tessa, who honour the products from the nuns’ garden in a way that is fitting to the convent and to their own dreams. The result is a lunch or dinner with style. All this fits in with the estate, the beautiful surroundings, and a visit to Breda that will stick in your memory for a long time.