You don't have to be in Delft long to see what inspired Johannes Vermeer.
Meandering up and down countless bridges that stretch over canals, and past storefronts and slender houses, the quaint Dutch life sets in.
It's this life — with its scenes of domesticity, milkmaids and, yes, that girl with the pearl earring — that the famed Dutch master so cherished in the 1600s. And it's one that comes alive for anyone who visits this city of about 100,000 even centuries after Vermeer's time.
Granted, Delft is often overlooked as a tourist destination considering its larger, more cosmopolitan neighbors: Amsterdam is an hour by train and Den Haag (The Hague) about 25 minutes.
But quaint does have a place and a time — and Delft exemplifies it. From the famed blue and white Royal Delft porcelain factory to old Gothic churches, streets bordered by canals and miles of bicycle paths, Delft is an ideal stop in the Netherlands. It's also close enough for day trips to Den Haag to visit the M.C. Escher Museum and, if you're there in the spring, to see the famed tulips at Keukenhof.
Royal Delft factory: Delft, the town, is synonymous with Royal Delft. An entire industry of so-called Delftware began in the 17th century (during Vermeer's time), but just this one factory remains today. It's open for tours and even offers would-be painters the chance to get a feel for the craft through workshops. Visitors get a thorough look at the history of the porcelain and watch it in the present day, too, by seeing any of the factory's seven painters or handful of artisans who make the pottery. There's also a cafe and a shop where you can buy Delftware. Workshops must be booked in advance and start at $21 (14.5 euros), which does not include the pottery. Regular entry is $11.50 (8 euros). Skip the guided audio tour; there's plenty of information on the walls and in pamphlets. Go to royaldelft.nl.
Roaming and gawking: Delft's charm is best experienced by ambling. Walk along the canals, admire the architecture, watch out for bikes. There are several must-sees, including the towering brick cathedral in the old city center, the Oude Kerk (Old Church, oudekerk-delft.nl) — which dates to at least the 1200s. Vermeer was buried here in 1675.
The Vermeer Center showcases the life and work of Vermeer, who was born in Delft in 1632. The center, which is housed at the former St. Lucas Guild — where Vermeer served as dean of the painters — has examples of his work, a re-creation of his studio and more. Entry is $10 (7 euros). Go to vermeerdelft.nl.
The Museum Het Prinsenhof tells the story of William of Orange, who led the Netherlands Revolt, a clash between the Protestants and Catholics in the late 1500s. Also on display there are art and other wares from the city's 17th century Golden Age. Entry is $10.70 (7.50 euros). Go to prinsenhof-delft.nl.
Search for the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), but don't let the name fool you. Work on this cathedral, on the market square, started in 1396 (nieuwekerk-delft.nl). Entrance fee of $5 (3.50 euros) gets you into both the old and new churches. On a visit here with my boyfriend, we became intimately acquainted with the bells of the Nieuwe Kerk, hearing them each morning from Hotel Emauspoort, where we were staying.
Our room at the hotel was actually one of two Dutch caravans set up inside the courtyard. The trailerlike caravans look like wheeled wooden circus wagons, though they're equipped with heat, shower, toilet and television. They're named for a famous Dutch clown character, Pipo, and his wife, Mammaloe. Caravans are about $135 (95 euros) per night. Inside the hotel, a themed-Vermeer room costs $216 (150 euros). Go to emauspoort.nl/eng.
Den Haag: The home of the United Nation's International Criminal Court offers a larger city feel and standout museums, well worth a trip from Delft. The museum devoted to the avant-garde graphic artist M.C. Escher is well worth the trip to Den Haag alone. Visitors to the museum, Escher in Het Paleis, see the works of Dutch-born Escher displayed in the Lange Voorhout Palace, which has been owned by the Dutch royal family for more than a century. The museum showcases Escher's life and work while also telling the story of the royal family. Even the light fixtures in each room are a sight. Entry is a bargain at $11.50 (8 euros) — look for a euro-off coupon at tourist centers. Go to escherinhetpaleis.nl.
To see one of Vermeer's most famous works — Girl With a Pearl Earring — and art by other Dutch masters, including Rembrandt van Rijn, visit the Mauritshuis. Housed in a stately 17th century mansion, the collection is also called the Royal Picture Gallery. Entry ranges from $15 to $17 (10.50-12 euros), depending on the season. Check before you go as the museum is to begin renovations in April 2012 (tinyurl.com/44t4ls7).
Keukenhof: If you're visiting in the spring, don't miss this massive garden, open late March to late May, when Holland's famed tulips — millions of them — and other botanical delights are on display.
Cheesy but fun, Keukenhof is like an amusement park for flowers. A calliope at the entrance plays hits by the Bee Gees; climb a windmill, take a boat tour through canals and tulip fields, step into giant wooden shoes. Go to keukenhof.nl.
It's reachable from Den Haag or Delft by hopping a train to nearby Leiden and then catching a bus. A $30 (21 euros) ticket from the tourist center across from the train station covers garden admission and round-trip bus ride; otherwise admission alone is $21 (14.50 euros). To see colorful tulip fields in the area, rent bikes outside the park starting at $12 (8.5 euros).