1.1: THE COUNTRY
Holland is a small country (about twice the size of New Jersey), has about 15 million inhabitants, and is located in Western Europe (bordering on Germany, Belgium and the North Sea).
Most first-time visitors comment on its crowdedness, especially in the cities. Cities and towns take up about 40% of the land mass, the rest is farmland, pastures, forests and woodland. As some 50% of the land was reclaimed from the sea, the country is mostly flat and under the sea-level, protected by a system of dykes and dams.
The busiest area is called the "Randstad" (lit. translation: "Edge City"), the area in the west between and around the four major cities: Amsterdam (capitol), The Hague (seat of government), Rotterdam and Utrecht. The Randstad is a densely-populated area of towns and cities that have grown and clustered together, it contains most of the population and light industry.
1.2.: THE PEOPLE
The Dutch are friendly, proud, independent, productive, open-minded and liberal people. Literacy is very high (approx. 99%), and most Dutch speak English and some German. The people generally are very sociable and social, and will welcome visitors to their country. They're usually happy to help out tourists where they can with directions or explanations on particularly Dutch customs and systems.
The average Dutchman is very proud of his country, although they can also be quite critical about it (especially where government or money is concerned). Basically they're a very down-to-earth people, whose ethics are best described by two typically Dutch sayings: "Just act normally, that's weird enough" and "In Holland shirts are sold with the sleaves already rolled up". These sayings indicate that the Dutch appreciate normal, open and social behaviour and hard work.
1.3: TRAVELLING BY AIR
Holland is and always has been a country whose success lies in its infrastructure. Getting to and from Holland is easy.
When travelling by air you'll most likely end up at Schiphol Airport, Holland's primary airport and one of Europe's "mainports". Shiphol is located closely to the nation's capitol, Amsterdam, and has all the facilities any traveler might need: shops, restaurants, tourist information (called "VVV"), hotels, taxis (quite expensive but very service-oriented), and a train station from where you can get to any major city in Holland.
1.4: TRAVELLING BY TRAIN
For inter-city travel I recommend the Dutch train system. The national railway ("NS") is quite extensive, and connects to every city or major town in the country. Like any railway system it does experience delays (23%), but these are usually no more than 5 to 10 minutes.
On the whole travelling by train is easy and comfortable (especially when you travel outside of the rush hours (8am-10am and 4pm-6pm)). The tickets are reasonably priced and available on every station, either from a ticket desk or a machine. The staff at the ticket desks are friendly and will provide you with any information you need to get around. You can get one-way and return tickets to and from any train destination, plus day-tickets, week- and month-tickets and specials for tourist destinations (combining the fare and entry fee in one ticket).
The major (i.e.: larger) stations in the cities usually also have a bank, tourist information, restaurant or snack counter(s) and some small shops. Almost all train stations in Holland are the central point for the local public transport, like busses, trams and metros.
1.5: TRAVELLING BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT
The Dutch local public transport system is basically the same throughout the country: local and inter-local busses are everywhere, and the four major cities also have trams, which are usually the best way to get around the city centers. In addition to that Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Utrecht have a metro/subway system (called "sneltram" in Amsterdam and Utrecht).
Tickets for local public transport are very easy: they all use the same ticket system, called "Strippenkaart" (transl.: Strip Card). The Strippenkaart is a long ticket with between 2 and 45 strips, which represent zones you wish to travel through. The entire country is divided into zones, and the conductor on board of a bus or tram will put a stamp on the strip for the number of zones you wish to travel through. There are also machines where you can do the stamping yourself (do make sure you get it right, the fines for illegal use are quite high). If you're not sure how to use it, just ask someone. They will gladly help you.
The Strippenkaart can be bought at every train station, local public transport company outlet, ticket machines (even the ones for train tickets) and in the busses and trams themselves (not on metros). They're not bound to any area, so the same Strippenkaart can be used throughout the country.
1.6: TRAVELLING BY TAXI
Taxis are everywhere, but mostly in the cities. They're all regulated through a permit system, so the quality is good, but because of the exclusiveness the pricing is also quite high. Taxis in the major cities are great for quick and easy inner-city door-to-door transport, and the taxi drivers are usually quite friendly and know a lot about the city and its sights. Don't use them for longer distances if you can avoid it, because the meter's running all the time, and you could be faced with quite a bill.
Taxis mostly have fixed pick-up points (at train stations and major sights or areas of interest), but you can hail them if they're free, although this is not usually done in Holland.
--- That;s it for part 1, stay tuned for part 2: Food, Drink and Shopping.