The Netherlands' name reflects its low-lying topography, with more than a quarter of its total area under sea level.
Now a constitutional monarchy, the country began its independent life as a republic in the 16th century, when the foundations were laid for it to become one of the world's foremost maritime trading nations.
Although traditionally among the keener advocates of the European Union, Dutch voters echoed those in France by spurning the proposed EU constitution in a 2005 referendum.
The Netherlands has produced many of the world's most famous artists from Rembrandt and Vermeer in the 17th century to Van Gogh in the 19th and Mondrian in the 20th. It attracts visitors from across the globe.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands
Capital: Amsterdam; seat of government: the Hague
Population 17 million
Area 41,864 sq km (16,164 sq miles)
Major language Dutch
Major religion Christianity
Life expectancy 80 years (men), 84 years (women)
Head of state: King Willem-Alexander
King Willem-Alexander became the first Dutch male monarch in more than a century in April 2013 when his mother Beatrix abdicated to end a 33-year reign.
The generational change in the House of Orange-Nassau gave the Netherlands a moment of celebration and pageantry at a time of recession brought on by the European economic crisis.
The much-loved Beatrix ended her reign in a nationally televised signing ceremony as thousands of orange-clad people cheered outside. Her retirement followed in the tradition of her mother and grandmother.
Prime minister: Mark Rutte
Prime Minister Mark Rutte's new four-party coalition was sworn in in October 2017 after it took a record 225 days to cobble together the new government.
Mr Rutte's business-friendly VVD party won the most seats in the March elections, but he fell far short of a majority with the country's political landscape fractured by the rise of the far-right, anti-Islam Freedom Party and the collapse of the traditional Labour party.
The coalition could prove fragile as it has just a one-seat majority. It comprises his liberal VVD, the centrist D66 and conservative Christian parties CDA and Christian Union, marking a steer to the right.
Mr Rutte has run the country since October 2010.
The Dutch approach to public broadcasting is unique. Programmes are made by groups which reflect political or religious currents, or other interests. These organisations are allocated airtime on TV and radio, in line with the number of members they have.
Public radio and TV face stiff competition from commercial stations. Viewers have access to a wide range of domestic and foreign channels, thanks mainly to one of the highest cable take-up rates in Europe. Every province has at least one local public TV channel. The three national public TV stations enjoy high audience shares.
Some key dates in the history of the Netherlands:
1914-1918 - The Netherlands maintains its neutrality during World War I.
1940 - Nazi Germany invades. The Dutch Royal Family flees to England, accompanied by the Dutch cabinet. The Dutch army is overwhelmed and the Netherlands surrenders.
1944 - As Allied forces advance towards Germany, the Netherlands becomes the site of bitter fighting.
1945 - The occupation ends with the surrender of German forces in the Netherlands. The Netherlands goes on to become a charter member of the United Nations.
1949 - The Dutch East Indies, which had been occupied by Japan during World War II, receives its independence as Indonesia.
1949 - The Netherlands abandons its policy of neutrality and joins Nato.
1952 - The Netherlands is a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community, which becomes the European Economic Community five years later.
1975 - Dutch colony of Surinam achieves independence. Hundreds of thousands of Surinamese emigrate to the Netherlands.
1980 - Queen Juliana abdicates; Beatrix becomes queen.
2002 - Euro replaces the Dutch guilder.
2013 - Queen Beatrix abdicates; her son Willem-Alexander becomes king.