If you are looking for a charming, medieval city with ancient buildings and cobbled stone streets, then you must go to Haarlem, a typical “Dutch” town, only 15 minutes by train from Amsterdam. This photographic small city is a hidden gem. Although it resembles Amsterdam with its pretty canals, historical sights, museums, cozy cafes and restaurants and its boutique shops, it has far fewer tourists. It is the perfect size to explore in one day and on foot. Half the fun of visiting Haalem is simply walking around and taking in the beautiful sights. So, let’s get started…
It’s impossible to miss Haarlem’s main cathedral, Grote Kerk (or Great Church). This impressive church dates back to the early 14th century and is one of the first sights you see as you enter the Grote Markt (or market square). It is here where ten streets converge. Where you will find the hub of daily life – from market stalls selling flowers, fish, cheese and bread or where locals crisscross through on foot or bike or where cafes and restaurants spill out their tables and chairs just waiting for customers. It has a certain quintessential European charm and if you enjoy people watching, this is the perfect spot to sit, observe and enjoy a coffee or beer. Many of the iconic Golden Age Dutch artists captured this very same pretty square and all its activity. Also, on Haarlem’s market square is the Town Hall, the site of the city’s government since 1100.
Venture out from the Grote Markt by taking any one of the small winding streets as your starting point to explore the city. You will quickly discover the vast number of boutique lined streets full of unique specialty shops. Scattered throughout several streets you will find everything from antiques to small art galleries to big brands to local independent shops. Even for those non-shoppers, it is a great place to wander and no doubt something is bound to pique your interest. But, for those serious shoppers, be sure to check out the best-known streets Grote Houtstraat, the Barteljorisstraat and the Zijlstraat, as well as, the streets of Schagchelstraat, Kleine Houtstraat, Anegang, Warmoesstraat, Koningstraat and Gierstraat. And, most shops don’t open until 11:00 or 12:00.
Another way to explore the city is to stroll through Haarlem’s hidden courtyard gardens, known as Hofjes. There are 21 hidden gardens scattered around the city, some of them are marked on google maps, others are a bit more secretive. All of them are concealed behind large townhomes and are tucked away behind unassuming doorways or unassuming alleyways, so it may require a bit of curiosity and luck to stumble upon all of them. Historically, the gardens are surrounded by charitable housing for the poor, unmarried or widowed women. Today, these quiet sanctuaries are open to the public and definitely a lovely way to explore the city.
If you are looking to give your legs a rest but still want to see more of the city, why not take a boat tour to see and hear about the local history and architecture. The Spaarne river winds itself through the heart of city and into various canals, the oldest being the Bakenessergracht, the Singels and the Nieuwe Gracht. It’s such a relaxing way to see the city and a great way to get your bearings before setting off to explore more.
For cultural enthusiasts, you have the choice of 15 museums. The most popular and definitely the best ones to visit are:
- Teylers Museum is an art, natural history and science museum established in 1784. The building in itself is worth viewing, as it is the first and oldest museum in the Netherlands.
- Frans Hals Museum is an art museum and showcases the largest collection of Frans Hals artwork in the Netherlands. This happens to be the oldest art museum in Netherlands and offers visitors a second location called Hof, which means it is two museums for the price of one.
- Molen De Adriaan Museum is located under the largest windmill in Haarlem and provides all the interesting insights into these iconic Dutch machines. Part of the draw in visiting this museum is having the access to the windmill’s 12 meter high balcony that offers city views.
Lastly, sometimes the best part of visiting a new city is trying out some of the cafes and restaurants. Here is where I recommend:
Yoghurt Barn, a charming and cozy cafe, known by locals, as the perfect spot for a light breakfast offering delicious homemade yogurts, baked goods and coffee.
Restaurant Metzo, is a rustic modern interior spread over three levels overlooking a narrow alleyway in the historic center. The menu offers modern takes on Mediterranean classics and the food was delicious.
The Jopenkerk, is a former church turned brewery. It is situated just outside the historic city center. You can decide to simply enjoy the sampling of the local beer or take part in the tour of the brewery that ends with a beer tasting session. There is plenty of out door seating and is packed on a sunny day.
- Native, is the perfect spot for hipster coffee lovers. It is tucked away on a quiet side street and is definitely a local’s hangout spot.
Haarlem makes for the perfect day trip. Even if you have limited time in the Netherlands, try and add this to your itinerary. You will not regret it!