If you are in the Netherlands you really should visit Haarlem for 1 or 2 days. Why? It is super close to Amsterdam, it is less touristy than Amsterdam, it has a beautiful historic downtown with plenty of interesting sights. And for the foodies among us: it was the most gastronomic city in the Netherlands in 2019. In addition, it can be perfectly combined with a visit to the North Sea beach, the flower fields (only in spring) and the F1 circuit in Zandvoort.
I have to admit that I had only been in the center of Haarlem once in my life, so I set off to Haarlem for a full day of exploring and now I can tell you everything about what to do in this beautiful city!
I will provide a long list of options that you can add to your own Haarlem itinerary.
How to get to Haarlem?
Well, that is very easy; by train or bus. A direct train goes from Amsterdam Central to Haarlem 8 times per hour. This train takes 16 minutes and the station is next to the historic city center. If you depart from Amsterdam Airport you can take bus 300 that will take you to Haarlem in about 45 minutes.
A brief history of the city
The history of Haarlem goes back to Roman times when the city was established as a settlement. In the 10th century a wooden church was built on the Grote Markt. After the city expanded, Haarlem received city rights in 1245. To defend the city, a fortress was built around the city.
Haarlem was in a convenient location in terms of trade routes and as a result it had a thriving economy. From the 15th century, Haarlem was one of the most important cities in Holland, even larger and more important than Amsterdam. The city flourished in both industrial and cultural areas and was known for the textile industry, shipbuilding, beer breweries and painting. During the Eighty Years’ War, Haarlem strongly opposed Spanish rule, but the fortress fell in 1573 and the population suffered four years from the Spanish occupation.
Peter Stuyvesant founded ‘New Haarlem’ on the east coast of the US in 1658. In 1664 the English took over the colony and gave the place the name ‘Harlem’. Today Harlem is part of the city of New York in northern Manhattan.
Nowadays, Haarlem is a medium-sized city with over 160,000 inhabitants. It is the provincial capital, although it is not the largest city in the province (that is Amsterdam). Haarlem has a well-preserved historic city center located along the river Spaarne.
As always, I recommend to discover a city through a city walk. The historic center of Haarlem is compact and therefore you can easily walk it. You can book a guided tour, but it is of course also possible to do a tour on your own. For example with this route of 1.5 hours along the most beautiful monuments of Haarlem.
Hidden little courtyards
Haarlem is also known as a courtyard city. These courtyards (in Dutch called ‘hofje’) were built between the 12th and 19th centuries. They were intended to help needy elderly with housing. Once there were more than 40, nowadays there are still around 20. The courtyards are peaceful gardens within the city where you can escape from the crowds. The gardens are hard to find, unless you know they are there, it’s like treasure hunting! You can find a nice city walk of 1.5 hours along all courtyards here.
Please keep in mind: the buildings around courtyards are residential houses. so respect the peace and privacy of the people. Do not talk loudly, do not look through the windows, do not stay long and do not visit the courtyards with large groups. Respect the signs and opening hours, not all courtyards are accessible to public.
Haarlem has a number of city parks where you can walk or have a picnic. De Bolwerken is located on the north side of the station, where the fortifications used to be. Now a park has been created by the famous landscape architect Zocher. Near De Bolwerken is the Kenaupark, also designed by Zocher. This small park is surrounded by a canal on one side and monumental villas on the other. Haarlemmerhout is a large wooded park located south of the city center. You can stroll around, visit the petting zoo and have lunch or drink tea at Theehuis de Haarlemmerhout.
Grote kerk or St Bavokerk
There is an impressive church in the middle of the city center. It is called the Grote Kerk or the Bavokerk. You can visit the church for only € 2.50, and I highly recommend to do that. The interior is beautiful and the main eye-catcher is the famous Müller organ, played by Händel and Mozart, among others.
Every day of the week there is a market on one of the squares in Haarlem. Stroll through the stalls looking for bargains. Certainly do not skip the stroopwafel stall, those round typical Dutch cookies. They are made fresh on the market and warm they are the tastiest!
In addition to stroopwafels, there is a lot of other yummy Dutch food to try. Read about this in my article Traditional Dutch foods
Hit the shops
Haarlem is a nice city for shopping and the Dutch know that too. There is a varied selection of stores; small boutiques, exclusive brands, fashion stores and interior design stores. The big shops are mainly in the Grote Houtstraat and Barteljorisstraat. In the so-called ‘7 golden streets’ (near Anegang and Gierstraat) are the small boutiques.
Molen de Adriaan
This characteristic windmill is part of the Haarlem skyline. From the other side of the Spaarne you have a nice view of the mill. It is also possible to visit the mill with a guided tour. During this tour you learn about the operation of the mill. You can find visitor information on their website.
Frans Hals Museum
If you like baroque and art from the golden age, then it is nice to visit the Frans Hals Museum. Frans Hals was a well-known Haarlem painter who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. He is known for his lively painted portraits. The museum has two beautiful historic locations where, in addition to the art of Frans Hals, there are also works of other Haarlem painters and also some modern art.
The Teylers Museum is the oldest museum in the Netherlands, and perhaps the most authentic museum in the world. The interior of the museum, with the monumental Oval Room as the jewel, is a tourist attraction of the first order. The museum has science, natural history and art in its collection.
A visit includes a free audio tour and for children there is a free puzzle tour.
Corrie ten Boomhuis
The Corrie ten Boom house is the less well-known sister of the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. During the Second World War, many Jews and members of the resistance hid in Corrie ten Boom’s house, until the family was betrayed and taken to concentration camps. The house has been turned into a small museum where you can learn the story of Corrie ten Boom and see the hiding place. Guided tours can be booked in various languages from Tuesday to Saturday. Be quick, because only a limited number of visitors are allowed. A visit is free, but a donation is greatly appreciated.
Are you interested in more Second World War sights? I refer to this article: Traces of WWII in the Netherlands
The best spots for coffee, lunch and diner
In the most gastronomic city in the Netherlands it is not hard to find a cozy cafe or restaurant. Nevertheless, I recommend the following fancy and vega(n) friendly places:
Cozy places for coffee, breakfast or lunch with the atmosphere of a living room are Native, By Lima and Jippies cat cafe.
A nice place that you probably would not find yourself is DeDakkas (which means rooftop greenhouse). On the rooftop of an ugly concrete parking garage you will find a large terrace with a greenhouse. From here you have a great view of Haarlem and the surrounding area. They offer breakfast, lunch and dinner, mainly with local and organic products.
Another unique place is the Jopenkerk, a former church that is converted into a city brewery and restaurant. In terms of food it is less suitable for vegetarians, but it is a great place to just drink a beer.
Do you want to try something different? Then Crêpe Affair might be something for you. Here they serve thin French pancakes, both sweet and savory. Kapsalon and bitterballen are typical Dutch fast food, but not vegetarian. At Freaking Vegan, however, they have delicious vegan varieties of Dutch fast food.
Do you want more information about your visit to Haarlem?
Do you need more information about the tourist attractions?
Are you interested in a custom-made Haarlem itinerary?
Can I help you with finding accommodations, restaurants or a bike rental?
Please, feel free to contact me.