So you intend to visit Holland, and the first thing that pops to your mind is Amsterdam? Amsterdam is an awesome town. But then again, it is also overcrowded. If you would like to see some more of the real Holland, why not stay in nearby Haarlem instead? There are many reasons to visit Haarlem, or to explore Holland from there.
When I say nearby, I mean seriously nearby. By train Haarlem is only 15 minutes away from Amsterdam Central Station. Besides, Haarlem is a charming old town, situated close to the North Sea coast and it has much to offer culinary and culturally. Even if you are staying in Amsterdam, a visit to Haarlem is an easy and recommendable day trip.
Another alternative town to stay instead of in Amsterdam is Utrecht. Read my blog about the benefits of Utrecht as a base for your stay in Holland.
7 reasons why you should visit Haarlem
1. Haarlem is a charming historical town
Though the area was inhabited long before, Haarlem officially became a city in 1245. Mind you, this is a couple of decades before Amsterdam! Haarlems city center is relatively small but contains over 900 monuments, to give you an idea of the historical atmosphere. The center of Haarlem is dominated by a giant church, St Bavo, that is surrounded by bars and restaurants. It is a lovely town to wander around, through the narrow streets, past hidden courtyards and along canals. It is also a lovely place to enjoy a drink on a terrace and watch people go by.
2. Haarlem is a great town to go for a hike & discover hidden courtyards
There are several options for short city hikes in Haarlem, both independent and guided. The Haarlem tourist office can give you more information about this. Pay them a visit when in Haarlem. Or check it out on their website. They offer free downloads of their leaflets on their website. I would recommend the hidden courtyards hike, as this will take you to places that you wouldn’t normally discover. Note that some of the courtyards are closed to the public in weekends, due to the privacy of their inhabitants. So try to do this hike on a weekday. To get an idea of the courtyards, visit the cute website Haarlemse Hofjes. It’s in Dutch, but the pictures will give you an idea.
If you own a GPS device, you can download an excellent route from Wandelzoekpagina: the Groene Wissel 468 Haarlem, starting and ending at Haarlem railway station and passing by a windmill, loads of narrow alleyways and courtyards. (7 km)
3. Haarlem is one of the historical beer cities of Holland
OK, I admit: I am a sucker for craft beer. And Haarlem is a special town for craft beer addicts, as this is one of the 3 historical beer towns of the Netherlands, and you can visit 2 good breweries here: Jopen and Het Uiltje. Both have nice taprooms in town, and a brewery just outside of town, but you can enjoy Haarlem beers in other bars here as well.
4. Haarlem is the gateway to Zuid Kennemerland NP
Go for a refreshing hike or bike ride in Zuid Kennemerland National Park. This park consists of rugged dunes extending right towards the North Sea beach, and is the habitat of countless animals and plants. It makes for excellent hiking. Zuid Kennemerland NP is accessible from the village of Overveen, right next to Haarlem (a few minutes by train) or from the seaside resort of Zandvoort (10 minutes by train). You could easily cycle to the park from Haarlem. The beach may be crowded, especially at sunny days when the population of Amsterdam takes over, but the dunes are always nice and quiet.
- Website Kennemer Duinen National Park (in English)
Hiking routes in Kennemer Duinen
Be prepared for some dune climbing! If you own a GPS download one of the excellent hikes from Wandelzoekpagina:
- Hike from station Overveen to station Santpoort Noord, 16 km
- Roundtrip starting and ending at Overveen station, 16 km
- Roundtrip starting and ending at Zandvoort station; this 16 km trip passes through the southern part of Kennemer Duinen. You will see many deer in this area.
In case you don’t own a GPS try to work with the routes available at Natuurwegwijzer.nl. These routes are signposted.
5. Haarlem is the home of 17th century painter Frans Hals
Frans Hals was actually born in Antwerp in 1582 (or 1583), but lived and worked in Haarlem during his adult live. He is one of the great Dutch painters of the 17th century. Now even if you aren’t that much into 17th century painting, I assure you that visiting Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem is a treat! The main building is originally a 16th century home for old men, so besides the art there is also a 16th century building to be discovered! The museum has a second location in another historical building at the central square. They exhibit mainly modern art there.
Main location: Groot Heiligland 62, Haarlem
Second location: Grote Markt 16, Haarlem
Website Frans Hals Museum (in English)
6. Haarlem is teeming with fine restaurants
Whereas in Amsterdam center you need to be careful which restaurant you pick, Haarlem doesn’t have any tourist restaurants with crappy tourist menu’s. It has plenty of fine restaurants of good quality though, and many cuisines of the world are represented here. I don’t claim to be the big connoisseur of Haarlem restaurants, so I suggest you use restaurant websites to find what suits you best. Places that I have been to and enjoyed are:
- Frisk aan het Spaarne, “Danish” restaurant a bit outside of the city center. It’s worth the effort of going there. Lovely location along the Spaarne river, in an old warehouse.
- Maita, Japanese fusion. More upmarket.
- Jopenkerk, eating in the brewery. Good beer-food pairings.
- Restaurant Het Pakhuis, nice location, a bit hidden in an alleyway
- Flamboyant, for Indonesian cooking. A basic place with nice “rijsttafels”: a table full of small Indonesian dishes, so you can taste a bit of everything.
- Jetties Organic food and Icecream, healthy sandwiches and hot meals. Nice atmosphere, suitable to solo travelers.
Note that it is wise to make a reservation for dinner, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. Most restaurants have reservation-buttons on their websites.
7. Hotels are cheaper in Haarlem than in Amsterdam
In Amsterdam, you won’t find a decent hotel room for less than 100 euro. It is normal to pay 150 euro, and you won’t always get a good room for that. When you visit Haarlem, you will find that prices are lower (as for now). My favorite is Malts B&B. Friendly owners who used to live in South Africa and understand the traveler. They’re full of good advice on what to see and do. I must admit that their prices have gone up and now top the 100 euro mark, but still, a nice place. In the hostel range I have heard great things about I’m local.
How to get to Haarlem by public transport
Coming from Amsterdam, catch a train to Haarlem. They run regularly. The trip will take you about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the type of train. Your last train leaves from Amsterdam just before midnight.
From Schiphol Airport, grab a train to Amsterdam Sloterdijk station and change there to Haarlem. This will take you about half an hour. Last connection at 23.45.