Haarlem Stories and Tips

An introduction to Haarlem

Cheesy Wheels Photo, Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem is an old city, gaining its city rights in the thirteenth century. Its ancient buildings have been looked after well, although some of them have been extensively rebuilt after fires destroyed them. Visually it's like Amsterdam in miniature but has the advantages of being quieter and less obviously touristy, and doesn't attract the horrible stag and hen parties. While five and a half hours is ambitious for Amsterdam (another DFDS mini cruise destination), it's actually reasonable for Haarlem, unless you want to linger in museums or galleries.

The heart of old Haarlem is dominated by the medieval town hall (Stadhuis) that stands at one end of the Grote Market. It's a splendidly eclectic building that has been much added to and extended over the centuries. Today it's the official home of the Mayor of Haarlem and has long been a popular venue for weddings. I read an amusing story that claims that for years a town drunk would sit on a bench outside the town hall and expose himself to the happy couples as they left the hall; instead of arresting the man, the laidback Dutch simply removed the problem by moving the bench a little further away from the doors.

On Saturdays a market takes place on the part of the square. (See separate review) At the other end of the Grote Market is the Grote Kerk which is also known as St. Bavo Kerk; this is a huge protestant church (and one time Catholic cathedral), not to be mixed up with the even more impressive St. Bavo Catholic cathedral of Haarlem. This Gothic masterpiece was built in the fifteenth century and it dominates the Haarlem skyline. I would recommend a look inside to see the magnificent vaulting and to appreciate the wonderful stained glass windows (the windows aren't the original ones, this church did not have colourful windows but has been given ones from other churches that were due to be demolished).

We were given a map as we boarded our coach to Haarlem but you can pick up a free map at the tourist information office situated near the Grote Market. The map helpfully marks the pedestrianised streets in purple and these form the core of old Haarlem; however, this is the Netherlands and cyclists abound so try to pack an extra set of eyes as you'll need some for the back of your head (I'm a cyclist myself but I find the streets of Dutch towns quite exhausting in this regard). Haarlem's main points of interest can be found within a short walk from the Grote Market and are well signposted but a map is very useful if you are interested, as I was, in seeing some of the 'Haarlemse hofjes' or almshouses.

Twenty such complexes are dotted around Haarlem. The oldest one dates from the 14th century and the newest from just 2001. They were set up by wealthy merchants and the like mainly to house single women, although one notable hofje was specifically for men. Usually they take the form of a garden accessed by an ornate gateway and surrounded on the three other sides by small houses; most have a central hall, and several of these are quite grand, decorated with elegant paintings. During the day the gates are left open and members of the public can go into the courtyards to have a look. Some of the houses are still owned by charitable organisations, but many are now in private hands; some are owned by artists who have their workshops there so it's certainly worth going into a few of the hofjes.

One of the hofjes - one that was created for men - now houses the brilliant Franz Hals Museum, a collection of works by Hals (most famous for his painting "The Laughing Cavalier", although that painting is exhibited in London) and some of his contemporaries. Although part of the museum is currently closed for renovations, we spent almost an hour here and thought it was an excellent exhibition (and one I intend to review separately).

If we'd have had more time, I would definitely have visited the Teyler Museum which holds the distinction of being the oldest, and first, museum in the Netherlands: the museum displays the vast and eclectic collection left to it by wealthy Dutch merchant and banker Pieter Teyler, and there are collections of coins, drawings and paintings, fossils and minerals, etc.

Het Dolhuys, the Museum of Psychiatry, didn't really grab me but I might have considered the Corrie Ten Boom House where a Dutch Christian family allowed their home to be a place for fugitives (including Jewish families) to hide from the Nazis during the German Occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War; however, having visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, I wanted to see something different in Haarlem.

The Netherlands is, of course, synonymous with windmills and there is a brilliant example of an old mill near to the old town. The De Adriaan windmill stands just beside the Spaarne and although it's no longer a working mill, it does operate on Saturdays and the mill and the attached museum is open to the public (the museum is open at other times too but the sails only turn on Saturdays). We didn't go in but we made a point of going to have a look at the windmill and I wish we'd had more time as I was quite charmed by it. I think this would be something children would enjoy during a visit to Haarlem.

If you have only a short time in Haarlem - for example, if you have come on the ferry, or you've taken a day or a half day out of a trip to Amsterdam - and don't mind pounding the pavements, you can buy a amp and guidebook from the tourist information office, that will guide to round the key points of interest of the city in a couple of hours. In the summer you could also take a boat trip on the Spaarne and adjacent canals which would, I expect, give a very different perspective on the city.

Haarlem is known as 'Bloemenstad' (flower city) because it is - and has been for centuries - at the centre of the Dutch tulip growing industry; if you are staying longer in Haarlem (and visit in spring) you might venture a little further afield and go to see the fields full of colourful blooming tulips, that are situated between Haarlem and Leiden.

We noticed plenty of hotels in the centre of Haarlem and loads of restaurants which we would have liked to have tried but only a handful open at lunchtime on a Saturday. If you're able to stay overnight, then lucky you: you will have your pick of exciting cuisines from around the globe. If you want to eat on the go then there are lots of stalls on the Grote Market where you can pick up a bite to eat as you continue your sightseeing.

Haarlem has the unofficial title of "hemp city" and there are lots of "coffee shops" around the city, dedicated to this particular "leisure pursuit". I've always found this obsession of Brits with smoking a joint (or eating a laced cookie) in the Netherlands rather pathetic - why go all the way to the Netherlands when you can easily smoke at home? - but, if that's your thing, then there are plenty of easy to find places in Haarlem: look out for the three Willy Wortels shops in the town centre.

Shoppers are well catered for and there is a generous air of prosperity in Haarlem, meaning that there are some very nice little boutiques and home ware shops in particular. There are lots of antique shops and plenty of places to buy tasteful (and less tasteful) souvenirs. The great thing about travelling by ferry is that you can bring home things like tulips, or fresh food, that usually you wouldn't be able to if you were flying; lots of people took advantage of the opportunity to bring home big bunches of tulips which can be bought on the Grote Market for bargain prices.

I really liked Haarlem; it's such an attractive city and it has been well preserved. The old centre is pleasant to walk around and the main attractions are close enough to make even a short trip worthwhile. My appetite has been whetted and I'm sure I'll be back for more. I'm thinking of a few days cycling in the Netherlands and I'll probably take the opportunity to catch a few of the attractions I didn't have enough time for.

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