Haarlem is one of The Netherlands’ most underrated cities, especially when the country’s most famous city, Amsterdam, is just down the road. But, therein lies the beauty. Charming, quiet and historic, Haarlem feels simultaneously modern and medieval, like an Amsterdam on a smaller scale. From its grand central cathedral and town square packed with bars, winding alleyways of flower gardens and wooden shutters, and a historic windmill turning peacefully along the banks of the river Spaarne, Haarlem is a city that is well worth a visit.
The city is just twenty minutes train ride from Amsterdam, and those that do visit often come just for the day. But, if given some time to explore, Haarlem is filled with plenty of great things to discover.
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Welcome to Haarlem
I lived in Haarlem for about a year, in a top-floor house just next to the river Spaarne. I spent many weekends and evenings wandering the streets and browsing shops, snapping photos of the cathedral in the mist, trying herring sandwiches at the open air market, and tasting amazing Dutch beer at one of the many cafes.
I thought of Haarlem as Amsterdam in moderation. Yes, there are canals, but just a handful. There are coffeeshops, but they’re subtle. Bars are filled with thirsty locals catching up, instead of rowdy bachelor parties. And there are bicycles, but I never felt that I was in constant risk of being knocked over. Anyone who’s become frustrated with massive overtourism along Amsterdam’s central road Roken in knows the feeling of wanting to get out of Amsterdam to find some fresh air. For me, Haarlem is that escape.
Most visitors arrive by train from Amsterdam, disembarking at Haarlem’s huge Art Nouveau train station. Before stepping out straight away, it’s worth taking it in – Haarlem Station is the only Art Nouveau style railway station in The Netherlands, and was actually one of the first train stations in the entire country!
The central office has magnificent tiling and lacquered woodwork on the walls, and tiled murals. Wrought iron beams lead to an elegant arched shade, making this bright and airy station an under-appreciated gem. If the inside looks familiar, it’s because the platform scene of Ocean’s 12 was filmed here (posing as Amsterdam Centraal).
Exploring Haarlem Old Town
The first place to visit from the station is directly down Kruisweg and Kruisstraat, crossing over one of Haarlem’s canals (and past the resident Egyptian geese that live nearby). It’s easy to find – this main road, dotted with cafes, frituurs and souvenir shops leads from the station straight into Haarlem Old Town. For day trippers, this walk, offering a chance to explore the main sights, is easily achieved in a few hours.
At the end of the street, Haarlem’s tallest building erupts into view, the towering 15th century Grote Kerk. This Gothic cathedral stands at one end of the Grote Markt, a wide open public square that is fringed by lively bars serving beers to locals on terrace chairs. There are small souvenir shops built up against the cathedral, clustered against it like barnacles.
The Grote Kerk can be visited to admire the Gothic architecture from the inside. The Sint-Bavokerk organ is one of the most impressive features, a 10-metre high decorative organ which was the largest in the world when it was built. It was one of the most impressive organs of its day – composers as Mendelssohn, Händel and Mozart have sat at its keys.
Haarlem’s Grote Markt
On Saturdays, the Grote Markt hosts a large market, with everything from bouquets of flowers, cold meats and saussicon, fresh fish, vegetables, fries with mayonnaise, and wheels of cheese (with free samples)! And of course, there’s my favourite, oversized stroopwafels oozing with warm caramel!
To feel the community vibe, and enjoy the best cathedral view, pull up a seat on the terrace at one of the square’s many great bars and restaurants. Order a cold Jopen or Texel beer and watch the sun set. In the summer, the seats are absolutely packed with locals enjoying the sunshine and working on their tan. In the winter, the terraces are still packed, but heaters and blankets join the party and make the Grote Markt a very cozy place to relax as the sun goes down.
Teylers Museum – The Netherlands’ Oldest Museum
Just a short walk from the Grote Kerk is the Teylers Museum, the oldest museum in The Netherlands. The museum contains exhibitions of art, science and natural history. It was named after Pieter Teyler van der Hulst, a wealthy cloth merchant who donated his fortune to the advancement of science and art when he died in 1778. It is notable for its Oval Room, a beautiful room of wooden galleries and cast iron railings that houses a large collection of minerals.
Eating and drinking at Haarlem Grote Markt
The Grote Markt is not just the location of the cathedral and the market; it’s a lovely dining scene where the whole city comes together. Some of Haarlem’s best restaurants can be found ringed around the edges of the Grote Markt.
Some personal standouts are La Plume (a cozy, warm interior with an international menu), Cafe Studio (a brasserie with an outdoor seating area facing the cathedral), Popocatepetl (colourful, Mexican themed dining), Jacobus Pieck (off Warmoesstraat, serving traditional Dutch food), and Thrill Grill (delicious hamburgers).
Outside the Old Town
Here’s where Haarlem gets interesting. For those who wander past the Grote Markt and into the extended city, there are shopping streets, hidden gardens, boats cruising down still canals, ruined city walls, and turning windmills, all in the theme of Haarlem’s charming red bricks and flowery gardens. If you’e come this far, you’ll start to see that Haarlem is way more than just a day trip.
Eating and Drinking on Lange Veerstraat
From the south-east corner of the Grote Kerk, the Oude Groenmarkt leads down into one of Haarlem’s best restaurant streets – Lange Veerstraat. There are enticing restaurants of every kind. Cafe Plume at the edge of the Grote Markt serves great, hearty dutch specialities. Further down, there is Vietnamese, Greek and Indian cuisine, and a Dutch snack bar thrown in for good measure. Branching off are some local cafes that are the toast of Haarlem – Spaarne 66, Bistro Bis, and Bar Boef are some personal favourites. Don’t forget to stop at Chocolaterie Pierre, for the best chocolate and ice cream in the city!
Haarlem’s main shopping avenue is Grote Houtstraat, and is a great place to amble along with a serving of frites in one hand. It starts at the Grote Markt and the Frans Hals Museum, and runs south in a riot of clothing shops and homeware shops all the way down to the Kampersingel canal, where there is an Albert Heijn supermarket, fresh flowers for sale, Ijssalon Garrone (more great ice cream), and a collection of bars that are perfect to unwind in.
Make sure you check out some of the plant shops, as well as the fun gift shops to pick up a unique souvenir. You have to try the amazing Tony’s Chocolonely chocolate bars (and pack a few more for your suitcase), and buy a locally produced recycled Dopper water bottle!
Sightseeing Along The Spaarne River
The long, lazy river that runs from south to north through the city is the lovely Spaarne. Cafes bring their chairs all the way to the waterfront, next to flower pots and bicycle lanes, one of the best ways to enjoy the ambience. You can walk its banks all the way, passing modern houseboats, moored sailing vessels, hydraulic bridges, and nests of local water birds.
On a hot, sunny day, the Spaarne fills up with river traffic. Private yachts lower their sails to pass under the bridges, party dingys with groups of sunbaking revelers play music and wave Dutch flags, and tourists wobble on stand up paddleboards in nervous groups.
The Canals of Haarlem
Haarlem’s canals branch off from the Spaarne and run into quiet residential neighbourhoods. Unlike Amsterdam, they are usually straight, quaint, and less numerous. The Kampersingel canal has grassy banks ideal for a picnic and people watching, while Bakenessergracht is an achingly pretty brick-lined gem with tiny arching bridges, Dutch houses peering over on both sides.
Beside the Spaarne, a short walk from the train station is the windmill De Adrianne. It’s a 2002 replica of a 1779 original that burnt down in the 1930s. It’s an impressive sight, especially from across the river. There is a cafe just beside the windmill that serves a wonderful smoked salmon salad and a good cup of coffee.
In the remains of an old church, local beer brewers Jopen have a bar and brewery set up. Run by the Stichting Haarlems Biergenootschap (Haarlem Beer Association Foundation), the aim of Jopen is to recreate traditional medieval beer recipes, with one dating all the way back to 1407. The Jopenkerk, located on Gedempte Voldersgracht, is a place to sit back and taste some fine Haarlem beer straight from the source.
Frans Hals Museum
Frans Hals Museum is an art museum built to house the City of Haarlem’s art collection. Over 100 works are exhibited, the majority of which are Haarlem-based painters from the 16th and 17th century, including masterpieces by local legend Frans Hals, who lived and worked in Haarlem. In 2018, the museum merged with the Museum de Hallen to form 2 locations – one is located on Groot Heiligland, the other at the Grote Markt.
The remains of an old city wall can be found in Haarlem in the form of the Amsterdamse Poort. The gate, built in 1355 and facing in the Amsterdam direction, is the last reminder of the great city defenses that once ringed Haarlem. In 1865, the gate was in disrepair and slated for demolition. A bridge was going to be built in its place, but when the building of the bridge was delayed, the gate was saved, and was used for munitions storage. It was partially renovated in 1889, and a complete renovation brought it back to its former glory in 1985.
The Botermarkt (butter market) in Haarlem is a public square ringed by lively, bustling cafe terraces and bars. 4 days a week, the Botermarkt hosts open air markets. Monday is the second hand clothes market, Wednesday is the second hand book market, Friday is a fresh produce farmers market, and Saturday has a little bit of everything, with meats, cheeses and flowers amongst other things!
Haarlem is much smaller than Amsterdam – and if you’re looking for a calmer destination, that’s why it’s so alluring. A charming city of historic cathedrals, windmills and shopping streets, Haarlem is the ultimate city for those who wish to explore and get lost on foot. There are hole-in-the-wall bars to stumble across down pretty cobblestone backstreets; lazy canals with arching bridges and flower gardens in front windows; bustling marketplaces that smell of stroopwafels and fresh frites. If you want to escape the hustle of Amsterdam, and soak up the atmosphere of a lovely Dutch city, then Haarlem is the place to be.