Haarlem is has long been one of the Netherland’s largest and wealthiest cities mainly thanks to its location along the Spaarne river. From the Middle Ages, the city got to collect tolls on passing ships. Haarlem’s economy started to boom thanks to shipyards, beer breweries and a thriving textile industry.
In the Golden Age, Haarlem became the epicentre of the Dutch tulip trade. This so-called tulip mania certainly added to the region’s prosperity. You still get a sense of that rich history when you walk Haarlem’s cobblestone streets or take in the views over the Spaarne river.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Haarlem.
Getting from Amsterdam to Haarlem
The Dutch city of Harlem is just a stone’s throw away from the capital, making it perfectly located for a day trip from Amsterdam. Here’s how to get from Amsterdam to Haarlem:
- A pleasant 19’ train ride from Amsterdam Central Station to the gorgeous Haarlem train station, one of the oldest in the Netherlands with lots of Art Nouveau details. For train geeks: The first train ever in the Netherlands ran between Amsterdam and Harlem in 1839.
- A 40’ bus ride from bus station Elandsgracht, close to the district where we prefer to spend our time in Amsterdam and one of our preferred hotels, to Haarlem’s Tempeliersstraat, near the Frans Halsmuseum.
- A 20’ drive, not taking into account traffic, to the Haarlem city center. We found parking Appelaar, in the shadow of the Grote Kerk of Haarlem, to be very convenient and spacious.
Better yet, for the budget-conscious traveler, it’s a great alternative place to stay when you’re looking to spend an (extended) weekend in Amsterdam. We’d recommend staying at Hotel ML, which is right downtown.
Map of the Haarlem must-do’s
For your convenience we’ve created this map with all the top things to do in Haarlem, the Netherlands, as mentioned in this article:
Our selection of things to do in Haarlem
Grote Markt and Haarlem City Hall
The Grote Markt (Big Market) is the heart of Haarlem and has been so for centuries. In the Middle Ages it was called ’t Sant and it was the place where knights showed their talents and justice was served.
The Haarlem City Hall was built in 1250 as an accommodation for the Counts when they were in town to collect taxes. After one of the big fires the city has known, it was destroyed. Since Count Willem II rather stayed in The Hague, he gifted the land to the city of Harlem. The new building that was erected on the exact spot has been the City Hall since 1370. Good to know: It’s also where you’ll find the Tourist Information Centre, called VVV Haarlem.
St Bavo Church
Visiting this 14th gothic-styled church, also named Grote Kerk (Big Church), is one of the top things to do in Haarlem. It’s located at the Grote Markt, in the heart of the city. At first it was a roman catholic church, shortly after the roman catholic cathedral of Haarlem until it became a protestant house of worship. It’s the final resting place of local painter Frans Hals.
The church has some wonderful features such as the stained glass windows, the wooden ceiling, an organ played by young Mozart and the wooden tower reaching 256 ft (78 meters). From mid-April until the end of October, you can join a small-group tour of the famous Haarlem tower, 1 Saturday a month for €8 per person. Requests need to be made at leasts 5 days in advance via this link (Dutch website) You can also make a request for an individual tour.
This beautiful church is not to be confused with its namesake, the Catholic Cathedral Basilica of St Bavo, built in 1930 and located on the outskirt of Haarlem.
Fun fact: During winter, it’s often too cold for the worshippers to attend services in the St Bavo Church. Service is then held in the smaller Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in the old Vijfhoek district, which serves as a winter church.
Haarlem was one of the Netherland’s fortified cities. The rampart was built in the late 14th century and surrounded by a wide moat. Of the 12 city gates only 1 remains and that’s the Amsterdamse Poort (Amsterdam Gate).
Windmill De Adriaan
Another, more recent, Haarlem landmark is the Adriaan windmill along the Spaarne river. Recent, because this version was only completed in 2002, after the original Adriaan burned down in 1932. It dated back to 1779 when it was built on the foundation of one of the city’s fortification towers.
The Haarlem Hofjes
The Hofjes, Haarlem’s secret courtyards: Hofjes are a typical Dutch phenomenon, a type of almshouses that were often the initiative of wealthy families, sometimes a guild or a church, in order to support the elderly woman who had little financial means. Of all places in the Netherlands, you’ll find an exceptionally high number of hofjes in Haarlem: There were 40 in the glory days of which 21 are still in use today. Most can be visited freely on weekdays and Saturday between 10 AM and 17 PM but are closed on Sunday. Group visits are on request.
– Hofje van Bakenes
The oldest Hofje of Haarlem is the Hofje van Bakenes, dating back to 1395. The main entrance is located at the Wijde Appelaarsteeg. The secret courtyard that you see now, is a result of a reconstruction in 1658-1663 when the available places was reduced from 20 to 12 in order to create a regent’s room. Today, 11 lovely ladies over the age of 55 years live in the Hofje van Bakenes. Men are allowed to visit but they can’t live there. A visit to Hofje van Bakenes is one of the most popular things to do in Haarlem.
The gardening in the beautiful secret courtyard is taken care of by the women themselves; only the heavy work gets done by a professional gardener twice a year. It’s an amazing little oasis a haven of peace. As you can tell from the pictures, the girls loved exploring the garden and the many lovely details around the courtyard (the waterpump, the doors…). The place really had something magical, starting from the riddle at the keystone above the entrance:
It translates as “The institution of Dirck van Bakenes for women eight and twice six”:
- 8 + (2×6) = 20, referring to the number of women that used to lived here.
- (8+2) x 6 = 60, referring to the minimum age for women eligible to live here (that age limit has now been adjusted a bit).
Where once a former monastery and a guest house for men were housed, in 1704 the Proveniershuis (Proveniershouse) became the home of both men and women. They payed a one-time fee and could live there for the rest of their live, even board and some occasional luxury gifts (called ‘prevues’ hence the name ‘proveniers’) were included. In the late 19th century the Proveniershuis was joined with a neighbouring hofje. Ever since, it’s called the Proveniershof.
It is, however, not one of the classical hofjes in the sense that it was never a charity project but rather a rental project. Therefore, you’ll notice that the houses are larger that in the traditional hofjes too. To this day, the community is a mix of both men and women and many couples have found a home in the Proveniershof.
– More hofjes
The Tourist Information Center has put together this Haarlem hofjes itinerary. The information about the hofjes is in Dutch but the map and the names of the hofjes will allow you to follow the itinerary nonetheless.
Museums in Haarlem, Holland
– Frans Hals Museum
During the Middel Ages and the Renaissance, The Haarlem school of painting was mostly known for artwork representing mythological and biblical scenes. But during the Golden Age in the late 16th century, when the wealthy Haarlem traders started collecting art to decorate their homes, there was a shift in demand. Landscapes, city views and portraits became . Belgian painter Frans Hals, who as child had moved to wealthy Haarlem with his parents, specialized in individual and group portraits, painting in a very lively way. His career flourished and he made a name for himself.
– Teylers Museum
The Teylers Museum of Art, National History and Science dates back to 1779, making it the oldest museum of the Netherlands. It builds on the private collection of merchant and banker Pieter Teyler van der Hulst and is also housed in his former residence. You’ll find fossils, minerals, historic books, coins, medals, paintings… in a natural daylight setting. The Oval Room, the first part of the museum, is still the most impressive and elegant one with the former lab (where the minerals are now on display), the library on the next level and then the observatory up high.
– Corrie Ten Boom House
During WW II, Corrie Ten Boom and her family were part of the resistance, offering a safe harbour to jews, students and fellow-resistors. Their home was even equipped with a secret room to hide people who were on the run until it was safe to smuggle them out. But their activities didn’t stay under the radar and the family was betrayed. On a winter day in 1944, a bust took place after which Corrie and some of her family members were taken to the Ravensbrück concentratiekamp. She survived and wrote down her story in the book ‘The hiding”. The family house is now a museum where pictures, documents and objects are on display. Also the secret room can be visited as part of a guided tour.
There’s no entrance fee, visitors are free to make a donation after their visit. Due to limited opening hours and a lack of waiting space (it’s a private residence, after all), it’s highly recommended to make advance reservations.
De Olyphant brewery building
Haarlem was an epicentre for the beer brewing business shortly after the late Middle Ages, a time when beer was more available than water. The two buildings with identical stepped-gable, that date from the early 17th century, were part of the brewery De Olyphant (The Elephant) that was operational from the mid-16th century.
Shopping in Haarlem
The city of Haarlem is the Netherlands’ most popular shopping city. Especially the Gouden Straatjes (Little Golden Streets, named after the Golden Age) are known for their many boutiques and shops. You’ll find these streets dotted around the Grote Markt: Koningstraat, Zijlstraat, Warmoesstraat, Schagchelstraat, Kleine Houtstraat and Gierstraat.
Where to eat in Haarlem
Lunch @ Hofje Zonder Zorgen
This cute eatery enjoys a prominent location with views of the Proveniershuis. During the spring and summer months, you can even enjoy your organic tea or homemade tea from the terrace on the courtyard. Oh, and did I mention that this place is one of the best for a high tea in Haarlem?
Dine @ DeDAKKAS
This unique venue offers the best views over Haarlem. It’s actually a greenhouse, a “kas” built on top of the De Kamp parking. Inside the greenhouse, you’ll find a large open space, a kitchen and then a secondary space which is used for private gatherings. Then there’s a massive deck, the place to be to enjoy a drink, a yoga lesson, a music performance or the Haarlem sunset.
Drinks @ Jopenkerk
In the 90’s, the centuries old beer recipes were retrieved in the city’s archives. They were modernized by the new Haarlem beer society and soon, the first traditional beer from 1407 was reproduced. The brand was named Jopen after the 112 liter barrels in which the beers were transported in the Middle Ages. More beers followed and the full assortment can now be tasted in the Grand Café, which is housed in a former church. A unique setting, where visitors can learn about the brewing process by watching it from inside the cafe.
Fun fact: Haarlem in the Netherlands vs Harlem in New York City
Haarlem in the Netherlands was known to have brave inhabitants, who put up a heroic fight against the Spanish invasion during the Eighty Years War in the 16th and 17th century. In what’s now the USA, the New Netherland colony at the northern end of Manhattan island was intended to defend the colonists from invasions from the English or the Indians. Thus it was named Nieuw Haarlem (New Haarlem), after the greatest defenders they had known in their own country, and later renamed Harlem.
Is Haarlem on your list?
Well, have I managed to convince you to visit Haarlem one day, maybe next time you’re in the Netherlands? Or have you been already? If so, do you like the city’s laid-back vibe as much as we do? Any other Haarlem must-sees or attractions to add to the list? Let me know in the comments!
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