Dutch destinations: Hole up in Haarlem

Photo: Guilhem Vellut via Flickr

Haarlem doesn’t literally sit in the shadow of Amsterdam, but it’s often treated like the kid sister of its more famous sibling to the east. Head there for gorgeous architecture, great cafes and museums, and quieter streets than the ones you’ll find in the nation’s capital.

Over the course of its nearly thousand year history, Haarlem has gradually turned from a quiet hamlet on a forested dune to a metropolitan community of around 400,000 people. It’s endured multiple catastrophic fires, plagues, and sieges as well as ‘Tulip Mania.’ The city was a hotbed for the bizarre fad that captivated the country in the 16th century and arguably never quite ended. Visitors from all around the world still flock to the nearby Keukenhof every spring to gaze at thousands of them in its colourful gardens.

Some might consider Haarlem a ‘Mini Amsterdam’ or little more than a bedroom community of the nation’s capital, but the city has a unique flavour all its own. Here you’ll find plenty of great cafes, museums, and breweries along with what is arguably the most unusual cinema in the entire country.

Five things to do

Buzz into a brewery
Beer brewing is an industry that has thrived, on and off, in Haarlem for hundreds of years. At one point in the 17th century, the city was home to over 100 breweries. By 1820, the number dwindled to zero largely thanks to a sour economy. Haarlem’s current beer renaissance began in the 1990s when a local brewing association dusted off some old recipes and started cranking them out again in honour of the city’s 750th anniversary.

The project eventually led to the formation of Jopen, a brewery now housed in a former church. Go there for a meal in one of its two onsite eateries and/or to try a few of its brews. Across town there’s Uiltje Brewing, a smaller brewery known for its wild cartoon labels and eclectic beers often inspired by pop culture and films ranging from The Nightmare Before Christmas to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There’s 30 craft beers on tap and over 120 bottled ones at the Uiltje Bar. They also serve snacks and pizzas.

Check out what’s happening at the Koepel
Once upon a time, the Koepel was one of grimmest prisons in the Netherlands. The prisoners were subjected to a draconian surveillance method by guards stationed in a tower in the centre of their circular confines. But now it’s one of the most impressive repurposed buildings in Europe. The Koepel is home to a college and a cafe in addition to offices and art installations in the old cell blocks.

Inside De Koepel. Photo: Brandon Hartley

There’s also various events you can learn more about via its online agenda. The main attraction for most visitors is the cinema downstairs. If you go, be sure to press the big red button in the lobby. It’ll activate a mechanical model of the Koepel that’s adorned with miniature Marilyn Monroes, King Kongs, and other legends of the silver screen.

Get lost, or merely lost in time, while exploring the Frans Hal Museum(s)
There’s dozens of paintings by its namesake and more at the Frans Hals Museum. The collection is split up into two locations, though. Aim for the ‘Hof’ on the Groot Heiligland to see older works from the Golden Age and beyond that are housed in the Oudemannenhuis, a former retirement home. That might sound drab, but the exquisite building is downright palatial. Modern art and photos are typically housed in the ‘Hal’ over on the Grote Markt. It’s spread across three different buildings each constructed in a different century. Confused yet? Don’t worry, it’ll make sense once you’re there.

Go shopping or for a stroll
The city is filled with plenty of picturesque lanes and architecture. De Gouden Straatjes [Golden Streets] is the place to head for jewellery, fashion, and more. There’s plenty of great walking routes that will lead you through the city’s historic hofjes and past churches and various architectural highlights. The Haarlem Boekhandel De Vries Van Stockum is also one of the prettiest bookstores in the country. It fills several historic building and is home to what is reportedly the oldest wall in town. After you explore the stacks and buy a tome or two, heading next door to dive into them at Le Petit Cafe is a great way to spend an hour or two on a rainy afternoon.

Get your fill of live music at PHIL Haarlem
This concert complex, which sometimes hosts theatrical performances, conferences, and other events, dates back to the 18th century and contains multiple halls ranging from epic to intimate. The Kleine Zaal has some of the best acoustics of any live venue in the Netherlands. The Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra and the Dutch Chamber Orchestra regularly perform at PHIL, but the staff also set aside spots in its calendar for pop, soul, rock, and other acts from various genres.

Haarlem has dozens of tiny streets to poke around in. Photo: Brandon Hartley

Where to eat
The menu at Hare of the Dog is as playful as the wordplay in its name. It’s a cool brunch and coffee spot that’s kid friendly. Haarlem is home to several fantastic coffeehouses, too. A few of them, like Coffee Habits and Ax Speciality Coffee are among the tiniest you’ll ever encounter in the Netherlands (or possibly anywhere else). There’s only room within each one for a few customers. You can definitely stretch out a bit more at The Coffee Spot.

Walk over to the Grand Cafe for additional breathing space, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and/or drinks. Be sure to look up and gaze at the 17th century ceiling paintings in the lounge. Are you avoiding gluten or simply enjoy healthy breakfasts and lunches? Head to Blend. Vascobelo is a brasserie that’s another good lunch spot.

If ‘Peruvian Japanese fusion’ is a concept that makes your stomach grumble in all the right ways, look no further than Maita. The homemade Indonesian cuisine at Cafe Samabe has earned rave reviews since it opened in 2019. Mano Restaurant also gets high marks, but the prices aren’t for the weak of heart or light of wallet. Oerkap is truly one of a kind, or at least it was. Located beside an old warehouse along the Spaarne River, the popular pizzeria and pub is undergoing a full renovation at the time of this writing and may lose a lot of its ‘Beach Blanket Bingo meets Peaky Blinders’ vibe once it reopens this spring. No matter what the future holds, it’s likely to remain a fantastic spot to take the kids on warm summer nights.

Where to stay
The four star Hotel ML is located mere footsteps from De Grote of St. Bavokerk church in the heart of Haarlem. The Niu Dairy is a hotel with a modern vibe, co-working space, and an unconventional housekeeping policy. Those who forgo having their rooms tidied up can earn drink vouchers. Boutiquehotel Staats mixes modern with vintage decor and furnishing in its luxury rooms. B&B Het Hart van Haarlem is in a Rijksmonument building with a lovely garden.

How to get there

Haarlem is a short journey from Amsterdam via car or the train. The trip on the rails from Amsterdam Centraal usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Getting over there on the roads usually takes longer due to traffic most hours of the day.

Anything else?
Haarlem’s Kenaupark was named for the legendary war hero Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer. She rolled up her sleeves and helped rebuild the city’s defences after they were destroyed by cannons during a Spanish siege in 1573.

It can be difficult to separate fact from fiction in her biography, but one tale claims she led 300 women into a fierce battle to protect the city’s walls. They dropped flaming tar wreaths and dumped boiling oil on the invaders. Their efforts were later honoured in a 1854 painting by artists Barend Wijnveld and J.H. Egenberger. A feature film about Kenau starring actress Monic Hendrickx was also released in 2014.

You can learn more about Haarlem and other great spots to visit in the city in this prior Dutch News article from 2019.

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