Picturesque canals, cookie-cutter gabled houses and the ever-present metal clatter of bicycles on cobblestones. The perfect day trip from Amsterdam, ironically, takes you to the mirror image of the city, albeit one with fewer tourists, friendlier locals, and – dare I say it – more authenticity. Welcome to Haarlem, the original one that is.
Haarlem had never quite made it to my radar. Granted, I knew it was somewhere in the Netherlands but for the life of me would not have been able to place it on a map. That all changed one winter’s day when I popped on the train from Amsterdam to Haarlem for a day trip.
Five euros and 10 minutes later I was standing in Haarlem station, it really was that easy. As it turns out, there is plenty of things to do in Haarlem. Indeed, it makes for an awesome, laid-back weekend trip from Amsterdam. Read on for inspiration on what to see, where to eat and a sprinkling of hotel recommendations, just in case the pocket-size city lures you in to spend the night.
Plan your day trip from Amsterdam to Haarlem
WHERE TO STAY
HOW TO GET AROUND: Haarlem is best explored on foot, ditch the map and relish the feeling of getting utterly lost in the intricate network of cobblestoned streets and quintessential canals.
HOW TO GET THERE: If you are traveling to a few spots around Amsterdam. Invest in the 1-3 day Amsterdam & Region Travel Ticket valid for trains and busses in and around Amsterdam.
TOURISM OFFICE HAARLEM: Open Monday – Saturday 10.00 am to 17.00 pm. City Hall, Grote Markt 2, 2011 RD Haarlem, Netherlands
Is it worth visiting Haarlem?
Tiny Haarlem, much like its counterpart in the USA, packs a punch and is well worth a visit. Originally built as a small settlement in a forested area, it grew to become a thriving metropole in 14th century Netherlands. Driven by the textile industry, shipyards and, surprisingly, beer breweries.
A progressive approach to religion – Catholics and Protestants were granted equal rights – saw a further flurry of immigration to 16th-century Haarlem. As Antwerp was overrun by Catholic Spain, inhabitants fled in droves to Haarlem. With them came precious knowledge and cheap labor in equal amounts, fueling the seemingly endless growth of Haarlem.
The next few centuries bought with it a decline as Amsterdam slowly took over to become the leading lady she is today. Despite industry making an exodus, wealthy merchants still chose to have their weekend and summer homes in Haarlem. This explains the copious amount of historical façades lavishly festooned with stonework, balustrades, and what nots that make up the historical center.
It will therefore come as no surprise to hear that one of the main Haarlem attractions is this very historical center. Forego the newer part of town, instead make a beeline for the little orange-colored section on Google Maps, this is where the magic of Haarlem lies.
Things to do in Haarlem for a day
Haarlem is one of the easiest day trips from Amsterdam. Whether you are looking for a welcome reprieve from the overcrowded capital, genuinely interested in discovering the history of once-powerful Haarlem or simply looking for something to fill a void in your calendar, Haarlem might be just what the doctor prescribed.
Below is a slew of activities that I squeezed into my 24-hour escapade. There is of course much more to do in Haarlem that did not make its way into the article. I invite you to take a look at the Visit Haarlem website to learn about the plethora of museums, activities and what nots available to visitors.
SHORT ON TIME? Curious about the city but short on time? Take a 50-minute boat tour. Learn about the history of the city while slowly cruising by the main Haarlem attractions.
1. Take in the majestic Grote Markt (main square)
True to medieval European custom, Haarlem was built around a castle and a church. The castle, once a hunting lodge for the counts of Holland, was donated to the city in the 14th century after a raging fire burnt it to the ground. Construction on the church – Saint Bavo – started around the same time.
Aside from these towering giants, the main square has an impressive array of gabled houses. Facing the church, turn right and feast your eyes on the 17th-century Vleeshal (meat market), used by butchers up until the 19th century to sell their goods, now an exhibition hall. Its neighbor the 18th-century Verweyhal built a spot for social gatherings of a local drama club, which has equally been transformed into a museum for modern art.
Overlooking the comings and goings on the Grote Markt stands a statue of the 14th-century local: Laurens Janszoon Coster. Revered for centuries throughout the Netherlands as the inventor of the printing press, though that has since been debunked.
History buffs might want to look into a private walking tour of Haarlem to discover every nook and cranny of this striking main square. Or alternatively, join a group for a budget-friendly 2h30 walking tour of the city!
2. Marvel at the St. Bavo Church in Haarlem
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 10.00 AM to 17.00 PM
Entrance Fee: €3 ($3), free for children.
Guided Tours: Every Saturday at 14.00 PM (last one hour)
The Saint Bavo Church deserves a mention of itself as it is quite simply a work of art. A wooden structure stood on this very spot since the 14th century, though the same fire that decimated the castle also whipped out the wooden church. The stone church was consecrated in 1479 and became a cathedral in 1559.
Although initially a Catholic church, the Protestant Reformation confiscated it in 1578. True to form, ornate statues were removed and colorful stained glass was shattered to be replaced by plain glass. Upon walking into the church, the first thing you will notice is the abundance of light streaming in through the – austere – windows in the vaulted ceiling. A welcome change from the usual darkness with which one is usually faced in medieval churches.
At the center of the church stands a magnificent organ, built in 1783, the largest of its kind at the time attracting the likes of Mozart and Mendelssohn to Haarlem to play. Tilt your head further up to take in the original vaulted wooden ceiling and magnificent frescoes, all untouched by fire, the Reformation or World Wars.
Walking out of the church take a peek at the 18th-century Vishal (fish market) hugging the foot of the church. Fish has made way for art and the space is now used mainly for art exhibitions.
Fun Fact: The 16th-century tower atop the Saint Bavo church might look like it is carved out of stone, but it is in fact wooden and clad with lead. The original tower that was built out of lavish stone, turned out to be too heavy for the structure of the church. It was subsequentially taken down and placed on the neighboring Bakenesserkerk.
3. Debunk the myths of static electricity at the Teylers Museum
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10.00 AM to 17.00 PM – Closed on Monday
Entrance Fee: €15 ($15) – Purchase tickets in advance
Guided Tours: Every Saturday at 14.00 PM (last one hour)
The 18th-century Teylers Museum is the oldest in the Netherlands and quite possibly the most evocative. Dedicated to art, science, and natural history, the museum was created when wealthy cloth merchant Pieter Teyler van der Hults left his substantial fortune to the advancement of religion, art, and science through the creation of the Teyler Stichting.
Behind the opulent 19th century façade on the Spaarne lies a wealth of dusty encyclopedias, fossils, minerals, dinosaur bones, and galleries lined with paintings of eminent artists including Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Raphael.
The most impressive room is without a doubt the neo-classical oval room, built for study, scientific experiments, and public demonstrations. It was here that in the 1780s the renowned Dutch scientist Martinus van Marum displayed his static electricity machine – still to be seen in the tiny room before entering the oval room.
From the interesting exhibition pieces to the beautiful architecture of the building itself, the Teylers Museum is well worth undertaking a day trip near Amsterdam! It was certainly the highlight of my visit to Haarlem and might even be nicer than the museums in Amsterdam.
4. Wind down at De Adriaan windmill
The quintessential symbol of any Dutch city is a windmill! Today a reported 1200 windmills are still dotted around the country, and one of them is right here in Haarlem. Originally an 18th-century windmill stood on this very spot, used to produce cement, paint, tan, and tobacco. Sadly it was destroyed in a fire in 1932.
Locals rallied together to fund the rebuilding of a new windmill, which can be visited through a 45-minute guided tour. Our guide was vivacious en managed to explain the inner workings of a windmill as we clambered up the three flights of stairs inside. The absolute highlight however was the view from the rooftop. On a clear day, you can see all the way from Haarlem to Amsterdam!
A different vantage point: Take a 50-minute boat tour on the river Spaarne, cruising through the main Haarlem attractions and past the charming De Adriaan windmill.
5. Get lost in the little alleys of the historical center of Haarlem
My absolute favorite thing to do in Haarlem was to simply stroll around. In all fairness, we took a private walking tour to get to know the city. My visit coincided with a sudden cold spell (-6°C//22°F), transforming the charming cobblestoned alleys into treacherously slippery slopes. Slowly sliding our way through the old town together with Walter, our highly knowledgeable guide, turned out to be an unexpectedly mindful experience.
If guided tours are not your jam, you can easily walk around solo. Make sure to swing by the Amsterdamse Poort, Het Proveniershuis, Hofje van Bakenes, Hofje van Guurtje de Waal, De Bakenesserkerk and stop for a beer at Jopen, a former church now a beer brewery. The Korte Jansbrug has a very cool mural depicting a mighty knight, while the Korte – and Lange Begijnstraat are home to centuries-old gingerbread gabled houses.
Hofjes in Haarlem
Hofjes – loosely translated to inner courtyard – are sprinkled across the Netherlands. From the outside, they give the appearance of a simple cluster of cookie-cutter houses built around a private garden. These unassuming houses played an important socio-economic role in a time when government welfare was non-existent.
Formerly reserved for widows or unmarried women, often fallen on hard times. Inhabitants paid little rent and were provided with free medical care and low-cost heating funded by the upper echelon of society.
The oldest example dates back to 1395 (Hofje De Bakenesserkamer) and is right here in Haarlem. Of the 40 hofjes counted in 17th century Haarlem, 22 have remained to this day. The university city Leiden
has an equally large concentration of well-preserved hofjes which can be visited.
Get to know Haarlem: There are a variety of tours on offer to get to know the city. Foodies will love the 4-hour food local food tour, while the budget-conscious traveler might consider a 2h30 walking tour to discover the various hofjes and hidden streets in Haarlem.
6. Bonus thing to do in Haarlem: Grab a drink in de Koepel
Find yourself with a little time on your hands? Or simply looking to quench your thirst in a rather extraordinary location? Head in the direction of the large round dome just across the Spaarne river. This repurposed prison houses hip hangouts, an art space, a wine bar, and a very cool co-working space.
Financial cutbacks forced the 19th-century prison to close in 2016. In true Dutch style, the building was quickly snapped up to be turned into the edgy multi-functional space it is today. We were lucky enough to get a tour from a former prison guard who showed us around. Tours are available upon request for groups and at select times of the year. Keep an eye on the official website for the most recent dates.
While a visit to de Koepel might not be on the top of your list of things to do in Haarlem Netherlands, it is well worth squeezing in before you head back to Amsterdam. There are few countries, aside from the Netherlands, that are as efficient in repurposing buildings – Unused churches have been successfully repurposed into vibrant restaurants and bars for years now.
Where to stay in Haarlem
PERSONAL RECOMMENDATION: Amrath Grand Hotel Frans Hals ($$)
Beautiful Amrath Grand Hotel is located right off the Grote Markt in Haarlem. Despite the very central location, the rooms are wonderfully quiet. Comes with a delicious continent breakfast!
Funky Design: MAF Haarlem Boutique Hotel – The top-rated boutique hotel in the city. Centrally located in the heart of the old town. Guests particularly like the design and comfortable beds.
Most Tranquil: Boutique Hotel ‘t Vosje – Located a little outside of town in the Harlemmerhoutkwartier. The perfect little oasis for travelers looking to be surrounded by nature.
Budget Pick: Stayokay Hostel Haarlem – Comes with free parking, a large terrace on the waterfront and breakfast included. Option to have a lunch package for a (small) surcharge.
Where to eat and drink in Haarlem
A few additional Haarlem tips to make sure you find the best drinks and nibbles in town! The below restaurants and bars rebel against the traditional, admittedly underwhelming, Dutch cuisine to present some of the finest the city has to offer. From minimalistic coffee to beguiling brasseries, Haarlem has something for everyone.
RESTAURANT MOUSTIQUE: Seasonal dishes served in a wonderfully cozy setting. Upscale dining at an affordable price. Awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand award.
COFFEE SPOT HAARLEM: Good quality coffee and delicious breakfast is served on their sundrenched terrace or inside a welcoming interior
MONSIEUR ROUGE: A tiny brasserie in a wonderfully intimate setting. The perfect spot for a quick lunch or a languorous aperitif.
ZINI HAARLEM: Located smack on the Grote Markt, Zini serves customers seasonal Italian-French cuisine. Head upstairs for the very best views over the beautiful square.
TARU BAR: Awarded ‘Best new cocktail bar in the Netherlands 2022’. An upscale Scandinavian-Japanese-inspired bolthole that has managed to put a new spin on cocktails.
BONUS: Shibuya Haarlem – For those looking to sing their hearts out, Haarlem has its very own Karaoke
How to get from Amsterdam to Haarlem
How for is Haarlem from Amsterdam?
Haarlem is one of the easiest and quickest side trips from Amsterdam as it is a mere 17 kilometers (11 miles) from the city.
Taking the train from Amsterdam to Haarlem
The easiest way to get from Haarlem to Amsterdam is to hop on one of the trains running multiple times an hour. The train ride takes between 10 and 15 minutes from Amsterdam Centraal to Haarlem. Ticket price one way €5.70 ($6).
Tickets can be purchased from the yellow and blue vending machine inside Amsterdam Central Station or alternatively invest in the 1-3 day Amsterdam & Region Travel Ticket valid for trains and busses in and around Amsterdam.
More practical information: Check out day trips from Amsterdam by train to learn about the different types of trains, how to purchase tickets and where to store your luggage in the station at Amsterdam Central.
Taking a tour to Haarlem from Amsterdam
I highly recommend taking the train, it is simply too straightforward to waste your pennies on any other form of transportation to Haarlem. That being said, there are a few options to combine the various well-known sights around Amsterdam which are great if you are short on time:
- Haarlem City, Canal Cruise & Zaanse Schans Windmills Tour (full-day)
- Delft, Leiden, The Hague, and Haarlem day trip from Amsterdam (full-day)
Other popular day trips from Amsterdam
There are as many possibilities for trips near Amsterdam as there are days in a year. The well-developed network of public transportation in the Netherlands has ensured that most of these day trips do not require visitors to rent a car
SYPESTYN CASTLE: One of my favorite castles in the Netherlands is the tiny Sypestyn Castle. Built as a museum a mere 100 years old with reclaimed materials from much older castles.
FLEVOLAND: Flevoland is the newest region in the Netherlands having been reclaimed from the sea a mere 60 years ago. It is filled with hip Avant-guard architecture and tiny islets. Find out how to spend a day in Flevoland.
BRUSSELS: The high-speed train between Amsterdam and Brussels gets you from point A to point B in under 2 hours. Find out how to maximize one day in Brussels
FAQ about visiting Haarlem
What is Haarlem known for?
Haarlem is known for its hofjes (inner courtyards); the 16th-century painter Frans Hals; the local Jopenbier (brewed in a former church no less) and the oldest museum of Holland, the Teylers Museum.
Is one day in Haarlem enough?
The main attractions in Haarlem can be visited in one day, but it might feel rushed. Personally, I would recommend spending at least one night and two days in the city.
Best time to visit Haarlem?
Haarlem is a yearlong destination. Noteworthy is the fact Haarlem has the nickname of Bloemenstad (flower city) as it is located smack in the middle of the tulip growing area of the Netherlands. If you are looking to see the beautiful colorful patchwork that erupts into bloom then take your Haarlem day trip in late spring!
To conclude on what to do in Haarlem
Tiny but mighty is a motto befitting the city of Haarlem. The vicinity and walkable size make Haarlem one of the easiest day trips around Amsterdam. Simply hop on a 15-minute train ride and follow the signs to the historical center of town – a comfortable 10-minute walk from the station.
Filled with old-world charm: A beautiful medieval town square, cobblestoned alleys, picture-perfect canals lined with gabled houses, and the quintessential windmill De Adriaan. The city has all the trappings of Amsterdam, minus the hordes of party-seeking tourists. Be warned, the charm of the city combined with the friendly locals might just lure you in to spend a weekend instead of a mere 24 hours.
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR VISITING AMSTERDAM AND ITS SURROUNDINGS
Amsterdam: A first-timers guide to public transportation in Amsterdam
Amsterdam: 16 Castles around Amsterdam you do not want to miss
Amsterdam: 17 Easy day trips from Amsterdam by train
Amsterdam: Weekend trips from Amsterdam
Netherlands: An adventure guide to the Frisian Islands
Netherlands: Prettiest castles in the Netherlands