There was lots I was looking forward to about my Holland trip, but top of my list, if I’m honest, was tulips. My excitement for flower overload was so enormous that it was verging on deranged, so with that front of mind I’d been somewhat slack with giving the other things we were going to be doing their fair share of anticipation.
That changed approximately 30 seconds after setting foot in Haarlem, capital of the province of North Holland. You know when you’re in a new city and you see some sight that’s probably entirely unremarkable but something about it piques your interest and just makes you think that yes, you like that, and this will probably be your kind of place? I’d taken several steps around the corner from the train station and in front of me was a sort of run down tiled building with wooden frames painted in yellow and blue. That was it for me, and suddenly exploring this new city became the thing I was desperate to do; I was sold. Sold on what appeared to be an empty building. I know – it’s not hard to win me over, is it?
But win me over Haarlem did. I’d been to Amsterdam before – and loved it – and while I knew I wanted to visit some other dutch cities, Haarlem was one I hadn’t heard a great deal about. It truly is a gem though, and I’m all for discovering new places, so aside from great sightseeing, history and culture (all of which it has in abundance), here are the things about it that appealed to me personally.
The shop fronts
One thing Haarlem is well known for is shopping, in particular its Gouden Straatjes (golden streets). We didn’t have time to actually shop, but that didn’t mean we lost the atmosphere and appeal of them – far from it, because what I was particularly enamoured by anyway was the exteriors and window displays. Give me an interesting shop front (particularly a shop that displays as many of its wares as possible, so that you cant help but look in) and you’ve got me, whatever the location. Haarlem has the most excellent selection of quirky shop fronts I’ve come across in a while, and frankly if I had my way I’d have spent all day trying to locate and peer into them at old clocks, statues and figurines, dusty books and curiosities.
The size and tranquility
Haarlem is relatively compact, so is a really nice size to explore in a day without feeling like you’re massively missing out – there is a good amount of stuff to do though, so equally you could spend a bit longer, especially if you’re using it as a base to visit the countryside. With the canals and gabled houses of Amsterdam but without the capital’s size, it’s peaceful and relaxing as well as beautiful.
The alleyways, side streets and courtyards
If you’re partial to a cute little side street, as I very much am, you will enjoy a wander in Haarlem. There are cobbled alleyways, thoroughfares packed with bikes and graffitied side streets galore to be discovered here, as well as Hofjes – enclosed courtyard gardens, the entrances to which are mostly unassuming, not tending to be obvious. I love things like this, firstly for the delight when you discover something pretty or interesting that’s not necessarily marked as an ‘attraction’, and secondly for the photos.
The cool factor
Haarlem is a cool city, there’s no doubt about it. There are little independent shopping boutiques, trendy cafes, antiques galore, a large number of bicycles, and a brewery in a former church where you can have ‘high beer’, as well a multitude of other things you could firmly place a ‘cool’ sticker on – but in a way that isn’t overbearing or intimidating. There’s no pretentiousness here, just genuine cool factor, a friendly reception and a host of quirky and interesting things to partake in.
…and equally importantly, the fuss free transport links to and around said location. Haarlem is 20 minutes from Amsterdam, less than an hour from Rotterdam, and extremely well connected to the rest of Holland. It’s also perfectly positioned for exploring some of North Holland’s countryside, including the aforementioned and very exciting tulip gardens, flower fields and even beaches. And it was equally easy transport wise to get to from the UK. We boarded a Stena Line ferry in Harwich at 8pm on a Sunday evening, and by 10am on Monday morning (sounds a while, but consider that for a lot of that we were asleep) we were in Haarlem, having enjoyed a three course meal and breakfast on board, navigated public transport on disembarking, and wasted no precious exploring time loitering in an airport.
Forgive me for being so vague as to use ‘atmosphere’ as a point all of its own, but I place a huge amount of importance on the ‘feel’ of any place that I’m visiting. Haarlem is a city with my favourite type of atmosphere; it’s vibrant and full of personality, but in a really chilled, non-frantic way that makes it feel welcoming and friendly.
Having squeezed a lot into a short trip – which I will go into in more detail in my next travel post – we didn’t spend as much time in Haarlem itself as I definitely could have done, so while I’m always a bit uncertain about revisiting places, I think a return trip will be on the cards. It’s also got me wanting to book that trip to another dutch city as soon as possible, so hit me up with any suggestions!
Oh, and if you get the chance to go to Haarlem, or you spot an opportunity to work it into your itinerary – go. Especially if you like shop fronts.
I was a (wildly grateful) guest of Visit Holland and Stena Line. All opinions, photos, and appreciation for this absolute gem of a city are very much my own.