Charming Old Town: Haarlem

Of all the cities we visited in the Netherlands last spring, Haarlem was my favorite.

It’s hard to point at a specific thing that makes it so wonderful to me. I’m a city girl, but I fell for Haarlem’s small-town charm. Later on in the journey, we would visit Bruges in Belgium, which many say is the perfect medieval town. I liked Bruges, but I found Haarlem much more authentic.

A brief history of Haarlem

Haarlem is small, quiet, but also brimming with culture and art. It’s an old city– it has been a fortified town since the 12th century and enjoyed much popularity in the middle ages, though the city declined in the industrial age. Haarlem was overshadowed by Amsterdam’s growth, so now its proximity (only a 15-20 minute ride to Amsterdam Centraal) makes it something like a bedroom community.

Haarlem was also the center of tulipmania, and the tulip fields are still a huge tourism draw during the spring. It is in fact why we chose to stay there after leaving Amsterdam.

Things to see in Haarlem

Your first stop in Haarlem should definitely be the tourist center in the Grote Markt. They have a lot of information to offer about the city and the area, and they offer good deals for the museums.

Museums

Haarlem has a lot of interesting museums, most popular of which are:

  • Corrie ten Boom house, where the Ten Boom family hid and protected Jews during World War II
  • Frans Hals museum, dedicated to the art and life of Frans Hals
  • Teylers Museum, featuring historic art and science collections, and one of the oldest museums in the Netherlands

Walking Tour

Just walking around the town is a delight. The tourist center has a brochure for a good self-guided walking tour (I love walking tours!) that begins at the Grote Markt. Dominated by the Grote Kerk, the main square features many old buildings and some fun architecture.

The walking tour follows along the canals and through some lovely streets and buildings. The fun part is that Haarlem isn’t being made to look like a classic medieval town for tourist purposes. There are businesses here, concert halls, theaters, and festivals. People live and work in Haarlem, and you can watch the life happen around you as you walk around the city.

Sint-Bavokerk and Jopenkerk

For some very contrasting experiences, visit the Grote Kerk and the Jopen brewery.

The Grote Kerk or Sint-Bavokerk in Grote Markt (not to be confused with another Cathedral of Saint Bavo in the city) is a former Catholic cathedral that is now a Protestant church. Entry is free and it’s definitely worth visiting for the beautiful interiors and the stained glass windows, and also for the pipe organ. Mozart once played here, which is part of its claim to fame.

Jopenkerk is a brewery housed in a former church (oh the irreverent Dutch). Jopen beer is based on traditional Haarlem beer brewing recipes. Not only is the beer delicious, they also have some very tasty traditional Dutch dishes. It’s an experience you shouldn’t miss if you’re in Haarlem.


There’s much to enjoy about Haarlem. If I were ever to move to the Netherlands, this is where I would like to move. Small, friendly, charming, and lovely in the spring. And close enough to Amsterdam if I feel the need for the bustling city life.

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7 thoughts on “Charming Old Town: Haarlem

    • Funny, we liked Amsterdam, but I think pretty much every other city that we visited in the Netherlands, we found more charming and enjoyable. Still, we loved the country as a whole.

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