Haarlem equals Amsterdam for culture and beauty

Big giant clogs

The Netherlands, for a small country, has endless attractions. Amsterdam is swamped with tourists, to the point that authorities are taking action to reduce the number of cruise ships that can dock downtown. They are cracking down on other attractions that might bring hundreds of thousands more tourists to the city. It is great to know there are other destinations in the Netherlands that are well worth visiting. Let’s start with Haarlem.

The city of Haarlem (population of 155,758) is only a short train ride away from Amsterdam and it’s a totally different world. The average journey time between Amsterdam-Centraal and Haarlem is 17 minutes. On an average weekday, there are 123 trains per day travelling from Amsterdam-Centraal to Haarlem. The journey time may be a bit longer on weekends and holidays. The station was built in 1842, designed by Frederick Willem Conrad in a semi-Greek neo-classicistic style. The front of the building is open to the street.

You think Amsterdam has great history and photo opps? The Haarlem medieval city centre is one of the most photogenic destinations in Europe. Much of the downtown core is a thousand years old, and quite walkable. You must bring a camera and plan ahead to know where to go. There is so much to see on a day trip that you should start early.

However, when I stepped off the train in Haarlem I had no idea where to go, so I headed for the vast cobblestone city square located underneath the imposing cathedral called Grote Kerk. I could see the spire from a distance. Cathedrals are usually at the heart of old cities in Europe. The Grote Market in the square is the hub of daily life in Haarlem and one of the prettiest city squares in the world. Go on a Saturday when the Netherlands’ finest street market is in full bustle.

While at the square, take a quick peek inside the magnificent cathedral, which dates back to the 14th century. The building has been damaged by fire and struck by lightning over the years but the beautiful giant towers have been restored and still stand high above Haarlem’s rooftops, dominating its skyline as it has done for centuries. The gothic interior is nothing short of breathtaking.

Should you be a museum goer (I usually am not) head for the Frans Hals Museum. Golden Age portrait painter Frans Hals is one of Haarlem’s most famous sons, and his legacy can be seen all over the city. Nowhere more so than at the museum, a large gallery dedicated to Golden Age art and Hals’ portraiture, and home to the largest collection of Frans Hals portraits in the world. It’s just one more reason why Haarlem is one of the most attractive cities near Amsterdam.

Haarlem is famous for its hofjes, enclosed courtyard gardens tucked away behind many an unassuming street front, most dating back to medieval times. There are 21 main public hofjes in Haarlem, the oldest founded in 1395. The city has a close connection to water, with the Spaarne River meandering through the heart of city and various canals and waterways weaving their way between ancient monuments and sights. It’s a relaxed way to explore the city.

But I am a walker. Haarlem has been voted as the Netherlands best shopping destination on several occasions, and a stroll around the boutique-lined streets will show why. The main shopping district is known as de Gouden Straatjes, or “streets of gold.” Check out Grote Houtstraat, the Barteljorisstraat and the Zijlstraat as well as side streets such as Schagchelstraat, Kleine Houtstraat, Anegang, Warmoesstraat, Koningstraat and Gierstraat.

There are cafes to sit and people watch, and a choice of cheese shops and restaurants to nibble or have lunch. I must confess I am a cheesehead, and being a cheesehead in Canada is difficult because people in places of power (i.e. the government) have decided to maintain a system that restricts imports of dairy products. This translates to mean that cheese costs a bundle in Canada unless you restrict yourself to cheddar. So I was in heaven in Haarlem just wandering into various cheese shops and smelling the aroma. The Dutch must have the best selection of cheeses in the world. Shops offer giant wheels of cheese, large chunks of cheese, small chunks of cheese, and of course you can sample little bites of various cheeses. I went from shop to shop nibbling until I started to worry about arteriosclerosis.

Despite the cheese, churches, canals and shops, for me the most remarkable memory of Haarlem was its amazing street performers. I stood in awe, along with a huge crowd of onlookers, to watch two electric guitar players jam together on a main street just off the main square. They were, without a doubt, the two best street guitarists I have ever seen, rivalling the likes of Eric Clapton with their fabulous finger picking. Perhaps they were professionals, out for fun on a sunny day. Like everything else encountered in Haarlem, they were world class.

Then it was five minutes back to the train station and 15 minutes back to Amsterdam. Was it just a daydream? The best way to find out would be to go back and check it out again.

Michael McCarthy is a travel writer whose articles have appeared in many Canadian newspapers. Read more of his stories at www.transformative-travel.ca.

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