It feels like a treat whenever I go to Haarlem, North Holland. There are so many fun things to do here. The city along the river Spaarne is often overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, Amsterdam. However, Haarlem offers a more relaxed and authentic Dutch experience. And there are so many things to do in Haarlem. It’s a destination by itself.
Haarlem is a city in the Netherlands that gained city status in 1245. By the late Middle Ages, it thrived with a booming textile industry, shipyards, and breweries, strategically located near Amsterdam and the open sea.
In this post, I’ll take you on a journey through Haarlem with my favorite top things to do in Haarlem, sharing my favorite activities and local insides that make this city a gem.
Did you know Haarlem is just 15 minutes by train from Amsterdam? Taking the train is the best way to get to Haarlem. Why not take a day trip from Amsterdam? My first tip would be to marvel at the railway station when you arrive. This old station feels grand.
The Haarlem city center is compact and very walkable. You don’t need local transportation once you arrive in this small city. None of the essential sites are more than a 10 minutes walk from the central square.
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Wander the Historic Center of Haarlem
Strolling through Haarlem’s historic center is like stepping back in time. This is one of the best things to do in Haarlem. The cobblestone streets are lined with beautiful gabled houses and charming shops. It’s all creating a magical atmosphere that asks to be explored. My favorite area to wander are the small streets around the Grote Markt, the city’s main square.
Haarlem is known among the Dutch people as the shopping destination of the Netherlands. People love to come to the city for shopping as one of their favorite things to do in Haarlem. But where most people only shop on the main shopping streets, you should venture into the narrow alleyways and quieter streets, as they hold the most photogenic scenes and the most interesting shops.
There is an area around the Grote Markt called the seven golden streets. The Warmoesstraat is the most Instagramable among them. The Gierstraat is home to a whopping 18 monuments. The Kleine Houtstraat is voted the most fun shopping street, while fashion lovers head to the Anegang.
The main shopping street is called the Grote Houtstraat. This is where you find the major chains and local Dutch shops. Did you know this street is part of the Dutch version of Monopoly?
Visit One or More of the World-Renowned Museums in Haarlem
For visitors and the Dutch alike, one of the other main things to do in Haarlem is to visit one of the several world-class museums that call Haarlem their home. It makes the trip worth it by itself.
🖼️ The Frans Hals Museum
The Frans Hals Museum is one of Haarlem’s biggest attractions. Named after the famous Dutch Golden Age painter, it houses an impressive collection of works from that era. And it is the most well-known museum in Haarlem. Absolutely on top of the list of things to do in Haarlem. The Frans Hals museum houses the most extensive collection of works from the painter himself.
This museum has two locations, one featuring mainly his work and other artists from his time. While the other has more contemporary exhibitions. Your museum ticket covers both locations. If you have only time for one, visit the primary location. Visiting the Frans Hals Museum is one of the most popular things to do in Haarlem.
Did you know the annex (the contemporary location) is part of “De Hallen Haarlem”? Former market halls. One was a meat hall, and the other a fish hall. This is where the cities’ trade happened for these commodities back in the day. You can get your tickets here. The I amsterdam City Card is also valid here. Check my post about the I amsterdam City Card to see if this card is worth it for you.
🖼️ The Teylers Museum
The Teylers Museum is the oldest museum in the Netherlands and another must-visit. This is my favorite museum in Haarlem. Did you know it opened in 1784? That was a long time ago. Pieter Teyler was a wealthy Dutch silk and cloths merchant, banker, and philanthropist. He remained childless, and because of that, he left his fortune to the city. And that is how the Teylers Museum came to be (and other significant landmarks in Haarlem).
For me, the main draw is the building itself. The oval room is the centerpiece of the museum. It’s stunning. And I am not exaggerating. It makes me feel like I am exploring a cabinet of curiosities.
The museum collection combines art, natural history, and science. Creating a very eclectic mix of artifacts. Here you can find the top of the Mont Blanc mountain or drawings from Michelangelo. There are also paintings of Haarlem and its surroundings, which always draw my attention.
The library is another gorgeous room but is not open to the general public. However, you can visit the room on a private tour. Prices are fixed per group and a little too steep for most visitors. So you’ll have a unique experience that not many other visitors will have. I think it’s worth every cent.
I think the Teylers Museum is called the Museum of Wonderment for a good reason.
🖼️ The Corrie ten Boom House
The Corrie ten Boom House offers a moving glimpse into the life of a family that sheltered Jews during World War II. This brave woman ended up in a concentration camp, but she survived. She would live most of her life in America, teaching the world about forgiveness.
You can only visit this museum on a guided tour. Tours are free and given by volunteers. They are popular, so reservations are essential. I should write capital letters because these tours “sell” out quickly! It’s near impossible to enter without prior reservations, but there is a waiting line outside in case of no-shows.
Tip: do not go on a Dutch tour to get in if you don’t speak Dutch. Although Dutch and German tours tend not to be as booked as the English tours, you won’t understand anything. You can not walk around alone, and the guide will not do translations and will refer you to an English tour instead. It’s the story that makes this a worthwhile experience.
The guided tour is both informative and deeply moving. The story is religious, so it might not be everybody’s cup of tea. It was a bit too much for me, honestly.
But I did feel grateful I could hear the story and feel the bravery. And to see the actual hiding place and the ingeniously created hidden wall. It’s hard to believe people hid behind this false wall when you see it. Being there gives the whole story a different level of understanding. It’s extraordinary what the Ten Boom family did back then for others, even more so considering the exposed central location.
If a visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is on your list, you’ll most likely enjoy visiting the Corrie ten Boom Museum. It enriches your understanding of how it was to live for Jewish people in the Netherlands during World War II.
Embark on a (Private) Boat Tour Along Haarlem’s Canal
One of the locals’ favorite things to do in Haarlem is to get on their boats, enjoy a leisurely afternoon or evening on the Spaarne River, and catch up with friends when the sun comes out.
Haarlem is a perfect spot for a boat tour. It offers a different perspective on the city. You’ll cruise by historic buildings, some of the most expensive houses in Haarlem, and quaint houseboats. It’s a beautiful way to relax, especially on a sunny day.
There are two ways of enjoying the city from the water.
Get a ticket for a Smidtje boat tour. They offer two different options. The first is circling the old city center in 50 minutes (tickets). And the other (from windmill to windmill) takes 90 minutes and goes further. Time allowing, I recommend going on the 90-minute tour (tickets here). You’ll see more greenery and stately houses that are slightly out of the city.
PS: The I amsterdam City Card is also valid here. Check my post about the I amsterdam City Card to see if this card is worth it for you.
You can also hire a private boat with a skipper. Just sit back, relax, enjoy a glass of wine and some cheese, and unwind while the scenery passes you by. It’s a great way to take a break and have a unique experience.
Discover the Grote Kerk and Other Architectural Masterpieces
The city’s architecture is one of its most attractive features. The Grote Kerk is located on the main square in the city’s center. It’s also known as St. Bavo Church. It’s even more impressive up close. Once, this wooden tower burned down in the 14th century before it became the impressive Gothic structure that dominates the skyline today.
Going inside the church is a must. The church’s magnificent organ, played by Mozart himself, is a sight. Can you believe Mozart played it? Also, make sure to admire the glass windows of St. Bavokerk, the stained glass is just marvelous.
Haarlems’ city hall is just as beautiful next to the town square. Please take a moment to take it all in before you venture on a walking tour around the city.
The Amsterdamse Poort is another architectural masterpiece. It’s the last remaining city gate and is a testament to Haarlem’s rich history. I was amazed at how beautiful it looked.
Almost like a castle in itself. It’s now a national moment. It was part of the city’s defense system in the Golden Age. Do know you can not go inside. But it’s worth it to go anyway and take a look.
Another great thing to see in Haarlem is the Molen de Adriaan (The Adriaan windmill) in the center of Haarlem. This is a working windmill in the heart of the city. The Windmill is now a museum that is open to visitors. The museum has guided tours to learn more about its history. This is an excellent opportunity for visiting a windmill since it’s so easily accessible.
Savor Authentic Dutch Cuisine at Local Haarlem Restaurants
There is so much to discover in Haarlem regarding its culinary scene. It’s always one of my favorite things to do in Haarlem. It’s also always hard to choose, but here are some of my favorites.
My absolute favorite restaurant in Haarlem is called “DeDAKKAS.” A greenhouse restaurant on top of a parking garage. You have to be in the know for this one. The brute concrete structure looks hideous from the ground level. But don’t be deterred by that.
Once you’re on the rooftop and enter the restaurant, you’re in a different world. The greenhouse has a kitchen garden. And a large outdoor terrace to enjoy the views of the magnificent big church and the dunes towards the beach. With a good glass of wine and some great food, some homegrown, it’s one of the best places for lunch (or dinner, or just a coffee).
If you want a cozy Dutch living room type of cafe, a good choice is “cafe Volkslust.”
You can visit the organic salad bar: SLA for something modern and quick.
Another one of my favorites in this area is Jetties, right across the street from the railway station. I love their homemade pastries and pies. And it’s also an excellent place for a quick healthy lunch.
One of the absolute best restaurants in town is Restaurant Zeeuw. This is just as much about the experience than the food itself. Get immersed in a multi-course feast (up to 7).
Reservations are a good idea (they ask for a deposit, but you can cancel free of charge up to 24 hours in advance). Look at the Michelin guide (where Restaurant Zeeuw is mentioned) for more excellent restaurant choices in Haarlem like these.
Cycle to the Beach and Zuid-Kennemerland National Park
And it’s not just the city that is worth your time. The natural beauty on Haarlem’s doorstep is quite impressive. Renting a bike and going into the countryside is one of my favorite things to do in Haarlem on a sunny day.
It’s easy to rent a bike and set off toward the coast. Distances are short, but I recommend renting an e-bike for extra comfort. Large dune areas and charming villages surround the city. Enjoy the fresh air, wide open spaces, and views along the coastline.
The Zuid-Kennemerland National Park is a stunning nature reserve filled with dunes, forests, and wetlands. Its beauty is still quite overwhelming for me. It’s easy to cycle through it. But it’s also an excellent spot for hiking. The entrance is within walking distance from the Overveen railway station (5 minutes from Haarlem station or 20 minutes from Amsterdam Central station).
That is actually what I do most often when I visit the area. I love the hike from the Overveen station through the Zuid-Kennemerland National Park for my final destination of Parnassia aan Zee, a restaurant on top of a dune at the beach with amazing views. It’s open for breakfast, coffee, lunch, and dinner. I love to hike in the morning. It’s the best time to do so when it is not as busy as it can be later in the day.
The National Park is free to enter. But there is a charge for parking if you arrive by car.
If hiking or cycling is not your thing, the Parnassia Restaurant can also be reached by car. Taking a taxi is an option. If you visit with your car note, this area has paid to park.
The two closest beach towns around Haarlem are Zandvoort and Bloemendaal. Zandvoort is also famous for its Formula 1 race track. It’s the most accessible town, with direct trains to Haarlem and Amsterdam. The town looks depressing, with concrete buildings and uninspiring high rises, but the beach is worth the trip.
Also, the many beach restaurant that lines the waterfront. Many of them are actually on the beach itself. Giving it a tropical vibe on a warm summer day.
But don’t just go when the weather is good. The beach is a great place to visit year-round. There are always restaurants open, even on cold days. There is no better thing to do than getting a hot cocoa with whipped cream and pie after a walk on the beach. We Dutch even have a term for that: “Uitwaaien.” Which translated means “Blowout,” but its actual meaning is to get fresh air and empty your head on a walk. The Washington Post wrote an excellent article on this untranslatable Dutch word.
Experience Local Things to Do in Haarlem
To taste local life, explore some lesser-known activities in Haarlem.
De Jopenkerk, Haarlem – A Brewery in a Former Church
The Jopenkerk Brewery is a beautifully restored church-turned-brewery where you can sample some of the city’s finest craft beers. If you’re into beer brewing, this is a must-visit.
Weekly Saturday Market in Haarlem
Another local thing you can do is visit the weekly open market on the Grote Markt, the square around St. Bavo’s Church in the heart of the city. Every Saturday, you’ll find a bustling market where locals shop their fresh produce, artisanal cheeses, and more.
One of my favorite things to do in Haarlem when I visit during the market day is to go for a traditional Stroopwafel (caramel waffle). Buying a fresh warm waffle is an entirely different experience than the pre-packaged cookies you know from your (local) market. The smell alone, oh, get one! This is not the day to watch your carbs.
Relax in the Hidden Tranquil Hofjes (Courtyards)
Haarlem is home to several hofjes, peaceful courtyards surrounded by historic almshouses. In the 17th century, you would find 40 of them; today, 22 remain.
These hidden sanctuaries provided a much-needed respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. My favorite hofje is the Proveniershof, a quiet oasis with well-maintained gardens and beautiful architecture. The serene atmosphere makes it the perfect spot for reflection and relaxation. Another lovely courtyard is Het hofje van Bakenes.
Frequently Asked Questions
How far is Haarlem from Amsterdam?
Haarlem is about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from Amsterdam. It’s a super quick train journey to get to Haarlem. Alternatively, you can travel by bus (but this takes longer) or even bike to Haarlem. Due to traffic, it’s not the best idea to travel by car since this most often will double your travel time.
What should I do in Haarlem?
The most popular attractions in Haarlem are the Grote Markt, St. Bavo Church, Frans Hals Museum, Teylers Museum, the Windmill De Adriaan, and the Corrie ten Boom House.
Do people in Haarlem speak English?
Many people in the Netherlands, thus also in Haarlem, speak English. The Netherlands has a high English proficiency, so communication should not be a problem for most travelers. This applies just as much outside the capital (Amsterdam).
Which Haarlem Activity Excites 🌟 You The Most?
I’d love to hear your thoughts: Which of the highlighted things to do in Haarlem do you plan to visit? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and let’s start a conversation 💬.
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