What to do in Haarlem, Netherlands |

Haarlem is a short train ride from Amsterdam. What to do in Haarlem? See historic sites, windmills, and museums. Read on for our complete list of what you must do when you visit Haarlem, Netherlands.

Sometimes a trip highlight is the one you hadn’t planned or expected. For my daughter Christina and me, it was a day trip to Haarlem while in Amsterdam. Christina and I were in Amsterdam visiting my younger daughter Megan, who was in a study abroad program for the semester. One day while she was in class, Christina and I decided on a whim to visit Haarlem, a city just outside Amsterdam in North Holland. With no plans for what to do in Haarlem, our impromptu day trip felt like an adventure.

Getting there and back couldn’t have been easier. From Central Station in Amsterdam, it’s about a 15-minute scenic train ride to Haarlem. Upon arrival in Haarlem, it’s an easy 10-minute walk to Grote Markt (Big Market) and the city’s heartbeat.

Situated on the Spaarne River, Haarlem was one of the Netherlands’ most affluent trading posts. It’s a quintessential European city with cobblestone streets, centuries-old Gothic-style buildings, gabled houses, hofjes (houses built around courtyards), art museums, shops, windmills, and many restaurants.

Here are some ideas for what to do when you visit Haarlem.

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Stop by the Tourist Information Center

The Haarlem Tourist Information Center, inside City Hall, has detailed maps for self-guided walking or biking tours. We initially considered renting bikes to tour Haarlem. It seemed less intimidating than peddling in bustling Amsterdam, where everyone – men, women, and children – zipped alongside trams and cars. But since it was drizzling intermittently, we opted to explore on foot.

Stroll through Grote Markt

The medieval pedestrian-only square is the heart of Haarlem and from which 10 streets branch out into the city. We visited Haarlem on a cool October day, so the square was fairly empty. But in spring and summer, the square is bustling with people sipping espressos and eating lunch at sidewalk cafes. If you visit on market days (Mondays and Saturdays), you can shop for fresh cheese, bread, raw herring, french fries served with sauce (similar to mayonnaise but tastier), and other traditional Dutch fare. There’s a lot to see in the square, which has an interesting history. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the square was the site for gallows, jousting tournaments, and where goods were sold.

St. Bavokerk church, built in the 14th century, looms over the square. Adjacent to the church is the vleeshal (the shorter red building bearing Haarlem’s coat of arms), which means meat hall. From 1604 to the 18th century, the vleeshal was the only place in Haarlem where fresh meat could be sold. The ox heads on the front of the building indicate the hall’s function. Today, it houses a small museum and exhibition space.

To the left of the church is a statue of L. J. Coster (c. 1370–1440), whom Haarlemmers credit with inventing modern printing techniques.

what to do in Haarlem

Grote Markt in Haarlem. Photo by Mimi Slawoff

Visit St. Bavokerk (St. Bavo’s Church)

Built between 1370 and 1520, the St. Bavokerk church houses the renowned Müller organ, which Mozart once played when he was ten. The church also contains beautiful Renaissance artworks and is the final resting place for famous painters Frans Hals and Pieter Saenredam. There’s a small admission fee to enter the church, except on Sundays.

Discover Haarlem on a Self-Guided Walking Tour

We began our walking tour in Grote Markt, trying our best to follow the map so we didn’t miss anything. Total walking time is about 90 minutes, depending on your pace. We made a few stops along the way, pausing to take photos. We didn’t follow the map exactly, so we missed some sights, but there was something to admire anywhere we turned. Haarlem’s streets are filled with shops, restaurants, pubs, churches, and galleries. And the city’s narrow, picturesque side streets are lined with tidy apartments and gardens. We were intrigued by the gapers (stone or wood carvings) above some Dutch shops, like the one above Van Der Pigge. These gapers identify the purpose of the shops. In this case, Van Der Pigge was a pharmacy.

what to do in Haarlem

The gaper (stone or wood figurehead) identifies the shop as a pharmacy. Photo by Mimi Slawoff

Ride a Bike

Bike rentals are available in the square. And with a handy map, you’ll cover a lot of ground peddling through the streets. Of course, there’s the option to book a two-hour narrated tour to see the old city center, historic churches, windmills, and scenic side streets—”hofjes”—typical Dutch courtyards surrounded by residences. A bike tour is a wonderful way to get insider tips about where to eat and what to see.

what to do in Haarlem

Haarlem’s pretty side streets look so welcoming. Photo by Mimi Slawoff

See the Frans Hals Museum

Frans Hals was a Dutch Golden Age painter known for his portraits of Haarlem citizens. To see his paintings and learn about this famous Dutch painter, set aside time to visit the Frans Hals Museum. Originally opened in 1862, it has two locations just minutes apart and is the largest museum showcasing his work.

what to do in Haarlem

Frans Hals Museum. Photo courtesy of Margareta Svensson

Buy Fresh Cheese

During our walk, we came across ‘t Kaaswinkeltje, a lovely cheese shop on Koningstraat. It’s an iconic cheese shop in Haarlem that is 91 years old. Specialty cheeses include the Haarlem zoetje, a creamy cheese made from North Holland milk.

what to do in Haarlem

‘T Kaaswinkeltje is an iconic cheese shop in Haarlem. Photo by Mimi Slawoff

Eat a Traditional Dutch Lunch

Centrally located in Grote Markt, the Fortuyn restaurant is a cozy spot for lunch. We sat inside at a table with a view of the square. While in the Netherlands, I developed a taste for bitterballin—Dutch meatballs that are breaded and fried. We also ordered a delicious thick tomato soup made from pomodori tomatoes served with warm crusty bread.

what to do in Haarlem

Lunch at Fortuyn Restaurant in Grote Markt. Photo by Mimi Slawoff

Where to Stay When You Visit Haarlem

Since our visit to Haarlem was last minute, we only stayed for one day and didn’t spend the night. Although, that’s something I would like to do next time. But while in Amsterdam, we stayed in two hotels and one traditional canal house. I would recommend all three.

Pulitzer Amsterdam

Overlooking the Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht canals, the Pulitzer is an eclectic luxury hotel with 225 guestrooms and suites, the Jansz restaurant, Pulitzer Bar, and a park-like courtyard (with garden swings!).

Our spacious room had a loft with twin beds and quirky touches throughout, like a bicycle hanging from the ceiling, a bicycle repair kit, and a vintage phone. The hotel is within walking distance of Dam Square, the Anne Frank House, Rijksmuseum, and Van Gogh Museum.

Our room at the Pulitzer Amsterdam had a bicycle hanging from the ceiling. Photo by Mimi Slawoff

Canal House

All sorts of canal houses are available for a comfortable stay in Amsterdam. We booked our rooms in a canal house through a listing in a Rick Steves guidebook about Amsterdam. A steep staircase led to our accommodations consisting of a living area, kitchenette, bathroom, and loft.

A-Train Hotel

We only spent one night at the A-Train Hotel before returning home to California. But I’m including this train-themed hotel because of its amenities and convenient location across from the train station. It’s not fancy, but the 34 rooms are comfortable and have modern bathroom amenities, free WiFi, and a workstation. A complimentary breakfast is available in the Pullman Lounge.

Articles Related to Visiting Haarlem, Netherlands

When You Visit Haarlem, Netherlands

Situated only 15 minutes by train from Amsterdam, Haarlem offers a great day trip from the city. This quintessential European city, with cobblestone streets and centuries-old Gothic-style buildings, has enough museums, shops, and restaurants to keep you busy and wanting to return.

Haarlem is a short train ride from Amsterdam. What to do in Haarlem? See historic sites, windmills, and museums. Read our list of the best things to do in this quintessential European town.


What to Do in Haarlem, Netherlands

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