Right next door to Amsterdam is Haarlem – yet another little lovely, quaint city that charmed me during my trip to The Netherlands in December last year. While I do love Amsterdam, I really love exploring other Dutch towns. I love such charming, medieval city with ancient buildings and cobbled stone streets and therefore this Haarlem, a typical “Dutch” town, is also one of my favourite.
Easily accessible (only 20 minutes from Amsterdam) yet a world away from the major city nearby. This is totally my kind of destination. It reminded me a lot of Amsterdam, but on a quieter note. The pace was a little slower, though filled with life, the presence of tourism less paramount, yet the locals were supremely welcoming. I enjoyed every minute and I often hear Haarlem described as a little city. As it is one of the most densely inhabited metropolitan areas in Europe, this reference is more an interpretation of its village-feel than its populace.
It felt like I was also in a Harry Potter movie. Some parts of the town reminded me of Narnia. I was so refreshed by the character of the close tucked buildings, the bustling cobblestone streets, sprawling galleries and shops, I found myself walking with no purpose but to take it all in. On top of that, the cold weather was beautiful – a perfect winter day. I just love to wander in smaller cities.
The city, which is sometimes nicknamed "little Amsterdam" for its similar aesthetic to the Dutch capital—look for tall, thin wooden houses lining canals and be-suited businessmen whizzing by on their bicycles—is largely off the radar for many tourists, meaning you're likely to get the place all to yourself.
Ten minutes walk from the station, and I was in one of the longest retail streets in the Netherlands: Generaal Cronjé Straat, or the Golden Streets, as affectionately known by locals. It was a retro shopping experience for me.
I had a few favourite shops, each a discovery that were full of character and charm. In almost every instance, I got to talk with the shop owner, which was a great treat, to hear a bit of their own history, their love for the city, and an appreciation for travel that made me appreciate my fortune. They made me feel very welcome and encouraged my exploration.
I found that by exploring the city by foot I was able to slowly take in its charm, character, and surrounding beauty.
People watching will never grow old for me. I love to sit in communal areas and just enjoy witnessing the events of the day unfold, much seemingly simple, yet beautiful. I get a glimpse into life the Haarlem way. As people walk by I like to imagine what their life is like, and whether they find their city as extraordinary as I do. I get to witness others exploring and appreciate the character and mannerisms of the locals and travelers alike. It's the simple observations that often stay with you the most.
It’s impossible to miss Haarlem’s main cathedral, Grote Kerk (or Great Church). This impressive church dates back to the early 14th century and is one of the first sights you see as you enter the main market square. It is here where ten streets converge and the hub of daily life takes place. From the market stalls selling flowers, fish, cheese and bread. Or where locals crisscross through on foot or bike. Or where cafes and restaurants spill out their tables and chairs just waiting for the arrival of their customers. It is so full of life.
The Grote Market sits directly in the centre of town and the Sint Bavo Cathedral towers over it.
It has a certain quintessential European charm and if you enjoy people watching, this is the perfect spot to sit, observe and enjoy a coffee or beer. Many of the iconic Golden Age Dutch artists captured this very same pretty square and all its activity. The other historic building dating back to 1100 is the Town Hall.
What would a visit to a quintessential Dutch town be without a windmill? It was one of main things to see in the Netherlands. Travellers often considered that you had never been to the Netherlands if you did not see an iconic windmill. A beautiful windmill (exactly like on postcards from the Netherlands) is located on the Spaarne river, named Molen De Adriaan. By the way, the Spaarne river and some canals form the downtown of Haarlem.
This historical Molen De Adriaan has been a distinctive feature in the Haarlem skyline for centuries. The De Adriaan windmill took local citizens 70 years to produce enough money to rebuild it after a fire destroyed the mill in 1932. I felt peaceful watching the meditative turn of a windmill. Being able to capture a view of windmill had created a memory to cherish in my travels.
My love for Haarlem shined through I took a relaxed walk around town. I am sure you will leave smiling too and falling in love with this exquisite city. This is where the magic happens and memories are made. I always place a huge amount of importance on the ‘feel’ of any place that I visit. 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; I didn’t spend as much time in Haarlem itself as I definitely could have done. So I think a return trip will be on the cards, after the borders are re-opened for safe travels. If you get the chance to go to Haarlem, or you spot an opportunity to work it into your itinerary – please go !