No matter how many times I tell friends I live in Haarlem, every time we chat, they ask: “so how is life in Amsterdam?” Haarlem, people, Haarlem! There is so much more about the Netherlands than Amsterdam.
We stumbled upon the “Spaarnestad” (city of Spaarne) one sunny, summery, Saturday morning. With its bustling market, and happy, chatty people wandering and cycling all across its cobbled streets, Haarlem cast a bit of her magic on us. So, in mid-2018, we made Haarlem our home, and we have no regrets.
Well connected for travel
Haarlem is the capital of Noord-Holland. If you travel by train west of Amsterdam, it will take you about 20 minutes to reach. With something like 148 trains per day, it is an easy commute; actually quicker than on the tube from Zone 3 to Zone 1 in London!
From Haarlem, you can wiggle your toes on the beach in less than 30 minutes; depending on your mode of transport and choice of the coastal stretch. Oh yes, you actually have a choice!
If you wish to work outside of Haarlem, the commute to Leiden, Den Haag, Rotterdam, and Utrecht takes at most an hour, with excellent public transport links. And for any international journeys, you can be checked into your flight at Schiphol in under 30 minutes; if you go by car, that is.
Idyllic nature and quaint streets
This charming city is, of course, the gateway for visiting the tulip fields and Keukenhof during the flower season in spring. The river Spaarne runs languidly through Haarlem. During the summer months, evening picnics on its banks and borrel cruises on its waters are a common sight. Not so much during wintertime, but let’s not spoil this idyllic scene with a discussion of the Dutch weather!
The city of Haarlem dates back to 1245. No surprises that it is an aesthetically pleasing and historic little city with narrow cobbled streets, hofjes, green spaces, and its pièce de résistance, the St. Bavo Kerk (Church) on Grote Markt (central square). Not to be confused with the St. Bavo Cathedral; an equally imposing grand lady with her ornate copper dome.
Grote Markt is, however, the heart of the city, with weekly markets and many annual events, such as the Bloemencorso (flower parade), Haarlem Jazz & More, Haarlem Cullinaire, and Haarlemse Stripdagen. The smaller Botermarkt offers a variety of weekly markets.
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.
Diverse demographics and language
Around 71% of Haarlem’s residents are Dutch, although the international community is steadily growing. Compared to Amsterdam, Haarlem may come across as a bit of a sleepy hollow and in fairness is not as diverse, colourful, nor as quirky or edgy as Amsterdam or London. But then, I should not compare anything to the vibrancy of London. Haarlem is often called little Amsterdam, which I feel undermines the unique and pleasant character of my hometown.
Like most of the Netherlands, it is easy to get by in English, but if you want to integrate more and speak Dutch this is the perfect place to learn. Dutch, spoken in Haarlem, is called Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands (general decent Dutch) or ABN for short. ABN simply means it is one of the easiest Dutch accents to understand.
Bursting with culture and activities
After living here for a while, I’ve come to appreciate the various cultural and entertainment activities on offer. For theatre and music, there is the Stadschouwburg-en -Philharmonie (municipal theatre and philharmonic), as well as the Toneel-en-Filmschuur(which have both plays and art films on offer). De Pletterij, where you’ll often find me behind a camera, offers more fringe music and serious debates.
I cannot refer to De Pletterijwithout noting their neighbour, De Werelkeuken. Here, the chefs are new Haarlemmmers, who cook together like one big, diverse family. They offer their guests, a unique experience of world cuisine; a little taste of the home they left behind.
Music and Comedy
This little city also hosts many significant events such as De Houtfestival (which I love due to its family-friendly and green vibe) and the massive Bevrijdingspop. One of my favourite food festivals in Haarlem is Proefpark in August: a delicious, family-friendly foodie’s delight. Sadly, all of these events will only happen again in 2021.
Haarlem is a family-friendly city. There is certainly no scarcity when it comes to clubs and events for children. Websites and applications such as Kidsproof Haarlem and Mugjes are brilliant resources, both for weekly events but also for ongoing clubs or groups. One of my favourite autumn events, in October, is the Lichtjestocht in Nationaalpark Zuid-Kennemerland. You amble through the dunes after sunset, with only lanterns (battery operated ones for safety, of course) to guide the way.
Not that I want to mention the weather again, I don’t. But, on those cold, rainy, and windy days, Haarlem offers a wide choice of museums and art galleries to peruse. Not that it has to be rotten weather to visit any of these cultural beauties, but you know, when the sun is ‘a -shinin’, I am ‘a-playin’ outside.
Shops to drop for and…
With its extensive range of big brands and quirky independent shops, especially the Goude Straatjes (Little Golden Streets) in the centrum, Haarlem is quipped as ‘the place to shop’. Speaking of independent shops, there are a few shop owners known for their eccentric natures, making it quite the experience to enter their world. Thursdays are koopavond (shopping evening) when many shops are open till 9 pm.
Ten minutes walk from the station, and you are in one of the longest retail streets in the Netherlands: Generaal Cronjé Straat, or the Cronjé, as affectionately known by locals. It’s a retro shopping experience.
…Coffee and dining to die for
Haarlem is proud of its gastronomical flair and diverse cuisine choices; from cosy cafés to hip coffee bars to romantic and family-friendly restaurants and even fine dining; boasting a Michelin star or three. The list of great eateries are far too long to review here and can only be done justice in another focused write-up.
Being a bit of a coffee snob, I am spoiled for choice. My vote of where to go for the best coffee in Haarlem is Native, Ax Speciality Coffee, Cleeff, Mogador, Mica Coffee Bar, By Lima, and Het Koffie Kantoor. That’s definitely a whole article on its own! I am not naive in thinking my list is exhausted; I’m just a creature of habit by returning to my favourite coffee spots.
A stone’s throw from beaches
Its proximity to the beaches is a big drawing card. We prefer to cycle, especially in summer as traffic jams frustrate the crowd of beach dwellers. There are trains every 30 mins to Zandvoort-aan-Zee, or you can jump on Bus 80.
Bloemendaal-aan-Zee, slightly north of Zandvoort-aan-Zee, can also be reached within 20 minutes with Bus 81, which will take you past the dunes. We consider ourselves Haarlemmers, which translate into a preference for Parnassia-aan-Zee, north of Bloemendaal-aan-Zee, reachable by bicycle or car.
Alternatively, a 12-minute cycle south of Zandvoort-aan-Zee, and a big climb up a dune, you reach Zuidstrand 7 — a nudist beach. I prefer Zuidstrand 7, not because we are nudists (we are not), but for its tranquillity and serenity. It also boasts the wonderfully unconventional and cosy strandpaviljoen, Fosfor. Here, we’ve spent many happy hours swinging in the hanging chair, sipping cocktails, and nibbling delicious bites.
Choice of nature hotspots
Haarlem offers superb choices for the nature lover, the runner, the hiker, the cyclist, their children, and their dog with the Nationaal Park Zuid-Kennemerland. Spending time at the small inland lakes and recreational areas such as ‘t Wed, Westbroekplas, Meerwijkplas, Veerplas, and Molenplas is a must, especially with children. On the banks of Veerplas, is the cheerful Het Veerkwartier. A delightful cafe with a variety of events on offer.
Haarlem boasts two luscious urban forests, De Haarlemmerhout and Elswout. De Hout, outside my door; is where we spend hours, exploring the Netherlands oldest urban forest, while Elswout is also home to a great children’s theatre.
A short bike ride south of Haarlem and you reach the magical and bigger Wandelbos Groenendaal (walking forest) with a kinderboerderij (petting farm) and a large speeltuin (playground). Speaking of speeltuinen, parents are spoilt with choice, with lovely playgrounds dotted all over Haarlem.
Yes, the more people greet me when I am cycling along or browsing in the centre, the more I know, Haarlem is a little city with a big heart.
Have you visited Haarlem? Thinking of making it your home, or already made the jump? Tell us what you love about it in the comments below!
Feature Image: Magdalena Laas Photography/Supplied