Why I love Haarlem: a local’s guide to the Spaarnestad

No matter how many times I tell my friends I live in Haarlem, every time we chat, they ask — “So how is life in Amsterdam?” Haarlem, people, Haarlem! Trust me, there is so much more to the Netherlands than Amsterdam. 

We stumbled upon the Spaarnestad (city on the river 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.  

It’s well-connected for travel

Haarlem is the capital of Noord-Holland and it will take you about 20 minutes to reach by train from Amsterdam. With something like 148 trains per day, though, it is an easy commute. 🚆

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.

For any international journeys, you can be checked into your flight at Schiphol in under 30 minutes — if you go to the airport by car, that is. 

It boasts 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.

Keen to see the Dutch tulip fields? Haarlem has that too. Image: Magdalena Laas Photography/Supplied

READ MORE | The Dutch and tulips: how did tulips in the Netherlands become a thing?

Moreover, then 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 on the Dutch weather!

The city of Haarlem dates back to 1245. No surprise 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 St. Bavo) on Grote Markt (Central Square).

Not to be confused with the St. Bavo Cathedral, though, which is an equally imposing grand lady with her ornate copper dome.

Imagine seeing scenes like this every single day. Image: Magdalena Laas Photography/Supplied

With its weekly markets, Grote Markt is the heart of the city. It is also where many exciting annual events take place, such as the Bloemencorso (flower parade), Haarlem Jazz & More, Haarlem Cullinaire, and Haarlemse Stripdage. The smaller Botermarkt offers a variety of weekly markets.  

READ MORE | 16 Haarlem museums that are well worth a visit

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 of an interpretation of its village-like vibe than its populace.

It has a diverse demographic and language

Around 67% 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 all fairness, is not as diverse, colourful, or quirky and edgy as the Dutch capital.

However, Haarlem is often called little Amsterdam, which I feel undermines the unique and pleasant character of my hometown.  

READ MORE | 21 beautiful towns in the Netherlands that aren’t Amsterdam

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 understandleuk!

Haarlem is spectacular. But Haarlem in the autumn? Yes please. Image: Magdalena Laas Photography/Supplied

It’s 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 & Philharmonie (municipal theatre and philharmonic), as well as the theatre & film house called Toneelschuur & Filmschuur.

On the other hand, De Pletterij offers more fringe music and serious debates.

I cannot refer to De Pletterij without noting their neighbour, De Werelkeuken. Here, the chefs are new Haarlemmers. They offer their guests a unique experience of world cuisine and little tastes of the homes they left behind.

READ MORE | 18 charming things to do in Haarlem

Music and Comedy

Quite a few pubs and cafés in Haarlem have a live music line-up. Both the Haarlem Comedy Club and the Haarlem Comedy Factory will tickle your funny bone with a varied bill of Dutch and international comedians. 

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.

It’s family-friendly

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 is the Lichtjestocht, which takes place in October in the national park 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, but on those cold, rainy 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.

It has shops to drop for

Haarlem is ‘the place to shop’ with its extensive range of big brands and quirky independent shops, especially the Goude Straatjes (Little Golden Streets).

Speaking of independent shops, there are a few shop owners known for their eccentric natures, making it quite the experience to enter their world. Every Thursday, there is a koopavond (shopping evening) when many shops are open till 9 PM. 

Haarlem a top-notch shopping destination. Image: Magdalena Laas Photography/Supplied

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 it is affectionately known by the locals, offers a retro shopping experience.

It has the best coffee and dining scene

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, the list of great eateries is 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. But this is also a topic that’s definitely worth a whole article on its own!

It’s a stone’s throw from beaches

Beaches? Yep, Haarlem has those as well. Image: Magdalena Laas Photography/Supplied

Haarlem’s proximity to the beaches is a big drawing card. Whether you cycle or take the train, numerous beaches are easily reachable from Haarlem.

To get to Zandvoort aan Zee, jump on bus 80 or take the train, which goes every 30 minutes. 

Bloemendaal aan Zee is another great option and can also be reached within 20 minutes with bus 81. As a Haarlemmer, my personal favourite is Parnassia aan Zee, which can be easily reached by bike or car. 

READ MORE | Best beaches in the Netherlands: the ultimate guide to Dutch beaches

Alternatively, a 12-minute cycle south of Zandvoort aan Zee, and a big climb up a dune, there’s also Zuidstrand 7 — a nudist beach. While not a nudist myself, I prefer Zuidstrand 7 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 on cocktails, and nibbling delicious bites.  

It offers a choice of nature hotspots

Haarlem’s national park Zuid-Kennemerland offers superb choices for the nature lover, the runner, the hiker, and the cyclist alike.

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 café with a variety of events on offer.

Not a fan of the beach? Just head to the national park instead. Image: Magdalena Laas Photography/Supplied

Additionally, Haarlem boasts two luscious urban forests, De Haarlemmerhout and Elswout.

De Hout is where we spend hours exploring the Netherlands’ oldest urban forest, while Elswout is a great place to check out a wonderful children’s theatre

READ MORE | Hiking in the Netherlands: 4 myths, busted

A short bike ride south of Haarlem and you reach the magical Wandelbos Groenendaal 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. 

Have you visited Haarlem? Tell us what you love about it in the comments below!

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in June 2020, and was fully updated in March 2023 for your reading pleasure.

Magdalena Laas
Magdalena Laas
Magdalena is a psychology and education graduate, toying with the idea to eventually obtain her PhD. For now, she's having fun telling stories, be it with words, stills or moving pictures. Born in South Africa, adopted by New Zealand, and welcomed by the United Kingdom, she's currently learning to cycle with an umbrella, in the Netherlands; with her husband, son and well-travelled cat, Juno.

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  1. My Oma was born in Haarlem, married my Opa in Haarlem. My mother grew up in Zandvoort, my aunt lived above her shop in Heemstede and died in Haarlem. My great aunts and a great uncle all lived in Vogelenzang. My uncle’s wife’s sister lived in Haarlem. I have a lot of reasons to love Haarlem. It’s a great place. Love it.❤️

  2. Ah, Haarlem. I/we have visited this wonderful city 3 times now and we have a very fond memory and what compelled me to write this, was the memory is all about the Friethuis in the picture. A few years ago i brought my wife here while visitng friends in Amsterdam. Along with a visit to St. Bavos and Franz Hals Museum, we stooped at the Freithuis and indulged ourselves in a cone of friets. We’ll never have friets as good as they were. Thank you for the article about Haarlem.

  3. My mother was born in Haarlem and lived there with my Oma and Opa during the occupation in WW II. My father was in the US Army and married my mother there shortly after the war. I wish I could share a marriage photo of them that I have in front of her home on Orionweg across from Zaanenpark. They were a handsome couple. I flew from Oregon in the USA and visited Haarlem in 2015, staying for one month.

  4. Fantastic !! My daughter send it ! Hubby and I are both (he’s born n raised there)from Haarlem (me ijmuiden)so we know de “stad”well ! It’s still beautiful n it’s surroundings !

  5. Loved your article. I’ll be in Harleem on 23 April with friends, and felt inspired.
    Saving this article.

  6. By visiting the nude beach while staying dressed you disturb our local culture. If you don’t like getting naked on the Zandvoort nude beach please go somewhere else. Plenty of beaches to go!

  7. I miss Haarlem very much. Although it has changed a lot, demographically. Seems like the working class has disappeared and now I only see and hear “potato in the troath” kind of people in the inner city.
    Haarlem, for me, is way out kf reach because of the insane housing prices. I have fond memories of Haarlem but the town I said goodbye to 20 years ago, is gone. Only for the people who are well to do.


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