It could be argued that one of the best introductions to Amsterdam actually lies 20 minutes outside of its borders, in the tiny jewel of a city called Haarlem. There, you’ll find bustling global restaurants, smooth-as-glass canals, ornate 17th-century architecture, a thriving bike culture and museums rich with both art and Nazi-resistance history. But in Haarlem, you’ll be able to experience it all in just a single day.
“It’s just like Amsterdam, only smaller,” declared Dion Meinhardt, 23, who was cutting hefty golden triangles of aged Gouda for customers at Kaashuis Tromp, a Haarlem cheese shop whose walls are lined with yellow-wax-encased wheels of the local specialty. “It’s more like a village here.”
Make that a highly sophisticated village. Haarlem — accessible by frequent trains from Amsterdam’s Central Station — is home to not one but four must-see museums, the most renowned of which is the Frans Hals Museum.
In fact, that museum — across town from the train station — is a perfect place to start an exploration of the city, as I found out when I visited in the spring. Begin your journey there, and you can work your way back, exploring the rest of Haarlem’s offerings at a mellow pace.
The Hals is small, but its treasures include dramatic, larger-than-life portraits and genre paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries that belie their intimate surroundings, plus militia-company portraits by Hals, the most famous painter of Haarlem’s 17th-century golden age. There’s a peaceful, leafy courtyard, and when I visited, the galleries were adorned with fragrant white lilies.
Leaving the museum, wind your way through quiet brick lanes and buzzing main thoroughfares lined with cafes and boutiques and jammed with walkers and bicyclists. Soon you will find yourself in the center of Haarlem’s action: the stunning main square, Grote Markt.
It’s a dramatically sweeping space, hemmed in by beautiful brick gabled buildings and the alfresco tables of high-ceilinged brasseries, where folks cram in to enjoy glasses of white beer or wine at the end of balmy workdays. Vendors hawk little paper plates of fresh raw herring with chopped onion, and the tiny De Haerlemsche Vlaamse storefront draws long lines for its paper cones of frites. On Saturday, a farmers’ market moves in with its bundles of white asparagus, hunks of Gouda and Edam cheese and baked goods.
The action is all dwarfed, though, by the square’s star attraction: the Gothic St. Bavo Church, whose elaborately ornamented spire juts 76 meters into the sky, visible from just about any spot in town. The church’s light-filled interior soars with towering white transepts and a gigantic crimson and silver Mueller pipe organ that was played by a young Mozart in the 18th century; organists now frequently give free concerts. I was awed, though, by a simple stroll across the church’s grand floor, made up of nearly 1,500 worn, ebony gravestones, marking tombs below, including that of Frans Hals.
Back outside, you’ll be within a quick walk of the remaining museums, the closest of which is De Hallen, with an art collection that feels like the polar opposite of the Frans Halsmuseum’s. Its stark, modern space of exposed brick and glass features edgy exhibits of modern and contemporary art, placed in jarring layouts over several floors.
Recent shows included pop-culture-based video installations by the American artist Slater Bradley and grainy, close-up portraits by the Dutch photographer Gerard Fieret.
Not far from the square, right on the calm Spaarne River, is the Teylers Museum, the Netherlands’ oldest museum. The pieces laid out through this building, built through the benefits of the will of a merchant and philanthropist, Pieter Teyler van der Hulst, range from the quirky to the urbane. There are fossils, skeletons, tusks, crystals and antique, mad-scientist inventions, many displayed in the stunning, sun-drenched Oval Room, plus salon-style paintings from the Dutch and French schools.
Perhaps the most fervently beloved museum, though, is the Corrie ten Boom Museum, which is tucked down a narrow lane and draws admirers from all over the world. It is the house that ten Boom and her family, deeply religious Christians, ran as a safe haven for Jews hiding from the Nazis during World War II.
The family was eventually caught and sent to concentration camps. But Corrie ten Boom survived, wrote 22 books about her experiences and died in 1983 on her 91st birthday.
I arrived early for one of the hourly tours, and was surprised to find nearly 20 other visitors already milling around in front of the entrance. “Throughout this house, 800 Jewish lives were saved,” our soft-spoken tour guide, Maryke Gehrels, said before allowing everyone to take a turn shimmying into the tight space in the bedroom wall that had served as a hiding place.
From the ten Boom house, you can choose a nearby restaurant at which to wind up your Haarlem day (there are fine Indonesian, Belgian, Dutch, Italian, Turkish and Spanish restaurants within short strolls). Or you can opt for a more wind-in-your-hair ending by hopping the No. 81 bus to the beautiful beach of Bloemendaal aan Zee.
I opted for the latter, and was thrilled to find that the short jaunt took me to another world — a sweeping, sandy beach along the North Sea and the rolling dunes of a nature reserve, with a lineup of sleek beachfront restaurants to boot. Lido Bloemendaal had a festive vibe and tasty food, and a sea-facing counter where I dined and watched the sunset with my feet in the sand.
I was still back in Amsterdam by bedtime — but not before passing through Haarlem once again, and noticing, after the seaside escape, that it resembled the lovely big city more than ever.