Harlem, touted as one of the hidden gems of Holland, is just a stone’s throw away from the touristy Amsterdam, and yet it is a world apart. The tiny town offers local Dutch charms without the hassles of a tourist place. Ride a boat, take a walk, or just read a book – the choice is yours.
Grote Markt, Sint Bavokerk, and Weekly Markets.
Grote Markt is the medieval centerpiece of Harlem. With the imposing Sint Bavokerk, a 13th century Catherdral, and as many as ten streets diverging from the square, it is the pulsating heart of the town. The streets, lined by tiny, picturesque café’s and quaint designer stores, are a pleasure to walk on; the sprawling square is perfect to soak in some sun.
To spend a day like the locals, walk down any of the ten roads to the square, settle on a table Al-fresco, and enjoy the best view in town. Gaze at the 700-year-old church and the square that inspired many artists, poets, and writers. Enjoy Dutch delicacies like raw herring, local cheese (Gouda and Edam), a frikandel (little corn-dog sausage), French fries with mayonnaise, stroopwafels (waffles with syrup), poffertjes (little sugar doughnuts). Or just have a locally brewed beer.
The town square is home to weekly markets too. If you happen to be around on a Monday, take time to browse the stalls for clothing. If it is a Saturday, indulge in local cheese, flowers, and fish. Rub shoulders with friendly locals, ask for recipes, and go home to cook something for yourself with the fresh produce. If you are in a hotel, with no access to a kitchen, buy some tulips for the receptionist instead.
Museums, Concerts, and Windmills
Harlem is synonymous with museums. Home to the great artist Franz Hals, the town takes pride in its contribution to modern art. Spend a morning at Franz Hals Museum, with the largest collection of Franz Hals’ paintings as well as those of his predecessors like Floris Claesz van Dijck. The Teylers Museum, close by, is oldest in Netherlands. It combines science and art and it is perfect to visit with children and science lovers.
In the evening catch a free concert at Grote Kerk (Great Church), one of the best-known landmarks in the Netherlands. The 16th-century cathedral, dominated by Holland’s greatest pipe organ (100 feet high, 5,000 pipes strong) was a favourite of musical geniuses like Handel and Mozart and still holds strong.
Windmills and Netherlands go hand in hand. De Adriaan Windmill, on the banks of the river Spaarne is Harleem’s pride. The 250 year old mill was once used to grind limestone; and later tobacco, and corn. Now, it is used only for exhibitions and tours. You can opt for a guided tour, or visit it on your own. The ground floor gives you access to Harleem’s history, the first floor tells you about the mill’s technical aspects, and the top floor gives you a fantastic view of the historic city centre of Harleem.
Boat Tours, Hofjes, and High Street.
Harleem is considered the best place to shop in the Netherlands and Grote Houtstraat shows you why. The quaint pedestrian-only street is lined with chic boutiques, tiny designer stores, and multinational giants that open as early as 8 AM. You can fill your bags with clothes, shoes, minimalistic décor, from Dutch brands like Blokker, Etos, Intertoys or shop in bulk for cosmetics and knick-knack from Hema and Kruidvat.
If shopping gets on to you, take one of the back streets off Grote Houtsraat, walk past ballet schools, gabled townhouses, and cobblestone street, into one of the many Hofjes. These gardens, surrounded by apartments, were once built for the elderly. Now a lot of them are open to public with attached cafés. Hofje Zonder Zorgen, housed in a 15th century building, is closest to the shopping street and serves excellent food and coffee.
A visit to Harleem is incomplete without its canals. You can choose to picnic at the lush grassy banks, or book yourself for a boat tour. The boats typically take you through river Spaarne, Haarlem’s oldest canal, the Bakenessergracht and Nieuwe Gracht. If you are lucky, you’d be able to see the bridge fold up (we did!), if not, the captains stories will keep you entertained, either way, you will return with a heart full of memories.
A version of this story first appeared in The Hindu.