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Haarlem Travel Guide

Vleeshal, Haarlem


Haarlem (pop. 147,000) is the capital of the province of North Holland. The city is located on the river Spaarne, about 20 km west of Amsterdam and near the coastal dunes. It has been the historical center of the tulip bulb-growing district for centuries and bears the nickname of Bloemenstad ("flower city") for this reason.

The New York neighbourhood of Harlem, in Manhattan, was founded by Dutch settlers in the 17th century and was originally called Nieuw Haarlem (New Haarlem).


Medieval period

The name Haarlem comes from "Haarloheim" or "Harulahem", which means "wooden place on high sandy soil". First mentioned in the 10th century, Haarlem had become a fortified town by the 12th century, then a residence of the Counts of Holland.

In 1219, the knights of Haarlem, under the command of Count William I of Holland, conquered the Egyptian port of Damietta (present-day Dimyat) during the Fifth Crusade. The events were depicted by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen (ca. 1580-1633), in a painting exhibited at the Franz Hals Museum (see below). This feat gave Haarlem the right to bear the Count's sword and cross on its coat of arms. Haarlem obtained city rights, along with some judiciary privileges, under Count William II in 1245.

Capture of Damietta by Frisian crusaders from Haarlem, by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, Franz Hals Museum

Several great fires completely destroyed the city in 1328, 1347, and 1351. The city was reconstructed in a near-square shape, based on the ancient plan of Jerusalem. The old castle had become obsolete and was not rebuilt after the fires, but replaced by the town hall.

More calamities befell on Haarlem, with the Black Death that hit the city in 1381, killing half of the population. The city was then the second largest in Holland, after Dordrecht, though its population did not exceed 10,000 people before the plague cut it in half.

At the end of the Middle Ages Haarlem was a flourishing city with a large textile industry, shipyards and beer breweries. Around 1428 the city was put under siege by the army of Jacqueline, Countess of Hainaut during the Hook and Cod wars (1350-1490).

Renaissance period

During the Dutch Revolt (1568-1648), the city was besieged by the Spaniards from November 1572 to July 1573. Hunger rose, and after failed attempts by William of Orange to free the city, it finally surrendered. Many of the defending soldiers were slaughtered or drown in the Spaarne River. Another fire ravaged the city in October 1576. The siege and fire had left one third of Haarlem in ashes.

The Spanish left in 1577 and under the Agreement of Veere, Protestants and Catholics were given equal rights. A large influx of Flemish and French Huguenot immigrants, fleeing religious persecutions, came to revive the city's economy. The new citizens had a lot of expertise in linen and silk trading, and the city's population grew from 18,000 in 1573 to around 40,000 in 1622. At one point, in 1621, over 50% of the population was Flemish-born.

From the Dutch Republic to present

Spaarne river in Haarlem (© BasSlabbers |

The newly independent Netherlands experienced a Golden Age during the 17th century. Haarlem became an important beer brewing and tulips trading centre. It was the epicenter during tulip mania that peaked in 1636-37. At the time, tulips were traded on the stock exchanges of numerous Dutch towns and cities. Some bulbs were sold at the exorbitant price of 2,500 florins apiece, the equivalent of 80 pigs, or 25,000 kg of butter !

The Leidsevaart a canal linking Leiden to Haarlem, opened in 1656. It became popular to alternative to coach on the route from Rotterdam to Amsterdam.

The importance of Haarlem as a trade centre decreased in the 18th century to the profit of Amsterdam. In 1795, under the influence of the French Revolution, a group of dissidents of the ruling House of Orange-Nassau overthrew the regime and installed the Batavian Republic, modeled on the new French Republic. The Batavian Republic immediately signed a mutual defence pact with France. The French army entered Haarlem two days later, and their 1,500 soldiers were provided with food and clothing by the citizens.

In the 19th century, the textile trade declined sharply, but the economy got a push with the arrival of the railway in 1839 - the country's very first train line. The first horse tram appeared in 1878, and in 1899 the first Dutch electric tram ran in Haarlem. The population boomed, passing from 37,000 in 1879 to 69,000 in 1909, then progressively merging with surrounding towns.



Grote Markt, Haarlem
St Bavo's Church, Haarlem

Haarlem is a wonderfully preserved city, dating mostly from the 17th century . The centre is compact enough to walk around. Like other cities in Holland (or in Flanders for that matter), the focal point is the Grote Markt (market square), around which everything revolves. This is where you will find the main buildings, like the Renaissance-style Stadhuis (town hall) and Vleeshal (old meat market), the Verweyhal (old fish market), the 13th-century Hoofdwacht (city guards headquarters), and the Gothic-style Sint-Bavokerk (St Bavo's Church).

Crossing the Inner Spaarne River, just west of the market square, you will find a black windmill rising above the roofline. Named De Adriaan, it has been one of the symbols of Haarlem since its original construction in 1779. It burnt down a couple of times, and was last rebuilt in 2002.

Not far away, the Amsterdamse Poort (Amsterdam's Gate) is the only remaining city gate. It was constructed in 1355, and escaped destruction in 1865, when the other citu gates were torn down.

At the northern extremity of the city centre is the art nouveau railway station. It was first opened in 1839 to accommodate the passengers of the first railway in the Netherlands, linking Haarlem to Amsterdam. The present building dates from 1908.

About 1.5 km south-west of the central market square, stands the Neo-Gothic Cathedral of Saint Bavo. It was built in 1898 by the Catholic community, after their original cathedral on the Grote Markt had been converted into a Protestant church in 1578, and their next cathedral, St Joseph's, had become too small.

Villa Welgelege

Off-the-beaten-track, in the Haarlemmerhout south of town, Villa Welgelegen is a neoclassical stately home that used to house the Welgelegen Museum. It was built from 1785 to 1789 by the rich Amsterdam merchant banker Henry Hope (1735-1811), as a summer home. Henry Hope was so influential that he persuaded the Haarlem local government to redesign the public parks Frederickspark and Haarlemmerhout on both sides of the palace. He had many famous visitors to this palace, including William V of Orange, who visited with his wife, Princess Wilhelmina of Prussia, and Thomas Jefferson in 1788.

During the Napoleonic period, the villa was used by the new King of Holland, Louis Bonaparte. After the collapse of the French Empire, Princes Wilhelmina of Prussia used the villa as a summer palace and opened it to the public as a museum. The museum was replaced by the provincial government of North Holland in 1930. Nowadays, Villa Welgelege is only open to the public for walking tours on Open Monumentendag (Open Monuments' Day).

Frans Hals Museums

Haarlem's windmill on the Spaarne River (© Jana Shea |

The Frans Hals Museum has an impressive collection of paintings by Dutch masters from Haarlem. Not surprising when one knows that over 100,000 paintings were produced in Haarlem between 1605 and 1635.

The museum opened in 1913, and is housed in the old Oudemannenhuis (Old Menīs Alms House), a home for elderly men founded in 1609.

There are a dozen works by Frans Hals (1580-1666), including eight group portraits. Hals, after whom the museum is named, ended his impoverished life in this very almshouse. Two of his painting in the museum are known as the Regents & the Regentesses of the Old Menīs Alms House.

Among the more famous paintings on display is a modern exhibit with explanatory text showing the paintings in relation to historical events and the economic history of Haarlem. One of them is the fabel about the Haarlem 'crusade' to Damietta.

Teylers Museum

The Teylers Museum is the oldest museum of the Netherlands (1778). It is in the former home of Pieter Teyler van der Hulst (1702-1778), a wealthy cloth merchant and philanthropist, after whom the museum was named. Displays include an eclectic collection of fossils, minerals, scientific instruments, medals, coins, and paintings. It is most famous for its extensive collection of old master's prints (over 25,000 of them) and drawings (over 10,000), including several works by Michelangelo and Rembrandt.


How to get there

Haarlem is located 10km west of Amsterdam, with which it has numerous road connections. If you are coming from further away by car, follow the directions for Amsterdam first.

The city is a 15min ride away from Amsterdam Central Station. There are also direct trains from Leiden (20min), The Hague (35 to 45 min), or Rotterdam (50min).

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