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    by mkataoka Fodor's Editor | Posted on Nov 28, 16 at 01:31 PM
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Trip Report Haarlem, a brilliant choice as a base, Delft and Utrecht

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This a reposting. The original was posted 11 months ago but doesn't show up on my Trip Report list. Hence the reposting. It is actually several posts combined, and thus long.

Following Antwerp our plan was to spend 6 nights in Haarlem and use it as our base. Both Mi Chica and I agree it was probably the single best decision we made on this trip. When planning our trip, I posted the question of Haarlem as a base instead of Amsterdam and our responses from hetismij and hopscotch’s postings encourage that thought. The clincher for us however was the advice of a Dutch neighbor recently arrived in the US. I was speaking to him about our then plans for basing in Amsterdam and he strongly suggested Haarlem instead. He felt that Amsterdam as a large international city does not have the feel of a “real” Dutch city and would not give a visitor a truly Dutch experience that one would get in a smaller city like Haarlem. The convenient train schedule to Amsterdam of 4 trains/hour for a fifteen minute trip and his contention that Haarlem was an excellent value compared to Amsterdam strongly influenced our decision. We have found that the ambience of a place and meeting local people has always turned out to be the most enjoyable and memorable parts of our travels.

Our trip from Antwerp to Haarlem was uneventful and we opted for a taxi from the station to Stempels, our hotel. We had researched hotel possibilities in Haarlem and chose Stempels simply because we liked the look of their web-site and the fact that they have a computer in each room that is free for guest use. We made our reservation through Hoteliers.com and it was quick and easy with almost instantaneous confirmation. Our request was for a standard room in a quiet part of the hotel. As neither of us had been to Haarlem before, we did not really know what to expect in terms of location and it was interesting to learn that as far as location is concerned, most hotels that we had seen on various internet sites were in fact quite close to one another clustering in and around the Grote Markt. One exception was the Golden Tulip that is just opposite the train station and as it turned out, not in a location where we would have been the most happy.

We arrived at the hotel with the carillon in the square playing and a wedding taking place on the terrace at the hotel’s entrance – what a wonderful start that was! Stempels is just yards from the cathedral, down the street from Haarlem’s Philharmonic Hall, around the corner from the Grote Markt and generally, in the heart of everything. We walked into the hotel and were immediately impressed by the elegance of the lobby. Although fairly new as a hotel, the building is historic and the original touches of elegance have been retained and restored. Our request for a room in a quiet part of the hotel had been noted before our arrival and as a result we were upgraded at no additional cost from a standard to a superior room (#21) on an upper floor. In fact, we had confirmed at a price of 85 euros before a 10 euro rate increase had gone into effect and our lower price was honored. What a deal. In contrast to the renovated public area, the room was thoroughly modern. The computer was there as was a flat screen TV. The room had ceilings that were at least 12 feet high, beamed ceiling, huge double glazed windows that had a motorized outside screen that could be lowered to cut the light while permitting a view. The bed was the most comfortable of the trip and the bath was large with plenty of hot water and excellent pressure in the enclosed shower. Needless to say, our initial impression was most favorable.

For lunch, we made quick work of several matjes herrings from the stand in the Grote Markt and made note of the nearby poffertjes stand nearby. Taking advantage of the weather and that we still had most of the afternoon ahead we headed off for Keukenhoff to see what was still in bloom.

We were concerned that we would be arriving in Holland (May 9) too late to see the Tulips. We should only have been half- way concerned. Arriving in Haarlem in the very early afternoon, we had plenty of time to take advantage of the fine weather and get out to Keukenhoff for the remainder of the day. We thought it would be a quick and easy walk back to the bus station, located just outside the train station. It would have been if we had not followed the sign on the far end of the Grote Markt shaped like an arrow and marked "station." Simply said it pointed down the wrong street and set us on a 90 degree tangent to the direction that we needed.

After walking for far too long, we asked directions and about 40 minutes later arrived at the station. It is actually a 10 minute walk on an interesting route that was actually very nice. We checked at the tourist office next to the station about buses to Keukenhof and it was suggested that we buy a ticket that combined admission with bus fare. We could use that ticket to return to either Haarlem, Amsterdam, or Leiden - it was 19 euro. Whether that is a good buy I really don't know but it was convenient. The 50 and 51 bus go to Keukenhof and takes about 45 minutes. We arrived about 2:30. We passed tulip fields on the way and they were mostly bare.

I am sorry for those arriving in Holland after the gardens closed because they are missing a unique display of bulbs that I imagine is unmatched anywhere else. Not only were most of the tulips there still in bloom, but there were also some indoor displays that were spectacular, especially the lily exhibition. A half day was just right.

We were glad to return to Haarlem and the comfort of our hotel where we may have been the only Americans in the place. For whatever reason, we both were not particularly hungry so we found a broodjes shop near the hotel where we had some nice aged cheese, fruit salad and fresh squeezed orange juice. The owner had worked for a year in Michigan and we had a good conversation about Holland in general and Haarlem and Michigan in particular. All was just right! Getting ahead of myself some, I should say that we were very impressed by the friendliness of the people in Haarlem and found that we had a great comfort level there in general.

Afterwoods we saw a line outside a gelato shop that is one of the little shops that run along the side of the cathedral. There were flavors of gelato that I never heard of and it became a mission to try all of those that were unfamiliar before the end of our trip - I am proud to say that we succeeded although towards the end we had to get 3 and then four scoops at a time. Oh! the sacrifices made in the name of research.

Breakfast was not included in the room price and at 9.5 euro/person we were not sure if we would eat at the hotel or in one of the many nearby cafes and restaurants. We tried it our first morning and were sold. The hotel serves a buffet style breakfast that includes several kinds of bread including delecious brown bread, croissants both plain and chocolate, new cheese, aged cheese, fresh mozzerela, boiled eggs, herbed eggs, 4 kinds of meat including a very fine prosciutto and roast beef, yogurts, fruit salad, fresh juice, any kind of coffee one could want, etc. The quality of the food was first rate and baked goods are made in their own kitchens. You know a croissant is fresh when you tear off an end and scald your fingers from the steam.

We had breakfast there daily, and actually it was a money saver since the breakfast was so good and plentiful that we needed little if anything for lunch. A stop at a herring stand sufficed. Some people balk at the thought of raw herring, but it is something that I was brought up with since my grandfather sold it in his shop. I haven't had matjes herring nearly as good since I was a kid and truth be told, the matjes at the herring stands in Holland was better than I remembered. It was something that we looked forward to.

Having "done" Keukenhof we needed to plan our day trips. One or two days would be in Amsterdam, one in a greater exploration of Haarlem, one in Delft and one left to decide later. We decided to do two days in Amsterdam and one of those would be on Pentecost since places in central Amsterdam would be open, but we were told shops in smaller cities would be closed.

Plenty of posters have talked about Amsterdam and we do not have much to add that would be new. I had been there before with my son but it was the first time for Mi Chica. We did the usual museum things, took a canal boat ride that was very enjoyable and informative, and otherwise walked our feet off. One museum that stands out was the Jewish history museum. One does not have to be Jewish to appreciate it and IMO it is an examplar of what such museums should be. Two hours there was sufficient.

All in all, our Dutch neighbor was right as far as city tastes are concerned. Amsterdam is a large and busy international city and we prefer smaller cities that have more of a local flavor, not that there is not much to see and do, there is, but it is a matter of personal taste.

We spent an afternoon at the Frans Hals museum as part of our Haarlem day. This museum meets my tourist's ideal of an art museum in that combines art of the highest quality in a beautiful setting and is not too big to fully appreciate in the limited time that a tourist, who can not repeatedly revisit, can usually devote. Although the name of the museum implies that it is devoted to the work of Hals, it is much more than that. My father was an artist whose specialty was portraits and illuminated manuscripts and so I grew up with a special affinity for the art of the portrait. The specialty, but not sole focus of the Hals museum is his historical portraits of individuals and groups and those of other artists. When we were there, the museum featured a special collection of the works of Jan de Bray as well as other members of the de Bray family, also distinguished artists in their own right. Not being very familiar with the work of the de Brays we found this exhibition a special and most enjoyable experience that led to a greater appreciation of their work.

We also visited the Teyler Museum. We chose this museum because of its historical significance (it is the oldest museum in Holland) and were interested in its interior architecture as well as its collections. The word eclectic best describes this museum whose exhibits include fossils, minerals, scientific instruments, coins, paintings and drawings and even models used in early "magic" acts that showed how they worked, and more. It reminds of all of the Smithsonian museums rolled into one on a small scale. A most interesting place.

Our Haarlem day also included a walk along the Spaarne River that was only one block from our hotel, and a general walking exploration of the city as well as a canal boat tour. Note for those visiting Holland. Canal boat tours in general seem to stop running at 5 or 6 PM, so get them in early. Dinner was at our favorite sidewalk restaurant on the Grote Markt called Brinkmans. We found it to have the kind of food that we like, that is, mainly vegetarian and good prices as well. We particularly liked their vegetarian pancake that was huge and delicious with lots of veggies and of course dinner was followed by a gelato dessert at Bartoly's to cap off a perfect day marred only in that we had hoped to visit the Corrie Ten Boom house, a Christian home that served as a refuge during the Nazi occupation, but it was closed on that day.

To sum up, Haarlem was everything we hoped for and more. Our hotel was great with a fantastic location just opposite the St. Bavo Cathedral, around the corner from the Grote Markt and a block from the Spaarne. It was convenient to visit Amsterdam and is a beautiful and historic city filled with friendly people.

We continued to stay in Haarlem as a base and took a daytrip to Delft. I believe the trip from Haarlem was about 45 minutes but it was a direct train, thus convenient. From the train station it was a short walk to the center and the Grote Markt where Mi Chica found a small lace shop next to the tourist info office. This was a very small shop that had a number of antique and older items and we spent a fair amount of time while she picked up some lace that pleased her eye. The prices there seemed better than those in Brugge.

One of the things that we wanted to do there was to tour one of the workshops where Delftware is made and originally intended to visit De Delftse Pauw workshop because we particularly like their website but looking at our newly purchased map, we decided to visit Royal Delft instead because it was much closer. The tour was pretty interesting and we spent a lot of time in the shop now that we were experts, picking out a few items as we had planned to do - a goal had been to bring back some Delftware bought in Delft.

Leaving Royal Delft we saw a veloped pull up and hired it for a ride back to center city - it was fun and fast but somehow I felt like an exploiting aristocrat. The cost was 6 euro for the both of us and was a bargain on a hot day.

We did some exploratory walking using a walking tour guide that we picked up at the info office and ended up at the windmill. When there is blue flag flying from the windmill, it is open for visitors inside but we had no such luck. Our plan then was to take a canal tour and on the way back we saw a lot of black smoke in the distance. After grabbing a quick herring snack I went to buy the tour tickets and asked the young man in the booth if he knew what the smoke was from. It was the Architecture building of the University that eventually was completely destroyed along with invaluable historic archives. By coincidence the young man selling tickets was also the tour guide and was an architecture student at the university and his entire year's work and models were destroyed in the fire. Despite what he had to be feeling, his canal tour was the best and most informative of the tours we had taken. This kid knew his stuff!

Our day in Delft ended with coffee and poffertjes at one of the places in the Markt and a bit more shopping. A quick walk back to the station and a direct train ride and we were back in Haarlem

I neglected to mention earlier that Delft offers much of interest and beauty. The city's compact size makes it very walkable and it is well worth a visit. We passed a small Best Western hotel that was on the canal and looked very nice. If we ever have an opportunity to overnight in Delft we will check it out.

Our last day was May 14 and it had an inauspicious start. Our plan was to do the tourist thing and visit Volendam. I had been there once before and thought Mi Chica would like it - besides you can get some great herring there. To get to Volendam from Haarlem, you need to take the train to Amsterdam and a bus from there. One person told me there was a boat that would take you there from Haarlem, but that was not true - it would have been nice if it was.

We took our last walk to the Haarlem station stopping at the Wolky shoe store on the way for a look around - Mi Chica is a big fan of Wolky shoes and wanted to see the latest styles. The prices were higher than in the US but of course there was a much larger selection.

We boarded the train to Amsterdam and were on our way - or so we thought. About half way to Amsterdam, the train came to a stop. After standing for quite a while, I looked out of the window down the track and saw an ambulance and flashing lights. Word filtered back that the train ahead of us hit a car crossing the track. After a few more minutes, our train reversed direction and headed back. There was a long announcement in Dutch that we did not understand. Seeing that we were tourists with puzzled faces speaking English, a young man came over and told us that the announcement was that we would go back to Haarlem where there would be another train waiting to take us to Lieden where we would change trains once again to Amsterdam. He was a university student and told us he would stay with us to show us which trains to take. The fellow was quite a conversationalist and very interested in both Dutch and American politics and the time passed quickly to Amsterdam even though it took more than an hour to get there. The young fellow was an Obama fan which did not surprise us since everyone we met on our travels seemed to be rooting for Obama, young and old alike (this of course was before the election).

We parted ways in Amsterdam and walked over to the bus station where the Volendam bus would be. Strange, it was almost empty - that is when we learned that it was the first day of a 2 day day bus driver strike. We could have taken a private tour bus but looking at its schedule - three tourist stops on a four hour tour- decided it was not for us. No Volendam for us on this trip.

Our Dutch neighbor had mentioned that Utrecht was one of his favorite places so we decided to go there and check it out. This turned out to be another example of good coming from bad because we very much enjoyed Utrecht and we are glad that we did not miss it. Utrecht is a good sized city, larger than Haarlem and Delft but much smaller than Amsterdam. The canal and many of the places of interest are but a short walk from the station, so it is convenient as well.

The skyline is dominated by the Dom of St. Martins Cathedral - a 13th century cathedral that should not be missed with its spectacular stained glass windows depicting old and new testament characters and scenes. The tourist info office is just outside the cathedral.

Walking along the canal, we came upon a small antiques shop and stopped in. Among the usual eclectic collection of small items they had some very interesting blueware plates. There was an interesting set of plates that dated to WW I depicting scenes of the war and of the people. We passed on those not wanting to break up the set and finally chose 3 plates, 2 of which celebrated the end of WW II and one that Mi Chica said had some historical significance in the design of blueware. The owner said that one of the WW II plates we chose was ubiquitous in Dutch homes following the war. This plate made in Mastricht depicted a Dutch Soldier on a horse trampling the Nazi flag with the sun rising over a Dutch city in the background. The inscription referenced the end of a long night and the sun rising over Holland once more. The other WW II plate was from Gouda and is multicolored with a central orange tree symbolizing the royal family with an inscription that Holland will bloom again. These are the type of souveniers that we prefer - they have so much more meaning than a mini wooden shoe with a windmill picture on it.

The canal in Utrecht is different from those of other cities we have seen in that it is at a lower level than the street - sort of Utrecht's basement. There are walkways along the canal reached by stairs as well as restaurants on that lower level.

The return to Haarlem was easy and we arrived in time for a late dinner that we had at Brinkman's followed by one last pig out at Bartoly's gelato shop where our goal of trying the flavors that were new to us was met with a four scoop extravaganza. We loved the pear flavor that tasted like the best quality fresh fruit.

Because of the bus strike, we had to alter our plan to bus to the airport the next morning. It would have been easy with a bus every 10 minutes in the morning and a direct route. I am told it would have taken 30-40 minutes. Instead we ordered a taxi that showed up promptly at the hotel and at 6:30 AM and got us to the airport quickly. The fare was 47.5 euros.

Collecting our VAT rebate was a bit more of a hassle than we had previously experienced at other airports and the rebate was much less than expected. If you are collecting a rebate there you must first go to customs with the items as well as the receipts, your ticket or official itinerary and passport to prove you are leaving the country, so pack those purchases seperately from your checked baggage or if you are planning to check your purchases, go to the customs counter first. The place to collect the refund is in a different part of the terminal and doesn't open until 8:30 AM.

One pleasant surprise was that our British Midlands ticket entitled us to use the lounge - a fine way to wait. Our flight back to JFK was via Heathrow and was uneventful other than a hour delay in our departure on AA from London.

All in all this was a terrific trip where we captured new memories and met wonderful people. Although there were some unexpected problems, everything worked out for the best and all of our lodging choices exceeded expectations. We loved having an apartment. We had checked into the possibility of an apartment in Haarlem too and did find some, but all were far more expensive that the hotel we chose,so on this trip we experienced an apartment, B&Bs and a hotel, hitting the trifecta.

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