A breath of fresh air just a short train ride, but a million miles, from throbbing downtown Amsterdam, Haarlem was the very first center of Dutch art. Walking past the charming hofjes (historic almshouse courtyards) and between the redbrick gabled facades lining Haarlem's historic streets, it is easy to feel you have been transported back to the Netherlands' Golden Age of the 17th century.
This is especially true around the central market square, where the vast hulking form of Sint Bavo's (the Great Church) dominates the city skyline and evokes a bygone era. In fact, the intrusive motorized transport aside, much of Frans Hals's hometown has remained unchanged for centuries. Indeed, many of the often-narrow ancient streets of the old center have remained residential and are quiet even through the middle of the day. Yet despite its many picturesque monuments and a rich supply of fascinating museums, Haarlem isn't a city rooted in the past. It is home to a lively population of students—often the overspill who can't find lodgings in Amsterdam or Leiden—who bring with them a youthful vibrancy, especially at night. With hotel accommodations generally a better value and easier to come by than in nearby Amsterdam, and the city being on a compact and manageable scale, many travelers also end up staying here and using the city as a base from which to explore the surrounding region. In spring it is an easy hop from here to the Keukenhof gardens and the flower fields of the Bollenstreek. And with its close proximity to the dunes and the seaside resort of Zandvoort, Haarlem also attracts hordes of beachgoing Amsterdammers and Germans every summer. The result is an intoxicating mix of old and new that makes the town well worth checking out.
If you arrive by train, take a good look around before you leave the railway station—it's a fabulous Art Nouveau building dating to 1908. Next, head down Jansweg (to the left of the station as you exit) for several blocks, over the Nieuwe Gracht canal and into the city center. It will take you right to the Grote Markt.