There is a rose in Dutch Haarlem. A red rose up in Dutch Haarlem. It is the special one. It’s never seen the sun. It only comes out when the moon is on the run and all the stars are gleaming. (With apologies to Ben E. King.)
It’s already that time of year when expats are thinking about where to go and what to see. It’s also the time of year when Amsterdam’s mayor starts asking (nay, begging) visitors to sample the Netherlands’ other fabulous cities, because his is overwhelmed with package tours, lad parties and backpackers.
For two years Dispatches has complied, traveling to The Hague, Utrecht, Rotterdam and other cities to see how they rate as Amsterdam alternatives.
In all that time, we’ve never experienced any place quite like Haarlem. Or toasted a place as often, over and over again.
Everyone else is going to tell you about Haarlem’s quaint architecture and the museums. Here’s the truth: Haarlem has its own architectural vernacular, yes. But it’s not hugely different from Den Haag, Amsterdam or Utrecht on the aesthetic level.
It does stands out on one point: It seems to have more inviting cafes, restaurants and drinking establishments than any other city in Holland. That could be because Haarlem is, to some extent, a bedroom community, right on the west side of Amsterdam. And it’s on the edge of the Randstad, the megalopolis that includes Den Haag, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht.
Whatever Haarlem’s essential identity, we’ve never seen so many places to nosh and nip. So, it’s a great town for eating and drinking. And then more eating and drinking. So that’s what we did. We completely surrendered to Bacchus.
Our colleague, Nancy, and my wife Cheryl and I made the trek to Haarlem from our headquarters in Eindhoven really, really needing a break from the 14-hour days of our media startup.
We had big plans. We’d sightsee. We’d shop. We’d seek out high culture and art. Maybe even bike to the sea.
That’s not exactly what happened. Actually, none of that happened. We couldn’t tell you much about it, but we loved Haarlem. Of course, it could’ve been because we were walking from café to cabaret with a mild buzz.
Captured by a Bird of Prey
We got to Haarlem late on a typical Dutch Saturday afternoon (cloudy and 50) when we ducked into De Overkant Restaurant for a late lunch. It was so cozy and packed with locals we knew it would be great … so unlike the tourist-focused spots around the Dam in Amsterdam.
We kept trying to order off the specials board, but they were out of stuff. Luckily, they weren’t out of beer and wine.
I started out with Dutch standard Brand, which was fine. Then I noticed they had local beers including Jopen. I also sampled the Bird of Prey IPA from Uiltje Brewing Co. in Haarlem.
This is a local IPA made mostly with American hops. And it was fantastic … fruity with an IPA edge.
Cheryl had De Overkant’s signature sandwich, Thelma & Louise, and a beer. I had smoked salmon, and Nancy had a salad.
The whole tab came to maybe 30 euros. Money well spent.
We really got sucked into the whole Dutch gezellig mindset. Gezellig means something akin to “cozy,” but deeper. The intimacy you enjoy with friends and neighbors … sort of a cross between the Hygge of the Danes and the Gemültichkeit of Bavaria.
Exactly what we needed.
After I don’t know how long, we roused ourselves for a walk, but we only made it a few blocks to the Grand Café Bon Vivant.
Bon Vivant was a real treat, and watching the grill guys working in a room above the dining area made us wish we hadn’t just eaten lunch. That didn’t stop us from working the wine list over pretty hard.
We went for the house wines: Nancy and I had a glass of Tempanillo and Chery went for the dry chardonnay.
Go here for the atmosphere. Very French ambiance, but with the attention to detail unique to the Dutch such as seats covered in baseball glove leather, warm lighting and an elaborate bar.
The kids working were nice and, again, it was difficult to leave. But we’d been sitting way too long.
Why walk when you can wobble?
So we headed out to walk along the Binnen Spaarne canal.
Compared to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Haarlem feels very small. More a collection of contiguous neighborhoods than a single city.
We walked around the corner from Bon Vivant and saw an entirely different section of the city across the Melkbrug (milk bridge) on the Spaarne River that cuts Haarlem in half. Once you walk across the Melkbrug, you’re literally on an island. This is also near the Gravestenenbrug where you can take boat trips on the Spaarne.
Needing a bit of air and exercise, we just walked with no particular destination, checking out the neighborhood’s shops and apartments.
Via the tiny Haarlem Red Light District, we somehow ended up back in the Grote Markt main square, looking for our next libation.
A word to the wise: This, like ‘s-Hertogenbosch, is party city. On a Saturday evening, the best restaurants and bars are full. Even on a cold, gray day, the outside seating is full. (Those weatherproof Dutch.)
We finally landed at an Italian restaurant, Piccola at Grote Markt 31.
We slipped in early, about 7 p.m., and took one of the last tables. This is an authentic Italian restaurant with an open kitchen. You watch the cook preparing everyone’s meals … very slowly. But hey, we were in no hurry.
Nancy speaks Italian, so she and waitress chatted. We had some wine. We had some more wine ….
You get the idea.
Yeah, we missed all the museums and we never rode those bikes to the sea. But you know what’s great about being an expat in Europe?
You can always go back.
Which we will. When we do, you can be assured we’ll grab a hotel and stay up late. Because it’s at night when Haarlem really shines.
• Haarlem is on the west side of Amsterdam, but it’s close to a surprising amount of green space including parks and beaches. So you can burn those calories hiking before you go back to the centrum.
• OR you can go to Zandvoort and drive a 911 as fast as it will go around a former Formula 1 track. Preferably before you hit the bars and cafés.
• Sadly, we’re on a budget. But if you’re not, Haarlem has 25 restaurants with at least one Michelin star. Be prepared to spend 200 euros per person not including wine and cocktails.
The top-rated are:
• On a budget, there are maybe a million very nice places starting at 20 euros per person for a meal exclusive of drinks. And unlike Amsterdam, outdoor seating prevails year-round.
Some of the local favorites are:
Vooges Central. This is part of a two-restaurant group and just opened next to Haarlem’s central station. The second Vooges is on the beach.
Frisk is a café/hangout on the Spaarne.
Table 24 is right in the middle of the town at Oude Groenmarkt 24.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.