Haarlem is often dismissed as, “Amsterdam without the tourists” or “Like Amsterdam, just smaller”. This classic Dutch town doesn’t deserve either of these epithets. It does deserve recognition as a beautiful and fascinating city in its own right though. It may not have the size and international renown of Amsterdam, but it’s no pale imitation of its more famous neighbour. I was captivated by Haarlem on my first visit, and the times I’ve spent exploring its cobbled streets since have only made me like it even more.
Need an excuse to come here? The Frans Hals Museum provides one, and then some. This world-class museum is Haarlem’s cultural centrepiece. Housed in a 17th Century almshouse it is a love poem to the Dutch Golden Age, and contains some of the period’s finest artworks. Born in Antwerp, but most associated with Haarlem, Frans Hals is one of the most important artists of his era. Small and compact, the museum is a joy to explore.
The building itself is part of the experience, and Hals’ work truly stands out in these surroundings. He specialised in portraits and the museum owns five of his famous Haarlem civic guard portraits, an entire room dedicated to them. Elsewhere the museum is undertaking a large conservation project on several of his other works, you can watch conservators carefully removing old yellow varnish from them.
In one room I watched a video that explained that I was looking at one of the most important paintings of the 17th Century. In front of me someone delicately applied solvents to the layer of varnish hiding the brilliance of the paint underneath. Solvents that applied wrongly could do serious damage to the paint. You need nerves of steel to be a Frans Hals conservator.
You don’t need to visit museums to discover the Dutch Golden Age in Haarlem though. Glorious architecture from the 14th Century onwards surrounds the central square, the Grote Markt. On one side of the old market sits the 14th Century Town Hall, while on the opposite side of the square is the incredible Grote Kerk, or church of St. Bavo. It’s an enormous building with origins in the early 14th Century, although most of what you see today is from the 15th and 16th Centuries.
Amongst its other glories, the Grote Kerk is home to one of the most famous organs in the world. The work of Christiaan Müller, when finished in 1738 it was the largest organ in the world. Handel travelled here twice to play it, and a 10-year old Mozart also played it. It even gets referenced in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. We were lucky to see the organ and church interior, it isn’t normally open on a Sunday but this year Sunday opening is allowed in July and August…and someone was playing the organ.
A short walk from the Grote Kerk brings you to the Spaarne River upon which sits another superb museum. Established in 1778, the Teylers Museum is the oldest in the Netherlands. Pieter Teyler van der Hulst was a wealthy merchant of Scottish descent who bequeathed his entire fortune to the advancement of the arts and science. The museum has an eclectic collection ranging from dinosaur bones and fossils, to a memorable range of early scientific instruments, to two galleries filled with the works of Dutch artists.
Luckily, the banks of the Spaarne River are also home to a number of cafes and restaurants. When you’ve had enough culture you can stumble a few yards down the road to a pavement table, watch the world go by and have a beer from Haarlem’s award-winning Jopen Brewery.