Haarlem’s cobblestone streets and stately windmills speak of its history as one of the Netherland’s most affluent trading posts. The first mention of Haarlem dates back to the 10th century but it was home to an active community long before the Middle Ages. The city is located on the river Spaarne, giving it the nickname Spaarnestad (Spaarne City). In the run-up to the Dutch 17th century, it grew into an extremely wealthy city and the capital of Noord-Holland province. This was partly due to the toll payment that was collected from ships and travellers moving through the city along the busy route that connected the Dutch cities of Leiden and Alkmaar. As the shipping trade waned, Amsterdam became the dominant North Holland city.
Haarlem is a city with many stories to tell, from trade, growth and culture through to the disaster of a great fire that destroyed some 500 buildings in 1576. Many major monuments remain intact, however, including the Amsterdamse Poort (a city gate dating from 1355), the City Hall (from 1250) and the Sint-Bavokerk (officially a cathedral since 1559). Throughout the city’s rich past, 16th-century artist Frans Hals stands out as one of Haarlem’s most influential natives. Frans Hals was famous for using loose brushstrokes to capture the real essence of his portrait subjects, and his style influenced masters who came hundreds of years later, including Édouard Manet, Max Liebermann and Vincent van Gogh.
Filled with so many historical monuments, Haarlem is home to some of the Netherlands' best museums, such as the Teylers Museum, Frans Hals Museum and Dolhuys Museum of the Mind. Churches and cathedrals are dotted across the city, and some of these have been been transformed into trendy hangouts and hidden gems, such as Jopenkerk, which is now a bustling brewery that serves up a range of brilliant beers. The oldest and most modern hofjes in the country are located Haarlem's city centre. The oldest remaining example of these little hidden courtyards is the Hofje van Bakenes, which was founded in 1395. And these hofjes aren't always so old: the Johan Enschedéhofje was opened in 2007.
In addition to all the history and culture on offer, one of the best things to do in Haarlem is to find a table and order something warm and inviting at one of its many quaint cafés and delicious lunch spots. With more than 200 restaurants and 90 bars (which is, per inhabitant, more than any other Dutch city), Haarlem is renowned for its gastronomy.