With its ancient buildings, cobbled streets and winding waterways, the medieval city of Haarlem is one of the most photogenic destinations in the Netherlands. Easily reachable by train (just fifteen minutes from Amsterdam Central Station) Haarlem is often referred to as a scaled-down version of its more famous neighbour. But to think of it in such terms does a disservice to a city that beats with its own vibrant pulse and overflows with a rich history, epoch-spanning architecture and a thriving cultural scene all of its own.

Here’s our selection of 10 unmissable Haarlem highlights.

Get to the heart of things at the Grote Markt

At the historic heart of Haarlem, this vast square is located underneath the imposing Grote Kerk, and is the image of the city that many people will recognise. Hosting regular festivals, concerts and markets, the Grote Markt is the hub of daily life in Haarlem and just happens to be one of the prettiest city squares in the country. Go there on a Saturday when the Netherlands’ finest street market rolls out its wares.

Marvel at the historic Grote Kerk

Don’t leave the Grote Markt without taking a look inside Haarlem’s magnificent cathedral, which dates back to the 14th century. The building’s turbulent history has seen it passed between different denominations of Christianity, damaged by fire and struck by lightning, yet still the beautiful giant towers high above Haarlem’s rooftops, dominating its skyline as it has done for centuries. Inside, the gothic interior is nothing short of breathtaking and is the final resting place of several famous Haarlemmers including Frans Hals and Willem Bilderdijk. Grote Kerk, Grote Markt 22  

Climb a landmark windmill

There are few sights more quintessentially Dutch than that of a windmill looming over a river, and the Molen (windmill) de Adriaan is one of the finest examples in the region. The imposing wooden tower has been a definitive feature on Haarlem’s skyline since the 18th century, although the existing windmill is actually a reconstruction (the original sadly burnt down in 1932). The mill is open for guided tours that include spectacular views across Haarlem’s rooftops from its riverside platform. Molen de Adriaan, Papentorenvest 1A

Haarlem molen Adriaan Geert Snoeijer

Look into the eyes of Haarlem’s former residents at the Frans Hals Museum

Golden Age portrait painter Frans Hals is one of Haarlem’s most famous sons, and his legacy can be seen all over the city. Nowhere more so than at the Frans Hals museum, a large gallery dedicated to Golden Age art and Hals’ portraiture, and home to the largest collection of Frans Hals portraits in the world. Frans Hals Museum, Groot Heiligland 62

Frans Hals Museum Haarlem

Hit the shops

Haarlem has been voted as the Netherlands’ best shopping destination on several occasions, and a quick saunter around the boutique-lined streets will reveal exactly why. With everything from achingly cool concept stores to traditional markets and big brands to independent labels, as well as charming antique and curiosity shops around every corner, it’s no wonder that Haarlemmers call their shopping district ‘de Gouden Straatjes’ (streets of gold). Perhaps the best-known streets in Haarlem are the Grote Houtstraat, the Barteljorisstraat and the Zijlstraat. But don’t miss the chance to explore the smaller streets characteristic of this historic city, such as the Schagchelstraat, Kleine Houtstraat, Anegang, Warmoesstraat, Koningstraat and Gierstraat: all of which feature a selection of unique shops and specialist stores. Check out our top 10 shopping hotspots in Haarlem.

Haarlem shopping street CC BY-SA 2.0 Daniel Ferrell via Flickr

Discover Haarlem’s hidden courtyards

Haarlem is a city known for its Hofjes (enclosed courtyard gardens), and there are beautiful green spaces tucked away behind many an unassuming street – most dating back to medieval times. The gardens are surrounded by charitable almshouses and were used to house poor, unmarried or widowed women. There are 21 main public hofjes in Haarlem, spanning from the ancient (the oldest was founded in 1395) to the very modern.  But with the entrances to many hofjes being concealed behind modest doorways or down seemingly simple alleyways, these city oases are not always easy to find. Find out more about Haarlem’s hofjes.

Haarlem hofje

View the city from the water

Amsterdam isn’t the only city famous for its canal cruises. Haarlem also has a close connection to water, with the Spaarne river meandering through the heart of city and various canals and waterways weaving their way between ancient monuments and sights. It’s a beautifully relaxed way to explore the city, and a great way to get your bearings before setting off to explore the sights in more detail. Discover more about the River Spaarne.

Haarlem Leidsevaart sunset CC BY 2.0 Daviddje via Flickr

Get your Tickets for a canal cruise:

Go beer tasting in a former church

All that sightseeing and shopping is thirsty work, so be sure to drop by this former church to worship at the altar of beer. Now converted into a brewery, grand café and tasting room, the beautiful church building is home to Haarlem’s famous Jopen beer, which is created using medieval local recipes. De Jopenkerk, Gedempte Voldersgracht 2

Haarlem Jopenkerk

Visit the Corrie ten Boom House 

During World War II, the ten Boom family provided a hiding place for Jewish people and members of the resistance in their home on Haarlem’s Barteljorisstraat. The family was betrayed, imprisoned and deported to concentration camps – only Corrie survived the ordeal. Her house is now a poignant museum, the majority of which recreates how it would have looked in the 1940s. Visitors to the Corrie ten Boomhuis can view the hiding place located behind a fake wall in her bedroom, used to conceal Jewish people in hiding and others on the run from the Nazi occupying forces. Corrie ten Boomhuis, Barteljorisstraat 19

Cycle to the beach

With the Noordzee, Bloemendaal’s beaches and the coastal town of Zandvoort easily reachable by bike, the seaside is just a short trip outside of Haarlem and makes for an enjoyable cycle through kilometres of wild dunes. You might even spot some highland cattle as you meander through the winding cycle paths. In the summer months the beach clubs of Zandvoort and Bloemendaal throb with activity, whilst the winter months offer a serene escape and lovely walking routes.  Find out more about visiting Amsterdam Beach

Amsterdam Family cycling in dunes Rob Verhagen

Image credits: Grote Markt: Hans Guldemond, Climb a landmark windmill: Geert Snoeijer, Hit the shops: CC BY-SA 2.0 Daniel Ferrell via Flickr, View the city from the water: CC BY 2.0 Daviddje via Flickr, Cycle to the beach: Rob Verhagen